28 May 1976
Severus entered the Slytherin common room quietly, hoping it would be empty at this late hour. His hope was realized: no one was there. He passed quickly through and went into his rooms, flicked his wand absently to light the fire in the green-tiled hearth, and dropped into a chair. He stared blankly into the flames which leaped and flickered but seemed to be devoid of warmth. Except for the ache in his arm where he’d fallen – or rather, been dropped – on it earlier that day, he felt nothing but a cold numbness.
How could this year have gone so wrong, when it had started out so well?
His eyes fell on the pile of books on the table beside him. On top was Advanced Potion Making by Libatius Borage, usually a sixth-year textbook. Severus picked it up and ran his fingers lightly over the book’s cover, the rough feel of the faded blue cloth contrasting with the smoothness of the stamped design: a black cauldron, the steam issuing from it filled with arcane symbols. Yes, fifth year had started out so well....
Severus Snape sat alone in his compartment on the Hogwarts Express, three cars down from the scarlet engine, gazing out the window at the Scottish countryside. Occasionally a white flag of steam from the engine whipped past in the wind of the train’s passage. The latest issue of De Potionibus, the journal of the Most Excellent Society of Potioneers, was splayed open on the seat beside him.
Two first years had been in the compartment when Severus had entered, but he’d narrowed his eyes and fixed them with his best Slytherin stare until they fled. This was his fifth September journey to Hogwarts, and he’d managed to get a compartment to himself every year except the first. He liked the solitude. It gave him a chance to reorient himself from the difficulties of Cokeworth to the difficulties of Hogwarts – different in kind, but similar in degree of discomfort. At home he had his drunken father, at Hogwarts he had Potter, Lupin, and Black.
He scowled at the thought of the three Gryffindors, wondering what fresh hell they would put him through this year, and whether he’d be able to thwart them in a sufficiently satisfying manner. He’d come up with some interesting new hexes and jinxes over the summer; he’d enjoy trying them out on Potter, in particular.
The sound of the compartment door sliding open interrupted his thoughts. “Snape, my boy!” said a friendly voice. “Just the chap I’ve been looking for.”
Severus looked round to see a portly wizard in green velvet robes with a large silver pin shaped like a snake in his lapel. “Professor Slughorn!” he said in surprise, and stood up. He wondered why the man was here. Although as Head of Slytherin he’d always treated Severus with the same absent-minded kindness he gave to all his students, he had never given any indication of special interest.
“Like to join me in my compartment for a bite of lunch, lad?” Slughorn said, clasping his hands across his ample stomach. “Just a few special guests, you know.”
Severus flushed. “Thank you, sir.” Rumor had it that Slughorn’s private compartment on the Hogwarts Express was fitted up like the den of an Oriental pasha, with velvet curtains, rich Persian carpets, large squashy chairs, and an array of food and drink that would have put the finest restaurant in wizarding Paris to shame. Severus had never seen this legendary retreat, but he had heard about it from others. And not just other Slytherins: Slughorn was eclectic, even eccentric, in his choice of members for his so-called Slug Club.
“I think the young potions master who’s taking my N.E.W.T.-level class a year early would be a fine addition to my little party,” Slughorn went on, eying him with a mix of curiosity and cupidity. “It’s highly unusual to have a fifth year in Advanced Potions, but I think you’ll do well. Professor McGonagall and the Headmaster both argued very strongly for you, you know.”
Severus felt a rush of surprised pride. He hadn’t known, and the thought that two of the most respected members of Hogwarts’ faculty had spoken up for him buoyed his confidence. “I’m looking forward to it, sir.”
“It won’t be easy, you know. Can’t play favorites with you just because you’re in Slytherin,” Slughorn said with a wink. His eyes fell on the open issue of De Potionibus. “Well, well. Keeping up with the latest advances in the field, are you? My little course should be a doddle for you.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir,” Severus stammered. Was Slughorn mocking him, or was he genuinely impressed?
“We’ll see you in a few minutes, then,” his Head of House said genially. “Compartment C.”
Severus spent the next ten minutes in an agony of indecision. Should he go? He hated social occasions, especially when he didn’t know what to expect, but Slughorn’s notice was not to be lightly disregarded. And what if Potter was there, or Black? They were terrible at potions, but both of them came from important wizarding families, and that might be enough for Slughorn to invite then. His stomach gave a hungry growl, and he sighed and stood up. What was the worst that could happen? He’d go for half an hour or so, get some decent food, then come back and finish the paper he’d been reading in De Potionibus on improvements to the Draught of Living Death.
When he reached Slughorn’s compartment the curtains (which did indeed look like velvet) were drawn back from the glass panes on either side of the door, and Severus paused before knocking to see who was inside. Professor Slughorn, a glass of dark red wine in his hand, was talking animatedly to Gwenog Jones, a member of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team. Across from them sat Tiberius McLaggen, a Hufflepuff Severus didn’t recognize...and Lily Evans. With a smile, Severus opened the door and went in.
Walking back to his own compartment an hour later, Severus felt a sense of satisfaction such as he’d rarely experienced. For once, he’d had a chance to shine – and in front of Lily! His usual self-consciousness had vanished as he and Professor Slughorn discussed various aspects of potion-making, and the Professor had actually asked his opinion of the latest research being done in Sweden on frostbite philters. Afterwards, Lily had given his hand a quick squeeze and said with a smile, “I’m really proud of you, Sev,” before heading back to join her friends in the next car.
So engrossed was Severus in replaying the past hour that he didn’t notice Sirius Black and James Potter lounging in the corridor outside his compartment until he nearly walked into them. The satisfaction drained out of him in an instant, replaced by a cold, tense wariness that was far more familiar.
“Looks like the neighborhood’s really gone to hell, James,” Black said conversationally. “Someone’s allowed Snivellus onto the train.”
“Let me pass,” Severus said brusquely, reaching for the door handle.
“Oh, so this is your compartment?” Potter asked with a grin. “Sirius said it was. He recognized the smell.”
“Shut up, Potter,” Severus said through gritted teeth, feeling the familiar anger beginning to build.
“I hear your father was nicked last week for drunk and disorderly,” Black went on. “Which makes it all the more puzzling they let you come back. I mean, if you haven’t got a decent family—“
“Which a tosspot who can’t keep a job surely is not,” interjected James.
“—you should at least have talent in order to be allowed to be around decent people, and you, Snivellus, well...” Black shook his head in feigned regret.
Severus shouldered past them into his compartment and slammed the door on their mocking laughter, rage pounding in his brain. Family. As if that mattered. But it did, everyone knew it. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. Well, Black and Potter might come from old wizarding families, but he had wizarding blood too. His mother’s pedigree was just as good as theirs, even if she’d lost her family’s favor by marrying a Muggle (a tosspot Muggle who can’t keep a job, a cruel voice taunted).
He took a deep breath, slowing his racing heart and forcing his anger back under control. Family or talent, eh? Well, he had both. He’d found something he excelled at, and Muggle blood was nothing to be ashamed of. He was a Prince on his mother’s side, and maybe he’d end up being a Prince of Potions, too. He’d show them. He’d show them all.
He rummaged in his bag until he found his copy of Advanced Potion Making, took out a quill and ink, opened the book, and in a spiky but precise hand, he began to write...
28 May 1976
Severus opened the book and looked at the inscription on the flyleaf: This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince. Yes, the year had started out well, and despite Potter and Black he’d thought it would continue so.
Since his very first potions class as a first year, the subject had come easily to him. He found that he knew instinctively how to approach it, how to blend ingredients for optimal effect, how to make subtle alterations to an established recipe to enhance the end result. Each summer he’d read most of the next year’s textbook by the end of June; by September he’d tried most of the recipes and often found ways to improve them.
Discovering that he wasn’t just good at potions but truly gifted had been like opening a door into a new world where everything made sense, and the opportunity to take Advanced Potions as a fifth year had been too enticing to pass up. His fear that he’d overreached himself, that the work would prove too difficult, had been dispelled during the very first class.
He turned the first few pages of the textbook, remembering. Page six, equipping the advanced laboratory. Page eight, emergency substitutions. Page ten, the Draught of Living Death...
Severus entered the potions classroom warily and glanced around. He didn’t know many sixth years, apart from two girls sitting in the third row, but that was fine with him. Fewer people to bother with. On a table at the front of the room sat three cauldrons, their contents simmering over small flames: the first a sunshine-yellow, the second clear as rainwater, the third a sludgy grey emitting a faint blue smoke. Severus glanced at them as he passed, gave each one a casual sniff, and instantly, almost unconsciously, identified them.
He took a seat in the back, laid a quill, a sheet of parchment, and his copy of Advanced Potion-Making on the table in front of him, and opened his bottle of ink.
Slughorn swept into the room, green and silver robes billowing about him, with a small bag of crystallized pineapple in one pudgy hand. He deposited the sweets on the desk, passed his fingers over the curled ends of his mustache, and surveyed the waiting students with a pleased smile. “Welcome to Advanced Potion Making,” he said. “While some of you received Outstandings in your Potions O.W.L.s and others received only E’s, I’m sure that all of you will find that the assignments this term are fully within your capabilities, if you pay close attention and take the time to work through the instructions carefully. The presence of a lowly fifth year among you,” he added with a wink at Severus, “should spur the rest of you to your best efforts.”
Slughorn gestured towards the table holding the three cauldrons. “I have prepared a few typical N.E.W.T.-level potions for you this morning. Let us see if you can identify them.” He pointed to the cauldron of bright yellow liquid and looked around expectantly. “Anyone?”
There was a long silence. Severus knew perfectly well what it was but he didn’t want to look like a know-it-all, especially when he was a year younger than everyone else. Eventually, a Hufflepuff in the front row raised a tentative hand. “Pepperup Potion?”
Severus snorted in contempt. For Merlin’s sake, who didn’t know Elixir to Induce Euphoria? The sweet, aromatic odor and the rainbows in the steam were dead giveaways. When he’d brewed it over the summer he’d found that adding a sprig of peppermint would successfully counteract two of the more annoying side effects, a modification which he’d noted in the margins of Borage’s text.
After a few more incorrect guesses a boy from Ravenclaw finally got it right, and one of the Slytherins correctly identified the second one as Veritaserum. The third one, to Severus’ satisfaction, stumped everyone. Wolfsbane Potion was a very recent discovery, expensive to make and not yet fully tested; he’d only read about it this past summer, but the blue smoke and pungent odor (oddly, it reminded him of someone; he couldn’t think who) were a dead giveaway.
“Well, I can see we have a good deal to do this term,” Slughorn said. “Not to worry, not to worry. Let’s have you all try your hands at brewing a little something so I can assess your skills in that area. Turn to page ten of your text, if you please.” He waved his wand and the door of the large cupboard in the back of the room flew open. “You’ll find supplies in the stores cupboard. And as an extra bit of motivation, there’ll be a prize for the student who produces the best potion.”
Severus opened Advanced Potion Making to page ten and saw that Slughorn wanted them to brew the Draught of Living Death. It wasn't a terribly difficult potion, but finicky in certain spots, so he’d have to take his time. He gathered his ingredients from the cupboard – wormwood, asphodel, valerian, sloth brain – and laid them out on the table, opened his potions kit and took out dagger, cutting board and scales, and began to read through the instructions while his cauldron heated.
The first step called for chopping the Sopophorus beans, but a later step said that only the juice was needed. Severus hesitated. He’d found that crushing Sopophorus beans with the flat of the blade yielded more, and cleaner, juice than chopping; he decided to try it that way, noting the change carefully in the margins of the textbook. When he added the juice to the cauldron, the potion turned a beautiful pale lilac, exactly as it should. Elated, he turned back to the book for next steps.
Forty minutes later he was nearly done, having made one or two other minor changes to the recipe, each of which he noted in the book. He began the final stage, stirring anticlockwise, but something was nagging at him. The paper he’d been reading last week on the train, in De Potionibus: hadn’t it said something about stirring? He frowned, then it came to him: the author had recommended one clockwise stir after every seven anticlockwise for any potion containing valerian. Severus did so, and instantly the potion became a pale pink. He quickly scribbled a note in the margin to remind himself next time, then continued this stirring pattern, the liquid growing paler and more translucent. Finally, with a glow of pride, he saw that it had turned as clear as rainwater.
“So, how did it go?” Lily said. “Advanced Potions, I mean. Is it as hard as they say?”
“It’s not bad.” They were sitting together down by the lake, the mellow September sun slanting through the trees as it set and tipping the wavelets with golden fire. “Slughorn had us identify different potions by sight and smell.”
“And of course you knew them all,” she said, nudging him.
“I might have done,” he said, striving to appear aloof and unconcerned.
“Was he impressed?”
Severus looked away, out across the lake. “I didn’t tell him. I let other people guess.”
“Oh, Severus,” she said, disappointment plain in her voice. “You always hold back. Why?”
He shrugged. “It’s better to be underestimated, don’t you think?”
“How very Slytherin of you,” she said, half-teasing and half-reproving. “Then what?”
He kept his face carefully impassive, not wanting to give away what had happened. “We had to brew a Draught of Living Death. The one who did it best won a prize.”
“A prize! What was it?”
“This.” He reached into the pocket of his robes, took out a tiny glass vial filled with bright golden liquid, and handed it to her.
She took it but didn’t look at it. Her green eyes were fixed on him, her face alight with pleasure for his success. “You did it, Sev? Better than all of them?”
“Of course,” he said, with a half-smile, then froze in startled joy as she threw her arms round him.
“I always knew you were brilliant,” she whispered. Before he could recover his senses enough to put his arms round her in return, she sat back on her heels and looked down at the potion in her hand. Her eyes widened. “Felix Felicis!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard of it but never seen it. There’s not much here, though.”
He cleared his throat, still shaken by the memory of her body pressed against his. “Enough for one perfect day, or so Professor Slughorn said.”
“One perfect day.” She tilted the little flask back and forth, the potion catching the sunlight in a shower of sparkles. “What will you do with it?”
He watched her, this girl who was his first and best friend. Who had hugged him, said he was brilliant. Her green eyes were intent on the luck in her hand, her lips parted in wonder; he thought he could smell the faintest scent of strawberries as the breeze wafted strands of dark-red hair about her face.
Could any day be more perfect than this one?
28 May 1976
That had been the high point, Severus thought, putting a finger in the book to hold his place and looking into the fire. He hadn’t realized it at the time, of course: over the next few weeks he’d continued to impress Slughorn with his potions work, while Potter and his mangy followers had for the most part left him alone, distracted by Quidditch and girls. He’d been fool enough to hope that maybe, just maybe, his life had turned a corner and might resemble what other students thought of as normal. But it had all been nothing more than the calm before the storm.
And in a sense he had no one but himself to blame. After all, no one had forced him to follow Lupin that night. But the thought that he might find something, anything, that would get all three Gryffindors expelled had been too tempting to resist...
Severus crept cautiously down the low-roofed dirt-walled tunnel, wand held high in his left hand. Its pale light cast a monstrous, misshapen shadow behind him. Thick silence pressed on every side, except for the soft scuff of his own footsteps.
Two days ago Black had let slip, almost off-handedly, the secret of which knot to press to temporarily still the branches of the Whomping Willow. Since then Severus had been on the watch every night, sneaking out of the Slytherin quarters to take up his post in an empty third-floor classroom whose window overlooked the great oak front doors and the grounds beyond. The full moon, hanging like a silver platter above the Forbidden Forest, lit the grounds nearly as bright as day, and an hour ago he had clearly seen the cloaked figure of Remus Lupin sneak out of the castle, head towards the Willow, and disappear beneath it. Severus wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He’d waited what seemed a reasonable amount of time, then slipped out to follow him.
The smell of damp earth gave way to the dry, bitter smell of granite as the tunnel descended and the walls changed from crumbling dirt to rough rock. Rumor had it that the tunnel terminated in the Shrieking Shack; it certainly seemed to be headed in that direction, though it was hard to tell given the twists and turns. And what would he find there? He’d find out where Lupin went when he disappeared every few weeks, for one thing, and – if he were lucky – it would be something he could use against the so-called Marauders (he sneered at the pretentious name). Getting them expelled would be the best Christmas present he could imagine; failing that, he’d settle for something he could hold over their heads to force them to cease tormenting him.
A high-pitched, wailing howl came from somewhere ahead of him and he froze, his spine tingling and his mouth gone dry. Then, gripping his wand tighter, he went on. If a scrawny milksop like Lupin could face whatever lived down here – and apparently he did, on a monthly basis – surely there was nothing to fear.
The tunnel ended abruptly in a wooden door, roughly finished and secured with a heavy iron bolt. Severus could hear a deep, savage growl, rising and falling, and uneven footsteps as whatever was on the other side of the door paced back and forth. He reached out a hand to unbolt the door, then hesitated. What if it was some kind of monster? But this was Hogwarts; there couldn’t be any monsters here. He slid the bolt back and swung open the door.
Something leaped baying at him from out of the darkness. Terror sang through his veins. He caught a confused glimpse of glaring yellow eyes, matted grey hair, an open mouth lined with fangs dripping with saliva. He took a step back, tripped, and fell, his wand flying out of his hand.
“Protego!” a voice shouted behind him. The creature flew backwards, howling in furious disappointment, and someone jumped over him to slam the door shut. As the iron bolt shot home, a heavy body crashed against the other side, rattling the door in its frame and causing a shower of rust to fall from the ancient iron hasps. A frustrated shriek rang through the tunnel.
Severus groped for his wand and picked it up. “Lumos!” he gasped, then whirled around to see James Potter. Stupid Potter, arrogant Potter, idiot Gryffindor Potter. Who had apparently just saved his life. The awful irony of it nearly choked him.
Potter looked nearly as pale as Severus felt. “Nice job nearly getting yourself killed, Snivellus,” he said, trying for sarcasm but failing. Behind him, the thing’s claws scrabbled at the wood, which seemed much less sturdy than it had only seconds ago. “What in Merlin’s name are you doing here, anyway?”
Severus ignored the question, holding his wand at the ready. “I know what that was,” he said, his heart pounding. “That...that thing in there. It’s a bloody werewolf!”
Potter grimaced. “Alright, yes. It’s a werewolf. Now can we please -- ”
“You and Black and Lupin, you’ve got a bloody werewolf penned up down here,” Severus shouted, his fear turning to anger and a savage joy. “What do you think the Headmaster will say when I tell him about this? You’ll be out before you can say Quidditch!”
Potter made a disgusted sound. “Merlin, Snivellus. I save your life, and the first thing you think of isn’t how to thank me, but whether you can get me expelled. Well, I’m happy to say there’s no chance of that. Dumbledore already knows.”
“He knows?” Severus bristled, anger mixed now with a sense of betrayal. Dumbledore favouring Gryffindors. Again. “What is it, some kind of pet?”
“A pet.” Potter gave a short laugh and looked away. “Hardly that.”
“Then what...” Severus' voice trailed off as a memory surfaced: the first day of Advanced Potions, a thick sludgy grey potion whose scent had reminded him of someone. Remus’ mysterious absences, as regular as clockwork. The full moon hanging over the castle. He cast a horrified glance at the door. “It’s Lupin, isn’t it?” he whispered. As if it had heard him, the thing yowled again.
Potter sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Yes. That’s Remus in there.”
Severus lowered his wand, appalled. “What happened?”
“Greyback happened.” Potter slumped against the wall, looking older than his years. “Remus’ father got on the wrong side of Greyback, and he decided to take it out on Remus. When he was five.” He shook his head. “Can you imagine? He attacked a child. And now, once a month, he has to deal with this.”
To lose not just your body but your mind, to become little more than an animal, incapable of self-control – the very idea was revolting. How did Lupin live with it, year after year? And the same could have happened to him, if Potter had arrived even thirty seconds later. Severus thought he might be sick.
Potter must have seen the queasy nausea on his face. “Oh, get out of here,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
Safely back in the Slytherin dormitory, Severus lay in bed mentally berating himself for his stupidity. He should have known it was a setup, should have known Black wouldn’t have revealed the secret of getting past the Whomping Willow out of the goodness of his heart. No doubt he’d thought it was hilarious, sending Severus to face a werewolf during the full moon, without warning or preparation.
Severus realized for the first time, coldly and without any illusions, that Black might actually kill him. Not deliberately, but simply out of thoughtlessness. Unthinking foolishness. A joke gone wrong. The thought terrified him. An open attack was one thing – you could prepare for that, watch for it. But accident as a result of folly – who could plan for that? What he needed was a way to defend himself, some kind of weapon, one that would never fail him. Preferably something new, so that there wouldn’t already be a counter-curse or defense.
He turned on his side, his mind churning. What was the best sort of weapon? Obviously one that couldn’t be taken by your enemies and used against you. His voice, for example – that was a weapon that couldn’t be turned against him, and he sharpened it every chance he got. Cutting sarcasm came naturally to him. He was already known among the Slytherins as someone who used words like scalpels, who could flay with a well-chosen phrase. But words, as potent as they were, would be useless against something like the monster he’d seen tonight. He needed something that could wound the flesh, not the spirit.
No, not just wound, he thought, staring into the darkness. He couldn’t take chances. He needed something that could kill.
He spent most of the next two weeks in the Library. Professor Slughorn had been happy to write him a pass for the Restricted Section and Madam Pince, despite a sniff and a sharp comment about “young men getting in over their heads,” had honored it and allowed him access. Every spare moment during the day and far into the night he was there poring over obscure tomes. His back and neck grew stiff and sore, his eyes heavy and scratchy from lack of sleep, but his newfound realization that the constant low-level harassment from Potter and Black could at any time escalate to injury or death never left him, and served as a potent motivator.
The task he had set himself was more difficult than he had expected. Certain potentially powerful components , he found, could not be used; tied as they were to Dark Magic and therefore prohibited on the Hogwarts grounds, any spell containing them would have triggered an instantaneous alarm. Other options were too similar to existing spells and could easily be countered or protected against. Still others were workable in theory but not in practise, requiring too long to cast or relying on highly specific situations.
Frustrated, he threw down his quill and rubbed his aching neck. He’d explored all manner of ways to injure (becoming something of an expert in human anatomy in the process) but was no further along than he had been two weeks ago. He was already skilled at the cutting remark, the incisive insult. If only he could cut physically with a word, not just metaphorically.
His eyes widened and he sat up straight. To cut with a word... A spell was nothing but words, wasn’t it? Words with a focused will behind them. He opened his Latin grammar, seized a quill and parchment and began scribbling feverishly, his right hand unconsciously twitching as he sketched out the movements that would need to accompany the words.
The next afternoon was one Severus never forgot. Alone in a deserted classroom, he bared his forearm, pointed his wand at it, and with only the faintest intention, the lightest mental touch, whispered, “Sectumsempra.”
Instantly a deep gash opened the length of his forearm. So sharp was the incision that for a moment there was no pain at all. Severus stared, transfixed, at his own blood dripping to the floor. He’d expected an injury, yes, but not this vicious slash, exposing muscle and even the white of bone. It looked as though he’d been sliced with an invisible razor.
A wave of pain washed over him as shocked nerves awoke to the insult done them. “Vulnera Sanentur,” he whispered. The wounds closed slowly, almost reluctantly, then immediately reopened.
He swallowed, half-exulting and half-terrified at what he’d done. The addition of semper had had the expected effect, thwarting the usual healing spell used for severe wounds. “Vulnera Sanentur,” he said again, more strongly. Surely, given the lack of intent to truly injure in this small test, that should be enough.
Again, the healing didn’t hold. The wound closed, but then gaped open again. The coppery smell of blood was suddenly thick and heavy in the air. Panic stole over Severus. Would he bleed to death from his own spell?
He spoke the curative spell again and then again, focusing as he had never focused before. Over and over he said it, until his voice became a persuasive chant, a hymn of healing. “ Vulnera Sanentur... vulnera sanentur ... vulnera sanentur ...”
At last, just when Severus thought either his voice or his legs would give out, the newly knit skin remained whole.
He dropped to the floor in an exhausted sprawl. He had barely spoken the spell, barely moved his wand, had no intent to injure himself, and yet it had taken twenty solid minutes to heal the injury. He had, without breaking any rules or using any forbidden magic, invented what was possibly the most deadly spell next to Avada Kedavra.
Severus almost wished Lupin had killed him that night in the tunnel. At least then Dumbledore would have had no choice but to expel them. At least then he wouldn’t have discovered that he had such darkness latent in his soul.
28 May 1976
Severus looked at the sharp black letters: Sectumsempra. Even the word looked menacing, though it was no more than ink on parchment. He’d never used it against anyone though he’d been sorely tempted. The viciousness of it, the terrible difficulty of healing the wounds it caused, had unsettled him deeply.
He picked up a quill and poised it over the page, thinking to scribble it out. A spell whose only purpose was death, surely that was the essence of Dark Magic? But a twisted self-respect stopped him. He had created an impressive weapon, this spell that slashed like an invisible sword and could not be defended against. Wasn’t that something to be proud of?
He put the quill down. After all, it wasn’t as if he were going to share it with anyone – they were just notes for himself. He hadn’t written, “Try this out, it’s really good” – he’d written “For enemies,” so anyone who saw it would know that it was dangerous, wouldn’t they?
Lucius had been impressed with Sectumsempra, when Severus had told him about it over the Christmas holidays. He’d also pointed out that while weapons to use against your enemies were excellent things in their way, allies could be just as useful. Perhaps more so.
That was when Severus had realized he needed friends, and that while neither his looks, nor his family, nor his personality would win them for him, perhaps his talent for imaginative little jinxes and hexes could.
It was surprisingly easy, Severus found, to get people to like you – or at least tolerate you – if you gave them the ability to either entertain people they liked or irritate people they didn’t.
They didn’t seem to care about one’s motivations, either. It didn’t matter, for example, that when he came up with Onychoaugeo, he’d actually been trying to develop a way to disintegrate werewolf claws. His fellow Slytherins had found the hex hilarious, casting it on unsuspecting fellow students from hiding and laughing themselves into stitches as huge horny toenails sprouted out of the bewildered victim’s boots, rendering them unable to walk. At first no one knew what was causing it – the wilder theories included a magical fungus spread by disgruntled house elves and a plot by Bulgaria to prevent Britain from training up the next generation of Quidditch players. The secret had gotten out eventually, of course, and Slytherins too had found themselves on the receiving end. For a time it had become something of a craze among Ravenclaws to cast it on themselves and go about showing off what they called their “raven claws.”
One afternoon, he found Callas Colubriton, a skinny first year Slytherin, crying at the foot of the West Tower because two big Gryffindors (from the boy’s description, Severus was convinced it had been Black and Potter) had blocked his route to the Slytherin dungeons the night before. As a result, the boy had been nabbed by Filch for being out of bed and Slytherin had been docked ten points.
“Why didn’t you go around them?” Severus asked in amused exasperation.
“They wouldn’t let me,” the boy sniffled. “They just stood there and laughed. You know?”
Severus did indeed know. “Alright, never mind. Next time they try it on you, do this,” he moved his wand in a variation of the simple swish-and-flick learned by every first year, “and say, Levicorpus.”
Within a month, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a student floating in midair. Sometimes, Severus noted, they were laughing. But not always.
And then there was the evening he returned to the Slytherin common room to find Regulus Black fuming and cursing his older brother Sirius. Severus had been keeping an eye out for an opportunity to do Regulus a favour. His family was old and distinguished, and it was rumoured that Narcissa, one of his cousins, was going to marry Lucius Malfoy. Having allies among those two families could be a definite advantage in the future.
“Sibling rivalry rearing its ugly head again?” Severus said in the sardonic manner he was learning to cultivate. You couldn’t stop people hurting you, but you could stop them knowing they’d succeeded.
Regulus let out an impressive stream of expletives, ending with “fucking Gryffindors, they think they’re so gods-cursed special.”
“What’s he done now?” Severus inquired, sitting down across from Regulus. The two brothers could not have been more different, he reflected: Sirius lean and taut, Regulus big and heavy-bodied. A whip and a cudgel. Both of which could, under the right circumstances, be deadly.
“It’s that mouth of his,” Regulus glowered, slamming a fist into the table. “He never shuts it. Never. Every time I see him, he’s got something libellous to say about Slytherin. I could deal with that, though it makes me want to beat his head in. But now he’s started on Olivia.”
Olivia Parkinson was Regulus’ girlfriend. “I thought she was looking a little upset at dinner. What’s he done?”
“Only insulted her to her face. Only called her a stupid slut for going out with me.”
Severus took out a scrap of parchment, scribbled something on it, and slid it across to Regulus. “Next time, try this on him.”
Regulus looked at the scrap of paper. “Langlock?”
“Sssssh. We don’t want everyone to know it.”
“What is it?”
Severus gave him a half-smile. “A little something of my own devising. It even works on ghosts. If it can shut up Peeves, I guarantee it will silence your brother for a decent interval.”
Lily caught his arm one afternoon as he was walking to the Quidditch pitch. “Severus, can I talk to you?”
He stopped, not looking at her. “What about?”
Her face was pale, worried. “I never see you anymore.”
“Why should that surprise you? You’ve made it clear that you don’t like my friends, and I certainly don’t like yours.”
“It’s your friends I’m worried about. Ave—“ She broke off, glancing around at the crowded hall. Severus followed her gaze and saw a few Slytherins watching them curiously. “Muffliato,” she whispered.
“Where did you learn that?” he asked, startled.
“Juniper Vetch, from Ravenclaw. But everybody’s using it.”
“It’s mine,” he said, with a flush of pride. “One of them, anyway.”
“One of yours?” She looked momentarily impressed. “How did you... No, we can talk about that later. How can you be friends with these people, Severus?”
His lips twisted in a sneer. “I have to take my friends where I can find them.”
“But Avery and Mulciber and the rest of that gang – they’re dangerous. Do you know they dosed Mary MacDonald with a lust potion?” Her voice rose in disgust. “That’s not just unforgivable. It’s evil.”
He looked away. He’d heard rumours, but had avoided trying to discover any details. “How is that my problem?”
“How can you be friends with them?”
“Who else would you suggest? We can’t all be cozy with Saint Potter and the only non-Slytherin member of the Black family. Both of whom are so very nice and kind,” he added with heavy sarcasm.
She flushed. “I’m sorry about James and Sirius,” she said quietly. “They can be thoughtless and unkind and arrogant, I know. But they’re not really so bad when you get to know them.”
His heart gave an agonized lurch. “Get to know them?” he burst out. “Why would you want to get to know them? Don’t you see what a bully Potter is, Lily? He doesn’t care about you, not really. He only cares about himself, about the attention he can get. You’re just a prize to him, a pretty toy to hang on his arm and show off to his friends. He doesn’t love you, not like —” He broke off, cursing himself for six kinds of a fool. “I have to go.” He shouldered past her and walked away without looking back.
28 May 1976
Yes, his creativity with spells had won him a certain amount of... well, not popularity, but at least interest and respect.
Severus riffled through the pages of Advanced Potion Making. Now, with the end of fifth year approaching, the book was more his than Borage’s, every page covered in his spiky scrawl. The chapter on Everlasting Elixirs in particular was filled with additions, corrections, notes regarding alternate approaches, observations on effectiveness under various conditions. Some of the information had been drawn from his readings in De Potionibus, others from obscure books he’d found in the Hogwarts library, but the vast majority were ideas he had devised and tested himself. He remembered the weeks he had spent hunched over a cauldron, all his spare time devoted to experimentation and testing. Part of his mind had whispered that if he could isolate the component that conferred the ‘everlasting’ capability, he could apply it to the little bottle of Felix Felicis, still unused. Endless luck, wouldn’t that be something? He’d failed at that, but he had come up with a dozen different improvements to Borage’s set of recipes, making them fail-safe for even the most dunderheaded of students.
The next page, however, was totally unmarked – perhaps the only page in the book to be so. Severus ran his fingers over the clean white surface, the neatly printed letters: Antidotes. They’d covered antidotes in class only last month, and he knew only too well why he’d taken no notes, made no remarks on this page.
Advanced Potion Making was open on the table in front of him, but Severus didn’t see it. For the first time, even potions had lost their appeal for him. All he could think was, I’m losing her.
Oh, Lily still pretended that she couldn’t stand James Potter, but the truth was all too clear. It was in her eyes when she watched him zooming around on his broomstick during Quidditch, in the smiles at his jokes that she couldn’t quite suppress, in the faint blush on her cheek whenever Potter was mentioned, in the new tone of her voice when she spoke his name.
It was in the fact that just now, on his way to class, he’d seen them holding hands.
Lately, on the rare occasions that she and Severus were together, it was as if they were speaking different languages, talking past each other to two people who no longer existed.
And he wanted desperately to talk to someone who would hear him: about the darkly glittering net he felt closing around him, about the temptations of Dark Magic, about how to make difficult choices. He felt that he was approaching a point of no return. Two possible futures opened before him, still indistinct in details but clear in their implications. One of them offered the chance for power, respect, revenge against those who had hurt him so much, for so long. (What about Lily? Hasn’t she hurt you? a small voice whispered in his head.) The other promised...what? The knowledge that he’d been a good boy? Bitter payment for surrendering everything else.
He felt like he needed her more than ever, and he was losing her. He could feel her slipping away, a little further every day.
Most of all, he wanted to tell her how he felt about her.
What was Slughorn talking about? Oh yes, antidotes. Severus looked dully at the page. Was there an antidote to betrayal, or a broken heart? As a purely human injury, there was no magical cure. Jealousy too was a kind of poison. So was fear. Only they corrupted the mind and the heart instead of the body.
His name, spoken by Slughorn, cut into his abstraction. “Yes, sir?”
“Would you read Golpalott’s Third Law for us, my boy?”
Mildly grateful for the respite from thoughts that seemed, these days, only to run in futile, desperate circles, he rose and read aloud: “The antidote for a blended poison will be equal to more than the sum of the antidotes for each of the separate components."
“And in plain English?”
“An antidote to a blended poison isn’t simply a mixture of the individual antidotes. The individual antidotes are necessary, but it also requires an additional ingredient to transform it alchemically into a combined whole. That additional ingredient varies depending on the poisons present.”
“Very good, very good. Now...”
Severus let Slughorn’s voice fade to a faroff drone again. His mind toyed with the pleasing idea of poisoning Potter. And Black. Perhaps not Lupin; he’d noticed the older boy looking faintly ashamed on one or two occasions, when his friends had been particularly offensive. Pettigrew wasn’t even worth considering – a pale, fat, untalented boy, he would no doubt fade into obscurity after graduation, become a third assistant pharmacist somewhere.
But Potter and Black, yes, why not? He pictured Potter writhing in agony after a dose of Angel’s Trumpet Draught (additional ingredient for the antidote: mallow oil), or Black turning black due to pumpkin juice adulterated with Water of Atropos (additional ingredient for the antidote, surprisingly: marzipan).
He glanced down at the page and realized he hadn’t heard a word of Slughorn’s lecture, hadn’t once picked up his quill, hadn’t written a single note in the margins. The page with Golpalott’s Third Law, as pristine as the day it was printed, seemed to reproach him for his inattention. But what was the point? There were no antidotes for the poisons that, he felt, were slowly killing him.
Picking up his quill, he scrawled, “Just shove a bezoar down their throats” at the end of the chapter, right across a long list of antidotes, and slammed the book shut.
28 May 1976
Severus closed the book and let it thump to the floor as he hid his face in his hands. Oh yes, the year had started out brilliantly. And it had ended, catastrophically and finally, only a few short hours ago. This afternoon, when Potter had used his own spell against him, had hung him upside down in the air in front of Lily, had mocked him and laughed at him and shamed him. And when Lily had tried to stop them, in the confused fury of the moment and filled with a red haze of hatred for Gryffindors, any Gryffindors, all Gryffindors, he’d called her a filthy little mudblood.
He took the bottle of Felix Felicis from his pocket and looked at it for a long moment. It had a warm, golden glow even in the dim firelight. As if looking across an incalculable distance he recalled to mind the day he’d won it, Lily’s hair brushing his cheek as she hugged him, her voice telling him she was proud of him. He thought of her contemptuous words half an hour ago, when he’d gone to the door of Gryffindor Tower in a feeble attempt to apologize: “It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years… you and your precious little Death Eater friends.”
What did you do when no more choices remained? You chose what was left, and made the best of it.
He opened the tiny vial, golden as sunlight, and poured it out on the stone floor of his room.