The students filtered into the entrance hall, the extra jubilation of returning from a Valentine's Day Hogsmeade excursion mixed into the usual ruckus of adolescents rising through the emptiness of several floors of stairways. None of them noticed the wistful look on the face of one of their many framed observers, a gaily dressed gypsy woman seated in a lionesque chair, most of her young face hidden by her parasol. As a young pair of Gryffindors stole a kiss in the semi-privacy of a stairwell, the rest of her face disappeared, almost entirely unregarded amidst the rush to enter the Great Hall for the holiday feast. One person did notice her disappearance as he observed from the dungeon's stairway, before his robes went flying, bat-like, in his hasty retreat down the stairs.
Back in his office, the young Potions master sat down heavily upon his solid wood chair and pulled his Pensieve close. Holding it delicately, almost like a small child, he stared into its depths, watching scenes once played and replayed behind his own eyes from a now-safer distance.
A small, greasy-haired boy cowers in a corner as a similar looking man takes out worldly frustrations on the child’s mother.
The same woman gently tends to the child’s sun-burnt skin, applying salve to the blisters and delicately chiding the boy to be more careful.
His child-self waves goodbye to his mother as the Hogwarts Express pulls away, unknowing that it would be the last time he saw her.
Tears stood in the eyes that struck fear in the hearts of the current crop of Hogwarts students, a sight that few would ever have believed possible. Onward the internal self-scourging went, further into memories too painful to be contained in a functional human being.
His adolescent-self attempting to hide his condition, applying salves and potions to allow himself to go out into the sun for long enough to blend in, yet still standing out and becoming the target of James Potter and Sirius Black’s jokes.
The attack that nearly ended his life -Snape forced himself to relive every moment of it - the hated James Potter playing hero and pulling him away in the nick of time, and then Dumbledore’s “discussion” afterwards about how unwise it would be for any of the boys to disclose the other's status, and the revelation that he now owes a debt to his childhood torturer that can only be paid by saving the other boy's life.
It's the first time he sees her then, coming around the corner of the hospital wing to receive a remedy for her lack of sleep. Arithmancy has disturbed her dreams again, drawing dark circles under darker-still eyes. She catches him staring at her and blushes, he felt again the rush of gentleness her every movement flooded through him. The ruddy color of her skin reminds him of his mother. Despite house differences and blood prejudice, he can't help being drawn to her, his little Gryffindor Gypsy. Even as he is lured into the Death Eaters by his Vampire father, he finds excuses to see her, to be with her.
The memories wash over upon themselves, rolling in the pensive as Severus' hand goes to wipe his eyes.
Her sitting for her portrait to be painted by one of the Hogwarts house-elves, smiling gaily at Severus in a way no one else ever had, twirling the parasol she carried for their walks together to protect his sensitive skin.
The distance between them grows as his assignments as a neophyte Death Eater become more numerous. His struggles with learning Occlumency and Legilimency, to try to protect his Esmerelda from becoming a Death Eater target.
Then his first real assignment, on his own, to eavesdrop on the Hogwarts headmaster. His abysmal failure to remain undetected; the pain of the Cruciatus Curse inflicted repeatedly, pushing him ever closer to insanity, clawing at his own flesh until the ground was coated in his blood. Still, the Dark Lord had gleaned enough information to act, so his life is spared.
Severus' fists flexed unconsciously, bringing to view the still-healing scars on his arms from that fateful night.
Going back to Esmerelda afterwards, being soothed by her even as she listened to the horrible truth that he had never before shared with her, the truth about his father's Vampiric blood-thirst that had finally been the death of his mother. The details of the torture he'd suffered from his dhamipiric nature – not quite human, nor powerful enough to protect himself from his father's preternatural strength. The fear and cowardice that allowed him to be pulled into the Death Eaters ranks, with nary a protest, at his father's insistence.
Her horror shows plainly on her face momentarily, then she asks him courageously, "So where do we go from here?"
He holds her close then, not quite willing to believe she hasn't rejected him outright. "To a home overlooking the sea, where no one can find us and we can live as Muggles for the rest of our days."
But still the full impact of his actions had not hit. The young man sitting with his forehead propped in his fists stared deeper into the Pensieve, the memories whipping his body into a torment far worse than that following the coldly voiced "Crucio"…
With the rise in the Dark Lord’s activities, birth announcements for all but the purest of pure-blood families are rarely published in the Daily Prophet, creating a challenge in finding out to whom the prophecy might apply and making the task take longer than anticipated. Tension among the Death Eaters is palpable and pushes them to greater acts of violence. Severus' attempts to logic his way out are wretchedly futile, and he finds himself becoming desensitized to the atrocities he helps to commit on a nightly basis. Finally, at All Hallow's Eve, the Dark Lord announces that it shall be a night of celebration as he goes out to both eradicate his only foreseen threat and take his final steps to immortality. In celebration, Death Eaters are sent to "have fun" and "celebrate" by torturing Muggles. Tobias Snape brings his son along to watch his celebration feast.
Then, the horrible pain in his chest and the urgent need to be somewhere… being pulled subconsciously to Apparate to Godric's Hollow… the destruction and the sound of a crying baby, an all-too-familiar broom lying haphazardly next to the door near a pair of legs whose lifeless owner is otherwise obscured by the rubble of the former doorway. Hiding quickly, he sees Sirius Black arrive with a bottle of wine in his hand; the wine bottle smashing on the cobblestone pathway leading up to the door and an animalistic moan thrown desperately at the moon. It seems like seconds before Hagrid is there insisting he take Harry instead of his godfather… Sirius lending the magicless half-breed his bike. Still it hasn't sunk in. He stands, motionless and silent as a wraith, a feeling of binding around his heart that tightens like shackles. He sees the MLES arriving and taking stock of the situation, signs that the Dark Lord is gone, no Dark Mark hovering over the eerie stillness of the ruins.
The dungeon's tenant scrubs his eyes at the memory, wishing it away but unable to stop his ritualistic behavior, to deny his need to see all of it again.
Realization begins to sink in; Severus is desperate in his need to find his old headmaster. He finds Dumbledore at the Hog's Head, the scene of his own crime, and ironically pulls him into the same room in which Sybil Trelawney made her prophecy. He makes a full confession, the words tumbling out of his mouth of their own will; feet rooted to the spot and disobediently refusing to move, to carry him out of that room as fast as possible.
Dumbledore's sad, knowing smile – "You do understand, you've cursed yourself."
His mind racing so fast, the words take a moment to make sense. "Cursed?"
"To commit an act that brings about the death of one to whom you owe a life-debt curses you, Severus."
"What kind of curse? How can I be cursed? I never touched him!" The rashness of youth evaporates as the chains around his heart tighten.
"The consequence for violating a life-bond is to be bound, for the rest of your existence, to protect the life of the debtor's next of kin. Given the depth of the life-debt you owed to James Potter, I'm guessing you're feeling the physical effects of your newly cursed status. Your will shall never again be your own. Regardless of your personal inclinations, you will now be magically compelled to protect this boy's life, for the rest of your days. I hope you have been kind to house-elves, as you now should have a bit of a sense of how they feel. I have much more important work to do now than explain the rest of your life to you, Severus. Go to the castle and I shall figure out what to do with you when I return."
Severus Snape's back ached at the memory of that night spent sitting on the hard bench of the Slytherin table in the empty Great Hall, his vigil unbroken until a Daily Prophet dropped onto some student's regular seat halfway down the row.
Her lovely dark eyes, staring at him accusingly from a small photograph in the lower corner of the upward-facing back page, under the headline "Gypsy Tribe Wiped Out By Death Eaters." Flipping the paper over, the entire front is covered by the headline "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named – Gone For Good?" with the subheading "Harry Potter: the Boy Who Lived" and an artist's rendering of what the child may look like. For only the third time in his life, young Severus Snape weeps, sobs wracking his slight frame.
Hours, days, maybe weeks later, he feels a firm hand on his shoulder and lifts his head. "It is time we speak about what is to become of you, Severus."
"What is to speak of? I'm bound for Azkaban, am I not?"
"I believe you were very gifted at potions while you were a student, am I correct?"
Severus blinks and manages to utter a brief "yes."
"And I also have the impression that you've been studying Occlumency and Legilimency."
"Excellent. You will be taking the position of Potions master here, effective after the winter holiday. Professor Slughorn has let me know that he would like to retire at the end of the year; I shall offer him incentive to leave sooner. Until then, you shall have the Head Boy's suite in Slytherin, since the current Head Boy is a Hufflepuff."
Snape could not hide his surprise. "Why are you doing this for me, sir? How could you ever begin to trust me?"
"Because I know, better than you at the present moment, exactly what you are and are not capable of. Because of your life-debt curse and who your debtor's murderer was, you shall never be able to return to your prior role as Death Eater. At least, not as anything more than a spy. And return as a spy you may someday need to do, so you will continue to study Occlumency and Legilimency with me, to prepare you in case that day shall arise. And one day, you will teach a young Harry Potter what he shall need to know to forever destroy Lord Voldemort. You have no choice any more, Severus. You do realize that, I hope, so we may as well put you to best use. Do you have any questions?"
"Just one, Headmaster. Will you hang a portrait in the entrance hall for me?"
The scenes played out, Severus Snape withdrew himself from his Pensieve, gasping for air as if he'd been long submerged in water. He closed his eyes to collect himself, and then steeled his mind for the Occlumency training task he knew he had to complete.
Slowly and smoothly, he ascended the stairs from the dungeons. All was quiet, even the prefects were in bed as the stroke of midnight rang through the empty hallways. Severus Snape approached the gilded painting of a seated Romany girl with a parasol in her hand and ran his finger gently over the words etched in the bottom. Esmerelda Hearne, b. 16 December 1962, d. 31 October 1981.
The woman in the painting shifted and glared down at him. "Don't touch me, Death Eater."
"I have to, Essy pl-"
"At least here, Severus, let me be safe from your betrayals." After one more look at him with cold, narrowed eyes, she turned her back to the hall.
Severus Snape took several deep breaths, trying to control his emotions and thoughts.
"You're not working hard enough, Severus. I could hear your every thought from two floors up," came the voice of the headmaster.
The young man rested his potion-greased head against the portrait frame and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. "Yes, sir," he replied, his voice clipped. "I shall work harder in future."
A/N: this little ficlet started out as a song fic when Tori Amos' "The Beekeeper" album came out. It was originally inspired by the first track, Parasol, the lyrics to which can be found at http://www.yessaid.com/lyrics/parasol.html - then I read HBP, got obsessed about life-debts, and this story took a minor turn to become a fictionalization of my theory of Why Dumbledore Trusts Snape Completely (a sub-theory of the greater Life-Debts obsession).
Thanks to dancinginmagic, Lady Padfoot, jaspertheragdoll, Mr_Flibble and of course my wonderful husband for the prebetaing and AllieKiwi for the pinch-hit beta while Aibhinn was away. It's so good to be writing again after such a long a break!