In the Shrieking Shack
Severus stared up into Harry’s eyes, Lily’s eyes, once more, feeling the flames of Nagini’s bite slowly receding into the chill of paralysis. His muscles seized, freezing him into his last position – untidily huddled on the floor. He sensed the cold creeping over his face, and as his sight faded, heard the faint rustle as Harry crept back into the tunnel leading to the Whomping Willow. Unknown to, and unnoticed by, any but Severus, the rigor locking him in place persisted; his consciousness dwindled to a single, free-floating spark, deep within, protected from the changes to follow. Waiting, Severus ruminated...
Long hours had been devoted to this moment, quiet but fraught hours in the deep of the night. Wracked with anxiety that he had to hide from his ‘colleagues’ during his time as Headmaster, the unknowing friends and the malicious secret foes, he had grappled with the hard-earned knowledge from Arthur’s convalescence. Minute traces of Nagini’s venom were distilled from samples of Arthur’s blood, obtained from St Mungo’s. He was assured that effective oaths of silence had been obtained - Severus cared not how - and it seemed that his holding the precious vials had somehow remained a secret from both sides. On Dumbledore’s death (don’t think about it, don’t remember the aching pain of giving the final surcease, as if transferring pain from Albus’s dying body to his own) the secret lay in him alone.
Neutralising the poison and creating a prophylactic was, if not simple, at least the work of merely a few weeks. To create something new was, however, the challenge. Surely he could accomplish anything with the whole of Hogwarts’ resources available to him as well as his private stores. Not to mention the wider freedom to draw on the whole gamut of ingredients, no matter how rare or costly, granted by the ‘Dark Lord’ (but here, in his most private thoughts, could he not taunt his former master as Harry did? So let his name be Riddle, a sobriquet ever to symbolise hatred, disgust and pain). For who would deny Riddle’s (ah, the satisfaction of private defiance) left hand, the reclusive, deadly Potions Master?
So yes, start with a vial of Chimaeras’ blood for its transformative properties (buffered by tansy and sage, with a skerrick of Xerochrysum bracteatum – everlastings – harvested from the base of Uluru for its preservative properties), counter the blood’s toxicity with phoenix tears ( thank Merlin for Fawkes’. His fiery arrival on the day after his installation as Headmaster had been both heart-wrenching and comforting). Dittany, of course, for any need for the antidote to the poison would involve broken skin (and he could but hope that the bite would not be so catastrophic as to be beyond any hope). Kelpie hair was needed as well, again transformative, and now more readily available since the relocation of the clans from south of Hadrian’s Wall. Although dangerous, the Kelpies had been surprisingly willing to trade after the Muggles inadvertently began to poison them with a common fertilizer. Strands of the Kelpie hair were soaked in a stock healing potion base prepared in bulk for the Infirmary.
The binding agent had been tricky. Weeks of thought and tiny test samples resulted in the surprising discovery that white rice porridge was perfect – unexpectedly ordinary with so many rare and disparate components. Later there was the thrilling discovery in the Headmaster’s private library of the necessary components to incorporate to ensure that, in a time of transformation, all former bonds were broken. After some careful calculations, Severus was comfortably certain that ‘transformation’ would include this process and a ‘bond’ would include the Dark Mark (carefully avoiding the question why this had never been raised by ... the former Headmaster). True, most would be wary of so wholly giving up their identity to void a bond, and true, the components included the incredibly rare flowers of King's Lomatia, but to never even mention that there was a possible means to break the Dark Mark was odd.
Crucial was the powdered Basilisk eyelid (who would have thought that Harry really had killed a Basilisk so young?) to effect the death-like rigor, usually indicative of poison but today protective, preventing further injury with the outer skin hardened to a stony shell. The memory of Charity Burbage’s demise (don’t think, don’t remember it all, just make it another reason) confirmed the need for such a protection – should Nagini be ordered to consume him, then he’d need to be proof against digestion and crushing. Yet another reason to be thankful to Harry’s persistence, for despite his long reach, no Basilisk had been found other than the corpse still preserved in the Chamber of Secrets. In addition, a grateful mental nod to Hogwarts for revealing the location of the other entrance, the one not protected by Parseltongue.
The genius, however, lay in the dual trigger of the final effects of the potion – for Severus had no doubt that redundancy in his planning was necessary. Nagini’s venom itself became a trigger and a component of one chemical pathway. Warned that Riddle would keep Nagini close in the last stages of the war, it would be highly likely that Riddle would use her as a weapon against those he no longer trusted. His style (who knew that style better than he, with the obsessive nature of a spy, standing at Riddle’s side and analysing every move?) was to enjoy the special fear that Nagini inspired. However, should the venom not be introduced, then a second pathway could be triggered by a drastic reduction in the intensity of the Dark Mark itself – in the faint hope that Harry would achieve his aim, despite the overwhelming odds. The addition of this pathway had required a reconsideration of the theoretical basis of potions affecting memory triggered by charms and keywords – an obscure and largely dark branch of study most had long forgotten. Severus basked briefly in his pride in his successful adaptation of that work by using the intensity of an oath-spell as a trigger. The excitement when he had finally broken his deadlock on creating that chemical pathway had resulted in a spontaneous flurry of spectacular, though harmless, sparks racing around his office at Hogwarts...
Hogwarts. There was the source of his mental transformation in those long, lonely nights, for who would have thought that the castle would be sentient, and so happy to help with the surreptitious assistance that was all he could give to the students that year? There also began the confirmation of his long-standing doubts about the former Headmaster.
It started with the shocking voice emanating from the air the first time he was alone in the Headmaster’s office. He had always suspected that Hogwarts was more than a simple structure, given the barring of Umbridge from the office (a passing unholy glee at her humiliation), but he was astonished to find that there was a voice, a consciousness, that had never been mentioned by Albus (think of Hogwarts, not him). Picture his quickly subdued surprise, his suspicion, when the very walls appeared to speak. The portraits of past Headmasters were, it turned out, in collusion with Hogwarts, and had somehow managed to conceal this fact from Albus (No! Don’t think about him). For it turned out that Hogwarts had never really felt comfortable with Dumbledore (there, that was somewhat easier, more impersonal), he had never held her full confidence, nor had he heard the castle when she first tried to speak to him. How a whole castle could be female, Severus tried not to consider too closely. She, Hogwarts, had permitted Dumbledore to use the Headmaster’s office as his own, and slowly, over months and years, (for what is time to a thousand-year-old stone entity?) she had ceased trying to introduce herself, and her unease with Dumbledore had grown...
Still, wincing away from his name, but surely now, waiting for the transformation, it might finally be time?
Images of the two decades in Albus’ company flickered by: first the biased treatment of the Gryffindors, the unsuccessful plea for Lily’s life, the devastation of her death, the ‘rescue’ from Azkaban, the then unrecognised seed of hope planted – Harry’s survival. Then the long years of teaching ungrateful students. The seemingly natural and needful front he’d created, in trying to protect his lacerated heart with snark and snarl and vicious tongue, was partly his own nature and partly the need to assert authority in a dangerous occupation when barely older than his students. It was also petty revenge on the symbols of those who had made his own life hell when he had attended school.
There was an occasional quiet, gentle remonstrance from Albus to go easier, to gentle his venomous commentary, but it was never followed by any useful assistance. In fact Albus seemed to give subtle encouragement to Severus being strongly biased towards the Slytherins by himself being – covertly, if not overtly - biased against them. It was all very well to say ‘do better’, but how to gain instant obedience when respect was not granted by age, and charm was no part of his character? And instant it needed to be, when a misplaced spoon or ingredient could have catastrophic results. Never any practical assistance in learning to teach, just dropping him directly into the chaos that was every class at Hogwarts.
A pause, a hesitation. How could he possibly criticize a man universally acknowledged as good, a beacon of the Light? All knew he was, indeed, the leader of the Light, but maybe...
More images, more memories... The betrayal of his rights when his life was threatened by that mutt Black... Yes, he understood now why the wolf was to be protected, was indeed guiltless, but why not punish the fleabag at all? Severus’ placement in Slytherin had not assisted resistance to the inviting offer of power and brotherhood offered by the Death Eaters, but the inequity, that moment of justice denied had led almost inevitably to his final break with Lily and his isolation from any other point of view. Dumbledore had explained the need for secrecy, but could he not have found some reason to punish Black? Already disowned by his parents, they would hardly have enquired further, or even been concerned, should Black have been segregated from the other Gryffindors. Severus himself had found many inventive, if not actually painful, means of punishing students who had misbehaved in class. Thinking himself immune, and Severus an unprotected target, had lead to the Levicorpus incident; and still the ‘Marauders’ had remained unpunished. Humiliated and resentful, Severus had lost his last link with anything outside the blandishments of the power promised by the Dark Arts.
Later, the cold and uncaring face turned to him by teachers reflected the escalating damage inflicted on him by the Marauders. Yet Albus did nothing but preach forgiveness.
On leaving Hogwarts, the initial rush of belief had been cruelly shattered by the events surrounding his receiving the Dark Mark. The promises of power to be given did not survive the drain on his powers initiated by that scar on his soul. Feeling broken, a message carried to Dumbledore on his Master’s behalf had given the opportunity to beg help. Albus had looked angry and denied his sincerity, doubting that he would recant his devotion to Riddle (ah yes, again that convulsion of hate). He had never again spoken of that plea. The later appeal on behalf of Lily had also been scornfully received, but this time his loyalty was snatched at, enforced by an oath of allegiance that had scorched his blood, near as painful as that of the Dark Mark. He was to return as a spy, whilst Albus put in place the necessary protections for the Potters. He had done everything since asked of him, whenever he could. Lily’s death had, he thought, triggered a release from his oath to Dumbledore (not that he realised at first, too pained by her death to realise anything else), but he found that the conflicting vows still itched under his skin, scratched at his heart. Riddle’s apparent defeat had faded the Dark Mark, but the crossed allegiances’ continued ache convinced Severus that Albus’ allegation that Riddle was not yet defeated was accurate – faded it might be, but his link persisted.
The ‘brief’ stint in Azkaban and the terror of the trial... He wondered why Albus had chosen to wait until the last moment to confirm his status as spy. And why had he omitted to mention the oath of allegiance?
The years of service as a teacher, unable to leave whilst the oath continued. Every time he had raised the possibility of moving on, Albus had claimed that he could not be dispensed with, was too valuable to the school. There was more than a hint of manipulation there, a definite triggering of his oath. During Harry’s time as a student there had been many requests made by Albus - apparently not triggering his oath - to ease off on this ‘special boy’. The shock when, after that agonising compliance with orders in the Astronomy Tower (why had he issued that order? Surely another way could have been found), he thought the tight-twisted binds of the oath should at last relax, but found instead that they cut deeper, seemingly growing thorns to scarify his soul.
And then... Then... When he had sat, installed as Headmaster, while Fawkes sang softly and Hogwarts had asked ever so casually, “When would you like to remember?” His off-hand “Remember what?”, and the attention-grabbing response: “What He has taken from you”. Hewas always Albus; Hogwarts refused to use his name. Surprised out of his usual caution, Severus had blurted “What? Now!”, and was immediately swamped by a flood of new memories, too fast and too overwhelming to actually absorb.
In those first few minutes only tiny snippets were grasped and considered, but even those ignited a rage and need that had carried him forward to this re-birth. Albus deliberately poisoning his mind against Harry, telling him that Harry’s home life was that of a spoiled godling. Albus threatening him with abandonment to Azkaban. Albus laughing as he described the hatred that would be his ‘reward’ for following the order to take over Draco’s task. Albus smiling as he held Severus under immobility spells that, although not themselves painful, resulted in painful cramps and stiff muscles if held longer than necessary. Albus twinkling as he ordered him to ensure he remained as unattractive as possible. Each ‘incident’ followed by an order to comply but forget that the order had been given. As the maelstrom of memories lessened, the pain in his heart had also lessened - and the oath’s bindings had finally snapped.
Well. Severus would have the best revenge possible. He would live a life of his own choosing, he would be free of all manipulation, and he would be happy. Or at least as happy as a man of his disposition could be. It occurred to him that that may be significantly more than most might think – although possibly not naturally cheerful, it would be quite interesting to find out what he was like without the constant strain of conflicting allegiances, fear, duty, and pain. It would be something to discover.
But now it seems his transformation is complete. It’s time to ‘hatch’ out of his stony shell and see how his new body has turned out...