FIC: "Steps to the Lightning-Struck Tower" for odogoddess Recipientpsyfic Authorleni_jess Title Steps to the Lightning-Struck Tower Rating R Pairing Severus Snape/Sybill Trelawney Word Count ~ 9,270 words Warnings None Summary Everybody meant well, even Dumbledore, in opposing Voldemort's schemes, but Fate is a malicious entity and Divination its ally. Author's Notes There is one quotation from canon in this; you will no doubt recognise it, even without the italics. Thanks to my reader Slashpine, and to the mod bethbethbeth, who also beta read the fic for me, for her admirable patience with a delinquent writer. I hope, psyfic, you enjoy this!
Early spring and summer, 1980
The barman had disappeared even before Severus chose an obscure table in a corner of the tiny bar room, one which gave him a view of the street entrance, the bar itself, and the dodgy-looking stairs leading upwards.
He scuffled his feet in the sawdust to clear away some of the rubbish, and set his elbows on the grimy table, keeping clear of the worst stains, even if they were probably only butterbeer. Then he stared down into the smoking glass of Firewhisky in front of him. He didn't drink any, though he had appeared to set the glass to his lips; his upbringing had given him a strong distaste for dirty glasses, as well as for filthy floors, tables and bar-tops. Eileen Snape might not have been the best mother, or the wisest witch, but she taught her son all the magic she knew, and kept a clean house, and held her head up as best she could.
He had to wait, and to do that he had had to buy a drink, but it would take a stronger need than this to force him to put this rotgut in his belly, even as he resented having to pay for it.
Dumbledore had said, "Follow me upstairs. The way will be clear. Then pay attention."
Severus hadn't liked the lack of direction, the withholding of information, but almost anything was better than Voldemort. For his own reasons Dumbledore had accepted his offer of information on the Dark Lord's plans (in so far as Severus could learn of them); Severus had been almost grateful to his master for ordering him to try to get the Potions Master position Slughorn was said to be leaving behind. That order became an opportunity he would be mad to ignore; Severus didn't need Felix Felicis to let him see a good chance. Severus couldn't leave his lord, not and live, but he could hamper him, and he would do it with a will, even working with a prejudiced old wizard who twinkled repulsively at every inappropriate moment.
So now he was sitting in a filthy pub both his parents would have despised, waiting for his future employer to show up and do something he wanted Severus to report back on. Using one's initiative was all very well (with any luck Dumbledore would not punish failures of interpretation there as Voldemort did), and limiting information to "need to know" was no doubt important to security for Dumbledore's resistance movement, but a sympathiser needed basic information to be efficient.
He flashed a quick glance under his eyebrows at the bar. The old goat-keeper was still absent; not surprising, given how few customers he ever seemed to have. Probably a cut of the deals done in his shabby pub gave him a better income than any drinks sold or rooms rented. (Though the goats, unlike the building, were clean and handsome, and were kept in decent quarters, as Severus knew from his Hogwarts days; perhaps the fellow actually cared about them.)
He stuck a finger in the Firewhisky and sucked it. The dying flames were heatless, and the raw spirit didn't compare with what Lucius Malfoy offered. Severus pushed the glass a little away, thinking, Come on, old man; bloody do something. I can't sit here for ever; Lord Voldemort is going to want to know what I was doing as it is.
The street door opened – silently, despite the apparent neglect of maintenance, but the sudden increase in the sound of steady rain alerted Severus, as did the waft of cold night air.
Severus didn't turn his head, but he watched the wizard in the brilliant turquoise robes walk in. The robes were quite dry, as was the elaborate hat with its stars and moon buckle on one side, unlike his own plain black wool robes, which were faintly damp around the hems; he had been in too much of a hurry to get here to pay full attention to drying charms.
Dumbledore didn't look around, any more than Severus did, but he knew Dumbledore saw him as clearly as he saw the Headmaster, who went behind the bar without hesitation, through the doorway and up those rickety steps. Just as he disappeared into obscurity, his right hand made a patting gesture, which might mean anything from "wait a while" to "good dog".
Severus repressed a snarl, reflecting that working for Dumbledore was obviously going to have its irritating moments. Maybe he got to be head of the Wizengemot and Chief Mugwump by being more mysterious than any competitor. Thank goodness he hadn't chosen to be Minister for Magic as well; the wizarding world would be in even worse shape than it now was, a state of complete confusion.
After a few minutes he rose to his feet and followed the Headmaster.
At the top of the stairs was a small sitting area, with doors giving off it. Severus ignored the window, running with rain on the outside and grimy on the inside, and the fireplace with its meagre fire (and the picture of a vacuous-looking girl child over the mantel, no doubt a sample of the kind of brat he would be teaching next September). He stood quite still, listening, then rotated to look at each door in turn. Silence. Damn. Which room was Dumbledore in? He could hardly open the doors to check. Like the front door, they must be more effective than the look of the place suggested.
Cautiously Severus moved towards one of them, not surprised, now, that the floorboards didn't creak. The stairs hadn't, after all, though they had seemed ready to collapse. He bent to the keyhole. Nothing. Only at the third door did he hear anything. A woman's voice, a bit whiny, saying something about her great or whatever grandmother. Severus rolled his eyes, then knelt. Vital information, oh yes. Dumbledore's response didn't sound as if he were any more interested than Severus.
The inane conversation continued, though there was a lot of it he couldn't catch. It seemed to be a job interview. There went the neighbourhood of the staff room, if Dumbledore took this blatherer on. The woman was sounding desperate now – as no doubt she was, if she was as incompetent as she made herself seem. A seer, apparently, not that Dumbledore seemed disposed to believe her. He was starting to sound remote rather than stern-but-kindly; definitely losing interest.
Someone else spoke, in a deep, grinding voice.
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…"
Then the damned floor betrayed Severus: a hard hand grabbed his shoulder, pulling him away from the door, shoving him against the wall. The hand slammed his head into the wall, and Severus couldn't even hear the tone of the voice continuing behind the door for the ringing in his ears. Through involuntary tears of pain he saw the old bartender glaring at him, furious blue eyes seeming to snap sparks behind his smudged glasses, and a thin mouth saying things he couldn't make out.
That hard old hand twisted in the neck of his robes, half choking him, holding him against the wall, while the man turned to batter on the door as he probably wanted to batter Severus himself, shouting, " Headmaster! Sneak! Get out here!"
The door opened, and Severus was shoved at the Headmaster, who caught him before he fell to the floor and kept him upright long enough for Severus to get his balance and stand for himself.
Severus fought fury and humiliation and the need to get his breath, but he didn't try to summon up excuses. He'd been caught dead to rights, and was that what Dumbledore had wanted, rather than for Severus to overhear that astonishing prophecy from that second-rate seer?
"Dear me," Dumbledore said mildly, and Severus managed to repress a snort of hysterical laughter.
He looked the Headmaster in the eye, but found nothing helpful there, just that deceitful mild blue gaze.
The barman continued to splutter wrathfully, but Dumbledore said mildly, "I'm sure you must be mistaken. I've hired this young man to teach Potions, starting next term; he must have been looking for me, and simply slipped. The floors are a little uneven, you know, and that carpet outside has nearly tripped me more than once, and I'm used to it."
The barman had stopped with Dumbledore's first words, and now turned to stare scornfully at Severus, who was careful not to sneer back at him. If Dumbledore was prepared to cover for him, good, but Severus shouldn't give this surprisingly strong old fellow reason to gossip about him. Severus didn't doubt the man would continue to hold to his first opinion, but he had no plans to frequent the Hog's Head.
Severus said stiffly, with the appearance of embarrassment he did marginally still feel, "My apologies, Headmaster. I should have waited below instead of looking for you up here." He turned, and added, "Madam," seizing the opportunity to look at the woman.
She was tall, and far too thin, but the most noticeable things about her were the pale green eyes magnified by the thick-lensed glasses she wore, and the mane of uncontrolled hair snagging in the glasses, and in the strands of beads she wore and the shawls haggled about her narrow shoulders. Severus had no licence to despise anyone else's looks, and knowing how unimportant his own were in comparison with his abilities, he looked into those eyes and saw fading bewilderment and – great Merlin! – a hint of the sort of interest he had seldom met, though quite often enough to recognise it. She was older than he, by perhaps fifteen years, if not more, not very competent, or self-confident, but she was, after all, a Seer indeed, and therefore of great interest to him and, he could see, to Dumbledore.
Dumbledore said placidly, "Allow me, dear lady, to introduce to you a member of my staff, almost as newly appointed as yourself. Sybill Trelawney, Divination: Severus Snape, Potions."
The woman brightened, and tried to hide her astonishment. So she didn't know what she'd said. She smiled up at him, since he was a little the taller, tremulously, but with a faint hope that suddenly made Severus uncharacteristically sorry for her, if nothing in her life led her to expect better than the possibility that a young stranger might not express contempt. If his life was an ugly desolation, what must hers be?
A Seer who did not know what she prophesied – yet Dumbledore must have been expecting something, to invite him to be here, to listen, to take back to the Dark Lord whatever he managed to catch. Did he hope to threaten Voldemort, with this hint of the advent in the summer of some stronger wizard, with powers Voldemort could not match? To make him cautious, to slow him down, to distract him from a straight drive to control of the wizarding world? All possibilities. Severus doubted if Dumbledore believed in prophecy any more than he did, but he certainly had a good grasp on warfare of the mind, encouraging Voldemort to handicap himself.
And the woman had fancied him, on sight. Severus wouldn't mention that to his master – it could pass as trivial, not worth sharing, but it offered a slight hope of getting more information from her. Dumbledore must have had some hint, some idea she could be induced to See, and to speak. Perhaps Severus could get the trick of it. Getting the prophecy whole, or any other, was worthless as a guide to action, but as a device to ensnare Voldemort in his own fears – oh yes, that end it could indeed serve!
Severus smiled at Sybill Trelawney with unaccustomed warmth, and saw her straighten up a little, fill out, as if with new confidence in herself.
She had no idea of how Dumbledore used her, or how Severus would, either, but he could at least be courteous about it. He had learned, since his schooldays, that it could be worse than folly to make enemies unnecessarily.
The Dark Lord was predictably annoyed that Severus had not brought him the whole prophecy, but he was profoundly distracted by it, too: Severus counted that a win.
Afterwards, dismissed to ingratiate himself with Dumbledore and bring back better information, Severus let himself slip down the wall once his master had swept out, and wearily knuckled the blood from his lip and chin and earlobes, trying to control his shuddering muscles.
Lucius Malfoy knelt beside him and said in an irritated tone belied by the way he rummaged in Severus's robes for the palliative potion he knew would be hidden there, "Did you have to invite that by admitting you didn't hear it all?"
Severus let himself be fed a couple of gulps before he turned his head away, waiting until it should take effect. He muttered, "Three people can't keep a secret, even if one of them were not a silly woman who doesn't know what she said. You know all prophecies are recorded."
Lucius said sharply, as he used his wand to remove the blood more effectively than Severus had, "There's too many fucking magical recording systems supervising the world! They don't have enough to do in Mysteries, if dreaming up that kind of prying magic is all they can think to do." That was a complaint his great-grandfather could as well have made. "Our lord isn't likely to march into the Ministry and demand the prophecy – it's not as if anyone but the persons affected can touch such things."
Severus shrugged, and began to lever himself to his feet. "I do my best. I am his servant."
He could trust Lucius in matters such as this, mopping him up after the Dark Lord expressed extravagant displeasure. However, he dared not share his changed views of Lord Voldemort's goals, even if he suspected that for different reasons Lucius too might feel dubious about them these days, now that Narcissa was expecting his child. Lucius would have discovered the vulnerability Severus had always been aware of. One day it might be possible to explore such issues with him, but not yet.
That summer Severus spent some time at Hogwarts, usually in response to a summons from Dumbledore. They met alone only once, however, when discussing the extent to which Severus planned to retain Slughorn's teaching program for seventh years.
Severus noted with irritation that the Headmaster seemed to be using him and the preparation he had been conscientiously doing to train Sybill Trelawney in the hard graft of actually teaching.
The worst was the early meeting on textbook selection for the coming year, when Dumbledore, without a word of explicit criticism, made it plain to Sybill how ill thought out was her list of proposed texts, what financial strain it would impose on students' parents, and how unrealistic her expectations were of students' capacity to absorb the materials. Once Sybill had been reduced to tears, Severus was left to coax her into producing a sensible textbook list, and offer her consolation by pointing out that as a recent graduate of Hogwarts he himself might be expected to have a practical grasp of these issues.
Dumbledore's casual cruelty to a woman he did not seem to value as a teacher, whom he simply wanted under his control in case she should prophesy again, made Severus much kinder to her than he would ordinarily have been. He ended up helping her not only with text selection, but with developing a teaching plan to satisfy the vague Divination curriculum. He discovered that despite her protestations Sybill had no faith in her own ability as a Seer, and seemed determined to reduce the subject to fortune-telling of the sort one might meet at a country fair, but without the keen observation that gave its gypsy practitioners' carefully broad predictions some validity.
Severus had his own agenda in this too, naturally, but unlike Dumbledore he could not afford to be crude in pursuing it. Dumbledore had given her a job and an income and was still holding out to her the lure of impressed and devoted students eager to learn from her. Severus wanted to find out if she could be induced to repeat a prophecy, and could gain her cooperation only by being kind and helpful. That spark of personal interest appeared to have been swamped by anxiety about class preparation and performance, so he could not use that.
It occurred to him only much later in the summer vacation, when Sybill was sniffling once more against his shoulder, that she might be expecting him to make the first move. Was all this incompetence and despair a form of sexual advance? His mind reeled at the notion that any woman could see such behaviour as inviting. Then he looked back on some fellow students who had performed for their chosen a mime of "poor foolish little me, I need big brave brilliant you to tell me what to do" – girls who were quite competent not only to eat their own dinners, but to execute their own transfigurations and charms and even potions, some of them. He realised that that had been, and this might be, a weird courtship dance, meant to appeal to some perversity in the male mind.
He could test the theory, going gently; Sybill was hardly in a position to point and laugh if his interpretation was wrong. At worst, she was lonely and unvalued; she might appreciate a few kisses as well as a cuddle, to show that he was interested in her apart from as a fellow novice teacher. Severus wouldn't mind a few kisses either. He knew, however, that she was genuinely grateful to him, and hoped she would not respond to an advance for that reason alone. Unlike him, she did not resent feeling gratitude, nor did needing assistance make her feel vulnerable, so perhaps she would not see this change in attitude as the start of a Slytherin negotiation.
He shifted slightly on the staff room couch, turning Sybill so that her head tilted back, lifting his free hand to wind in the fierce tangle of her hair. She looked up at him, surprised, lips parted, eyes magnified by the thick lenses, but only a little pink around the edges.
Then she smiled, not widely, but not timidly either. She knew what he was thinking of doing, and welcomed it.
"You get upset too easily," he said quietly. "It's just another job to learn. Relax."
Then he bent his head and kissed her. Her lips were soft, accepting, and her hands came up to grip his shoulders, then one was in his hair, tugging him closer.
Sybill's lips parted for him, and her tongue flickered along his lips. Severus swallowed, then mimicked her action – it wasn't as if he had a lot of experience to guide him. She was warm, and soft, and seemed to like his tongue in her mouth. Her hands were eloquent, guiding him, without force, but seeking her goals, rather than waiting for him to follow his. That was a change.
Then the critic on his shoulder was silenced, as Sybill took her glasses off, tossed them to one side, and pressed closer. Somehow his robes were open, and he could feel her breasts with their firming tips, and her hands were inside his robes, running over his chest. Then her fingers found his nipples, which suddenly had become sensitive to fingertips, to delicately scratching nails, then to a firm hold between her thumb and index finger. He had read about that kind of thing, but not experienced it. The few whores he had paid for in the last three years had wanted his money rather than his company, and their stimulus had been direct, aimed at getting him up and done with and out.
This was different. Sybill didn't seem in a hurry, or in any way impatient. She was exploring him, as well as she could, with both of them still clothed and sitting on a staff room couch.
Severus stopped comparing past and present experiences, and went with the flow, following her example, experimenting to see if she liked what she (and he) was discovering he liked.
He had to grip her shoulders and push her away, in the end. He wanted this to continue, but if he continued he would come, which seemed a waste of a joyful encounter. He wanted to go on kissing and fondling and touching, trying different pressures, fingertips, fingers, hands, palms, seeing how she reacted, noticing where her responses differed from his, trying the most effective things again, slower, faster, with greater or lesser pressure, with pauses, or with the continuous, unhurried coaxing that she seemed to like very much indeed.
"Sybill, wait," he muttered. "Let me breathe."
She tipped her head back, and let him see the flush in her cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes, the greater fullness and redness of her mouth, her succulent mouth; oh Merlin, he could kiss and bite and suck on her lips for ever.
She wasn't offended. She didn't leap to conclude that he was tired of this, tired of her. No doubt she could read his feelings and responses in his face, too, and for once he wasn't trying to hide them. He could see that this was a field where the more complete communication was, the better the experience would be.
Sybill murmured, "You haven't seen my rooms yet, have you? The Headmaster let me move in last week, and I've been making them comfortable."
That was as good as an explicit invitation, and Severus wasn't fool enough to refuse it. But perhaps he should tell her.
"I don't know a lot about this," he muttered, avoiding the pale green gaze.
He hadn't turned so far away that he couldn't see her smile: soft and pleased.
"You'll let me show you?"
Severus put her glasses back on, touching her face and gently drawing the wild strands of hair from under the arms of the spectacles. They put their clothing to rights, and even tidied up the heaps of Sybill's working papers – no one would move them, or make off with them: how exciting were lesson plans?
As they walked towards the stairs Severus asked, "Where are your rooms? I'm to be in the dungeons, so that I'm near my classroom."
"Oh, so am I near my classroom, but in the North Tower," Sybill answered, sounding happy.
That was a long way from anywhere else. But then, Sybill didn't seem to be any more sociable than he was. She wasn't likely to be wanting to pop into a colleague's rooms for a chat and a cuppa, any more than he did, and would probably prize her privacy and solitude.
The stairs were accommodating, and before too long they were standing by a ladder.
"The classroom's up there, but I have my own staircase, here," and she pushed on a stone.
The outline of a door appeared in the wall, then swung open before them.
Severus's instinctive paranoia cut in. "I hope you have a password for that door."
She looked over her shoulder at him. "Should I need it?"
"Better to have security than to discover that, yes, you did need it," he answered dryly.
She shrugged. "Very well, I'll think of something. But in that case I'll need a door knocker, too, so that visitors can let me know they're here."
"An easy enough charm to implement." That was safe to say; he knew by now that she was quite good at charms, though she never made a fuss over it as some people did.
At the top of her narrow winding stair – the furniture must have been moved to her rooms by some other means, unless it was all pillows and rugs – she turned the handle of another door and slipped in ahead of him.
"Welcome, Severus! My first visitor."
He glanced around quickly, seeing a quite normal sitting room, with softly upholstered armchairs beside the fireplace, a fainting couch draped with shawls, small tables, and a mostly empty bookcase against the back wall. There were flowers in vases, too. Practically everything except the shawls, and possibly the couch, looked like Hogwarts stock.
"Come into my bedroom."
She took his hand, and he followed willingly.
The bedroom was smaller, with a standard Hogwarts four-poster in the middle, draped in shades of pale violet. It would suit her faintly rosy complexion, unlike his, which did better against plain, strong colours. Not that he had ever had a choice of décor, in his parents' house, or the Slytherin dorms, or in his current lodgings off Knockturn Alley.
Sybill took her wand from her sleeve and drew the bed-curtains back, pushed the covers down, and summoned a couple of extra pillows from somewhere. Certainly the bed, like the room, was set up for one, with a mere two pillows, a single bedside cabinet, and a candle stand on one side only. The bed was broad enough for two, however, which was all Severus really cared about.
Sybill set her wand down on that beside table and turned to him, her fingers on the buttons over his chest, but not undoing them yet.
Severus swallowed, then said huskily, "Yes. Please. Sybill. If you're sure."
Her smile lit up her face. She was suddenly no longer plain, and thin, and a little worn, but all woman, confident and happy. The look suited her. He doubted he looked so much at ease, but he was resolved to trust her in this. It had occurred to him, as his blood cooled somewhat with the walk and the climb, that it was probably a good thing that there should be something Sybill could teach him, and that she should know it. Observing his parents, he had decided long ago that women needed to be able to control some things – certainly their own bodies, their own magic – rather than being controlled in everything. Or broken, if control wasn't possible.
Sybill's hands lifted to his face, stroking the involuntary frown on his brow, running a fingertip along his lips. "Whatever that is, do you need to think of it now?"
"No," he answered thankfully, feeling his facial muscles relaxing under her touch. "No. Nothing but you, and us, and here."
Her happy, interested look returned, and she wasted no more time. His clothes came off, and were thoughtfully folded onto a chair rather than dropped to the floor. Then she stood before him and held her hands away from her body. Oh. That was an invitation. He could undress her. Severus felt his hands tremble for a moment, but then he reached out to take what he had been given, and relished each movement, each piece of cloth moved slowly aside. He didn't want to hurry over this. He was already aware that this was the first real time, for him, no matter what those regrettable whores had taught him. He was going to enjoy it all, and remember it.
He started with the strings of beads whose clatter he could almost tune out by now, hanging them on the same chair that she had used, then removed her glasses, directing them with his wand to the bedside cabinet. She had pretty eyes, and he was close enough that she didn't have to peer to see his face.
Severus wasn't surprised by her too-slender body, as she took no particular pains to have her robes conceal it; but her skin was good, smooth and silky to the touch, as he had already discovered, and her arms were lightly shaped by muscle. Her breasts were small, but rounded, high still, like a much younger woman's, he imagined, though a charm might be responsible for that. It was not as if she carried fat there, either.
He had to touch her breasts, cupping them in his hands, then tickling the still partly stiffened nipples, then impulsively bending to lick them, first one, then the other. He felt as well as heard her soft intake of breath, and felt the instant crinkling of the pale fawn points. Good. She liked that. She had already taught him how she liked her breasts to be handled, but standing in front of her like this made it easier to see the effect of his experiments.
He made himself turn his attention to the ribbons of her petticoat waist, no doubt worn for added warmth in this chilly castle. Once he had tugged them sufficiently loose he slid his hands inside the waistband and eased it down her hips, along with the second petticoat he found under it, revealing her knickers and fine wool stockings. She stepped out of the folds of linen and wool, kicking her shoes off. He knelt at her feet and clasped the backs of her thighs above the stocking tops. It pleased him that she was dressed for warmth and comfort, not to seduce. He would rather be the object of an impulse than a campaign.
When he looked up at her the smile was gone. She might be nervous of what he thought of her body, now it was mostly revealed. Oh no. That wasn't necessary. Her body was much better to look upon than his own, though she hadn't made him feel either self-conscious or inadequate when she had him naked in front of her. He blinked, surprised at that thought. Taking his clothes off in front of anyone else was not something he ordinarily wanted to do. Ever. She must be a witch indeed, to make him forget about that.
Hoping to reassure her, he slid down the old-fashioned knickers she wore, like his mother's, though of a finer linen than Eileen Snape could have afforded, and tangled his fingers in the brown curls on her mound, scratching lightly. That got a soft breath too. Fine. Maybe she would relax. Her thighs were still closed, so he didn't try to explore further, but removed the garters – definitely magical rather than Muggle in their operation – and then the fine wool stockings.
Now she was as naked as he was, and he stood, letting his hands touch her all the way, caressing the pale skin as he rose. She was too thin; he could count her ribs, and if he turned her around he'd probably be able to count the knobs of her spine, but there was no slackness in her flesh. She couldn't spend all her time in front of a crystal ball, to have visible muscles in her thighs and calves, more noticeable than in her arms: perhaps she did a lot of walking, as the castle's inhabitants had to. All those corridors and stairs kept most students and staff fit, though they must have been a penance for Professor Slughorn, who had carried too much weight for the ten years Severus had known him.
He kissed her, and drew her close against him, relishing the feel of her body, different from his, soft in enticing places, with a firmness under the tender flesh that he enjoyed. They were both too thin and would never be thought handsome, but he liked the look and feel of her very well, and she had seemed to be pleased by looking at him once she had his robes and undergarments off. Her warmth, her welcome, her pleasure, her confidence, made her far more attractive than he would ever have believed at that first meeting. And though Sybill was all too ready to whine softly and at length in the staff room, she was remarkably silent once she touched him with intent. She might be insecure as a seer, and as a novice teacher – and why not, she had no more training in it than he had, and lacked the analytical power to remedy that as he tried to do, though he still believed she could learn to observe and reason about that as about anything else – but she knew her own body, and knew how to learn his.
She was a good teacher, and he would pay the closest attention.
Now, at last, Sybill grew easy against him, her confidence returning as he continued to kiss her, and he was glad. She nudged against him, rubbing her breasts gently against the sparse hair around his nipples, running her hands along his shoulders and down his back, pressing them into his buttocks so that his erection, almost at full again, pushed against her little rounded belly. He gripped her arse and pulled her closer still, and her head tilted back, her mouth opened under his, and she was suddenly warm and confiding and complaisant against him.
What other secrets did Sybill hide, besides this delightful knowledge of intimacy he had never known before?
Teaching was everything Severus had feared, but he was resigned to that. He wasn't teaching for the love of it, or even for the love of his subject, absorbing though he found it. There were a few students in each class who were genuinely interested in Potions, and even some with commendable skill, to provide him relief from the dunderheads who endangered everyone around them with their negligence and wilful ignorance.
He demonstrated good practice as patiently as he could, but he also quashed insolence and corrected mistakes, concealing and learning from his own as best and as fast as he could. After a while he realised that he could, in fact, teach, or at least teach those who were prepared to pay attention.
The Potions classroom was such a dangerous environment, however, that controlling his students' actions quickly became his first priority. Not only were all the little bastards armed with a deadly weapon, and infused with adolescent whims and sulks that crippled their ability to think or to observe, but also they were handling toxic materials as freely as if they were inert mud. Fear – in some extreme cases mortal fear – seemed to work far better than inviting any sort of cooperative spirit. As for interest, it barely existed. Most just wanted to get out of the classroom as soon as possible.
It seemed natural to discuss the practice of teaching with Sybill as well as the preparation for it, after their summer of cooperation on her syllabus.
Sybill seemed to be getting a somewhat different range of reactions from her students. There were a very few who wanted to learn; many more who were credulous and eager to see wonders; and some who just sat like lumps as they did in every class. He suggested she ignore those, though he could not afford to. Her main problem was students who expressed open boredom, usually based on a disbelief far less conditional than his own. Of course Sybill could not inspire fear, and did not want to. She just wanted respect and attention. Poor woman.
At the end of the first week of term he was grateful to be invited to her rooms on the Saturday afternoon, to be given as much tea as he wanted to drink, to nibble on the little treats the house-elves provided, and to talk about something else entirely.
Sybill, though, wasn't eating, and seemed a little distracted.
He asked if she felt unwell. He wouldn't have been surprised if she were suffering from a surfeit of students, but she frowned slightly and murmured, "No. No, Severus. I thought I heard something –"
One of the good things about her tower retreat was how quiet it was. All one ever heard was the wind and the rain and the occasional passing owl headed for the Owlery. The sunlight flooded in as freely as the sounds of the weather. It was a calmer place even than his dungeon, where he was conscious of the nearness of the Slytherin common room and dormitories, though Vector was Head of Slytherin House in place of Slughorn, and they were no responsibility of his. Here he was on truly neutral ground and could relax.
So what had disturbed Sybill?
Her head turned; she seemed to be focussing on one of her family photographs, of a couple with a baby.
Then that stranger's voice spoke, the one that he had heard once before through that door in the Hog's Head Inn, the one he had never been able to induce from her before.
"If the friend sees the mother in the son, he will be kind, and betray him. If the enemy sees the father in the son, he will be hateful, and betray him. If the guide sees the son only, he will be watchful –"
Started and horrified, he sprang to her side to interrupt the harsh sounds of speech coming from stones grinding together.
At the touch of his hand to her shoulder, tentative though it was even in his haste, the voice ceased. Then Sybill was looking up at him, blinking in puzzlement.
"What's the matter, Severus?"
He swallowed. Tell her she had spoken? Repeat her words, confirm to her that she was a Seer? Or conceal them, and fret about their meaning? Oh Merlin, whose child was this, who was this friend or enemy or guide? He didn't believe in prophecy, or at least not that it laid down the future, but that sounded as if some poor bastard was fucked whatever he did.
No. Don't tell her. Think about it first. And certainly don't tell either Dumbledore or Voldemort.
Unsteadily he said, "I thought you were feeling faint – all the stress of the new term. You're all right now?"
"Yes, now – I must have been a little unwell after all, or maybe just terribly tired, to drift off like that."
He sat on the arm of her chair and put his arm around her shoulders; she cuddled into him with a sigh of content.
After a little while he commented, "It's been an exhausting week, not just for us who're new to it, I think. There's so much noise, and never a peaceful moment to relax in."
"Yes," she agreed, "but we have peace now." She gave him that welcoming smile that he knew well, by now. "Perhaps we should take advantage of it?"
He went with her willingly, grateful to be completely distracted.
It was much later that he was steady enough to be horrified at his interruption of the prophecy. Was that third term to have been a repetition of the first two, betrayal again, or was it to be a contrasting path of deliverance?
The prophecy was vague enough to apply to any couple with a son, and to some man who knew them, but a desperate voice in the back of his head kept screaming that Sybill had spoken of Lily, and Potter, and himself, and Lily's new son.
That night Severus went to bed with his first ever migraine, and in the morning, when it had passed off, started brewing a cure that would not affect his ability to think and observe and act. Nothing on Poppy's shelves relieved the pain and addressed its source without also dulling the faculties.
At the start of the next summer vacation the Headmaster reviewed their performance with his two newest teachers.
He commented critically on Severus's ferocious discipline, but did not argue with the Potions Master's contention that only that kept the students from carelessly injuring themselves or each other. There had also been a couple of attempts at deliberate maiming, but Severus had been able to protect the intended victims, and his disciplinary response had addressed the causes as well as the deeds. Dumbledore announced himself as satisfied, if not totally content. Severus managed to control the level of irony in his thanks.
Dumbledore had learned to be gentler with Sybill than he had been, initially, since making her weep was not productive. He confined himself to suggesting that since Divination was a talent, rather than a skill, her students should not expect to gain more than theoretical knowledge, and she certainly had no need to attempt fortune-telling on a daily basis, or to demand it. He suggested that if she wished to pursue that course with the later year students, she should begin to train them in the use of the Tarot cards.
"Dear lady, the proper use of the Tarot is not only in learning the layout, which is complex and difficult, and should give your students something to get their teeth into, far better than finding images in tea leaves. Even more complex, is interpretation of the cards that appear, and their order, and relationships. Is that not so?"
"Oh yes, Headmaster," Sybill replied. "Using the cards is hardly a skill for amateurs."
"Then the more reason you should teach them," Dumbledore responded promptly. "Divination is not a subject set – particularly as an elective for NEWT students – for their entertainment. They are students, not amateurs. In so far as it is a skill, they should be attempting to master it. You can teach them?"
Sybill bridled, which Dumbledore probably expected.
"Certainly I can! But I doubt if they have the talent – it requires true understanding –"
Dumbledore interrupted ruthlessly. "Arithmancy is a form of divination, in some circumstances: it is prediction, as well as manipulation of data. Septima Vector's better students certainly master that. The shifting interpretation of a Tarot layout, which depends on relationships and order, has a consistent basis, has it not?"
Sybill nodded helplessly.
"Then teach them," he directed, firmly enough to show that he would not tolerate protest.
He added, "I don't expect you to have many students who study carefully enough, and have sufficient intuition, to master the finest details, but you should be able to teach them the basics, so that they can produce simple but consistent readings for an individual. That is all I ask, Sybill. And it will keep them out of mischief, and prevent the sillier ones from thinking they can please you by inventing dreams to impress you."
That was the whole trouble, Severus thought ruefully. Sybill was so lacking in self-confidence that she tried to leap through hoops to impress her students, and encouraged them to claim similar marvels of prediction almost daily. Sybill and her more fanciful students were caught up in a spiral that demanded more of them as time went by, while her more intelligent or analytical students became disenchanted or disgusted, and did not learn even the skills she did have and could have shared with them.
By now he had seen Sybill reading tea leaves with a better-than-average degree of accuracy. It was always small stuff the patterns foretold, and its very triviality led her to see it as unimportant. Severus had been, however reluctantly, impressed by that statistical accuracy. He wondered how many of her students she had been able to teach to do as well. But teaching the use of the Tarot – that should, indeed, keep them all out of mischief. There would be no flights of fancy there, not with so much fine detail to juggle and to interpret consistently.
He had been sitting back, keeping out of Sybill's business even though the Headmaster had chosen to interview them together, but now he spoke up.
"Mightn't it be a good idea to start teaching that before students take their OWLs? The range of significances for each card, for example, is a substantial body of knowledge. At the very least, that would suggest to students that there is merit in continuing their study of Divination after completing OWLs; that there is something complex and rewarding to undertake – that there is advanced study, not simply further study."
"Yes," Dumbledore said thoughtfully, controlling a twinkle as he looked at Sybill's dismayed face. "Yes, Sybill. I should like a report in a month's time, if you please, on what it would be appropriate to include in the fourth and fifth year curricula that would provide a solid basis for detailed study of the use of the Tarot cards from sixth year."
He went on briskly, "We can discuss it, and decide what degree of preparation to implement, when school resumes in September, so that the students who acquire some competence in simpler modes of prediction in their first three years can work up to higher things."
There was more, but eventually Severus and Sybill were left alone in the staff room.
She turned on him, showing the sharp little white teeth that could nibble so delightfully, but which now looked as if she wanted to rip out his throat with them.
"Why did you say that, Severus? You know I don't want to teach the Tarot!"
"I know that now," he retorted. "What I still don't see is why. You've shown me you can use them well yourself, whether it's interpreting a full spread seriously, or using it for a little frivolous mood prediction – which I suspect isn't nearly as easy as you make it look."
After a short pause, she muttered, "They're treacherous." Looking at his blank face she added impatiently, furiously, "The cards. The Tarot. Especially the major arcana, and what else is the backbone of any prediction?"
"Treacherous? Come, Sybill, they're only cards, that you use; they don't have will or intention."
"Treacherous," she repeated flatly. "How often have I seen some card come up that totally contradicts the message I get from the rest?"
"Isn't that where the complexity of interpretation come in?"
"Oh yes, but it's not just that; I could handle that. But so often there's some sly thing that only later appears, to reverse everything I thought it meant."
Severus had thought that reversal was simply a physical state; that a card appearing upside down meant the reader should take a different significance from among those already inherent in that card's repertoire.
He said so.
"No, no," she answered, as fiercely as before. "There's that, of course one has to deal with a card reversed meaning something quite different. I just modify the overall interpretation to take account of it. The cards as they appear when dealt must all contribute to the interpretation. I'm saying that sometimes, there is an extra element which I only see afterwards, some one card that destabilises the whole interpretation."
Belligerently she added, "I am not just imagining this. I've kept records, for years, of each Tarot reading: the cards, their positions, what modifications I make and the final interpretation I give.
"I don't want to turn the cards loose on the students, Severus. It may lead to disaster."
That way of expressing her reservations persuaded Severus she was entirely serious, so he didn't say that he personally had managed to subvert a number of her predictions by taking thought and acting carefully. And if one did that, one might have done it anyway, and not brought about something undesirable by simple heedlessness. Sybill would have contended that without the prediction – whether made from a grouping of damp tea leaves or from a set of cards dealt onto a table – the remedial thought and action would not have occurred.
This new concern she had brought up, that the cards were capable of malicious sabotage, he thought only a fearful fancy arising from her lack of confidence in herself and in her skills. Damn whoever had yammered on to her about how wonderful her great-great-grandmother Cassandra had been, and how inferior she was. Her mother Pythia, perhaps, herself apparently quite devoid of the skills her daughter had a tenuous but real hold on.
Since it was clear that Sybill was going to have to start teaching the use of the Tarot cards, however much she distrusted them, Severus set himself to calming her fears by suggesting ways in which the free will of the cards might be limited – most of which were based on making sure her students had a good grasp of potential meanings, and ways of modifying interpretations according to what had been dealt.
Afterwards she invited him to her rooms, as she generally did when she needed consolation after an encounter with Dumbledore. By now Severus understood how to please and distract her, and took his own pleasure from what their bodies did together. She was not Lily, she could never be Lily, but he didn't want to feel like that about another woman, ever again. He was perfectly content to enjoy congenial and happy sex with Sybill, and to have her friendship and yes, her admiration, without venturing into that man-drowning sea of love and loss.
He would be even happier if he didn't feel as he did about Lily, still, but he had taught himself to think of her as little as possible. No doubt he would be teaching her son one day, and since the boy was also Potter's son it would assuredly be a trial, but that was a good ten years away. In the meantime, he had only to concentrate on assisting Dumbledore to impede Voldemort's designs. That was task enough, on top of teaching, appearing to spy for Voldemort, and, increasingly, making potions for both masters. Another excellent thing about going to bed with Sybill was that he always got a good night's sleep afterwards.
Autumn (Halloween) 1981
Lily was dead, oh God. How could Severus not have known that Dumbledore would break his promise of protection as easily as Voldemort would break his to spare her?
Dumbledore had used her death, too, to bind Severus to obedience. It couldn't have been enough to know that Severus had elected, by himself, to oppose Voldemort and support Dumbledore. No. The Headmaster wanted a slave as much as the Dark Lord did.
Not that Severus cared, now, what became of him, though he would still like to see Voldemort destroyed. Severus was in his proper place, a tool. Not a trusted man, who was entitled to life and love and respect for his principles, however late acquired.
But he could be a cunning tool, with a sharp edge, that struck true. He had promised to protect the boy – the baby, Lily's child. Potter's child too, but that was Severus's luck all over. He could do that. Do his penance, serve the wizarding world, keep her child alive and safe, and help Dumbledore to get rid of the monster who had wrecked everything he ever held of value. Whatever Dumbledore's faults (and in abandoning Lily to trap Severus, he had committed one as unforgivable as using Avada Kedavra on an innocent), at least the old devil would work to make sure that Sybill's prophecy became irrelevant. The world would not have to wait for a baby to grow up to become a hero, when Voldemort was opposed by a wizard of Dumbledore's calibre.
It was just as well no one had ever told Sybill about her prophecies, either that one she made for Voldemort, or the one she made for him. If she knew what she Saw, she might feel as he did, like a rat gripped in the jaws of an unkind fate. He wouldn't wish that on anyone. There was no need for her to discover that she too was merely Dumbledore's tool, a weapon aimed at the Dark Lord.
Severus got up, slowly, moving like a crippled man, and used his wand to light the fire. After that he crouched before it for most of the night, hearing voices, listing all the things he should have done instead of what he had done, cursing Dumbledore's cunning plans. Towards dawn he fell asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace. When he woke Lily was still dead, and Dumbledore still as much a monster as Voldemort, but one night had passed, as no doubt others would.
Perhaps later he could go to see Sybill and ask for the comfort she still might be able to give him. When he could force himself to look like a man again, and not yet another monster.
Coda June 1992
Even with Sybill's depressing prediction lodged unshakeably in his head, Severus had found it impossible this year to deal with Harry Potter as he would with other students. Lily's eyes in James Potter's face combined with the boy's graceless impudence and his constant running himself and others into danger. They destroyed Severus's self-control, his ability to step back and analyse, and everything but blind adherence to his promise to protect the boy. Dumbledore's blatant favouritism to Potter and his disregard of Severus didn't help.
He would be glad when it was over, when Dumbledore had despatched Voldemort to the hell he belonged in, and Severus could embrace his own end. Or just walk away and be forgotten; that would be acceptable. Even Sybill would forget him soon enough.
Coda June 1997
Sybill decided she really must get rid of those sherry bottles. Severus never liked seeing them, and kept trying to persuade her she didn't need the sherry to get through the days, even now that Dumbledore forced her to share teaching Divination with the centaur. Perhaps she could abstain for a short while, and invite Severus to her rooms when the sweet aroma had dispersed. He would be happy if he thought she'd stopped, though really, the sherry didn't impede her abilities at all.
Just to prove that, she took out the Tarot pack, shuffled, and dealt out the cards. She refrained from entertaining any question in her mind, though the thought of Severus and the comfort he gave her lingered. If one did not question, the cards sometimes spoke most interestingly.
Then she scowled at the cards in their traditional layout. Far too many spades, all with an evil burden: the two, the seven, the ten, and even the knave. She was tired of the way they kept cluttering up the spread. And, once again, as so often lately, the lightning-struck tower, the herald of disaster. The damned cards were stuck, as if some dire event loomed, through whose shadow no other prediction could force itself.
Disgusted, she pushed the cards aside and reached for the last bottle with anything in it. She just remembered to be a lady and pour it into her water glass, as her mother would have insisted, instead of drinking from the neck of the bottle. Practically a full glass: that would make her feel better.
She could get rid of those useless empties, and decide when she would invite Severus. She should keep the windows wide open for the rest of the week, and use some air-freshening charms, too; Severus was not fond of the scent of incense, and it certainly couldn't mask the smell of sherry from his nose. Her rooms would have to be completely clean and fresh. By this weekend, when they had no teaching or supervisory duties, she should be able to coax him to join her here, and he would relax, and not nag, and it would be sweet to be with him, as it had been from the beginning.
Perhaps afterwards she could tell him about the repetition in the cards; he might be able to suggest some ways of clearing the blockage. For someone who really didn't believe in the truth of divination, Severus had useful ideas.
End notes The date Severus Snape started teaching is disputable (anywhere from the 1979-80 school year to the 1981-1982 school year is possible, working from references in canon*, but it must be before Lily was killed – 31 October 1981). For my convenience I've made it the same as when Sybill Trelawney started: 1 September 1980.
* as most usefully compiled by Chris Hare here, with a lot of stuff you don't find in the Lexicon
Sybill's Tarot layout partly described in the 1997 Coda is taken straight from canon; Harry hears her talking about the cards in HBP Ch 10 The House of Gaunt and HBP Ch 25 The Seer Overheard.