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Learning to Deceive

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Summary: The Order of the Phoenix wants allies. The Council wants answers. The Ministry wants them both to stop rocking the boat. So what does Willow want? Mostly to make it through all of this alive. WR/SS

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Harry Potter > Willow-Centered > Pairing: Severus SnapeWeyrWolfenFR1820101,86384339102,75615 Feb 0827 Apr 12No

Chapter Twenty

Severus continued to stare blankly at the fireplace in his office, even as Professor Rosenberg made her hasty retreat. What had he been thinking? Had he been thinking? And yet, she had not initially seemed wholly adverse to… What? In truth, he had done nothing to cause her to react with aversion. But his thoughts had been unforgivable. Unacceptable. And yet…

As rattled as Severus was, certain things suddenly seemed a great deal clearer.

Willow Rosenberg was far more intelligent, powerful, and yes, dangerous than anyone, including Albus, had expected. She was also mercurial, overly sentimental, prone to annoying tangents about frivolous minutiae, and trusting to a fault.

And Severus would kill anyone who attempted to harm her.

He distinctly remembered feeling this all-encompassing protective, possessive instinct exactly once previously in his life. He had been an idiot to not recognize it before now.

Lily.

It felt like a betrayal, even thinking about her in the past tense. At a young and bitter twenty, the pain still fresh from her death, his self-imposed punishment of dying alone, preferably as miserable and universally reviled as possible, had seemed a fitting penance. At thirty-five, the last part of that plan had seemed well in hand; most everyone disliked him to one extent or another. However, when Professor Rosenberg had asked why he had abruptly switched sides during the last war, the searing edge of the memory had not come. It still ached with loss and guilt, he was sure it always would, but now it was the dull pull of an old wound.

Severus had been brutally honest before, he could not have cared even one drop less what Professor Rosenberg’s past sins were. It was not that he doubted their severity. The coldly murderous expression on her face, for example, the evening Umbridge had attempted to humiliate her at the Welcome Banquet, had certainly taken on greater shades of meaning. To say that he was not curious about her past would have been a flagrant lie, but Severus could think of no scenario which would truly sway him now. And he had an excellent imagination. No one offered second chances without caveat or price, at least not to Severus Snape. No one except a wandless Council witch who insisted on wearing muggle clothes when she lectured and who apparently understood the darker side of magic better than he would have guessed.

However, she was supposed to be bait. An ally for the Order and a source of valuable information, yes, those as well, but first and foremost she was a lure for the Dark Lord.

She was supposed to hate Severus.

How was he supposed to calmly dangle her before the wolves when the mere idea of it made him want to kill things with his bare hands?

“Might I ask why you are so thoroughly inspecting your mantelpiece?”

Severus started badly, jerking to face the door of his office. He had not heard Albus enter, so preoccupied he had been with his thoughts. “I will give you that the stonework is impressive, if a bit grim for my tastes,” the Headmaster continued, pleasantly neutral voice blatantly fishing.

“The stonework suits me,” Severus replied mulishly, still deeply unsettled and angry at himself for letting Albus catch him unaware.

“So it does,” Albus agreed in the same tone of voice. “I will take the direct route then. Why is it that when I happened across Professor Rosenberg leaving your office, she responded to my presence with a similar level of defiant belligerence to that you are currently displaying?”

“You did not simply ‘happen across’ her,” Severus accused, eyes narrow. He was convinced that at least half of the Headmaster’s meddling and prying had less to do with gathering tactically crucial information and more to do with amassing fodder for gossip.

“Now Severus-” Albus started to say placatingly, but Severus interrupted.

“I only rarely grasp inklings of what goes through that woman’s head. Why not ask her?” he snapped.

“One does not reach my venerable age by lacking a certain instinct for self-preservation,” Albus said with a small smile. “She looked fit to duel me in the hallways if I had asked her of anything more pressing than the state of the weather.”

Severus’ expression took on a nasty cast. “Are you concerned that you might have lost?” he asked, snidely attempting to derail the conversation by being as obnoxious as possible.

“My, that would be embarrassing,” Albus said. He looked critically at the chair which Professor Rosenberg had dragged around the desk, then gestured towards it. The piece of furniture danced about and scooted into its former position, at which point Albus sat it in, fastidiously arranging his robes around him. “They might even suspend printing of my Chocolate Frog card if that were to happen.”

The message was quite clear. Albus was not going to leave until he had some form of answer which appeased him. “I gave her my copy of the aurors’ reports,” Severus finally said, relenting somewhat in the face of a fight he was not going to win.

Albus’ eyes sharpened with interest. “And?” he prompted, leaning forward and lacing his bony fingers together.

“And she indicated that it will not affect her ability to work alongside me,” Severus said, selectively sampling the truth. Still, it was not a lie, and he had told Professor Rosenberg he would keep her secret. As for the other aspects of their latest meeting, he needed time to think, to dissect the event, and to monitor its aftereffects.

And frankly, some matters simply were none of the Headmaster’s bloody business.

Albus nodded, a small, insufferably smug smile on his face. “You see?” he said. “Nothing has changed.” Despite his obvious complacency, a hint of a question remained in his voice.

Something had changed, on a very fundamental level. Still, Severus persisted in thin-lipped reticence. “That remains to be seen.”

Albus’ eyebrows crept slightly upward. “Well, give her a chance to make good on her words. You seem to rather enjoy bickering with her. I do hope things work out.”

The words struck Severus as subtly out of place, placing him abruptly on the defensive. “What are you implying?” his voice cracked like a whip.

“Why, nothing,” Albus said, imperturbably. “Should I be?” He could suspect and insinuate whatever he liked, he would get no solid confirmation from Severus. For once, Albus let the matter slide and changed the subject. “I actually stopped by to inform you that Argus came to my office this morning. Apparently he was feeling rather guilty, because Professor Umbridge has enlisted his help to spy on Professor Rosenberg.”

Of course he had, Argus had spent their class period trailing along behind her like a puppy. And, ah yes, Severus felt the sharp rise of one of his previously inexplicable flares of jealous anger. Over Argus Filch. How deeply pathetic, Merlin burn it all.

Severus sighed, tamping down his irritation and filing away his other troubles for later consideration. Left unaddressed, the Headmaster would resort to increasingly tedious teasing and word games in order to drive Severus back to the matter at hand. And Albus would be correct to do so. They did, after all, need to keep their complex web of truths, half-truths, and outright lies in order. “Tell me what I need to know…”

~*~*~*~

“So, uh… Thanks for the tea ball,” Professor Rosenberg said, loitering around the shelves to the right of Severus’ office door. “I’ll get it back to you this evening.”

Severus, who had remained seated behind his desk throughout this latest interruption, briefly looked up from his grade ledger. “Do not bother. I keep several for brewing decoctions and infusions,” he said, turning back to his notations with an even hand, even though the trajectory of his thoughts kept leading him further and further onto unsteady ground.

Professor Rosenberg was behaving differently towards him, though not in any of the ways he had come to expect. She was not overtly fearful or disdainful of him. She still made badly concealed faces at him over Umbridge’s behavior during meals. She still visited his office uninvited and unannounced to borrow reagents and discuss class matters with him. To outsiders, it would seem that their interactions had not changed in the slightest.

They would be wrong.

Professor Rosenberg made a slight face. “What was the last thing you made with it? It wasn’t, you know, anything particularly nasty?” she asked, eyeing the tea infuser critically.

Severus continued to write, but his lips thinned as he smothered a brief flare of irate indignation. He had carefully selected the infuser in her hand, taking a number of variables into account, including past use. “I assure you that it is immaculately clean.”

She was surreptitiously testing the waters between them, that much had become plain. She had seemed so careful of him at first that he had initially assumed it was the first stages of distancing herself from him. However, as the day had dragged on, it had become apparent that she was not going to leave him be for two consecutive hours. She was constantly poking her nose into his office or the Potions classroom, seeking him out in the hallways, with thinly veiled excuses to check in on him.

First it had been the quartz crystal she needed to borrow. (Hers was apparently still hanging around Argus’ throat.) Then she had wanted to show him a list of students she thought gifted enough to benefit from wandless magic lessons. When he had noted that Draco would most likely balk at such a suggestion, she had not shied away from wheedling a promise out of him that he would say something to the boy. (He had not the faintest idea what. However, he had until the following evening to find something suitably tailored to meet his multiple obligations.) Then it had been to tell him that, due to a personal matter, her slayer friend now wanted to give her guest lecture in their class much earlier than expected. (Wednesday, not that it mattered one whit to Severus. Professor Rosenberg could do with her lecture days as she pleased.) Then, she had requested a copy of his first year Potions textbook. Then, she had returned it, saying she had found a copy in the library. Then she wanted to know if the tea in the staff lounge was communal. Now she needed a tea infuser. The litany of interruptions seemed unending.

“I just… Okay, so I get that dirty equipment equals contaminated potions,” Professor Rosenberg said, looking and sounding slightly embarrassed. “Which can lead to explosions, and trippy hallucinations, and bad, stinky fumes. So, no duh, your stuff is spotless. It’s just, well, the thought of it…” she trailed off, expression warring between apologetic and still faintly disgusted.

Severus dipped his quill in his inkpot, and continued writing for a moment before responding. His first compulsion was to tell her that the infuser in her hand had last been used to create a distillation of ghoul lymph. “I typically use that one for Darjeeling,” he said, instead settling on the truth.

He was as guilty as her. Any day previous, he would have snapped at her for constantly disturbing his work. Instead, the lines of worry and confusion which seemed to constantly crease her forehead convinced him to hold his tongue. She was being solicitous, if roundabout and hesitant about it. He was ruthlessly curbing his temper, as if the slightest of sharp words from him would shatter her.

They were both being ridiculous.

He was not so fragile, and neither, apparently, was she.

“Oh,” Professor Rosenberg said sheepishly. “So, this is your actual ‘tea’ tea ball?”

Severus looked up from his ledger long enough to raise a single eyebrow before turning the page and making another quick notation. “Yes.”

“And I’m the rudest person in the history of ever for even asking?” she said, a small, teasing smile growing on her face.

“It is a distinct possibility,” Severus said, the urge to needle her temporarily overriding the even neutrality he had been attempting to cultivate.

Even without the use of his Legilimency to provide more concrete proof, Severus was no fool. It was obvious that his… slip had not gone unnoticed by Professor Rosenberg. Her feelings on the matter were less easy to ascertain. The only reasonable course of action Severus could see was to watch, and wait, and attempt to not further unbalance the situation with sarcasm, rash demonstrations of temper, or other messy emotions. Better to see where the rune stones fell. Additionally, maintaining a detached, aloof mien was giving him the opportunity to mend the tattered edges of his dignity. It also enabled him to react with equanimity whenever Professor Rosenberg invariably succumbed to whatever internal struggle she was having and descended into flustered babbling.

Currently, for example.

“So… tea,” Professor Rosenberg said. “With Minerva. In the staff lounge.” Severus looked up to find her staring at him oddly. If pressed to speculate, he would have said that she seemed more confused than anything, which made next-to-no sense.

Unwilling to press the matter, Severus offered her an easy escape. “She particularly detests tardiness,” he said, tone once again even and neutral.

“Right,” she said, looking down at the tea infuser in her hands. “And, thanks. You know, again.”

She slipped out of the door, leaving Severus alone once again. He had the most irrational desire to chase after her. To do what, he could not have said.

Still, Severus had long practiced maintaining focus and restraint under significantly more trying conditions, and at the moment, he had no time for such nonsense. There was grading to complete, an afternoon’s worth of students who were not going to police themselves, and by his calculations, at least two more interruptions from Professor Rosenberg before dinner.

In the end, she managed three.

~*~*~*~

The students were starting to arrive for Applied Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professor Rosenberg was already inside the classroom, spreading out her chaos in the back row of desks. Her need for so much paper and so many differently hued writing implements defied rational explanation. Severus himself was lurking outside of the doorway, waiting for one student in particular.

He did not have long to wait. “Mr. Malfoy, a word,” Severus said, as Draco and his two hulking shadows turned the corner and came into view.

The hierarchy among his students would have been amusing, if not for the way it often echoed the politics among their parents. Draco ordered Vincent and Gregory into the classroom with a casually dismissive word, and the two hastened to obey. Like fathers, like sons.

If Draco was surprised or alarmed by the summons, he did not show it, even when Severus turned and walked a short distance down the hallway, giving it all an air of secrecy. Considering that Severus thought he had caught a glimpse of Draco placing something in Longbottom’s cauldron prior to the… incident during fifth year Potions that morning, the convincing mask of nonchalance was somewhat impressive.

Severus eyed Draco critically for a moment when they reached an acceptable distance from the main corridor. “Professor Rosenberg is going to invite you to take wandless magic lessons with a select group of other students,” he finally said, watching closely to gage the reaction his words invoked.

Unfortunately, he had been correct in all his predictions. Draco’s angular features twisted in haughty disdain. “As if I would want to learn muggle tricks from her,” he said, but the initial, venomous hatred in his voice tapered away in uncertainty at Severus’ scowl of disapproval.

Salazar had to be rolling in his grave. Ravenclaws might amass knowledge for its own sake, but any Slytherin worth his wand should know that knowledge was also power. “Have you forgotten already why you enrolled in this class in the first place?” Severus asked coldly.

Draco’s feigned innocence was less convincing this time, given that the tips of his ears were turning slightly pink. “I’m taking it because you’re one of the teachers.”

Defensive flattery. At least the boy was not completely devoid of guile. “No, you enrolled because your father suggested that you might use the opportunity to gather information on Professor Rosenberg for him. In order to curry favor with a certain individual of great political power.”

And now Draco was turning a bit grey. His eyes darted around, no doubt attempting to determine if anyone had overheard them. In truth, Severus would have almost preferred that this conversation be overheard, if only to add a little more fabricated grist to the rumor mill, but at least the façade of appearances had to be maintained. “And what of it?” Draco asked, belligerence covering his rising fear. That was most interesting; Severus would have predicted defensive boasting at this point in the conversation. Fear, however, was far more sensible, and perhaps Draco was not as blindly dedicated to Lucius’ beliefs as Severus had assumed.

“Nothing. All I am suggesting is that your father would surely be pleased with your… initiative, if you were to accept her offer,” Severus said, slightly annoyed that he needed to spell it all out like this.

Draco at least appeared to be considering the words. That was the best Severus could do. He had dispensed with his promise to Professor Rosenberg, and in a manner which he could spin into a beneficial report to the Dark Lord. With any luck, she would manage to beat something worthwhile into the boy’s narrow skull. A seed of doubt might be too much to ask, but anything not perfectly aligned with the Death Easters’ worldview would be useful.

“What do you get out of it?” Draco asked, showing more insight that Severus would have previously credited to him. Then again, Malfoy Manor had always been a pit of intrigue – socially, politically, or otherwise. It would have been nigh on impossible for him to have learned nothing in that kind of environment.

Severus’ thin smile was anything but pleasant. “I take care of my own,” he said, and dear Merlin, he did try, impossible as the situation was. With a slight nod, he left Draco to his thoughts.

When Severus neared the classroom door, he found Potter, Weasley-the-younger, and Granger huddled together in a side hallway, trying to look like the very embodiment of inconspicuousness. So he had been overheard. The loathing and suspicion in Potter’s eyes was particularly ill-concealed. Good. Despite Professor Rosenberg’s uncomfortably on-point attempts to persuade him otherwise, Severus knew he deserved every ounce of Potter’s hate at the very least, even if the boy could never know the specifics of why. Directly or indirectly, the Potters’ blood was on Severus’ hands, and it often seemed like that blood was all Severus could see when he looked at The Boy Who Lived – a walking, talking reminder of his failure and betrayal.

“I believe the three of you have class,” Severus said, eyes narrowing.

Draco took that moment to scurry behind Severus with a hate-filled glance of his own for the trio from Gryffindor. That brief byplay, more than Severus’ glare, seemed to galvanize them to follow suit and head into the classroom as well. Severus fell in behind, slamming the door upon entering in lieu of grinding his teeth.

“Today’s lesson will cover protective shields and barriers,” he said, stalking to the front of the classroom while the students shuffled desperately to produce paper and quills for notes. “Reactive shields are typically cast in direct response to a specific, immediate threat. Proactive shields are usually cast as a preventative measure against some predicted threat. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?”

Granger, who still was not quite settled, still managed to raise her hand even as she decanted the contents of her bag one-handed onto her desk. Severus knew that many of the other students were perfectly capable of answering his question, particularly the older ones. They simply preferred to avoid his attention whenever possible. Such cowardice irked him profoundly. His immediate instinct was to snap at them.

However, Professor Rosenberg was sitting up in her corner, scribbling away in her myriad inks. The students’ opinions of him mattered not in the slightest, but hers? Cursing himself for that weakness, Severus said, begrudgingly, “Yes, Miss Granger?”

Granger, who had finally settled in her desk, launched into a response. “Well, reactive shields are typically small, which makes them more mobile, but they are also weaker than proactive ones…”

~*~*~*~

The assignment had been fairly straightforward. Shield a folded piece of paper against a physical and a fire-based attack. Most all of the students seemed quite capable of protecting their paper pyramids from a dropped textbook. However, half of their shields melted under even the weakest of fire charms. Even the threat of Professor Rosenberg’s potential disapproval could rein in Severus only so much.

“You will write twelve inches on the modes of and methodology behind fireproofing spells, to be handed in at the start of class this Friday,” Severus said, glaring at the smoldering piles of ashes scattered on desks around the room. “You will also practice said spells on your reports. If they can survive for ten minutes in my fireplace, I will deign to grade them.” He swept the room with a disgusted scowl, almost daring anyone to voice a complaint. None dared. “Now, I believe that Professor Rosenberg has a number of announcements to make.”

She had left her pile of note-taking detritus in the back of the room and had once again been offering guidance to the students during the class. He had also noted her covertly testing their new additions (they had gained one Ravenclaw and lost one groundskeeper today) with his loaned crystal. He wondered absently, as she rose from her new perch on the front row to address the class, if there would be any last second additions to the list she had shown him previously.

“So, my friend Buffy is coming in tomorrow night, and she and I will be tag-teaming class on Wednesday,” Professor Rosenberg said. She seemed to become more comfortable and confident with each passing class. “She’s a slayer, so come prepared with questions about that and expect that we might be getting physical during class. That means wear something you won’t mind getting grass stains on. Oh, and skirts? Probably not the best idea. Just saying.”

That earned a few scattered snickers, which prompted a narrow-eyed glare from Severus even though Professor Rosenberg just smiled and did not seem to mind.

“Okay, thing two,” she said, once everyone settled back down. “Could the following students stay after class for just a second? Before anyone freaks, no one is in trouble. I just want to get some feedback on something. Okay,” she produced a scrap of paper from somewhere in her long, clinging skirt and read from it, “Davies, Granger, Longbottom, Macmillan, Malfoy, Miller, Potter. That’s it, see the rest of you Wednesday.”

No new prospects then. It was still to be an interesting, if volatile, mix: three Gryffindors, two Ravenclaws, one Hufflepuff, one Slytherin, and, presumably, one currently absent squib. Severus wondered if Professor Rosenberg really knew what she was getting into.

The rest of the class was starting to file out, leaving the small group Professor Rosenberg had named. She waved them down to gather around her on the front row. Draco looked pale and grim, as if he had just been summoned to his own execution. Granger and Potter were exchanging conspiratorial glances, while Longbottom just looked terrified. Miller, Davies, and Macmillan were just curious, if a little confused. Severus hung to one side of the classroom, close enough to overhear, but far enough away to provide some semblance of privacy.

“Right, so, you guys probably saw me wandering around with this?” she held up Severus’ crystal, which was glowing brightly between her thumb and index finger. “It’s one of the ways I can figure out when people have the potential to learn wandless magic. Obviously from my last lesson, everybody in class can learn the basics, but I wanted to talk to you guys because you all really have the gift.” Even Draco, who had been made privy to this offer beforehand, looked a little surprised by her candid compliment. “I can teach you, but before I start bothering the Headmaster about times and classrooms and stuff, I wanted to see if you guys were actually interested.”

Severus noted that she was biting her lip, a definitive sign that she was nervous they were going to reject her offer. She cared far too much about others’ opinions.

He was a fine one to criticize.

“I’m in,” Draco said, sounding as unenthusiastic as was humanly possible. Still, he had taken Severus’ advice.

Potter and Granger exchanged glances. “Us too,” she said, and he nodded.

“Okay,” Professor Rosenberg said, smiling. Severus suppressed a sigh. She seemed so heartened, but he felt obligated to tell her the real reason why those three had agreed so quickly.

Longbottom was fidgeting nervously, but eventually asked, “Will it be hard?”

Professor Rosenberg gave him her most encouraging look and said, “It shouldn’t be any harder than wand magic, just a little different.”

After more hand wringing, Longbottom seemed to surprise even himself by saying, “Okay, I’ll try it.”

Davies expressed cautious interest as well, once Professor Rosenberg explained that this would be strictly extracurricular, and would not affect his grade in any way.

Macmillan spoke quite a bit, but all his hot air condensed into the fact that he felt he should ask his parents’ opinion before deciding. Miller’s answer was the same in spirit, if not in duration.

If any of those responses disappointed Professor Rosenberg, she hid it well. “No, that’s fine. I totally understand. Just let me know when you decide, one way or the other, and I’ll get to work finding us somewhere to meet,” she said, cheerfully. “And I’ll need schedules, so we can figure out a time that works for everybody.” And with that, she shooed them out, leaving the classroom to Severus and her.

After the noise in the hallway died down, Professor Rosenberg looked at him, wide smile settling into a smaller, more sardonic slant. “Wow, so I know I asked you to talk to Draco, but what on Earth did you say to him?”

Severus should have known. With her uncanny knack for reading even him, it would have been impossible for her to miss Draco’s true feelings on the subject. “It was something along the lines of ‘Know your enemy,’” Severus said, pausing a moment to weigh her reaction before continuing. She seemed unperturbed. “Also, I suspect Potter, Granger, and Weasley overheard the conversation.”

Professor Rosenberg did not seem terribly upset by his subterfuge. She did grimace slightly, but her smile returned quickly. “Well, whatever works. I’ll just have to win them over for real with my wiley wandless ways. You’ve read Sun Tzu?” she asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Severus looked at her blankly. “No.”

She looked slightly confused. “The Art of War?” she asked, apparently elaborating on her previous question. Severus just glowered at the insinuation that he should have heard of such a thing. “Sorry, it’s just that you semi-quoted it there. I guess it’s only about non-magical military tactics, so I shouldn’t have assumed,” she said with a shrug. “We make all the older slayers read it.”

Once he decided that she was not poking fun of him somehow, Severus considered her words with passing interest. The title, assuming it was a true reflection of the book’s contents, was certainly evocative.

“Not that you need to, I think you’ve got the whole misdirection and adaptation thing down,” she said with another lopsided smile. Severus looked at her cautiously out of the corner of his eye. That was possibly a compliment, and a very Slytherin one at that. “Speaking of which, do you actually plan assignments for your classes, or do you just wait until someone pisses you off and then wing it?”

And that was most certainly teasing. “Both,” he finally said, biting back a sharper retort. Perish the thought that flagrant incompetence should result in punitive class assignments.

Professor Rosenberg’s quiet sniff was somewhere between a snicker and a snort, but her amused expression faded slightly and the worry-lines reappeared on her brow. “So, I guess I’m done with this,” she said, holding up his quartz crystal and offering it back to him. It glowed brightly.

Severus hesitated. “Additional students may yet join the class,” he said, folding his arms and concealing his hands in the sleeves of his robes. “And I have more.”

“I feel like I’m running off with all your stuff,” she said, half-jokingly, dropping her proffered hand.

Severus gave her a slightly sardonic look. “A device for brewing tea and a piece of common crystal hardly constitute ‘all’ of my belongings.” It was a calculated jab, evenly stated and said without the slightest hint of malice.

She just smiled, a little sheepishly perhaps, but at least this time his cautious verbal sparring was not met with an awkward prelude to flight. “So, dinner?”

The small fraction of the brittle coldness Severus had been maintaining like a shield thawed. He allowed himself the faintest of smiles in return and gestured for her to precede him up the stairs, waiting patiently while she packed her myriad belongings into her bag. For once, the sour expression he wore on their walk to the Great Hall was completely fabricated.

~*~*~*~

The full weight of Severus’ current predicament settled back onto his shoulders when he returned to his office after the evening meal. He needed to write a letter to Lucius, explaining Draco’s inclusion in Professor Rosenberg’s wandless class and Severus’ own suggestion that her invitation be accepted. To do otherwise would seem out of character and would raise unwelcome suspicions.

Additionally, a similar report needed to be made to the Dark Lord, lest Lucius seize on the opportunity and attempt to claim credit first. It would not do to allow that either. Not now, when the Dark Lord was only months returned, and jockeying for his favor and rank among the Death Eaters’ depleted ranks was as high as it ever had been. Severus could not afford to allow any chance to solidify his position pass. He knew he was valuable to the Death Eaters, his placement at Albus’ side guaranteed that, but he was not directly under the Dark Lord’s nose, bowing and scraping at every opportunity. He had to remain vigilant, and maintain his reputation for providing seemingly accurate information to the Dark Lord, so that when Albus required a particularly important piece of misinformation to be sent along, it would be accepted without question.

And yet, the two pieces of parchment he had placed on his desk remained damningly pristine, and his quill still hovered near his inkpot, dry and unused.

Finally, Severus carefully placed his quill back on its stand and rose to obtain a potion to quell the acid which was burning the back of his throat. His hand shook when he unlatched the cabinet door and reached for the phial, anger and the first stirrings of desperation eroding his carefully maintained control. The cool, blue elixir temporarily soothed his rebelling stomach, if not his mind.

It did not take deep levels of introspection to determine the source of his paralysis. The situation felt all too familiar, as if history was attempting to repeat itself.

The present circumstances were different though. Professor Rosenberg was here at Hogwarts, under Albus’ direct protection, not in a family home guarded by an untrustworthy secret keeper. She had direct and extensive training in fighting all varieties of dark forces, and the power to back up that expertise, not simply natural talent supported by a standard student’s education and a scant few years of desperate experience.

Severus was not about to write the report which would lead to Professor Rosenberg’s death. He was not. He would not allow such failure to happen twice.

The empty phial smashed against the door of his office, sending shards of leaded glass in all directions. Severus ground his teeth, forcing his shallow, ragged breaths back into a more even tempo. He had to write those letters. He had to. He had no other choice.

It took a supreme effort of will to return to his chair instead of grabbing another jar and dashing it into the door as well. He loathed feeling cornered. Apparently he particularly loathed feeling cornered where Professor Rosenberg’s safety was concerned.

Severus sat and placed both hands, palm down, on the surface of his desk. He had to maintain at least a semblance of calm to write these letters. A scattered, unfocused report would be nearly as bad as no report at all. He needed to concentrate.

Severus picked up his quill a few minutes later. His hand was steady, and his words carefully chosen, even though the mere sound of his quill scratching out the letters felt like nails down a chalkboard. He had performed worse tasks in the Order’s name before, had continued to function even when the words leaving his mouth and the spells from his wand made what must pass for the remnants of his conscience shrivel. He had the discipline to write two simple letters.

Professor Rosenberg is not Lily Evans.

When the second letter was complete, Severus signed his name to it, dried the nib of his quill, and returned it to its stand. Severus allowed a moment more for the ink to dry thoroughly, and then he rose stiffly and left his office, parchment in hand.

This time, things will be different.

Albus would be awake for hours yet. Assuming the time it would take for him to review the letters, Severus could still have them warded and up to the Owlery well before midnight.

I will make sure of it.

The End?

You have reached the end of "Learning to Deceive" – so far. This story is incomplete and the last chapter was posted on 27 Apr 12.

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