All Characters are property of J.K Rowling and the Harry P.otter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
Severus Snape stared at his reflection in the full-length looking glass leaning against his bedroom wall. Freshly showered and shaved, he stood before the silver surface of the framed mirror while his damp hair dripped water down his back and onto the floor, his eyes taking inventory of every single flaw. The hot water had tinged his skin a false youthful pinkish hue, temporarily hiding the scars that pockmarked his neck and chest, and for a moment Severus almost looked like a normal human being.
Or at least like a former version of himself—if he squinted.
The person staring back at him was a long-lost persona of sorts that his subconscious hardly ever allowed to rise from the pit to which it had been banished years ago. Considerably thinner now, and with neck and back pain that treaded the knife's edge of becoming chronic, Severus knew he was hardly the person he used to be both in a physical and mental sense, but he still, on occasion, found himself imagining what it might have been like had events played out differently.
What events, he did not know specifically. There were really too many to name, but that still did not prevent his mind from meandering through places it had no real business going. Severus wondered, as he examined the new black trousers that sat loosely about his hips, if he would have resumed his duties as Head of Slytherin House and Potions Master had he somehow eluded the snake and the Dark Lord. Would the true Board of Governors, finally released from a Dark Lord-controlled Ministry, have gone a step further and reinstated him as Headmaster? Or would the Fates still have led him right where he was, damaged and with no real direction, judging his reflection and his decision to return to Hogwarts on his own accord with ill-hidden contempt?
Not that I would have wanted to walk back to any of it, he thought, and pulled a white cotton T-shirt over his head. Deep down he knew that was the truth.
The Governors could have doubled his salary, even offered him ample time to go on compensated sabbaticals, free from pubescent idiots and officious colleagues, and he still would have declined whatever position they were offering without a moment of thought. He was not suited for it - had never been suited for it, really.
And yet, despite his misgivings, there was something he missed about Hogwarts, though what it was could have been anyone's guess.
Severus rubbed the bridge of his nose as he turned for the wardrobe that stood along the opposite wall. The effect of having lain awake most of the night before and waking much earlier than he would have liked made his head feel hazy. He hesitated once he reached the wardrobe, his hand sitting heavily on the latch. Severus was tired and annoyed with himself, more specifically the apprehensive knot in his stomach that was becoming harder to ignore eleven thirty and his appointment with Minerva drew nearer.
As intensely as he now wished that he had never agreed to help Minerva McGonagall, he could not come up with a way to get himself out of the situation. In the most practical of his many fantasies Hermione Granger would realise she had taken on something she had no business attempting, and his offer to assist would be forgotten just as her desire for a N.E.W.T. certification in Potions. In the same thought, in an unfortunate moment of clarity, he remembered who it was he was dealing with and the happy notion was vaporized on the spot.
Stop being ridiculous, he told himself, and opened the wardrobe door with a little more force than was strictly necessary.
The new clothing order from Twilfitt and Tatting's had been delivered the day before, along with the hefty fee for delivery and in-home alterations—a service he had previously dismissed as extravagant until he found the thought of setting foot in Diagon Alley nauseating. The fitting left him short-tempered and his Gringotts account several Galleons short, but he had managed to acquire an entirely new wardrobe that he desperately needed. The precisely-tailored shirts and jackets still bore the tags advertising the self-ironing and self-repairing qualities with which they had been bewitched. He picked an understated grey shirt with a sharp collar and simple silver cufflinks and a matching grey jacket with very pale Glen plaid detailing. He dressed in silence, refusing to look at the mirror until he had finished.
With the top button on the jacket securely fastened, Severus tore off the tags at the cuffs and stuffed them into his trouser pockets, feeling pathetically relieved to have made it that far. That sentiment soon vanished when he turned around to look at his reflection. Even with the multiple layers, he felt oddly exposed. Severus craned his neck to the left and then to the right, watching closely to see if the scar hidden beneath his collar or the brand on his wrist became visible with each movement. After several minutes of bending this way and moving that way, he left the room dissatisfied and in search of his Silhouette portrait.
The darkened portrait was on the cushion of the sofa where he had left it the previous night. He glanced at the clock above the fireplace before he picked up the frame and knew Adelaide Harlowe had started her day almost two hours prior if she kept to the scheduled she claimed.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," Severus said to nobody. Then he thought of Adelaide, and the double spiral marring his left wrist began to grow hot and hurt. The portrait came to life, a dim light flooding its center and leaching slowly outward toward the edges of the frame, but the image he saw was indistinguishable, like the screen of a Muggle television that was slightly out of tune.
Severus frowned, and without a better idea gave the frame a firm shake for good measure. "Miss Harlowe?"
"Just a minute, Mister Snape," Adelaide replied, though her voice was just as distorted as the image he was seeing. Severus listened carefully, the sounds of several voices and crowd noise becoming clearer. The noise faded away just as quickly, and then, without proper warning, bright sunlight exploded throughout the portrait and the image became clear. Adelaide Harlowe's face came into focus, but her face was framed by a dark, irregular outline that reminded Severus of panels of fabric…
"Do you have me in your handbag?" Severus demanded, sounding scandalized.
"You're in a rucksack, actually," Adelaide whispered. She was trying very hard to remain inconspicuous, he realised. "And I can't very well carry a picture frame around in my hands every time I go out. That's not very subtle."
"If you're busy—"
"I'm just running a few errands," Adelaide said quickly, her eyes darting to something he could not see out of frame. The sound of an unknown voice came and went, and Adelaide said something to the nameless stranger Severus could not make out.
"Miss Harlowe, really—"
"If you keep quiet for a moment longer I can slip into the loo and we can have a proper conversation."
A public loo, especially one designated for the opposite sex, was not what Severus had in mind as a place for civilized conversation, but before he could tell her it was absolutely out of the question, Adelaide had closed the top of the bag, plunging the screen back into darkness. In hindsight, maybe asking for her assistance with something so trivial as his new wardrobe might have been a mistake.
Severus released the Silhouette portrait and it dropped a few inches before catching itself midair. It floated there, unsteadily bobbing up and down, much like a buoy riding an invisible current. He regarded the frame with a broad frown, still fidgeting with the cuffs of his shirt, and came to the conclusion that he had never met anyone as staggeringly and shamelessly nonchalant as Adelaide Harlowe.
As the thought entered his head, the glass front of the picture was flooded with light and Severus found himself face to face with Adelaide once again. "Okay, we're alone now. What can I do for you, Mister Snape?"
"You mean other than removing me from the women's loo immediately?"
"Relax, there's no one here. Besides, it's not like I could talk to you out in the crowded street," she said, unfazed by his shortness.
"It can wait until you're finished doing whatever it is you're doing," he replied dryly.
"Nonsense." Adelaide paused, then said unhelpfully, "There's no need to be so uptight about it. It's just a room like any other. Now what can I help you with?"
Had it been anyone but her he could have deployed the usual tactic of a haughty silence or a sharp demurral and the conversation would have ended right then and there, but he hesitated. Severus closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose, and resigned himself to the fact that now that he had contacted her, she was not going to let the matter go until he told her the reason. The truth came tumbling forward.
"I need an unbiased opinion," Severus muttered. "I have an appointment I must attend, and I'd rather not have this thing on my wrist visible." He waited for her to say something, but she just watched him patiently through the frame. She's actually going to make me ask her outright…"The seal…can you see it?" he prompted, fiddling with the collar of his shirt. Either the fire in the hearth or his multiple layers of thick and absurdly expensive clothing had made the room stiflingly warm.
Adelaide smiled at him. "Stand up straight so I can see."
There was no sense in trying to salvage a vestige of his dignity, not now anyway. Severus did what his Silhouette had instructed, feeling profoundly idiotic as he straightened his jacket.
"You have an appointment," Adelaide said lightly. Severus watched as her gaze started at the top of his head and traveled down to the toes of his new shoes. "The fresh air will do you well, I think."
"It won't interfere with our scheduled time this evening," he said, trying to temper her curiosity and any further questioning.
"If it does, we can plan accordingly," said Adelaide. "I'm here to fit your schedule as it benefits you."
He gave her a pointed look. "Miss Harlowe, if you don't get on with it I'm going to be late."
"You look fine, Mister Snape. You don't even notice the seal."
"But do you see it?" Severus insisted. He left the portrait floating in the middle of the room and went to the small, decorative rectangular mirror that hung on the wall by the staircase. "It can't be seen…not today."
"You only see what you wish to see," said Adelaide. Severus winced; he had spoken the words quietly to himself, but apparently not quietly enough it seemed. He did not have time for this, not today of all days.
He turned to look at the portrait floating a few feet behind him, pulling the cuff of his dress shirt below the sleeve of his jacket. "Stop trying to sound profound. It doesn't suit you."
"I wasn't trying to be profound. I was trying to convince you that all you see wrong with you is in your head. You take the doubt and you give it power." Adelaide gave him a level look when he scowled at her. "Do you honestly think people are going to be staring at your wrists?"
"That's not the bloody point," he snapped. "The point is that whether people choose to notice it or not, I don't wish for the thing to be seen."
"And what if it is seen, Mister Snape? What do you intend to do then?" Severus said nothing. The frame containing his Silhouette glided over to where he stood, Adelaide's eyes watching with sharp seriousness. "The way I see it, you've got two choices: you can hide yourself away from the people that are going to question you or cast judgment on you for whatever reason they see fit, and you can be miserable just like they are, or you can look them squarely in the face and let them know that their opinion has absolutely no merit, and you can be satisfied, maybe even happy if you try hard enough."
Severus shook his head and turned by to the mirror, pretending to adjust his collar so he would not have to look at her directly. Why did she always have to make a valid point to contradict every single thing he said? "You're overly naive, even for someone of your age. It's astounding, really."
"I'd rather be considered a naive twenty-year-old than a jaded cynic," said Adelaide, running a hand through her dark hair. She sighed, and looked at him in a way that put any notions of her experience or lack thereof to rest. "I'm not an idiot, I know how people are. But thankfully there was a point in my life when I stopped living to the standards others forced upon me by their own opinions. I've worked hard to prove them wrong since I was young girl and I don't intend to stop because it's difficult, and neither should you."
"Twenty." Severus drew the word out, almost as if he were hearing it for the first time. She was younger than he first believed her to be, but somehow it all made sense—life, in all of its splendid glory, had not sunk its claws deeply enough into her yet to taint her perceptions. "You're as green as grass, Miss Harlowe."
"And wise beyond my years, right?"
"If it helps you sleep at night," he said, his tone surprisingly droll despite their previous exchange. Behind him, the ancient mantel clock began to chime, ushering in the new hour. He had an hour and a half until he was due to meet Minerva and Hermione Granger.
Adelaide cleared her throat, and sensing his need to depart said, "I can't stay in here much longer, people are going to think I've fallen in. And please don't worry—you look ever the gentleman, Mister Snape. Go to your appointment, and think about what I said while you're there." She flashed him a cheerful smile. "We'll talk later, and you can tell me all about your new outlook on life."
Adelaide's face began to fade, and the image grew darker as the connection was terminated. He stepped forward quickly to catch the frame before it fell to the ground. And then Severus was by himself, staring at the now-empty space where she had been, wondering if he would ever be used to her ability to leave him thunderstruck and questioning his own motives. Very few people ever had that kind of clout, and despite the initial panic that clawed its way up his throat when Adelaide called him on his bullshit— the same as Augusta Barnes had done when he was thoroughly insolent and very ill—it did provide him with a bracing dose of vulnerability that cleared his head and forced him to see straight. Severus tossed the black frame on the cushion of the couch and retrieved his traveling cloak draped over the back of his chair. With a final fleeting glance at his double spiral on his wrist, he Disapparated with a new sense of urgency straight to Hogsmeade Village, the first step in his doubtlessly taxing pilgrimage to Hogwarts.
Several hundred miles away, Severus appeared out of thin air and ankle-deep in a snow drift that had settled over the far end of the Hogsmeade Apparition point. He steadied himself against the single, busted street lamp that marked the end of the magical zone, the fresh wave of Apparition-induced nausea ebbing gradually. When he was certain he would not be sick in the streets he set off down the narrow lane that meandered past houses with their curtains still pulled toward High Street. Severus had always had a certain fondness for Hogsmeade. There was something about the village that made it resistant to change, ever enduring. Perhaps it was the fact that it remained mostly unscathed during Voldemort's rise to power, whereas Diagon Alley was razed to near ruin.
The lane turned a corner and Severus found himself staring down the main street of the village. It was not nearly as picturesque as he remembered it from the festive winter season. The town fountain was no longer bewitched to sing carols or spout red and green streams of water in tandem with the beat. It did nothing now, frozen over. The tiny town looked drab and washed out against the grey horizon. Wilted wreathes of Christmas holly and pine boughs still hung limply from shop and residential doors. The snow drifts that had been deposited here and there were dirty from repeated thawing and refreezing and trampling, the sad remains of a bitter Scottish winter that still lingered despite the coming of spring.
Severus was relieved to see that, for now, the weather had sequestered the villagers in their homes. The very few that were out, however, were too busy melting the fresh snow that had fallen during the night from their stoops or guiding kindling for their fires from nearly-spent winter reserves to notice him fastidiously dodging the large puddles of snow melt and patches of black ice. He passed the Hogsmeade owl post office and several shops and stores. Most if not all of the businesses had not turned their closed signs to open for the day. Severus continued on his way, raising the hood of his cloak to block the chill and to shield his face should someone recognize him.
When he came to Hogs Head Inn he slowed but did not fully stop. The pub was the only establishment that never seemed to sleep. Thick grey tendrils of smoke drifted up from the chimney before being caught by the crisp mid-morning wind and carried away. The pub was the black sheep of an otherwise impeccable flock of quaintness. Severus knew without a shred of doubt the innkeeper watered down his wares for the sake of profit, but that was the least of the business's problems. Exchanges between hooded patrons were often dubious in both nature and moral ambiguity, and they were commonplace and largely expected, such that Aberforth Dumbledore had erected signage over the years to ward off the more serious and dangerous dealings.
The Hogs Head Inn and pub was where it all began the summer of 1979. He was a nineteen-year-old foolhardy idiot eager to ride the coattails of those who promised rewards that his older and much wiser self would have seen through and renounced. But he had been a fool, and the prophecy which he had overheard and stupidly reported to the Dark Lord carried a heavy price that nearly crushed him and had cemented his position as a double agent. Almost twenty years later, the inn and its owner had kept the Hogwarts students who rebelled against the Carrows fed and watered and when the time came, provided them safe passage when the final battle was imminent. Aberforth Dumbledore had served as warden and protector when he himself had failed to do so, and it was an unspoken debt Severus would never be able to repay.
Severus saw movement beyond the filmy front windows and picked up his pace so that he would not be noticed. His quickened steps led him past Scrivenshaft's Quill Shop, and Silas Scrivenshaft himself stopped in his tracks to watch as he passed. Severus pretended to be suddenly and profoundly blind to the geriatric wizard's wide-eyed stare, instead focusing on the Hogsmeade Train Station that stood off in the distance.
The lane he was traveling finally came to the junction at the deserted station, causing him to come to a dead stop and weigh the options before him. He could take the right fork, past the train station and on to the castle. This was the quickest way to get where he was going, but something pulled him the other direction. Off to the left and around a sharp bend stood the location of the Shrieking Shack, the site where he had nearly lost his life the night of the Battle of Hogwarts. There was no logical reason to take that fork, Severus knew, it would add a good five minutes to his trek, maybe longer if he lingered, but whether out of morbid curiosity or some deep seated masochism, that was the road he found himself taking.
The road was still mostly snow-covered, dotted with slick spots hidden beneath the white powder. What snow remained was untouched, which struck him as odd considering it was on a lane that led to a popular stop among village goers and Hogwarts students. Severus drifted on down the road, ignoring the fact that the entire endeavor seemed foolish, and when he turned the curve that dipped down into a slight gully he froze.
In front of him, the hill on which Britain's most haunted house once sat was strikingly bereft, and for a moment, Severus thought he had made a mistake regarding its location. The chimney, or what remained of it, had fallen in on itself in a heap like some crude cairn. Beneath the freshly fallen snow, he could see the grey discolouration that leached up from what he presumed to be ash that lay around the rubble. Severus left the road and crossed over the property line, his new shoes sinking up to the hem of his trousers into the snow as the ground slanted down. He did not—could not—believe what his eyes were showing him.
It was gone; walls, floors, any solid notion that it had been anything other than a disregarded burn pile, all of it gone, as if he had imagined the house entirely and what had transpired there.
"They burned it, if that's what you're wondering," said a gruff voice. "The Ministry. Shacklebolt said it played on people's fears, reminded them of You-Know-Who."
Severus turned quickly to see a man with long, stringy grey hair and bright blue eyes looking down at him from the up on bank. Leaning against what remained of the stone rampart surrounding the property, Aberforth Dumbledore took a nip from a tarnished silver flask and nodded. At first glance, the younger Dumbledore brother looked absurdly harmless in his green plaid kilt and burgundy knee socks, but that was just as far as his appearance went. Severus had learned, through experience and rumor, that Aberforth preferred to settle his feuds and disagreements with a duel rather than dialogue. Quick in both wit and magic, he was a force to be reckoned with if provoked or intoxicated, and even more so if he happened to be both. The wizard looked exactly as Severus remembered him, strange and bad-tempered in a stately sort of fashion, his faded moleskin cloak flapping around his feet like an injured bird as he walked toward the clearing.
Severus stuffed his hands into his cloak pockets and turned his eyes back to the horizon when the churlish barkeep came to a stop beside him. "Aberforth."
Aberforth took another swig and grunted as the liquor made its way down his gullet. "Snape," he said, then extended the flask to Severus.
He did not know if it was the attempt at a gesture of solidarity or the cold that made him do it, but Severus accepted the flask and took a quick drag before handing it back. He grimaced as the high-test liquor burned a path to his stomach. He might as well have swallowed a mouth-full of petrol. He must keep the good stuff for himself, Severus thought.
"Never thought I'd see you back around these parts," said Aberforth unnecessarily loudly, stowing the flask in his pocket.
"If it is any consolation, I never thought I'd be back here myself," Severus answered.
Aberforth scowled. "Yet here you stand nearly shin-deep in snow bank, staring at an empty hill and a pile of ash."
Severus was quiet for some time, then after a moment of thought he simply said, "I have business at Hogwarts."
"I know," Aberforth said, as though this was common knowledge. "The Headmistress asked me to make sure you didn't run into trouble on your way there."
Severus turned to look at his supposed escort, a mixed look of annoyance and suspicion on his face. "Did she, now?"
The sunlight caught the grimy lenses of Aberforth's glasses, temporarily occluding his blue eyes from view. "Aye, she did just this morning. I've been following you since you passed Hog's Head. Lost sight of you when you passed Silas's place in a hurry, and figured you'd made a detour." The wizard sniffed, then spat onto the ground. "I figured right, turns out."
"I'll be sure to thank Minerva for the bodyguard."
Aberforth let loose a hearty chuckle. "What's wrong? Not looking forward to your return to Hogwarts, Professor?" Severus gave him a sideways glance of unmistakable annoyance. "Say," Aberforth continued, in spite of the clear cues that Severus wished for their conversation to come to an immediate end, "you're not doing this out of some sense of loyalty to that brother of mine are you?"
Severus, who had already turned his attention back to the empty hill, spun around to face the barkeep directly. "Of course not," he blurted out. "I'm merely here as a favour to Minerva." He paused for a moment, searching for the right thing to say. "As far as Albus goes," he said carefully, "I consider any debt I owed him paid in full."
A wide grin appeared on the old wizard's face. "As well you should, Professor. As well you should. It's just that I know better'n most the effect he could have on people, the sort of devotion he could inspire, the things he could make people sacrifice for him."
Severus wanted to believe Aberforth's words were simply those of a younger, less impressive sibling who found himself unable to cope with living in his brother's shadow, but there was a hard truth to them he could not refute. The lying, the spying, the risk and fear of being found out, all would have been enough to take a serious toll, but it was ultimate act of loyalty, the mercy killing of his adviser, beloved Headmaster and key conspirator of the Order of the Phoenix, that pushed him past the point of no return. Albus Dumbledore asked for too much, had taken too much for granted, and Severus had grown to resent him the same as Aberforth resented him for the death of their sister.
There was an awkward silence in which Severus continued to stare blankly at the spot where he had almost lost his life nearly a year prior, the last words the Headmaster had spoken to him running unchecked through his thoughts. The same sick, panicky feeling he felt in the early days of his recovery was creeping back over him. He needed to leave and leave quickly if he intended to have the nerve to go the school as he had promised.
Severus turned away, and trudged back up the embankment to the lane leading to Hogwarts. "I have to go," he said. "I'm already late."
Aberforth fell into step a stride behind him, giving no intention that he was going to stop the ridiculous escort now that Severus had found him out. "How's it feel to finally be a free man?"
"I've always been a free man," Severus answered sourly, "but thank you for the kindness of asking."
"Have you told yourself that lie for so long that you finally believe it?" Aberforth snorted, as though he were the only one in on the presumed joke. "And here I thought you were a smart man."
Severus stopped in the middle of the snow-covered road and looked about himself, arms stretched wide, as if trying to decide which way to go."Why does everyone assume I am just a lowly pawn incapable of controlling my own actions?" He started walking again when Aberforth passed him like an afterthought. "Believe it or not, I was more than just puppet on a string."
"People think it because you did the bidding of two false idiots when you could've washed your hands with the whole lot and started over elsewhere." said Aberforth. "How many years did you give 'em both?"
Severus glowered at him, but kept walking. Whatever else might be said about him, Severus Snape was no man's stooge. "I didn't give either of them anything. Has it never once occurred to you, or anyone else, that I did what I did because I wanted to do it?"
Aberforth threw him a hard look. "No sane man would ever want to do any of it, especially if he valued his own hide."
"A man with a modicum of conscience does it," muttered Severus. The bitterly cold wind was whipping around his face, making his throat so tight that he had to force the words to leave his mouth. "And he does it with more regard to the hides of the innocents than his own."
"Ah, the honor of a conscientious man," said Aberforth. The barkeep roared with laughter and clapped Severus hard on the back. "Albus never deserved you."
"You might be in the minority with that opinion," said Severus. "The general consensus is that Albus was lenient to a fault, what with my sordid youth and questionable associations. If you recall, I was the one that sent him to his grave."
Severus cast a quick sidelong glance at the older wizard, watching as he absorbed the last sentence in silence. Aberforth was watching his feet as they crunched over the half-frozen road. Suddenly, absurdly, Severus felt guilty for having said anything on the subject at all. He stopped walking, intending to say something to bring some semblance of levity to the conversation, but Aberforth beat him to it.
"Aye," the grey barkeep said, his tone sullen. "I seldom forget you saved him from the curse that would've put him there slowly."
"He asked me to do it," Severus admitted. He did not know what else to say.
"Then you did him a courtesy he wouldn't have found in me." Aberforth looked at him, his face still and hard. "It's bad form to speak ill of the dead, but Albus put himself in that crypt long before you put him out of his misery with his glory-seeking and conniving. Anyone who says otherwise can't tell his arse from his elbow as far as I'm concerned."
The remainder of their walk after that was short. They rounded the final bend in the snow-covered lane, and the entrance gate to Hogwarts came into view. Severus noticed a figure standing at the entrance as they grew closer, and it did not take him long to recognize the slim, slightly hunched figure of Argus Filch, the castle's caretaker. "Ah," Severus said loudly enough for only Aberforth to hear him, "I see Minerva sent out the most esteemed member of her staff to welcome me back."
Aberforth chuckled. "Filch. There's something about that one that gives me great desire to kick him directly in the seat of his pants."
"You're not alone in that sentiment, I can assure you," Severus muttered. As if on cue, Argus began waving them forward.
"This is as far as I go, Snape," Aberforth said. The magical wrought iron gate creaked open with a groan. He turned to Severus, his hand clutching his shoulder and spoke quickly, "And a word of advice before we part ways: Whether you choose to see it this way or not, you are a free man. Don't live in my brother's shadow, or You-Know-Who's, or anyone else's for that matter. You decide what to be and go be it, son. It's good to have you back where you belong, even if you don't reckon so."
Aberforth gave his shoulder the familiar fatherly squeeze Albus used to give after he had bestowed upon him some of his sage advice and was about to send him on his way. For a moment, Severus forgot to whom he was speaking, the blue eyes of Albus Dumbledore staring back at him from his brother's face. He almost mentioned the similarity, but figured Aberforth would not take kindly to comparison. Instead he nodded and turned away.
Severus glanced back when he stepped through the gates. Aberforth Dumbledore was watching him from the other side, and the old man smiled warmly when he caught his eye. "Your next drink at Hog's Head is on the house!" he called out. Severus help up a hand appreciatively, and the old barkeep vanished into thin air with a thunderous crack that startled a frightened yelp out of Filch, who was wrestling the gates through the snow drifts.
Severus turned to face the caretaker, unable to tell how successful he was being at keeping an expression of disdain from appearing on his face. Filch had taken out a stained handkerchief and proceeded to blow his nose loudly enough to scare the feathers off a hippogriff before stuffing the rag back into his pocket and extending a hand toward Severus. Severus regarded it for a second before shaking his head. "I've been feeling a bit ill. Wouldn't want to you to catch it, Argus."
Filch nodded in agreement. "Right. Good thinking, Professor. Come along, then. The Headmistress is expecting you." Filch turned for the castle and began to walk briskly toward it. Severus followed closely behind him. Their route took them by a newly-constructed hut, which Severus assumed to be Hagrid's new dwelling. It did not look quite as filthy as the hut he had lived in prior to the battle, but Hagrid had wasted little time in cluttering the stoop and windowsills with cages and pots of various sizes and dimensions.
As Severus passed, Hagrid spotted him through an open window and called out to him in his booming voice, "Aye, Professor Snape!" Severus stopped and the large, bearded groundskeeper exited the home and ambled toward Severus, smiling. "It's great to have yeh back, Professor," he said as he patted Severus on the back harder than he probably realised.
"This is not a permanent arrangement, Hagrid," Severus told him. The two of them had never been close, and after it was presumed he had murdered Albus, Hagrid held him with nothing but contempt. It appeared all of his sins were forgiven as far as the half-giant was concerned. Severus wondered if he had learned the truth from Minerva or Potter, not that it mattered.
"Tha's a shame," Hagrid said. "The castle could've stood to have yeh back."
"I suppose," said Severus, who had resolved to make an effort to be as cordial to his former colleagues as he could manage. He gestured toward one of the larger cages, partially hidden under the freshly fallen snow. "Are you teaching Care of Magical Creatures this term?"
"Aye," Hagrid said. "I don' reckon the Headmistress much cared fer the trouble with the Skrewts a few years back, but she le' me come back so long as I promised 'er there'd be no more talk o' anything tha' shoots sparks from either end."
Severus nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but Argus cut him off. "Well, we must get along now, Hagrid. Wouldn't want to keep the Headmistress waiting, after all. Got a schedule to keep and too much to do."
"No, o' course not," Hagrid agreed. "See yeh later, then." Hagrid gave Severus's back a final pat and headed back to his hut, where he was greeted at the door by his enormous mastiff.
"Big oaf," groused Argus, as the hut disappeared behind them. He pulled out his handkerchief and blew his reddened nose once more. "Sorry about that, Professor. He never behaves with the dignity of a professor, if you ask me. Far too easy on the rule breakers…"
Severus ignored Filch as he blathered on, and studied the castle as he drew nearer to it. It looked so familiar to him, identical to the place he had spent so many years teaching, but at the same time, there was a foreign quality to it. After all, the last time Severus had laid eyes on Hogwarts, it was engulfed in flames and half the towers had been reduced to smoking piles of rubble. "The castle repairs went smoothly, then?" Severus asked Filch in attempt to relieve himself from the Caretaker's unwanted soliloquy.
"Castle did most of the work itself, truly," Filch explained. "Course some of the professors helped the process along. Some blokes from the Ministry showed up too, but I can't say that they were much help. They left after a day or two."
"Unsurprising," said Severus. "How long did it take?"
"The whole process took a couple months, I'd say. Maybe three. Hard to keep track of time when you've got as many duties as me, you know."
"I don't see how you do it," Severus responded, trying to disguise the sarcasm. When they reached the entrance, Minerva was not there to greet him as he had expected. "I assumed I would be meeting with the Headmistress upon my arrival," he asked, not trying to hide his impatience.
"She's indisposed at the moment, sir," said Filch. "I've been instructed to escort you to her office, and she'll receive you momentarily." This annoyed Severus, but he knew if he let it show, his mood was likely to suffer more than it already had. Instead, he focused on taking in the newly remodeled castle as he made his way to Minerva's office. It all looked the same, the castle had been perfectly restored to its former glory, each portrait and tapestry hung in its proper place, each corridor connected just the way they had been, but it did not feel like the same castle Severus used to call home.
Students began to pour into the hallway, and Severus studied their reactions to seeing them. He recognized most of them, though some he only knew by face and not by name. Several of the students seemingly went out of their ways to give him a wide berth. Many stared at him and whispered to each other as they passed him by. A group of students from his own house, sixth or seventh year students by the looks of them, gave him menacing glares and exchanged sniggers at his expense. Severus tried to keep any hint of embarrassment or resentment from appearing on his face as he quickened his pace, prompting Filch to do the same. There were some familiar faces in the crowd; Ginny Weasley, for instance made eye contact with Severus and stared at him as if he were the last person on earth she had expected to see roaming the halls of Hogwarts. The notion struck Severus as ironic, given that his presence at Hogwarts had been a staple of his very existence for so many years.
Finally, the two men arrived at the Headmistress's office. Filch turned his back and whispered the password, then motioned for Severus to go inside when the stone gargoyle stepped aside. "The Headmistress will be here shortly, I'm sure. Just wait here."
Severus nodded and entered Minerva's office. It looked much the same as it had when Dumbledore had inhabited it, except of course for the obvious lack of a caged Phoenix beside the large, wooden desk. He shrugged out of his traveling cloak as he regarded the portraits adorning the wall, paying particular attention to the one of Albus Dumbledore, which he had conversed with countless times during his brief but tumultuous stint as Headmaster. Dumbledore returned his gaze and smiled warmly. "Severus," he said. "What a pleasant surprise."
Severus could not resist chuckling under his breath. "I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you, Albus. I'm quite sure that even in death, nothing goes on in this office that you fail to take notice of."
"I suppose I'm guilty of that, perhaps among a great many things," Dumbledore replied with an air of self deprecation that Severus did not believe for an instant to be genuine. "But I'm afraid I can't say the same for you. Either that, or you have become even more inconsiderate of the feelings of others than when I was alive."
Severus frowned. "What on earth are you referring to? Whose feelings have I failed to consider?"
"Why, it should be obvious," the old wizard replied. "The person sitting behind you."
Severus turned and examined the room. Much to his uncomfortable dismay, Albus had been proven right. As he had entered the room, he had been unaware of anyone sitting in the high-backed leather chairs that sat opposite Minerva's desk, but upon closer inspection that one of them contained another face all too familiar to Severus. Before he had the chance to say anything, however, the young woman stood up and walked over to him. "Welcome back, Professor," Hermione said in a tone that Severus found to be overly polite. She was clearly nervous. "I was surprised when Professor McGonagall said you agreed to serve as my advisor. It came as a bit of a shock, if I'm being honest."
"I'm sure," was all Severus said, and his tone appeared to deflate any further notions of false pleasantries. Best get it out of the way sooner, rather than later.
Hermione forced a thin smile. "Professor McGonagall should be back anytime." She looked down at her hands folded neatly in front of her, and began fiddling with a thick leather cuff bracelet she wore. Her fingers roamed over the ornate brass-cast lion that represented her House, as if she could bolster the courage the animal represented. "She had to retrieve valid documentation from Griselda Marchbank, the Examinations Authority head at the Ministry to transfer mentorship from her to you. I believe you'll have to sign it saying you agree to oversee the completion of my practical examinations and that you approve of my intended project."
Severus glanced up at Albus's portrait and saw that the old man had been watching their conversation unfold with rapt interest. It would be no great surprise to learn that the former Headmaster and Minerva had doubtless cooked up this ruse to see how he and his new charge would interact during their first meeting.
"That won't be an issue," Severus said. He went to one of the twin high-back chairs sitting before the Headmistress's desk and gestured for her to take the other. "Though I do question whether the Authority will consider me a legitimate advisor, bearing in mind I no longer teach in any capacity at any institution."
"That was what I said as well," Hermione admitted. She sat perched on the end of her chair like a nervous bird ready to flee at the first sign of trouble. "The Headmistress spoke to Madam Professor Marchbanks at length of the issue, and at first she was not convinced, but she eventually agreed, despite normal conventions, that it was the best course of action when Professor Dumbledore's portrait and Professor Slughorn vouched for you."
"I suppose that settles it, then." Severus glared up at the old man in the portrait, and Dumbledore winked at him before walking out of the frame, leaving the two of them alone. He turned his gaze back to Hermione and caught her staring at him. She cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Miss Granger," he said, regarding her carefully, "why do I sense that you are not as keen to the idea?"
"It's not that," Hermione blurted. "I'm thrilled that you've agreed to help me, really. This just came as a bit of a surprise, that's all."
"Minerva didn't tell you." It was not a question, but rather a statement of fact. She had been blindsided, and if Severus suspected right, it had happened shortly before he arrived.
Hermione shook her head. "No, she told me. I suppose it's my fault that I didn't quite understand the arrangement. Professor McGonagall mentioned this past week that she was going to find someone with the proper skill to help us, and I told her that was perfectly fine, but she only told me this morning that the mentorship would be a permanent switch to make things easier on everyone involved, which does seem the logical thing to do..." She trailed off when she saw the look on his face, then backpedaled quickly for good measure. "Please, Professor Snape, don't misinterpret my shock for lack of enthusiasm. I came here this morning to discuss my revisions, and I fully intended to proceed as planned if it fits your schedule, but I only just found out I would be doing so with my new advisor…you."
For a long moment there was only the mechanical sound of the various trinkets about the office spinning and whirring and droning. Then the giant fireplace of the far wall roared to life. Tongues of fat green fire licked over the hearth, sending emerald sparks up the heat-darkened flue. Minerva McGonagall emerged from the flames, and dusted the remnants of Floo Powder from the large envelope she carried, a smile on her face.
"Severus, Miss Granger, forgive me. I didn't anticipate—Good heavens! What—"
Severus was out of his chair, and escorting the surprised witch toward one of the concealed conferencing rooms located in the Headmaster's office. "I need to speak with you, Headmistress," he hissed in her ear. "Privately."
The portrait guarding the secret door was a vast landscape of the Welsh countryside. The faded oil panting depicted a few dozen plump, wooly sheep grazing atop a small, grassy hill. Severus pressed his hand against the lone black sheep near the center of the painting, but instead of touching the canvas his hand passed right through as though it were not there at all. He walked through the barrier to the clandestine room, still clutching Minerva's arm.
"Honestly, Severus, what has gotten into you?" Minerva demanded, straightening the front of her robes when he let her go.
"You and your unilateral decisions," he spat. Severus sat down heavily in one of the plush armchairs lining the wall and scowled at her. "She had no idea you intended to do this."
He had apparently touched a nerve. Minerva went quiet, her face pinched with annoyance, as if she were deciding how best to proceed and still retain some impression of etiquette befitting a Headmistress.
"You told me you would tell her," Severus said, pointing an accusatory finger at her when she simply stood there in silence. "How am I supposed to assist her with anything when she behaves as though there is little she'd rather do less? Did you even tell her that I was the one you were transferring mentorship to?"
"Of course I told her that I had spoken with you."
"That wasn't what I asked you, Minerva. Did you ask her if she agreed, one-hundred percent, with the switch?"
"I didn't mention it to her until we met today because I received word from the Ministry, not even an hour ago, that the transfer was approved. I didn't want her to fret over the validity of it, what with the deadline less than four months away." Minerva shook the thick envelope at him. "Marchbank, that ancient twit, refused to discuss the switch before Albus stepped in and said we wouldn't find anyone better. She only drew up the changes this morning and insisted I retrieve them in person. And I told Hermione what you told me when I met with you last week. Either we find someone with the aptitude for inventive potions, which I clearly lack, or she has to start over with something I can help her with. Miss Granger was given the choice, and she picked you."
When Severus simply sat there with a dubious look on his face, watching Minerva turning the envelope over and over in her hands she said, "Yet somehow you don't think she's capable of handling the transfer."
"Based on what I've seen today, I don't think the transition will be a particularly smooth one."
"Give her time, Severus," Minerva insisted. "She merely intimidated. You know she respects you a great deal, and she's nervous that you will be unimpressed by her."
"Which is why I wish you would have discussed the arrangement with her before you ever contacted me," Severus replied sharply. "I was of the understanding that she was made aware of the plan and was on board with it. If I had known she harbored such reservations about my involvement, I never would have agreed to this in the first place. It could compromise the entire project if she goes forward with an advisor she doesn't trust or want to be around."
"Trust isn't the issue, as I said. Miss Granger is simply nervous, but that will change. I know you're both up to this task, and I know this will most likely prove to be one of the more successful N.E.W.T practicums to come from Hogwarts with you assisting her one-on-one," Minerva said calmly. "I don't expect you to become fast friends, far from it actually, but she can learn a lot from you, especially out of the confines of Hogwarts. You are the right person for the job, whether you want to believe it or not. After all, didn't you manage to assist her quite successfully all those years you were her Professor? You must've done something right, otherwise we wouldn't be here having this ridiculous conversation."
Severus would have liked to protest but the sound of faint knocking coming from the mirror image of the portrait they had passed through moments before shut him down. Minerva withdrew her wand from a deep pocket in her robes and pointed it at the painting. The painted sheep scuttled down the hill and out of sight just before the image dissolved, revealing a doorless stone archway with Hermione Granger standing on the other side, hand still poised to knock upon the canvas again.
"Professors. I'm sorry, I—"
"No need to apologize, Hermione. Professor Snape and I were finished anyway." The Headmistress turned back to look at Severus and offered him a business-like smile. "Weren't we, Severus?"
The Headmistress said this so seriously, so matter-of-factly, that he knew there would be no more talk on the subject. Thinking it was best to keep any further reservations on the matter to himself, he stood and followed the two of them back out into the main office.
Severus cast a sidelong look as he took one of the twin chairs in front of the giant wooden desk and Hermione took the other. She shifted slightly away from him in her chair, back ridged and jaw set, listening intently to Minerva discuss the details contained within the envelope. He recalled the day she had shown up at his doorstep, bag of potions ingredients in hand, and wondered where that version of her had disappeared to. Now, it was almost as if she made a conscious effort not to notice he was watching her….
"What?" he answered vacantly. The Headmistress's voice had threw him out of a daze, and Severus realised that he had had not been paying the slightest bit of attention.
Minerva peered sternly over her glasses at him. "I said you'll need to sign and date here to signify you agree to mentor Miss Granger to the best of your abilities, and again here saying you approve of her practical project." The Headmistress fanned out official parchments, pointing to where his name was neatly printed. She retrieved the phoenix quill and an inkwell from her desk, unstoppered the little glass bottle, and set both in front of him.
Severus leaned forward, picked up the quill, but stopped just shy of dipping the nib in the black ink. "Are you certain this is what you wish to do, Miss Granger? Otherwise I would rather not waste my time."
Hermione Granger looked over at him, raising her eyebrows in mild surprise, as if she had not expected him to address her so directly. "Absolutely, sir," she said, apparently finding a reservoir of that renowned Gryffindor bravado. "I don't think you'll find me to be a waste of your time, at least I hope not anyway."
"Very well," he answered nonchalantly, and overhead Albus Dumbledore released a quiet chuckle. Severus signed his name to the parchments, keeping his face carefully blank, and dipped the quill back in the inkwell before offering it to her.
"Hermione," the Headmistress cut in, "you will sign below, saying you agree with the change from me to Severus."
Severus half expected her to have a sudden change of heart, but she took the quill from his hand and in one fell swoop of the tines across the final page, sealed the deal. The parchments rolled up on themselves once she had finished, and vanished from the desk with a faint pop.
"I suppose that's all there is to it," said Minerva. "Though if there are any other issues I suspect Madam Marchbank will break her neck to bring them to our attention."
"Thank you, Headmistress," Hermione said. "For all of your help. I doubt I would have made it this far without you."
Severus watched his former colleague wave off the compliment with a sigh and settle more comfortably in her chair. Severus could not help but notice that Minerva looked considerably more relived as she reached for a red plaid tin that lay atop a stack of papers at the corner of the desk and removed the lid. "I daresay my help hardly benefitted you at all, Miss Granger," she said, offering the pair of them a ginger biscuit shaped like a newt - tail, eyes and all. They both declined. "I think all three of us know what good I've done for you, but I suspect that is all about to change."
"Yes," said Severus. "It is." He shifted his attention to Hermione, watching her carefully as he spoke to gauge her manner. "I've only seen very limited portions of your proposed antidote, and what I have seen will only lend itself to a score of Acceptable if the Examinations Authority is feeling generous."
He fully expected her to balk at the criticism just as she had when she was much younger, but she surprised him by remaining collected and level-headed despite his harsh opinion.
"What do you think I need to do?" she asked after a moment of thought.
"I haven't the slightest idea until I see everything you have. Notes, revisions past and current," said Severus ticking each off on his fingers absently. "As well as any dead ends you've come across in your research."
The Headmistress and Hermione both gave him a puzzled look. "Why the dead ends?" Minerva asked. "What good will that do?"
"Mistakes are very telling in potion making. Errors can be found out with enough effort and backtracking. And any intelligent person can usually learn from their mistakes, unless, of course, Miss Granger has developed a certain proclivity for mucking things up beyond reason."
"Would you like my notes now?" Hermione cut in. She reached under her chair, producing the purple bag she had carried with her at Culpepper's. After a moment of rummaging around shoulder-deep in the bag she pulled out two thin bound books of parchments, each with various pages dog-eared and creased. "I brought everything today on the off chance Professor McGonagall convinced you to help us."
She held them out to Severus and he accepted, thumbing through the first several pages. Each page was nearly full with her sweeping handwriting. Rudimentary drawings were littered between the words and various lists of ingredients. It was a tremendous amount of information that would take him hours to sort through properly. "What is the organization to this?"
"There is a chart with page numbers in this book," Hermione said pointing to the more worn notebook. "Professor McGonagall suggested separating the research from the actual potions work. Much of what follows is the research on both the Alihotsy draught and the Glumbumble Treacle. Then I have cross referenced some of ingredients in the Treacle with other antidotes. And I've done the same with the Alihotsy draught…" she trailed off. Hermione gestured to the smaller blue notebook of bound parchments. "This is contains more of the experimental work. I've kept everything just in case."
Severus snapped the red book shut and stood up to leave. "This should be sufficient."
Hermione looked up at him, baffled. "You don't want to discuss it?"
"I have nothing to discuss with you yet," he told her flatly. Severus held up her notebooks, as if to prove his point. "There is too much here to review before I can make any suggestion on how you should move forward."
"He does have a point, Hermione," Minerva said. "Besides, you have been poring over those parchments for the last five months. You could do with a break from it for one day, two at the most, I'm sure." Minerva looked at Severus, as if to make clear to him that he really could take no longer than that, then said, "You'll contact her to set up a time to meet within the next forty-eight hours?"
With everything going on in his life at the moment potions was where Severus knew how to handle himself, and he did not appreciate the presumed intrusion. He considered the Headmistress with a slow, assessing stare, and said, "Do you intend to micromanage this entire process?"
Minerva smiled at him. "Being the Headmistress does give me certain liberties with regards to my students, but no I don't intend to interfere any more than I have to."
"Good. You can expect my owl by the end of the week, Miss Granger," Severus said coolly, still watching the Headmistress. Overhead, Albus smirked from his portrait, apparently finding the entire exchange amusing.
"Then that settles it." Minerva stood and Hermione, who looked slightly stricken, followed suit, slinging the purple bag over her shoulder. "I would see the two of you out properly, but I have a meeting with the Board of Governors in about fifteen minutes to discuss allocations of Ministry funds for the next term. I'll be checking in with you, Miss Granger, to see how things are progressing."
Hermione nodded. "Thanks, Professor McGonagall," she said sincerely before turning her attention to Severus. "And you too, Professor Snape. I mean it, I'm really lucky to have your help on this." Perhaps Hermione Granger knew not to expect a response, or perhaps she was simply in a hurry to get somewhere, but at any rate, she turned to exit without waiting for him to speak.
After she had been gone a few moments, Minerva said, "I trust I don't have to remind you that she is no longer a true student here."
"What are you implying?"
"I'm asking you," Minerva said, "to forget past House rivalry. And not to hold my ineptitude against her, either. There's decent work in those books that shouldn't be clouded with judgment."
Severus's features twisted, as if he had tasted something sour. "You're going to lecture me on the bias of House Points? How many years in a row did Gryffindor win the House Cup with frivolous point giving and shaving?" Minerva looked to be on the verge of supplying a rather lofty response, but Severus cut her off with a bored wave of his hand. "Don't bother, I couldn't care less about your accusations, but you have nothing to trouble yourself over. I no longer have a personal interest in inter-house politics—Miss Granger will be critiqued on the basis of her own merit and effort."
"I'm glad we understand each other," Minerva said, more gently than she had before. She pushed her glasses on top of her head and looked at him for a long while. "Perhaps this is the first step in your return."
Severus laughed outright at that. "Hardly. You and I both know I was never suited for this."
"In for a Sickle, in for a Galleon," Minerva said. "It was worth a shot. Horace is going back into retirement after this year, and it would have been nice to have you sit for an interview."
"I respectfully decline your offer," Severus told her. He picked up his cloak off the back of the chair, turned and started for the door, but stopped when his free hand fell upon the handle. "There are memories here that I would rather forget, Minerva." He glanced up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore, his face carefully composed. "And coming back does not lend itself to that, unfortunately. It's time I move on elsewhere."
"I understand, and don't hold it against you." Minerva walked around the claw-footed desk and came to stand directly in from of him. She reached up and flattened out his collar, and Severus could almost feel her gaze fall upon the scars on his neck. "You are welcome any time. And for what it's worth, Severus, being that you are a former Headmaster, I think we could make an exception to the prohibition on Apparition," she told him with a sly grin. "It's too bloody cold to traipse all the way back down through Hogsmeade."
"Very well, then," Severus said with a slight nod of agreement. He felt suddenly and deeply tired, much like he felt the majority of the time when he called the castle his home. If he had any qualms about returning, this brief foray into a world he left behind almost a year prior seemed to cement them. He would never be back, not after everything that transpired. The two of them exchanged a handshake and valediction, and Severus, without further ceremony, disappeared from Hogwarts for what he hoped to be the last time with a loud, reverberating crack!
"That went surprisingly well, I think," Albus intoned airily from his portrait. "All things considered, of course."
"All things considered?" repeated Minerva, looking up at his portrait. "What things?"
But the former Headmaster had already wandered off somewhere else before he could elaborate.
Author's Notes: As always, reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated. The next chapter will be uploaded within the next month or so. Every time I confine myself to a specific date or timeline for an update, something inevitably comes up in RL to complicate or postpone it. Summer holiday is a mere 22 days away, so I do anticipate updates to become to be fairly regular until school resumes again in the fall. Thanks to all those who read and review!