To Bury Smoke
by Charis

Disclaimer:Nothing here belongs to me, except the story itself. Characters are property of J. K. Rowling, and the two quotes are attributed as best I know.

Author's Babble: Partially inspired by Riley's work (go read her stuff; it rocks - and don't harass her), especially as regards McGonagall's character. Partially blamed on the madness of my Chemistry class compatriots, especially as regards nothing in particular, and on end-of-term procrastination. Note the distinction. Written mostly in brain dump form, which means there are probably errors in plenitude, and the end and the title are both horrid; please leave comments so I know where my goofs are, and so I can perhaps improve things. I'm not quite happy with the quotes, but they seemed to fit - especially the Glatstein poem, or at least this part. Timeframe should be fairly obvious.

Stranger's eyes don't see
how in my small room I open a door
and begin my nightly stroll among the graves.
(How much earth - if you call it earth - does it take to bury smoke?)
- Jacob Glatstein, "Nightsong"

"Your problem," she'd said as dinner was winding down and he prepared to leave, so softly that he almost missed the words, "is that you still haven't forgiven yourself. Without that ... how can you expect us to do so?"

And he'd sat down hard and stared at her, aghast, unable or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge what those words meant. That it was his doing. That he'd perpetuated this grief. That the cross was of his own making. That - just maybe - they'd been willing to do as Dumbledore had suggested and, after all the years, forgive and if not forget then move on. That he, by his own actions, had kept himself isolated.

And now, later, seated in the quiet darkness of the Great Hall after everyone else was snug in their beds (visions of sugarplums and all), he wondered: Isn't that true, though? Because he had pushed them away, justifying it to himself in that he couldn't let anyone get close to him. They would only die - or worse, betray him, or force him to betray them. He had always known, after that wretched night at Godric's Hollow all those years ago, that it was not over, for he had seen too much. Certain things had always been inevitable: Voldemort would return, he would have to come when summoned, and if he did not then die (and he'd cherished precious few illusions on that subject), the shadow life of a spy would begin anew. Facing that, emotional involvement was the last thing he needed. Even now that it was begun once more, he could never know what might come next - and he was still a target, and those he associated with more so. Nothing had changed now that Voldemort's rebirth had come to pass, save that the stakes had gone up.

Besides, it was easier to be hard. Cold. Distant.

Unforgiven.

Because for what he'd done, he didn't deserve forgiveness. And for all those years, he'd accepted that.

Until tonight. Until her words.

He'd heard them before. Dumbledore had said as much, time and again - after Godric's Hollow, after the Ministry trials, after the horrors came to public light. When he'd offered the Potions post. It wasn't your fault. But he'd always known it was otherwise. He could have - should have - done something. Sooner. Greater. Anything.

Never before had the words penetrated the icy shell of self-loathing. Why did hers, tonight, mean anything more?

Overhead, one of the few remaining candles flickered, extinguished. Tiny sparkles danced in the gold-and-silver ornaments. The scent of evergreen filled the hall, reminding him forcibly, even in the darkness, of the season.

Christmastide was always better and worse simultaneously for him: better for the peace that came to the school without the chaos of children and the endless toil of classes. In the holiday vacation, he had time for his own projects - time to discover the answers to any of a hundred small questions he had about his field (for, whatever the students might think, he did not know quite everything - yet), or to experiment ... and also time to brood. As much as he might despise the children, their presence did brighten the school.

That, maybe, was why he hated them most. Because he would have preferred to sink into that despair. Preferred not to think; to become the automaton they considered him, a slimy wretched thing devoid of feelings, without a compassionate bone in his body. If only they knew - how much easier it would have been if he was such.

Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered.

And she asked why he could not forgive himself.

Every year he sat here, in the echoing silent dark, waiting. Keeping his own strange vigil. His penance, as another year passed, for those whom he had helped to murder.

Even after a decade and more, the names were still fresh in his mind. He whispered them into the stillness, eyes dry and aching, throat tight. The Potions Master, everyone knew, did not feel anything except perhaps some distasteful delight at finding fault with his students - and now would not have changed their opinion overmuch. The names came out woodenly, as though he simply recited. It would have taken someone far more familiar with him than his students to notice the subtle differences - the only grief he could ever show.

Forgive yourself. The words echoed still.

How can I, when no one else has?

But some of them had. Dumbledore, giving him a second chance with the teaching post. His colleagues, for - if not accepting him, precisely, then at least not entirely turning their backs on him. He was not unwelcome here, even if he did not always feel as though they relished his presence. Not that he could fault them that.

More. Only at this time did he allow himself the luxury of self-pity. When others were around - when eyes were on him, watching for some error - he could not afford it.

After what he had done ...

And he was reminded of it, hopelessly and helplessly, every day. In the presence of the Boy-Who-Lived, so blithe despite that contact with Voldemort. In Neville Longbottom's round, persistently perplexed face, the nervous manner. He wondered, fleetingly, what he might have done to prevent the tragedy of the boy's parents. Either boy's parents.

Fourteen years since Godric's Hollow. Fourteen years, one month, and twenty-four days.

And exactly six months since Voldemort's return. Since he had sunk even more deeply into the shadows. Had done so willingly, almost gratefully - because it was where he belonged. For his own crimes, he deserved no less.

The list of names tolled on.

She hesitated at the door of the Great Hall, not wanting to intrude. But she had stood here before, however briefly, and he had never seemed to notice - and she rather doubted that, unless she made so bold as to venture close, actually come into contact, he would be aware of her presence.

Why do you do it? she wondered, not for the first time. He is not even one of yours ...

And had never been. But someone had to keep an eye out. And she worried, because she had seen what this despair - this outcasting, by self or others - could lead to. She remembered all too well Tom Riddle, and - others.

There remained only a single candle alight in the room, flickering wanly in the darkness above him. It shed precious little illumination, but one did not get to be the Transfigurations instructor at Hogwarts without some rudimentary skill; to reshape her eyes slightly to take advantage of certain feline characteristics was child's play. With that, she could watch from here in silence, and he need never know.

They did not like each other; too much bad blood lay between Gryffindor and Slytherin, compounded by small - petty - personal enmities. And yet she felt as if, perhaps, she was one of the few who understood him, especially on this night. Because she, of all those at Hogwarts, remembered Tom Riddle.

Because she too summoned up that chill demeanour in an effort to ward off memories of childish foolishness. Because she remembered what Tom could have been, and what he had become despite that. Because she wondered still, lying sleepless, what she could have done to change that - and what she had done to cause it.

Her own secret shame, known only to a rare few. Of them, she suspected only Dumbledore remembered, and he had the kindness not to speak of it.

She had analysed it before, and come to the conclusion that she hated this man before her as much (more?) for that similarity she saw in him as for anything else. That a Gryffindor and a Slytherin could have anything in common was something she did not want reminding of; within its cocoon of defences, her heart was still wounded enough that even so small a thing hurt, and all the more so now that she knew he had returned. That it had been Tom - or what Tom had become - that had brought them both to this point only made it worse.

But, a part of her whispered, traitorous inner voice, there's a healing here, if you have the strength to seize it.

She sighed. Some credit she was to her House - bravery of a lion, indeed!

The sound was so small it should not have reached his ears; perhaps it was a preternatural paranoia, but whatever the source the litany of names stilled on his lips and he turned, slowly and deliberately, to look at her. For a long moment neither of them moved: in silence they studied each other warily, and then she saw it, faint and almost missed, flicker across his gaze. Shame, anger, dismay -

And even more briefly, a fleeting softness, and she realised: He knows.

"Minerva." The words were cool, the voice composed, his face betraying now none of those emotions from a second past - typical, trademark Snape. Slight touch of sarcasm, though she recognised it as defensive. "Won't you come in?"

She did so, making no sound as she sat down opposite him. Not the teacher's table - but the end of the Slytherin one, tucked back in the shadowed corner of the hall. In the faint light his face seemed paler than usual, older than he should have been - but the Years of Terror had aged them all far more than warranted.

Interminable silence.

"You haven't, either," said he, finally, and it took her only the space of a moment to divine what the words meant.

Forgiven ...

"No."

"Why?"

It was the last question she had expected, from him of all people. It was a question she had asked herself often - more so, even, in the past six months.

"Because I should have seen it. Because there were things I should have been able to do."

And she turned her attention to the pale reflection of the candle glow in the tabletop, not wanting him to see the hurt that, even after all these years, remained.

Her words mocked him - because they were the same he so often told himself. I should have seen it. I should have done something. He'd tried, at first, to justify it to himself, and then given up - because there was no sense in such an exercise. He had done what he had done, and failed to do what he should have, and all that remained was the guilt.

He had not known, until he had seen her there watching in the doorway, that the same guilt which gnawed at him daily had its own purchase within her. But when their eyes had met for that brief instant, everything he knew and suspected, every small clue and memory, had fallen into place. And he understood now, as he had not all those years ago, why she had wept so bitterly after Godric's Hollow. Not just for the Potters - but for herself, and for the last piece of what had once been Tom Riddle. Because what had come back was no longer even remotely human - within or without.

And she knew that - could not help but know that, since she knew all (or nearly all) that Dumbledore did on the matter.

Somehow, that thought was enough to rouse him from the depths of his own despair - not fully, but just enough, perhaps, to find a brief moment of kinship amid the tangled webs woven about them.

What could he say to her, after all? That she couldn't have known? He knew, from his own experiences, that such words - that all words, in a situation like this - were meaningless. In the end he said nothing - but reached out wordlessly and covered her hands, where they rested on the polished tabletop, with his. He didn't know what he was trying to say with the gesture, but even that brief moment of human contact, chill skin against icy hands, held some tiny spark of comfort. Of empathy.

Her downcast eyes lifted to meet his, dark and sombre. "We were never meant," she said, and the words echoed in the vast emptiness of the hall, "to live in the wasteland." It was almost an apology - and more, a gesture of further understanding. The faintest hint of a smile - not the sympathetic ones he had grown to hate, but a soft, weary smile so unlike Minerva McGonagall that he was almost certain he was imagining it - and she rose, reclaiming her hands. For a moment he was again a student here as her gaze became stern once more and she advised, "Get some sleep, Severus." Unspoken: While you can.

And then the moment was over and she rested a hand briefly on his shoulder before slipping from the hall. He stared for a long time at the table, attempting to assimilate all that had happened in the last minutes - had it truly been so short a time- before finally he, too, rose. Had a student been watching, they would have sworn on anything one cared to name that what happened next would have been impossible - for in the darkness of the Great Hall, Severus Snape smiled. Muscles more used to little mocking smirks protested at the unfamiliar action, lasting even as it did only for the space of an instant. He tilted his head up, raised a hand to claim the last of the candles. Cupped a hand around the flame. It gutted - then steadied.

Make a wish, memories spoke inside his head, of Christmas as a child. He let the warmth of even so small a flame seep into his hands, and another brief, hesitant smile flickered across his gaunt features.

Forgive me.

If there was an answer, there was none to hear it. Moments later he bent closer to the flame and exhaled softly, blowing it out before returning it to its place overhead. As the midnight hour tolled he left the Great Hall and his vigil for the chill, dank darkness of his dungeon chambers - and for the first time in fourteen years, one month, and twenty-five days, slept a sleep untroubled by nightmares.

in the wasteland, the land lay waste,
the fruit of knowledge has a bitter taste,
but the bliss of ignorance can never be replaced,
it's lost in the wilderness.
heat baked and dust storm driven
and one false step stays unforgiven
and all you know is you were never meant to live in the wasteland
- attributed to Walter Scott

- finis -