The brittle steel

She was known to be strict and just, both with others and onto herself, and she seldom strayed outside of the path of the righteous. But blessed indeed are those who live their lives free from mistakes or regrets, and from this, she was no exception.

She had held off the task now, for far longer than was reasonable. It was merely a matter of weeks before a new term would begin. But even after two months, she had not yet mounted the courage to climb those familiar steps.

The gargoyle watched her silently with empty eyes, its tongue curled up behind jagged fangs. She walked onto the bottom step, avoiding its gaze, and allowed the moving staircase to bring her up to the thick oaken door without haste.

The portraits of former headmasters greeted her with respectful silence. A thin layer of dust had already settled onto the furniture and on the worn wooden floor.

The pensieve of Hogwarts hung magically suspended in the middle of the oval room, its content a shimmering silver mist. She sent it back into the cabinet, already familiar with what lay within its depths. Those memories had not been intended for her, and she did not yet know whether she could stand to see them.

In Dumbledore's time, the ornate wooden desk had been cluttered with books, and the various instruments and trinkets that had been so dear to him. The latest resident had disposed of those, and the room had looked empty and barren during his reign. There were no personal belongings, not even a preferred quill, or his favoured shade of ink. It was as though the room had never truly belonged to him.

She had thought it fitting at the time. That his surroundings would be as empty as his blackened heart.

Where she was strict, he had been cruel. Where she was just, he had been deceitful. He had led a sinner's life, a killer's life. A life that should damn a man to hell.

Nonetheless, a life filled with remorse.

Did he deserve mercy for being able to feel that? She did not yet know.

'Did you ever turn your wand on anyone?' she had once asked the newly defected Death Eater.

'What do you think, Professor?' the disillusioned young man had said. 'I have used my wand with ill intent more times then I want to remember. I have stood by and watched as others did the same. I have made poisons that have killed. I have seen so many depravities that I have no restful nights left. Only on one single person though, have I ever tried to cast the killing curse.'

'Tried? You're saying your aim wasn't true?'

'It was true. But in the end I couldn't do it. I was too cowardly.'

She frowned. 'Then there is hope for you still.'

He shook his head. 'You couldn't be more wrong.'

She had not understood his meaning at the time, but had learned later by asking the Headmaster, that this one person had been himself.

The second time he cast the curse though, he had not faltered.

Minerva had loved Dumbledore. They all had. Loving him had been easy. He possessed a nobility that was devoid of pride, and gave away friendship without envy.

Even Snape had been drawn to Dumbledore, especially Snape. Enough even to expose his frayed soul. Yet, their bond had never been one of equals.

Knowing that as a young man he had thrown himself at the Headmaster's feet and sworn his undying loyalty, she could see in his later actions a strong desire to please the powerful wizard. To be worthy of the grace he was given.

But that had not always come easily to him. And being Severus Snape's friend could be a hardship as well.

She could almost hear their voices anew. They had once filled this very room.

'What is this I hear, Professor Snape,' Dumbledore had said forcefully, 'about you throwing potion jars at a student?'

Always somewhat insecure in his relationship to the Headmaster, Snape had rushed to explain himself.

'It was never my intention to actually hit Potter,' he began, eyes wide.

'Yet you do not deny that this incident took place?'

Snape studied the Headmaster's desk. 'I- no,' he said, 'I mean yes, I did. But only after he-'

'This is serious indeed, Professor.' As deputy, Minerva had done nothing to conceal her displeasure. 'Student abuse? What will happen if the parents catch wind of this? We have more than enough disasters on our hands already, and your track record is not exactly spotless as it is.'

'I am aware of it,' said Snape, eyes flashing. 'Have neither of you thought to ask what your precious golden boy did to me?'

'Harry told me that he inadvertently peeked into your memories,' said Dumbledore, 'he is an inquisitive boy. Much like yourself at his age. But those occlumency lessons were more important than your privacy. And the boy saw nothing of significance.'

Snape's head jerked at the ambiguous allusion to his near-death experience in the Shrieking Shack. 'I don't know why I bother anymore,' he said. 'That boy fights me tooth and nail, and all you ever do is defend him, as if I am to blame!'

'You are supposed to be the adult in this,' the Headmaster thundered. 'I ordered you to teach the boy, yet you gave him such a hard time going about it that he was bound to fail. Then, in the end, you discontinued the lessons at a most inopportune time. And what for? So as not to have your pride wounded in front of James Potter's child? I find your judgement severely impaired, Professor!'

'James Potter tried to murder me!' The petulance in Snape's voice seemed only to upset the Headmaster further.

'He was young,' said Dumbledore. 'And foolish. As were you. But that is not the point here. You disobeyed me, Severus, and very nearly injured a student in the process. I will hear no more of your petty grudges.'

'Petty?' Snape's voice went very quiet. 'I risked my life giving Potter those lessons.'

The fight seemed to bleed out of him, leaving only bitterness behind. 'I don't know why you keep me around anymore,' he said. 'After fourteen years you still prefer him over me.'

'Are you talking of James now, or of Harry?' Disappointment, and a touch of hurt coloured Dumbledore's voice, and he sighed heavily.

'Leave us. I can see that I'm not getting through to you.' He turned his back on the Potions Master, walking to stand in front of the lead glass window.

'Wait…' Snape stepped forward.

'Forgive me, Headmaster,' he said after a moment's hesitation. 'I will do what you ask of me. Let me teach the boy again. I will do better this time. I promise to take your words to heart.'

Dumbledore continued to stare out the window. 'No, Severus,' he said. 'I am unwilling trust you with Harry anymore. I will take over his lessons myself. You are dismissed.'

Snape bowed his head to Dumbledore's turned back, and left the office, but his long greasy hair could not quite conceal that he was deeply cut.

At the time, Minerva had not dwelled on this incident, more interested in the welfare of their favourite student than in her miserable colleague. Snape had deserved the reprimand. He could be harsh and vindictive, and to Harry Potter, he had been a pitiful excuse for a teacher. Those two had brought out the worst in each other, increasingly so as the task of protecting the spirited and independent boy grew more difficult.

But it was Harry who had revealed to everyone that Snape's loyalty to Dumbledore had never wavered.

If he, who had been abused and bullied by the man could find it in himself to forgive, why could not she?

Where Snape's relationship to Dumbledore had been problematic at times, that with the others on staff had been far from cordial. In all of his seventeen years of teaching, he was never included into the collegial fellowship. To some extent, the fault had been his own. He was never sociable, and too proud to put an effort into befriending anyone.

But when Dumbledore had first brought him in as a newly reformed death eater, they had greeted him with cold distrust, recoiling from his presence as though evil was written plainly on his face. She too, had objected the Headmaster's decision, thinking that the young man was unfit for the profession.

'Headmaster, with all due respect, I believe you have committed a grave mistake.'

They had been walking the grounds, a habit Dumbledore occasionally indulged with the most trusted members of his staff.

'What do you mean, Minerva?'

'Severus Snape,' she said, 'what else? You have forced this- this felon down on our heads. He is a bad sort. The worst there is. And you have brought him here to do what? Teach our innocent children?'

Dumbledore sighed. 'What is it he has done this time?'

'Done? Did I not speak clearly before? This man is a heartless murderer. Foul and dishonourable. This corrupt… creature does not belong in a school!'

'Severus came to me at the peril of his own life, to atone for his sins,' said the Headmaster. 'He is of great use to me, and I know with the outmost certainty that he will not harm anyone, ever again. I must ask for your patience and faith.'

She looked at her employer in surprise. 'But he is wicked and disrespectful, and cares for none other than himself. If anyone deserves to have their soul sucked out by a dementor, he must be the one.'

Dumbledore frowned. 'Do not speak so assuredly of the worth of others,' he said. 'I know his heart, Minerva. He is his own worst enemy, and you cannot judge him any more harshly than he has judged himself. His regrets are already consuming him. I ask you not to like him, merely to show tolerance of his plight. Do you not trust me?'

'Of course I trust you, Headmaster. But I do not trust him. That is the problem.'

'I will stand for Severus Snape,' said Dumbledore. 'He is under my protection, and if you have further complaints, you will take them to me.'

'Then I shall say no more.' She nodded respectfully. 'But I fear greatly that we all are going to regret this.'

Despite Dumbledore's support, Snape had quickly become Hogwarts' most despised teacher.

Thinking back, Minerva regretted not having shown him more support. But the truth was that she had never really learned to trust him. She doubted anyone had.

Oh, she had accepted him as a teacher, and as an Order member in the end, but only as far as she had trusted Dumbledore to keep his leash. At his murder, her faith in Snape had shattered like glass, cool regard turning instantly to revulsion.

Even before his apparent treason, Snape could be intolerable. He seemed to hold onto a deeply set belief that the world had it in for him, and during times of stress, he would alienate both students and staff with his flaring temper and hostile manner. It had been difficult on those occasions, to summon sympathy for the spiteful man, and at several junctures, she had merely stood by as others had accused him, behind his back and to his face.

It was the Sunday morning following the Yule Ball, and several of the teachers were gathered in the staffroom, chatting over their eleven o'clock tea. As was wont those days, the discussion turned around who had placed Harry Potter's name into the goblet of fire.

'They say Karakoff used to be a death eater, so I'm putting my sickle on him,' Sinistra had said with conviction.

Hooch leaned in conspiratorially. 'Oh, but rumour has it that the Malfoy boy is assuming his father's role,' she whispered. 'I overheard Zabini, Parkinson and Bulstrode in the hallway the other day, and let me tell you, those Slytherin fourth-years are about as wicked as they come.'

Minerva had snorted into her cup. It was a well-known fact that Rolanda Hooch was the biggest gossip in school. Her theories on Sirius Black's escape from Azkaban had been the stuff of legends.

'What's that, Minerva,' Hooch asked sharply. 'If you don't believe me just look to their head of house, he's gone from bad to worse lately. It was only last week he brought Longbottom to tears. Again."

Hooch shook her head in put-upon exasperation. 'I saw it for myself,' she said. 'The boy spilt pumpkin juice on a library book, and Snape hauled him off to detention by his ear. You know how he gets. Poor lad had to be sent to the Infirmary by Filch. He'd tripped in the dungeon stairs and sprained his ankle.'

'It's true that Severus has been on edge lately,' provided Sprout. 'The day before yesterday, he told me off in front of my seventh-years for borrowing a chalkboard from the dungeon. Rather rudely, at that.'

Minerva had to admit that there was merit to what they said. The rapidly diminishing points of house Gryffindor were evidence enough, not even mentioning the increasing number of complaints from distressed parents. Augusta Longbottom was only one among many.

'Everyone knows Snape's a death eater', said Alastor Moody. He was never one to miss an opportunity to emphasise this point, imposter or not. 'He's about as bad as they get, he-'

Just then, the door to the staffroom opened. In strode Snape, stopping short just inside of the threshold to scowl at the small gathering. Firmly in place was the mask he reserved for those he did not trust at all.

The atmosphere in the room changed, and everyone went unnaturally quiet.

'Speak of the devil,' said Moody snidely, his magical eye trained on the newcomer. Hooch tittered into her tea.

Snape usually made himself scarce whenever Moody was present. Which was unfortunate, because others on staff thought it suspicious that he refused to spend time with the old auror. This time though, he could not turn around and leave without losing face.

'What was that, Moody?' Snape asked. He sat stiffly in the seat closest to the door, observing them warily.

'We were discussing who has it in for Harry Potter this year,' said Hooch. 'Not that you'd be interested. Whomever they are, I expect you to fully sympathise with their agenda.'

Though she was smiling, it was hard to tell whether she was being serious.

Snape grunted irritably, but did not speak. As he made a move towards the tray on the table, Moody, who sat closer, picked it up from under his nose, and held it out to Sinistra. She accepted the last biscuit with a sweet 'thank you.'

'I know what you think of me,' said Snape then. 'What you all say behind my back.'

That I'm a death eater hung unspoken in the air.

'Don't be so dramatic, Professor,' Sinistra said, but Moody cut her off.

'Yet you do not deny it.' It was not a question. 'Like I say, Snape, some spots just won't come off.'

Several of the other people in the room, Minerva included, shifted uncomfortably.

'We'll soon know, won't we?' Moody continued, 'when Voldemort returns-'

Snape could not hide the flinch, and an ugly flush spread on his sallow cheeks.

Moody smiled knowingly. 'When Voldemort returns, old Snape here will flee to the hills. Mark my words. But you can't hide forever, snake.'

'Alastor, really!' Even Hooch was scandalised.

Snape stood from his chair, hands clenched into fist at his sides. 'At least then you'll be rid of me,' he said, 'it is after all what you have always wanted.'

She had been the only one to go after him when he stormed off. As she stayed him by grasping his arm in a deserted corridor, he recoiled as though her touch had burnt him.

'You shouldn't take it so hard, Severus,' she said. 'We both know what Moody is like. Since coming here to teach, he has seemed… well, not quite right in the head, if you'll forgive me for saying. I fear his paranoia is getting the better of him.'

Snape shook his head. 'I don't care,' he said. 'I don't care about that lunatic Moody. I don't care about any of them. They can all go to hell.'

'Then what's the matter with you, Severus?' she asked. 'You've been unbearable lately. You bite everyone's head off, and the students are complaining about you. It's no wonder they are beginning to talk.'

'Let them complain,' said Snape. 'They've never been fond of me and I cannot blame them.'

'Tell me what's wrong,' she insisted. 'It is my responsibility as deputy to see to their welfare. You are behaving worse now than you ever have, I fear I must soon make an official enquiry.'

'You want the truth, Minerva,' he said harshly. 'Fine. It's coming back.'

She inhaled. 'Of what do you speak?'

He bared his teeth. They were crooked and neglected, and gleamed yellow in the candlelight from the wall sconce.

'The dark mark.'

'What are you saying?'

'He will return,' said Snape. 'The Dark Lord will return. It's growing darker every day.'

Her heart had frozen in her chest. She knew that Dumbledore had his suspicions, but here was undeniable proof. What fate would the muggleborn students face? Their futures were bound to turn dark and uncertain. Did the Headmaster have a plan in place to secure them?

She looked back at the man in front of her. His assistance in the last war had been indispensable. Would he flee, as Moody had said?

'What will you do?' she asked.

Snape was silent for some time, looking off to the distance. 'Dumbledore expects me to go to him,' he said. 'He won't order it directly, but we both know that…' He swallowed. 'We both know that I owe it to him.'

He looked askew at her with an odd expression. 'After all these years, I don't think I'll last very long. I haven't occluded, or tasted an unforgiveable in fourteen years.' He chuckled darkly. 'You know, my greatest wish is for him to say 'stay, my boy. You don't have to go, we'll find another way'.'

'But you'll go, won't you?'

He had not answered her, but not half a year later, he had returned to his master's side to atone for his sins.

In what way he had managed to convince the tyrant to spare his life, and what his punishment had been, Minerva never knew. Yet she had no doubt that it had been merciless.

How Snape must have dreaded this fate, knowing that his treason would cost him dearly.

The tightness of his shoulders, and the haunted look in his eye had never left him after this. The next time she had seen him relaxed was when he lay dead and still in the infirmary, the night after the final battle.