Author's Notes: Many thanks to abigail89 for her help. All remaining errors belong to me.
It was a Muggle saying, if she remembered it correctly, about eyes and windows and souls. About telling stories, exposing lies, screaming truths from deep pools of brown or blue or green. About a heart laid bare, unguarded and defenseless, ready to be read like words from a book. Questions answered. Guilt professed. Love declared. Concern. Fear. Hope. All revealed - without a sound ever being uttered.
It was true for many, she often thought. While the students spoke of hours spent studying, their eyes spoke of late night trysts behind the greenhouse. While they gave detailed accounts of personally witnessing Peeves causing damage to the Hufflepuff common room, their eyes confessed their culpability and their lack of remorse. While they gave assurances that the teasing didn't bother them and taking away house points on their behalf wasn't necessary, their eyes told a tale of hurt and fear and shame. Most could conceal much through speech and word, but their eyes, these windows, could not.
Yes, it was true for many…but not all.
What of one so schooled in steeling his expressions that it never faltered? What of one who spent a lifetime training himself to divulge nothing? One who could control the muscles of his face, forcing them to stay completely immobile? To keep his very pupils from dilating despite the daylight? What of eyes that told no story but the one they wanted you to know?
He was hard not to notice, even for a novice teacher barely out of school herself. Painfully thin, long crooked fingers, stoop shouldered. Lank hair that draped into his eyes and covered his face. Skin so ashen she was sure it would turn to dust if it were to be touched by the sun.
Brilliant. Misdirected perhaps, but brilliant. Far ahead of the other students in his class. Far ahead of the seventh years despite being five years younger.
And angry. Vehemently so.
Rage radiated from his body, pulsed through the air around him and pounded against her, burning her. It was a thick bubble that surrounded him, following him like a cloud wherever he walked, standing as a barrier between him and the surrounding world. When he passed, this cloud of ire slid across her skin leaving trails of acid. A fury so palpable, it stuck in her throat. It pricked at her heart.
He was often a favorite topic in the staff room, this dark boy so full of hate. Murmurs and whispers told over cold tea and stale cookies, said with hateful sneers and spiteful glances. They said nasty things about his hair and teeth. They laughed at the torment he received from other, better liked, students. They plotted vicious detentions. This burned her more.
She felt for him, this dark boy who hated and was hated in turn. But try as she might she could not reach him. Sympathy was met with disdain. Courtesy was met with insolence. Respect was met with mistrust. Compassion was met with near violence. He had built a stone wall, crafted it brick by brick over a hundred years and a thousand cruelties. He guarded the wall with armaments of suspicion and loathing. And his eyes had no story to tell.
It wasn't until she was called to the infirmary to see to him that she noticed his hands.
There was an incident with the Potter boy. Sirius Black was involved as well. She had a feeling it had to do with young Remus, but no one was talking. Albus asked her to look in on her dark boy as he sat in the infirmary. The head of Slytherin house was detained elsewhere, which told her the headmaster didn't want him involved, that he didn't want anyone involved. Why he called her to be by the boy's side was a mystery, except perhaps that Albus understood more than he ever let on.
The dark boy sat up in his bed, his shoulders slumped, his back arched as if he was ready to curl into himself, and his elbows rested on his thighs.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
He looked up, his face as blank as ever, his mouth set in a straight line and his eyes dead.
"Fine," he replied plainly.
"May I get you some water?"
"Are you hungry?"
She looked down as she struggled for words that contained no sympathy, or courtesy, or respect or compassion, and was instantly drawn to his hands. The forefinger on his right hand scratched repeatedly against the bed. The yellow-stained fingernail moved in a steady rhythm like a heart beat against the stark white bed linens. As she watched, it began to dig the slightest bit deeper, leaving an indentation as it passed over the bedding. Soon it was joined by its brothers, one at a time. And as each finger was added they moved slightly slower and dug slightly deeper until he hand was bent into a claw. All the while he remained silent, his eyes unseeing.
Over time she would learn to read his hands, to understand the significance of their movements. To read their story.
If he rubbed his thumb against the pads of his other fingers, sequentially, he was trying to make a choice. If the nail of his forefinger was scratching into his thumb, he was plotting something. If he made a loose fist and stuck his thumb between his middle and ring finger, he was lying. If he was lightly grasping at his robes, he was embarrassed. If he tapped a desk or his side while standing, he was pleased. If his thumb hooked around his forefinger and pushed it down, he was angry; the harder he pushed the angrier he was.
She soon became fluent in the language of his hands, learning more and more about the boy the rest of world would rather forget. Before she knew it, he finished his schooling, and like so many students, disappeared into the tumult of the times. She had heard rumors of where he ended up, much of it mere speculation, but sadly she knew in her heart they were probably true.
As a war began to rage she thought of him. As the death toll mounted she wondered if he was responsible. When a Dark Mark flew into the air she wondered if he cast it. And as much as she hated herself for it she grieved for him, her dark boy, the lost child that no one cared to looked for.
Then one day she would was again called by Albus to look after someone in the infirmary. She wasn't surprised to see him in the same bed. He sat with his shoulders slumped, his back arched as if he was ready to curl into himself, his elbows on his thighs. And his hands. His hangs hanging limply, clearly saying he had given up.
Minerva McGonagall sat in the staff room and stared at the hands she had come to know well.
She saw them lie perfectly still for three weeks after James and Lily were killed. She saw the nail of his forefinger scratch into his thumb they day they heard that young Harry would be coming to Hogwarts. She saw his thumb hook around his forefinger and push it down nearly to the point of breaking when Remus Lupin came to teach. She saw them perfectly still again when they knew for certain that the Dark Lord was resurrected.
Today, they sat folded on a dark mahogany table, the picture of calm.
The meeting progressed. Dumbledore made plans to fortify the castle against possible attack now that the rest of the world finally acknowledged the truth. Professor Vector would need to change all the wards. Professor Flitwick would need to charm the suits of armor to guard the doors at night. Madame Hooch would have to train students in defensive flying. All secret passages leading into and out of the castle would need to be sealed by Minerva herself. All letters and parcels would need to be approved by Professors Sprout, Sinistra, or Binns before entering or leaving the castle. And several enchanted items would need to be secured by Severus Snape.
Minerva watched carefully as Severus's intertwined fingers tightened, going slightly white knuckled.
"If I might, Headmaster, to which items are you referring to specifically?"
"Of course, Severus. There are a few dozen Dark Magic Detectors left by Alastor Moody that I would rather not have lying about, several charmed Muggle items that have been confiscated from students, a number of talismans, a death shroud, some enchanted weaponry, and the Mirror of Erised."
Minerva's mouth nearly fell open when, upon hearing the last item on the list, Severus's hands did something they had never done before: they trembled.
"As you wish," he said evenly, his voice betraying nothing, his hands speaking volumes.
When the meeting ended he was the first to leave as was his custom, claiming no time to dawdle with idle chit-chat or foolish gossip. More likely he knew that he was still a favorite topic in the staff room.
"He's always in such a hurry, isn't he?"
"Really, where does he have to go?"
"It isn't like anyone is waiting for him."
"No. Why ever not? With that lovely attitude of his."
"And that heavenly smile."
It still burned, and Minerva had had quite enough. "Are you all so utterly flawless that you have the right to be critical of anyone else? Or perhaps you are all just so frightfully dull that you have nothing better to talk about? Well, if you need some topics for conversation, and you so desperately want to talk about Severus, allow me to help you. Perhaps you can discuss how he risks his life daily to gather information without so much as thank you. Or about how he is personally counseling the students of his house in an effort to keep them from taking the mark like so many of their parents. Or how about how he was betrayed by everyone he ever dared to call a friend. I'm sure the torment he has faced in his life is good for a few laughs." She stormed out after Severus, her hair flying out of its tight bun and an indignant flush scalding her cheeks.
Burning. Always burning.
Minerva had no idea why she wanted to see Severus, but a twisting feeling in her gut told her something wasn't right. His private quarters were empty, as were his classrooms and his office. He didn't appear to be anywhere on the grounds or in the castle, and unless she was ready to navigate the labyrinth that was the dungeons, she ran out of places to look. As her last option, she found herself standing at the threshold of the Headmaster's office, eye to eye with the gargoyle that stood guard.
"Is everything all right, Minerva?" The voice from behind her startled her. Until he spoke she hadn't realized how on edge she was.
"Albus," she said breathlessly, her hand over her heart in an attempt to calm it. "You really should give people a bit of warning."
"My apologies," he said with a short bow of his head. "Is there something wrong?"
"No. I don't think so. I was just wondering if you knew where Severus was."
He gave her a small smile, his blues eyes looking thoughtful. "I think I have a good idea. Why don't you step into my office and we can discuss it?"
Albus issued an invitation with the geniality of a favorite grandfather who knew that he would never be refused. He led the way and she followed, the ever obedient granddaughter. Once in his inner office, she sat across from him and waited patiently while he situated himself and conjured some tea.
"You're worried about Severus," he stated, nothing of a question in his remark.
"I worry about everyone," she replied softly.
"Of that I have no doubts." He waved his forefinger, directing some milk and three lumps of sugar into his cup. "But Severus was always different, wasn't he?"
"Severus is different."
He nodded slowly at her reply as he swirled his finger stirring the spoon in his tea. "Of that I have no doubts, either."
Minerva was starting to worry. "Where is he, Albus?"
"Saying goodbye to an old friend I would imagine."
"Go into the corridor, Minerva."
"And do what exactly?"
"You'll know when you get there."
Minerva had dealt with Albus and his cryptic messages long enough to know that all she had to do was exactly what he told her to, so without saying so much as a goodbye she left his office and entered the corridor.
Try as she might, she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. She looked down the long halls that led to and from the office, looking for some sign to let her know where to go or what to do. She was prepared to go back into the headmaster's office when everything went dark. The torches that lined the walls and illuminated the halls all went out at once. Minerva froze. Then the torch closet to her left sparked. She turned to face it in time to see three others light in a row leading down the east corridor.
Without hesitation she followed the burning lamps as they continued to spark down the passage. She followed them up and down staircases, through dusty halls, and into a part of the castle that hadn't been used in years. After nearly an hour of walking she came upon a door she had never seen before. All at once, the lights that had led her on her journey all blew out, save one that sat next to the door. Slowly, she reached out the tips of her fingers and grazed the door's latch. She paused, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
The room looked to be a very old classroom. Some old-fashioned desks and chairs were piled in a corner and everything was coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. There wasn't very much light in the room but there was enough for Minerva to find Severus standing immobile before the Mirror of Erised.
She immediately looked at his hands hoping for some sign of what he was feeling, only to find them hanging limply at his side as they did when he turned his back on the Dark Lord, when James and Lily Potter were killed, when Harry confirmed the resurrection of a nightmare. Not the reaction one would expect from a man staring at the depths of his deepest desire.
"Severus," she called softly. When he didn't answer she took a step toward him. "Severus," she continued as she inched ever closer. "Are you all right?"
Without knowing what else to say or do she found herself standing next to Severus before the mirror. "What is it, Severus?" His eyes, forever unseeing, stared blankly in the mirror. She put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Please Severus, tell me. What do you see?"
"I see," he began, the words sticking in his raspy voice. "I see me."
Minerva pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. "What else do you see?"
"Nothing. Just me."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm playing with dragons."
"Are you….are you riding them?" she asked.
"No, they are toy dragons. I see myself as a child playing with toy dragons. It's the same thing every time. For years, I've looked at this thing, since it came to the castle so long ago, and I've wondered what it could mean."
"You don't know?"
"Ridiculous, isn't it?" he laughed mirthlessly. "My deepest desire staring at me and I haven't the foggiest idea what it means."
Minerva tightened her grasp on his shoulder and he turned his head to face her.
"It means," she began, "it means that you want to start again. That you want to help that boy avoid the future he is about to face. That you want to tell him that his destiny isn't inevitable, that the choices he will make can be reversed. That the lifetime of unhappiness before him doesn't have to be. You want to protect him."
Suddenly, she saw a bit of that boy staring back at her. "How do you know?"
She brought her hand up to his face and laid it on his cheek. "Because I see that same thing every time I look at you."
And as those words escaped her lips, as they drifted in the space between and curled themselves around his ears, they found their way to his eyes, to the cold, detached eyes of the boy who never was. Minerva watched as a lifetime flashed through the impossible blackness of them: the loneliness of his youth, the bitter hatred of his adolescence, the shame of his adulthood, the pain of his decisions, the fear of the consequences, of broken hearts and tattered spirits, and dark corridors, and dreamless nights, and resentment, and jealously, with only glimpses of pride, and just the littlest bit of acceptance.
It was an epic tale of the rise and fall of a life, of a journey with no destination, of a prince with no kingdom, and a boy playing with toy dragon. And it cut her like a shard of jagged glass.
But it no longer burned.