A/N: I wrote this a couple months ago after the death of a dear friend of mine and have hesitated in posting it. Given the mood I was in at the time, it's darker than what I usually write. This takes place between Chapters 2 and 3 of HBP.
The silence between them seemed to stretch for an eternity, broken only by their breathing; Albus's calm rhythmic breaths and Severus's uneven, shallow gasps.
Now that he was finished speaking, the younger man refused to meet the elder's gaze. He stared past him to the portrait behind the desk and waited. Yet the response he was waiting for did not come.
"Do you understand what I have said?" Severus finally asked, panic and guilt turning the question into a snarl.
"Yes, surprisingly enough, I have a good grasp of the English language," Albus replied, still the outward picture of calm. He studied Severus a moment more before continuing. "I will not give you the reaction you are looking for Severus. I am sorry to disappoint you."
At this Severus's gaze jerked back to the Headmaster, disbelief wide in his eyes.
"How can you sit there so calm? I have just sworn to murder you and you look like you are about to offer me tea."
"Actually, I was," Albus said, a faint smile on his lips that did not quite extend to his eyes; the only feature that betrayed this calm façade and displayed a small amount of worry. "As I recall you take it with milk, no sugar?"
He reached over and picked up a teacup but Severus rose quickly and slapped it away. The sound of breaking china was strangely loud in the silent room.
"I don't want any bloody tea," Severus growled, his features contorted in fury.
"Well, there was no reason to be uncivil," Albus continued, seemingly unfazed, although his smile was even fainter and his eyes slightly more concerned. The cup was repaired with a flick of his wand, but he did not offer it again. Instead he rose and moved to look out the window. The late afternoon summer sun was glistening off the lake. Without realizing it, his damaged right hand was gently cradled in his left. This gesture was not lost on the younger man and if he had possessed less self control, he would have winced at the gesture. Finally Albus turned back around to face Severus's piercing stare.
"You understand that your vow must be fulfilled," he finally said, speaking as one would to a confused child.
"I am less important, sir," Severus said breaking his gaze away and turning his eyes downward. His voice was barely above a whisper. "It would be more humane to just let me die."
At this, all traces of a smile faded from Albus's lips as he stared at Severus. His head was bowed and his dark hair had fallen into his face. Albus could remember all too well the frightened, broken young man who had come to him fifteen years before and confessed his darkest secrets. He had sat in the very same position on that day as well.
"Yes," Albus said tiredly, "perhaps it would be more humane. But sometimes even the side of good cannot do what is kind and must instead settle for what is right. I have asked much of you, Severus; more than anyone else. And I am afraid that I must ask even more from you now."
Severus gave a nearly imperceptible shudder but otherwise made no response. Albus sighed. Part of him almost wished Severus would refuse, but he knew he would not. In the end, Severus would do what was asked of him and seemingly betray everything he was trying to protect. They continued to sit in silence several minutes more as the shadows lengthened in the room.
"Why?" Severus finally asked. His voice was quiet now, the opposite of the ranting, furious man of earlier. He did not need to say more.
"You know it is important for you to retain your status as a spy," Albus said and the other man gave a small nod. "But there are reasons beyond that. This is something that Harry must do on his own. When the time comes to fulfill your vow, I will have given Harry all the information he needs and I will only be a hindrance from that point forward. We all have a roll to play, Severus, and mine is nearing its end."
Severus gave a small snort of disbelief. "Potter! Do you really believe that foolish boy stands a chance without you?"
"Yes, I do," Albus said, calmly. "I have found myself admitting to far too many mistakes lately, and I must again admit to one more. I apologize, Severus, for continuing to force you on the boy and even worse, the boy on you. I know how he brings up… painful… memories. However I must continue to do so."
Severus sighed. "Please, sir, do not tell me that you wish for me to continue Occlumency lessons. I have already explained why I refuse to continue teaching him."
"No, I would not subject either of you to that again," Albus said and the small smile had now returned. "I have decided to appoint you the next Defense Against the Dark Arts professor."
Severus looked at him in surprise, his mouth hanging open in shock. Albus took this lack of response as a positive sign and continued speaking.
"Now, I have explained to you why I would not give you the job before. I could not very well allow the curse to affect your employment at Hogwarts. It was very important that you continue teaching here, both for yourself and for others. However because of these recent events and the actions that you must take by the end of the year, it is clear that this will be your last year here, regardless. We both know that you are the best person for the job and it is my hope that you will help me in preparing Harry for his destiny."
"Potter, always Potter," Severus grumbled, but he did not rant as he might have in the past. It was too important to complete his roll, just as Albus was completing his.
"Now," Albus said reaching for his cloak, "if there is nothing else to discuss, I am on my way to a very important appointment."
"Sir," Severus said, still not rising from his chair, unwilling to allow the conversation to end so quickly. "Could you explain…" He broke off as Albus' gaze settled on him and he felt, not for the first time, that the Headmaster knew what he was going to ask. "How is it that I have brought you news of your inevitable death and yet you seem no more concerned than I would if I told you it would rain tomorrow?"
At this, Albus actually let out a small chuckle; one that reached his eyes this time. "Ah, Severus, but surely you know that all our deaths are inevitable, even Voldemort's. It is only a matter of timing that determines whether we live fifty years or one hundred and fifty."
"Sir, that is not…"
"I know," Albus said, cutting him off before he could finish. "You wish to know why I am unafraid to die."
Severus gave a curt nod and Albus resumed his place at his desk looking across to Severus now, his appointment temporarily forgotten. He smiled; his eyes kind and understanding and he knew that he words he shared with Severus on this day would stay with the younger man for years.
"When you have lived as many years as I have, and I dearly hope that you do, there is very little in this life that you have not experienced. I have seen the rise of, and participated in the fall of several dark lords. I have witnessed the secret of immortality in the Philosopher's Stone and I have seen some of the greatest sacrifices known to wizardkind. I have seen both the very good and the very bad that our world has to offer. But it has been many years now since I have seen something that truly surprised me." He paused now and looked across the desk. Severus was staring at him intently as if hoping to discover the secrets of life in the words he had to say. "In short, Severus, I am ready."
Seveus frowned. "But how do you know when you are ready?"
"If you have to ask, then you are not," Albus said simply and the creases of Severus's frown deepened. The Headmaster leaned back in his chair and smiled once again. "No, Severus, you are not ready. Although you have lived under threat of death, or worse, for many years, I do not believe your time has yet come. I know right now death would seem the easy choice for you, compared to what you will be asked to face before this is all over, but I believe you still have some life yet to live. Real life, not this double life that has been forced on you. I give you my word, Severus, that I will find a way for the truth to be known once the prophecy has been fulfilled. Perhaps then, you can live in peace."
With these words, Severus's face contorted into a strange expression of disbelief and hope, but he did not argue. Instead he rose from his chair and fastened his cloak.
"Very well, Sir," he said quietly. "I will not keep you any longer from your appointment."
Albus also rose and moved toward the door. He saw the serious expression on the other man's face and the despair in his eyes.
"Do not worry for me, Severus," Albus said as he moved to open the door. "Just imagine the surprises that will be in store for me in the next life."
Severus nodded as he turned to leave. His eyes looked strangely watery and Albus felt a weight settle on him that he knew would never be lifted.
"I will be returning to my home for the remainder of the summer," Severus said. He had once again regained control over his emotions and spoke in a clear voice. "We will, of course, discuss this in further detail. It is my hope that I can convince the Malfoy boy to confide in me. Perhaps we can end this with an acceptable resolution for all involved."
"Perhaps," Albus said, and he watched Severus descend the stairs. It was only once the man was safely out of sight that Albus sat down in a nearby chair, bowed his head, and grieved.