Summary: Albus Dumbledore has one year to live—which means he has one year to put his affairs in order, prepare Harry Potter to face Voldemort… and do penance for all the times he has wronged Severus Snape. AD/SS slash.

Warnings: Slash. Heavy religious allusions, which some may find offensive in this context. Slightly OOC characterizations because of DH canon complaints.

Rated: R


Mea Culpa

By Daphne Dunham


Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatæ Mariæ semper Virgini,
beato Michæli Archangelo, beato Ioanni Baptistæ, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et vobis, fratres (et tibi pater)…

It is always with a certain amount of guilt that Albus Dumbledore looks upon the too-sullen, tired-eyed form of Severus Snape. There have been, after all, so many times in the past when Albus has belittled him, neglected him, denied him: the day he made James Potter into a heroic Head Boy for saving Severus at the Willow; the night he saw the young man sneaking off school grounds after N.E.W.T.s but did nothing to stop him—even though he was quite certain Severus was determined to commit his life to Lord Voldemort's service; the skepticism and outright cruelty with which he first regarded his Death-Eater-turned-spy; and the multitude of occasions when he refused to allow the pallid wizard to teach his favorite subject, Defense Against the Dark Arts. The headmaster has always had his reasons for these decisions, of course. But logic is not always a comfort, and even watching Severus now, years and countless buggerings later, there are moments when Albus cannot help but tacitly reproach himself for the times he has hurt his lover. Sometimes it amazes him that Severus has forgiven him such misdeeds; but sometimes, he thinks, it must also amaze Severus that the headmaster has forgiven him his sins as well.

"Can I tempt you with more wine, Severus?" Albus offers.

It's just the two of them in the castle tonight, a rare event—and a short-lived one at that: tomorrow, the rest of the faculty will arrive for staff meetings and briefings on the launch of the new school year. And the day after that, the students will descend. And the day after that, classes will start. And the day after that, Albus can only begin to guess… perhaps Death Eaters will attack the school… or Draco Malfoy will successfully attempt to assassinate him… or Severus—dear, sweet Severus—will be caught spying…. But for now, there is nothing but the two of them… and the quiet… and the remnants of their dinner—some lamb bones, a solitary roll, and a half-empty bottle of wine—sitting on the table between. And so Albus raises the partially consumed bottle—the best in his collection—and looks warmly over the table at his lover while he is still at leisure to do so.

"Just a drop, Albus," Severus replies with a nod.

He raises his goblet toward the headmaster, and Albus promptly dispenses the rich, scarlet liquid, first into Severus' glass and then into his own. He's dimly aware that the younger wizard averts his eyes as he pours, trying not to look at the unsightly vision of his charred hand. Though they seldom talk about the headmaster's hand—or the curse that will end Albus' life within the year, presuming Draco and Severus aren't forced to do it first—it is a constant reminder of these limits on their remaining time together. Despite this, Albus grins behind his goblet as he drinks from it, relishing the site of Severus before him—the way the younger wizard consumes wine is an art, the way sophisticated Muggles do it, a trademark of his mixed upbringing: he swirls the wine a moment, breathes it in, then slowly takes a sip.

"It's good to be back," Severus says after a few moments of silent meditation on the wine. He is calm tonight, quiet, and it does Albus' heart good to see him take advantage of this rare chance at relaxation. "I'll sleep a little easier tonight, I think, knowing that Wormtail is no longer watching my every move to see if I betray my loyalties."

"It's good to have you back, Severus," Albus reassured him in earnest. "I've missed you. Tremendously. And I cannot say that I am not more than a little relieved to see you safer inside these walls once more."

Lately, Albus has tried to take every opportunity possible to let the dark-haired man know he is appreciated and loved. There are, after all, finite times he'll have the chance to do so, and considering Severus' past—the ever-present themes of neglect, rejection, and loneliness that eventually drove him to Voldemort's service—Albus cannot help but worry about who will care for his lover once he's gone. There is so much more he wants and needs to tell Severus than these reassurances of affection, of course. He wants to tell him everything he knows about Voldemort, for instance—but for his own safety, as well as that of their mission, he can't. Albus wants to tell him how Lily Potter cried from gratitude and relief when he told her it was Severus who had warned him of the Dark Lord's plan to kill her son—but for concern that the young man will be driven mad by this, he shouldn't. He wants to tell him that Lily confessed to him in a quiet moment that she had never stopped caring for Severus—but for fear of losing his lover's liking to the memory of the only girl he'd ever loved, the headmaster won't. And this evening, Albus wants to tell him that he's finally conceded: he's going to allow Severus to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts this year.

Of course Albus has understood for years why Severus wants the position: his natural affinity for and aptitude in the subject. Initially, this motivation was escalated in an attempt to fulfill his master's—Voldemort's—command, to succeed in ascending to the position he had once tried and failed to obtain. Then—and always ever since—it has been because of his rebellion against the Dark Lord, because of his disillusionment and his vendetta. Severus has wanted to arm others against his loathed master.

As with most of the decisions—good and bad—that Albus has made in his life, though, it was part wisdom, part selfishness on his behalf that has kept him from assigning Severus to his preferred post all these years. On the one hand, there has been the inescapable truth that the Defense Against the Dark Arts position is cursed. Placing Severus in the post would leave him vulnerable to unknown circumstances that would cause him to vacate the position—and, possibly, the school, where Albus had kept him for so long for his own protection from doubting Death Eaters. Denying Severus the position was a simple matter of his own safety and of the school's best interests. On the other hand, Albus had, in truth, ulterior motives: he could not bear the thought of possibly losing his lover to the professorship's curse—could not risk either the convenience of holding him every night or the catastrophe of harm finding him, hurting him, killing him. In the end, the headmaster could no sooner risk Severus than he could his own heart.

Circumstances, though, have changed now. Permanently. For weeks, Albus has been carefully planning the moment when he'll tell Severus about his change in heart: the evening, the meal, the wine, the delicate way in which he'll tease him before breaking the news…. But now that the moment has come to actually say the words, the headmaster can't seem to bring himself to do so. It's more difficult than he had expected; his heart can't bear the risk involved in the reality of his resolution. Even now, with the hour growing late and the wine nearly gone, Albus is still unable to bring himself to do it. He swallows hard, knowing the moment has come, but when he opens his mouth, he once again finds the words he actually speaks disappointing.

"It would be a shame to let that perfectly good roll go to waste," Albus says instead, tearing it in half and offering the larger portion to the dark-haired wizard across from him. "Let's share it, shall we?"

Quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere:
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…

Lily Potter has no place in the headmaster's bedroom when he's with Severus. Nor does Voldemort. Or time. Severus does the work tonight, as he's been prone to do lately; Albus thinks it must be his guilt for having been unable to do more to save his hand or—for that matter—his life. But Albus is not one to deny a man the chance to soothe his conscience, and so he does not protest as Severus eases him onto his bed. He sits, back pressed against the headboard, flesh frenzied, watching the younger wizard navigate through the dimly lit room. Shadows cross Severus' bare chest and legs, forming a patchwork of grey on white across his skin as he moves into Albus' lap, as he straddles him, as he pierces himself on the headmaster's hardness.

For a moment, they're still. Then, Albus raises his hand—his good hand. His fingertips trace lazy figure eights across Severus' collarbone, over his shoulders and back again. Gradually, his hands move lower, over one of the hook-nosed man's nipples. He pauses a moment to tease it, a process he repeats with the other when he hears Severus' breathing quicken. In a moment, Albus' hand forages further, down the cleft of his lover's chest, lacing through the dark hairs that stretch from his navel southward, tracing around Severus' sack and up his length before curling firmly around him. Severus groans—no, not quite groans, sobs—longingly. And then he begins to move.

Their intimate moments have become considerably more intense over the past couple months—since they both discovered Albus is a marked man; since the headmaster's incident with Marvolo Gaunt's ring; since Severus was pressured to make Narcissa Malfoy's Unbreakable Vow, sealing his commitment to killing the headmaster. They treat every instant as though it is the last—which it may be, as they are in a race to the death against time. They treat every instant as though it is sacrosanct—which it is, for it is the only time when they are allowed to concentrate solely on themselves, on one another. Tonight is no exception, of course: gazes become fixed; rocking falls in time with stroking; gasps punctuate sighs; breath matches breath.

It takes great restraint, but Albus waits for Severus to come before permitting his own release. It's a guilty pleasure of his: he likes to enjoy the way the younger wizard's voice catches in his throat and how he struggles to keep his eyes open when he comes—open so he can see Albus, so he can remember these moments long after they've passed. Despite his efforts, though, Severus' long lashes flutter closed, his head is tossed back, and his grasp on the headmaster's shoulders tightens. To Albus, it's an odd and beautiful thing to watch this man, who very seldom looses control, whose life depends on maintaining control, become so discomposed. Witnessing it is enough to make his hips buck lustfully, to burrow deeper into the man pulsating around him until he, too, is nothing more than a trembling wreck.

Neither man says anything for quite some time afterwards. They just lay together like a living crucifix: perpendicular, Severus' head resting on Albus' abdomen, Albus' good hand draped protectively across Severus' chest. They stare up through the shadows to the ceiling. No words are needed; without speaking, they both know that they are thinking the same thing: the castle is exceptionally quiet tonight—no students, no faculty to intrude, to rush them, to make them feel guilty for these moments alone. Tomorrow, this will change, but for tonight, they can enjoy this; they can enjoy each other.

It is Albus who breaks the silence first, broaching the topic of their finite calm. The time, he knows, has come for him to tell Severus about his new post; he cannot avoid it any longer. "Things are going to be different this year, you know," he says softly.

The headmaster can feel Severus' body tense beside him. "Yes, I'm well aware," the latter says quietly, with an undercurrent of sudden coldness and discomfort. "There's your pending death and the Vow and Draco and the fact that I'm meant to kill you or be killed myself—not to mention the Dark Lord gaining further power, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor—who isn't me, yet again. And I suppose you'll insist I take Potter"—even in the dim light, Albus can see him glower as he says the name—"into my N.E.W.T.-level Potions class despite my better judgment."

Amusement plays at the corners of the headmaster's lips; it's oddly endearing the way Severus predictably works himself up in this fashion, dramatizing and darkening reality with his bleak assumptions, and Albus can't help but tease him. "Well, yes…" he replies slowly, noting how Severus scoffs and rolls his eyes—most likely at the thought of teaching Harry Potter, Albus imagines. "…And no," he adds.

Severus sighs impatiently, annoyed with his lover for making light of his concerns; if he were standing, Albus knows, now would be the time he'd cross his arms over his chest and raise his eyebrows in mild defiance.

"You will be teaching Harry this year, Severus," Albus continues. "I know—"

But he stops short. Although Severus says nothing, his anger is clear: he sits up abruptly, brushing off the headmaster's arm, and moves to sit at the edge of the bed, his back to Albus. The headmaster softens. He understands the pain that the idea of teaching Harry Potter is causing him: the boy is a constant reminder of everything wrong he has ever done in his life—of Lily; of becoming a Death Eater; and of the night these sins converged, when he told the Dark Lord about the Prophecy that resulted in the murder of his childhood sweetheart. Teaching Harry Potter is like being in a state of perpetual penance, of shouldering the cross of his errors year in and year out.

Instantly, Albus regrets having toyed with Severus. Hurting the hook-nosed young man has always been the last thing he has wanted to do: Severus has had more pain and torment than three wizards three times his age, and Albus loves him even more. To explain this to him, to prove himself, to make amends, the headmaster slides across the bed to sit beside Severus. He places his hand on the younger wizard's bare shoulder and caresses it affectionately.

"Severus," Albus says tenderly, soothingly. Still, the latter makes no move or sound; he only sits stiffly, staring stubbornly into shadows. Now the headmaster kisses him, softly on the plateau of his shoulder blade. "Severus, please… Listen to me."

"I'm disappointed, Albus," is the cold reply. "You have been letting Potter do as he pleases since the moment he first stepped foot in this castle—just as you did his father before him. Bending the rules, overlooking his faults, rewarding his misbehaviour. And now this…"

"Severus—"

"Potter did not score high enough on his O.W.L.s, Albus, and you're demanding that I make an exception for him, that I change my policy—a policy I had in place long before he ever came to Hogwarts."

"Severus—"

"Advanced Potions is difficult, Albus," Severus continues to rant. "I appreciate that you'd want Potter well-versed in the subject, considering what lies ahead, but the ramifications of breaking the rules are extreme."

"I understand all this, Severus," Albus manages to interject at last, his tone a little more sharp that usual for the mere sake of catching the younger wizard's attention. Silence falls across the room like a cold blanket, and the headmaster feels his lover's back tense further, furiously. Only too quickly does Albus attempt to assuage the damage he has done: at once, he wraps his arms around Severus, as if trying to anchor him forever to his heart—and when he speaks again, Albus' voice is soft, gentle, contrite, as if raised in a prayer for mercy.

"You're going to be teaching Harry, Severus, because you won't be teaching Potions this year," he tells him. There is a sharp inhalation from the younger wizard; Albus can imagine the dark thoughts immediately soaring through his mind like bats into the night: fears of being sacked, anger at the prospect of unwelcome change, and resentment at being at the headmaster's mercy. "You'll be teaching Harry because you'll be taking the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts this year," Albus adds quickly—partly for eagerness to relieve Severus' anxieties, partly for eagerness to relieve his own.

For a moment, everything—their breathing, their heartbeats, even the flickering of the flames on the candles and at the hearth—is so still that Albus wonders if he has, indeed, spoken. Then he feels it: the shift in Severus. His body slumps, neck and head weak and wavering, sloping down; his shoulders slacken within his lover's embrace and tremble like the quivering bow of a violin playing vibrato; and his breath is more like a sigh, slight and reluctant. Something inside him has suddenly broken, shattered like a chalice at an altar.

"But… why…?" Severus whispers faintly, as if half-drowned in the bottom of a cauldron. "So long—so many years... The one subject…"

"I am doing this, Severus, because I love you and I want you to be happy," Albus tells him. Then, after a meaningful pause, he continues on to mention the topic that they so often try to avoid: his unavoidable death. "…And this is likely to be my last chance to prove to you—and everyone else—that it was not a lack of trust that has caused me to deny you the Defense Against the Dark Arts position until now. Rather, it was because I was trusted you too much, cared about you too much."

Severus raises his head slowly and turns to look at Albus. Their gazes lock in the shadows, steady, serious, sultry. His black eyes—so often dark, fathomless corridors, hollow for the sake of survival—are alive, watery, glittering with a mixture of excitement and determination, flattery and fondness.

Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michælem Archangelum,
beatum Ioannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et vos, fratres (et te, pater), orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum…

Severus is gone.

The headmaster becomes abruptly aware of it in the early morning hours, when the first light of morning peers through a gap in his curtains overhead and causes him to stir. He reaches out, anticipating that his palm will make contact with the warm, smooth skin of his newly ordained Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. He intends to draw him near, to kiss him awake, then perhaps have one more quick romp before breakfast and the rest of the faculty arrive at the castle. But his grasp is met only by the chill of empty sheets. Startled by the discovery that he is alone, Albus sits up suddenly.

Crescent-moon glasses on his crooked nose and hastily wrapped in last night's discarded robes, the elderly wizard finds himself searching, moments later. His steps are hurried through the corridors, anxious. Albus has been so grateful these past few hours to have Severus back within the safety of Hogwarts' walls, and he hates not knowing where his lover is: if he's been summoned back into danger by the Dark Lord—or if he's done himself harm, like Albus feared he might those first weeks after Lily Potter died.

"Severus?" the headmaster murmurs as walks. He doesn't genuinely expect his calls to be answered; he only knows that the sound of the younger man's voice echoing through the quiet castle is a comfort to him.

In minutes, Albus finds Severus exactly where he supposes he had subconsciously suspected he would, where his feet seemed to have been effortlessly guiding him, beacon-like, even without his sleep-hazy mind's knowledge: the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. In the early morning hours, the room is heavy with darkness, curtains closed against the rising sun and lit only by scant candles. For a moment, Albus doesn't bother to knock or to announce his presence. Instead he merely pauses, quietly surveying the scene from the entryway.

Severus stands in the center of the room, arm outstretched, wand in hand. There are pictures stacked on the desks beside him, grim images of Inferi and victims of Dementors' kisses. He's levitating them one by one, moving them across the room, hanging them on the walls. There's a certain confidence in his movements which had been previously absent, and the fondness and care with which he handles the room's new accoutrements is unmistakable. Even from where he stands in the doorway, Albus can feel the morbid delight emanating from the dark-haired figure across the room; it's infectious, flickering on the candles that burn overhead, creeping furtively across the cold stone floor, and tickling at the hem of his robes.

The headmaster smiles, albeit somewhat sadly. For so long he's felt ashamed of himself for the harm he's inflicted on Severus Snape: from the incident with Remus Lupin that nearly killed him at school to daily manipulating his lingering fondness for Lily Potter to serve—Albus hates to admit it—the greater good.

He doesn't need to feel guilty anymore.

Amen.


A/N: The Latin text is from the original Confiteor of Roman Catholic tradition. I wrote part of this prior to DH so some of the characterizations/ideas may be slightly non-canonical—but I refuse to give up on AD/SS... so deal with it.