"Why won't you let me teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, Dumbledore? I know more about Dark magic than any wizard at this school, including you! And yet you insist on hiring a motley crew of incompetents, from pathetic pop icons to werewolves ... you even managed to pick two wizards in recent years who, unlike me, were actually working for the Dark Lord –"

Dumbledore sighed. "You know I have my reasons, Severus. And this year, I had no choice: the Ministry appointed a teacher for me."

"They would not have done that if you had given me the job! I have served your cause loyally for fifteen years," Snape went on, his voice rising. "There is no chance I would ever return to the Dark Lord, not after – after what he has done. You insult me by suggesting it." His eyes snapped sparks and there was color in his normally pallid face.

Dumbledore let him storm himself out, then said: "I do not question your loyalty. There is another reason I would prefer to keep you out of that post."

"You think I'd corrupt your precious students, don't you? Well, I haven't done so yet. And I have had plenty of opportunity, especially as a head of House. Even my best Potions students have never learned from me how to make the truly dangerous ones. And I have never taught true Dark magic to any student here. Not once."

"That is not my concern either, Severus."

"Then why?"

Dumbledore saw his teacher was not going to be deterred until he had heard the full truth. "Because," he said slowly, "the job is cursed."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

"Have you not noticed that nobody has lasted longer than a year at it, for decades now?"

"Coincidence. You keep hiring teachers who are either unqualified or unable to take care of themselves."

"Not so. The Defense Against the Dark Arts post is jinxed. I know, because I know who put the curse on it."

"Whom?"

"Lord Voldemort."

Snape scarcely flinched at the name (Dumbledore noted with approval), but he curled his lip. "Of course. And why would he have the slightest interest in doing that? He'd have had to enter the school grounds to do it anyway, and he would not dare ... Besides, the pattern of rapid turnover started years before the Dark Lord's appearance."

"He came to Hogwarts, back when he was still something resembling human, and applied for the post himself."

Snape looked frankly surprised. "Really?"

Dumbledore explained. "I have told you before that he was once a student here, named Tom Riddle. Some years after he graduated from Hogwarts, after I became headmaster, he returned – much changed, but not quite what he has become now – and he made an appointment to see me, and asked that I hire him. I refused. That, as far as I know, was the last time he set foot in the castle. It must have been then that he somehow created the curse, for not long after, our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was forced to retire, and since then nobody has been able to keep the job for more than one year." Snape listened in silence, apparently thinking.

"And that is why I cannot give the job to you, Severus. I need you to stay here as long as possible. I cannot risk losing you to whatever calamity might be brought about by that curse. Teachers who have taken the job have fallen ill, been stricken with disasters of every description; some have even died. I do not want anything like that to happen to you."

Snape would have been more touched by that remark, had he not known that the only reason Dumbledore cared for his safety was because he was useful. The old wizard viewed him as a valuable tool, nothing more. He looked out the window toward the lake.

"And you have never seen fit to mention this to any of the teachers you hire."

Dumbledore sighed again. "I have always hoped that one teacher or another would break the pattern. Remus Lupin nearly did." He did not point out that Snape had been the cause of Lupin's departure. Snape, still looking out the window with his back to Dumbledore, gave no indication he had heard that last comment. "But it is only a theory of mine ... and if word got out that Lord Voldemort really had placed a curse on the job, I would not have been able to find even the few candidates we've gotten."

Snape turned and faced Dumbledore. "Why not teach the subject yourself? You are a very accomplished wizard."

"Because I have quite enough to do as headmaster, as you know. Besides, I know nothing at all about the nature of the jinx, and therefore I have no idea how to remove it. I would be foolish to put myself in that kind of danger. Voldemort hates me more than almost any wizard; I suspect the curse might be particularly virulent in getting rid of me."

Snape said nothing.

Fawkes chirruped, and Dumbledore rose from his seat and went over to the phoenix to pet him. "Perhaps, one day, when Lord Voldemort is gone, then the curse will be broken and you can have the job, if you want it."

"You know I have wanted it since you hired me," said Snape, "and I'd be very good at it ... but I don't think your conditions are ever likely to arise. By the time the Dark Lord is dead, undoubtedly I will be too. Either way, I would have no reason to continue teaching at Hogwarts any longer. I only work here because you insisted on it." He left the room without another word.

Dumbledore looked up as the door closed behind him. He shook his head sadly.

"He doesn't trust anybody, does he? I wish he could see that there is one person who cares for him. Not that he is even remotely likeable, but one has to admire such resolve."

Fawkes said nothing, of course, but he chirped again and fluttered his wings.

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author's note: Even though Snape now knows Dumbledore's suspicions about a curse on the Defense post, that doesn't stop him from accepting it the following year. He had his reasons, which I might enumerate in another chapter later.