By Daphne Dunham
A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
Chapter 1: The Return of the Phoenix
Those first few hours are hazy—misty moments of wavering consciousness in which he isn't really quite sure of where he is or why. He knows there is the rain: Through his quivering lashes, he can see it falling hard, its thick, heavy drops splashing against the hospital wing windows overhead like great, gray tears. And there is the taste in his mouth: the acrid allusion to copious amounts of Blood-Replenishing Potion lingering beneath the dryness of his throat and tongue. But mostly there are the sounds, ever present, whether he's dreaming or awake. There is whispering—brief words of remedy and reassurance, phrases like "drink that draft down" and "there, that's looking much better now, isn't it?" And there is shuffling, footsteps across stone floors, sometimes rushing, other times painfully slow, like a cripple regaining his stride. All are punctuated by the occasional groan or gasp or sigh. It's like a symphony of suffering.
There is ache in every millimeter of his body—from the tips of his toes to the lank, greasy strands of dark hair at his scalp. And he is weak, so much so that opening his eyes is a labor; that he is exhausted from lifting his head off the pillow; and that accepting the tea proffered, sip by sip, by the nurse hovering over him is nothing short of a feat. He is relieved when she sets the cup aside and readjusts the pillows beneath him to help him lie back down.
"Thank you, Madam Pomfrey," he tells her; his voice is slightly hoarse from disuse and his tone is somewhat grudging, emitted through gritted teeth. Severus Snape is not, after all, accustomed to being so helpless. It simultaneously annoys him, infuriates him, demoralizes him.
Madam Pomfrey nods in polite acknowledgment but does not have the time to linger in conversation with the hospital so full—not that she expects Severus would want her to. Instead, she turns to the table beside his hospital bed, to the tray of phials she's been carrying with her on her rounds. "A bit of Morphia Maxima should help for now," she reassures him as she tips a drop of potion into his mouth. The liquid is mild and slightly sweet, like melon, and it feels warm as it drips down Severus' throat, easing the dull pain in his body as it trickles through him, head to foot.
"Please do rest, headmaster," Madam Pomfrey adds as she steps back and away.
Headmaster. He tosses the term over in his mind, hazily yet distinctly sardonically. Considering his abrupt departure from the school the night of the attack—however long ago that had been, he is unsure—Severus has assumed that he no longer has the right to be called by that title. Apparently, he thinks bitterly despite his half-stupor, the drama of Battle has left the Hogwarts community without its flair for circulating rumor faster than a Cruciatus Curse from Alecto Carrow's wand. Headmaster.
It's his final thought before the Morphia Maxima takes full effect and he closes his eyes once again, lulled by sleep and the symphony of suffering.
"Severus—oh, thank Merlin he's all right. This way, Poppy? Oh, thank you."
It's evening—that evening. Candles are just being lit across the hospital wing, casting lazy shadows on the castle walls. And it is quieter, patients slowly dropping off to sleep, the louder ones with the aid of medication. Severus hears the familiar Scottish inflection before he sees her, her voice carrying well across the wing in its increased stillness. Abandoning his vague meditation on the crevices and corners of the ceilings, Severus struggles to try to sit up a bit—to restore some semblance of his dignity before being forced to confront her.
"Professor," he nods in recognition to Minerva McGonagall as she steps behind the pale blue curtain shielding him from the other patients. His greeting is terse, perfunctory, unmoved and unemotional.
"Poppy told me you had woken up at last," she explains. Surprisingly, there is marked relief in her voice and caring concern in her face as she stands beside his bed—quite different from her demeanor the last time they had met, when she had driven him from the school in fury. "I came as quickly as I could."
Severus shifts uncomfortably under Minerva's gaze. He's endured a full year of her sniping, of her skepticism, of her not-so-subtle attempts to undermine his every move. All the while he knew, of course, that her clear mistrust of him and antipathy toward him, prompted quite obviously by his hand Albus Dumbledore's death and Harry Potter's rendition of it, meant he was fulfilling his role—and doing so quite convincingly. While this knowledge was reassuring, it was simultaneously disconcerting to know that he had no allies—no one to trust—within the castle walls. And when Minerva, flanked by Flitwick and Sprout, had attacked him, he had known his efforts had run their course.
Now, she is looking at him with eyes flooded with remorse and—he hates the thought of it—sympathy. Severus can only assume this means one thing: Potter spoke. He told her—if not everyone else—of the truth regarding his loyalties, of everything he saw in those memories Severus had hemorrhaged along with the blood from his jugular in the Shrieking Shack. Severus cringes at the thought of it, of having his most private—his most intimate—memories spilled to the masses as casually as pumpkin juice at a dinner table. When he'd given Harry those moments from his past, he hadn't expected to survive… which makes him wonder: How and why is he now stretched in the hospital wing with Minerva McGonagall hovering over him and—Severus moves stiffly as he tries to sit and reaches up to feel it—his neck wrapped in bandages?
"They found you," Minerva tells him, sensing his puzzlement. "In the Shack. You-Know-Who gave us the chance to gather our dead and wounded. You were unconscious, weak. You'd lost so much blood we didn't think you'd make it. Do you remember?"
With great difficulty, Severus gives a terse nod of the head. "Of course I remember," he says quietly, bitterly. It seems a foolish idea to him that he could possibly forget nearly dying, that he could fail to recall how Voldemort had callously betrayed him, set Nagini upon him and abandoned him for dead—all for a power he didn't understand, couldn't understand. It wasn't the first time the Dark Lord had betrayed Severus; the hook-nosed wizard had learned many years ago—the night he killed Lily Potter—that Voldemort would forsake anyone. The attempt on his life was not, therefore, a surprise to Severus. In fact, it was something he had expected; the only surprise had been how long it had taken Voldemort to decide to do it.
"They found you with this…." Minerva adds. She withdraws from a pocket hidden in the folds of her robes something long and thin, wispy, and golden: the tail feather of a phoenix. She sets it on the bed beside Severus, a peace offering of sorts. "It would seem as though someone has been looking out for you."
"Fawkes…" Severus' voice sounds far away to him, like an echo in a cave.
In truth, he has never particularly cared for the bird; animals never managed to evoke sentimentality or affection in him, as they do for Hagrid—or did for Dumbledore, where his phoenix was concerned. However, the knowledge that Fawkes had returned to him in the Shack—that the bird's tears had defused Nagini's poison and saved his life—stirs a softness in him, a kind sentimentality he hasn't felt in years. With a weak and slightly trembling hand, Severus reaches out for the feather; he turns it over in his fingers with awe and appreciation. Despite his many faults, Albus Dumbledore hadn't used and betrayed him, he realizes: Only the late headmaster could have arranged for Fawkes to keep quiet watch over Severus, his friend, his successor, his loyal soldier; only the late headmaster could have prepared for and planned to protect him like this.
"Albus very much thought of you as a son, I think," Minerva says, also aware of the truth in the meaning of Fawkes' return.
Severus looks up at her sharply. "And he was very much like a father to me," he replies fiercely. His dark eyes flash dangerously, warning her against any insinuation to contradict him. Despite how it may have appeared to her, after all, spending the better part of the last year in the office of the man he'd agreed to murder—of whose power he was forced to usurp, of whose influence over his life was much more meaningful and valued than Tobias Snape's ever was—has been nothing short of torment.
Appreciating the difficulty of Severus' situation now, the Head of Gryffindor House nods sadly, guiltily. "You must understand that it was a great shock to us when… when Albus died," she tells him. Then, she places her hand gently on Severus' arm, a gesture tantamount to a warm embrace in the emotional lexicon of the prim and proper Minerva McGonagall. The hook-nosed wizard looks down at her thin fingers on his hospital robes as though they are something foreign. "I owe you an apology, Severus," she adds in a quiet, abashed tone.
No further words are needed: Both know without clarification to what she refers—to everything that she has done to him this past year, starting with her blind belief in Harry Potter's rendition of Dumbledore's death and culminating in her leading the other Heads in an attack against him the night of the Battle of Hogwarts. But despite her remorse, Severus is silent a moment, unmoved.
"No apology is necessary, Professor McGonagall," he informs her tersely. And his words are true: Albus Dumbledore's opinion has been the only one that has mattered to him for so long that he has grown immune to anyone else's scorn. Minerva's contempt has been irrelevant to him on a personal level, although it has made his work this past year—delicately balancing the school as it teetered precariously on the verge of plunging irrevocably between the proverbial good and evil—that much harder. Still, her apology is both unwanted and unneeded.
Minerva withdraws her hand and nods in tacit comprehension. Even if she hadn't understood Severus' feelings on this matter, she can't say she'd blame him for refusing her apology—if for no other reason, her actions show her lack of faith in Albus Dumbledore's good judgment: In her revolution against Snape, whom the late headmaster had quite vocally placed an enormous amount of trust, Minerva betrayed her confidence in the great man she'd claimed to admire and support so much. Her transgression has been not only against the dark-haired wizard before her but, most significantly, against Dumbledore as well.
"And Potter?" Severus asks at last, changing the uncomfortable subject of his bond with the late headmaster and focusing instead on a matter that concerns him even more, a matter that he has dedicated the last sixteen years of his life to and nearly paid with his life for. He is trying to mask the hesitation in his tone, but if there is one thing left in this world that he dreads, it is the answer Minerva might provide. "What has become of him?"
A rare grin, proud and pleased, spreads across Minerva's thin lips; not only is she grateful for the opportunity to speak of something else, but she is keen to share the good news. "He did Gryffindor well, Potter did," she replies.
Severus raises his eyebrows, annoyed with her vague response and pressing for more details. "Then the Dark Lord is…?"
"Well, he's dead, naturally," Minerva says, as if it's only the most obvious outcome of Harry Potter's skill and bravery.
For Minerva McGonagall, the defeat of Voldemort in the hands of Harry Potter may have seemed so logical it should be deemed inherently obvious—self-evident, like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. For Severus Snape, though, the outcome is substantially more of a surprise. He may have spent the last umpteen years attempting to protect Lily Evans' son, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he has ever had the utmost faith in the boy's magical abilities. The truth is quite the contrary, really; Harry's inconsistent performance in Potions and lamentable attempt at Occlumency have given Severus good reason to find him merely mediocre.
Minerva doesn't miss the opportunity to look at him with an air of triumph, as if their Gryffindor-Slytherin rivalry of years past has been resurrected and the House Cup up for grabs once more. She speaks spiritedly of all that has transpired since Severus was wounded: of the way Hagrid carried what they presumed was Harry Potter's corpse up to the castle and of how she dueled Voldemort himself in the Great Hall, of Harry's daring showdown with the Dark Lord and of the hubris that proved to be the latter's downfall. Minerva speaks of the losses on both sides of the battle, some sadly, others not: Fred Weasley, Bellatrix Lestrange. And she speaks—with a bit of sentimentality—about the damage sustained by Hogwarts castle itself.
"Fortunately, we've already begun to rebuild," she tells him. "We've had tremendous support from the students and parents, of course—and the Ministry."
Once more, Severus raises his eyebrows in cynicism. The Ministry, last he had known, was thoroughly corrupt and less than supportive of running the school the way it ought to be run—the way Dumbledore would have run it.
"Minister Shacklebolt is proving positively revolutionary," Minerva explains, seeing his reaction. She pauses then and clears her throat. "I'm sure that you, as headmaster, will be pleased to know that we should have the repairs complete in time for the start of the new school year," she adds.
Startled at the repeated reference to himself as headmaster, Severus looks up at the aging witch before him. He finds her peering weightily down at him. It reminds him of the way Dumbledore used to look at him when he expected something of him, when there was a complicated decision at hand and the right choice was difficult but needed to be made snonetheless. In Minerva's eyes, though, Severus also sees a memory: her reaction to a girl's question shouted across the Hall; he sees the words forming on her lips: Professor Snape has done a bunk. It makes his lips curl in indignation.
"As you are well aware, Professor McGonagall," he says coldly, his voice barely more than a whisper, "I am no longer headmaster of Hogwarts."
But Minerva is insistent. "Severus, I am positive that the Board will be more than happy to reinstate your position," she begins to argue. "The school already accepts you as the rightful headmaster—and we need a strong leader, especially now."
"Then shall I tender my official resignation to you, as Deputy Headmistress, or to the Board?" he persists with increased annoyance.
"Severus, I don't understa—"
"There is nothing to understand," he says. His voice is soft, but his tone is strong, a sense of finality deep within it.
Looking bewildered, Minerva closes her mouth abruptly and takes a step backwards. Severus doesn't really expect her to appreciate his decision: She lives to teach, to sculpt young boys and girls into fine wizards and witches. Severus, however, does not. He has treasured academics, and yet he doesn't enjoy his students—too much whining from the little ones, too much frustration with the dim-witted ones, not enough appreciation from the intelligent ones. He has wanted power, and yet the method by which he had become headmaster seems dishonorable to him—insulting, even—too much reliance on blackmail and murder, rather than on his own merit. He has wanted eminence, and yet the reputation he has been forced to maintain inside these castle walls—especially this past year—is unfavorable, unjust, and would be too arduous to overcome.
"What will you do now then, Severus?" Minerva asks him quietly at last.
The dark-haired wizard hesitates a moment. It's difficult for him to imagine what he can do, where he can go. For so many years, Hogwarts has been Severus' home. Even before coming here as a boy, it was a beacon of hope—a refuge, and its status as such has certainly not diminished over the years but grown even stronger. Leaving, however, is inevitable now after all that has happened, especially this past year: after watching Dumbledore's body fall back, lifeless, over the ramparts of Astronomy Tower; after having to allow the Carrows to practice their sadism in these halls, on the students; after now declining the opportunity to resume his post.
Spinner's End is out of the question; Severus has always hated it there. London is too hectic for his taste; he's had enough chaos for a lifetime. And Godric's Hollow would be too painful; it would drive him mad to be so close to Lily's grave, to see the shambles of her home each day. Yet it is out of these thoughts that Severus stumbles across the answer to Minerva's question. His life has been plagued, and for nearly two decades he has not even had the ability to realize it—to absorb it. He has not had the time enough or been at peace enough to come to terms with all the loss—with Lily, with Dumbledore, with his mistakes. Now, at long last, he does.
"Mourn," Severus replies simply.
The letter from the Board comes, as Minerva McGonagall has predicted, while Severus is packing the last of his trunks. He doesn't bother to open it; he already knows what it says: unanimous agreement… valor… valued experience… please reconsider resuming…. Abandoned, it sits on the small table by the plush, emerald green chaise in his sitting room. He casts it a sideways glance as he tucks the last of his possessions into his robes: The torn picture of Lily and the last page of her letter to Sirius resume their rightful place close to his heart, close to his soul. He takes a final look around the room, then, finding it satisfactorily divested of his personal belongings, reaches reluctantly for the letter on the table. He turns it over in his hand, toying with the seal a moment before turning it back once more with even firmer resolve. He reads his name across it for a final time: Severus Snape, Headmaster, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Moments later, the gate slams closed behind Severus with a definitive clank as he turns to leave the school—no farewells, no melodrama, just the way he wishes. And deep in the bowels of the castle, in a fireplace in the dungeons he had once made his own personal prison, the letter addressed to Headmaster Snape smolders, crumbled, smoking into nothingness like a cloud, like a ghost.
A/N: I gratefully acknowledge that this story is loosely based on George Eliot's Silas Marner. To be continued…