A.N.: Thankyou for the reviews. And a special thanks to Jen, my wonderful new beta. Any mistakes are still mine.
Chapter 2 – Of Elfen Magic
Severus stood by the grime covered window over-looking the dark street, arms crossed behind his back, wand firmly in his grasp. A dim lamp burned on a nearby table next to a stack of newspapers. Somewhere in the house, Winky the house-elf was moving about. The wound on his shoulder had been slow to heal; it was inflamed and still occasionally oozed, but the pain was all but gone.
A dark figure Apparated on the dirt road just outside the house and Severus' hand tightened reflexively around his wand, relaxing only when he recognized the new arrival. He swiftly moved to meet the woman at the door.
"Good evening, Minerva, thank you for coming."
Professor McGonagall adjusted her cloak as she stepped into the dimly lit room. Her small eyes searched Severus' face questioningly as he shut the door behind her.
"It's been weeks since anyone has heard from you, Severus. We thought you were dead, and then when no one could find your body... Of course, there was some hope... When I received your owl, I didn't know what to think." Minerva McGonagall sounded strangely disconcerted and out of breath. Tears welled in the witch's eyes and, for one uncomfortable moment, Severus thought she was going to hug him. The moment passed quickly and Severus extended his hand, offering the woman a seat.
"I expect you have some questions," he offered when Professor McGonagall collapsed on the proffered seat, her beady eyes boring into him as if trying to determine whether he was real or a figment of her imagination.
"How? Mr. Potter, he told us you were dead. He told us – everything."
Severus nodded, pointing at the stack of old newspapers sitting on the table. During his recovery, Winky the house-elf and The Daily Prophet had been his link to the outside world. For weeks he had followed the stories. About the fall of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, about the ongoing hunt for renegade Death Eaters, about the most notable casualties, including his own demise. Harry Potter had told anyone who would listen what he had learned from his memories – the Ministry, the reporters, everyone. Of course, Potter's story had its share of vociferous detractors. When they had been unable to find Severus' body, it had spurred a frenzy of speculation, each theory more bizarre than the last.
"And this place! Why here?" Professor McGonagall continued, wrinkling her nose as she studied her surroundings.
They were in what remained of the old Crouch residence. The place had been abandoned since the death of Barty Crouch and the return of Barty Crouch Jr. to Azkaban; during that time, it had fallen into appalling disrepair.
Severus shrugged his shoulders, as if he had never given the question any thought. "This was Winky's old home, the only place she knew other than Hogwarts, the only place she felt safe."
Professor McGonagall frowned. "Winky?"
As if summoned by the mere mention of her name, the house-elf appeared.
"Sir called?" Winky chirped. "Tea perhaps, something for the lady?"
McGonagall looked startled by the sudden appearance of the elf. "No, no. I'm fine, thank you," she mumbled.
Snape sat on a chair across from McGonagall, legs outstretched, arms at his sides.
"That will be all, Winky." The elf bowed before disappearing into the other room.
"I'll explain everything, Minerva, I promise. But right now, I need your help."
Professor McGonagall immediately responded by sitting up straighter and squaring her shoulders, like a seasoned soldier suddenly called to duty.
"Of course. Are you well?"
"As well as can be expected," he answered somberly.
Snape paused, tracing his lips with one long finger. He had been postponing this moment for weeks, mulling it over in his head, wishing it wouldn't have to come to this. He had fulfilled his duty to Dumbledore, to the Dark Lord, to Harry Potter; he had tried to please them all, done everything they asked of him; he owed them nothing. His name had been cleared at the expense of having all his secrets exposed. In a way death would have been more merciful, Azkaban infinitely preferable, any of a dozen possibilities more agreeable, than to be forced to live with the wretched spectacle that his most intimate thoughts had become. It was almost more than he could bear. No, he owed them nothing. He wanted more than anything to disappear. To go some place where no one had ever heard of Snivelus, or Snape the Death Eater, or Severus the double agent for the Order of the Phoenix. He wanted to become invisible. Yet still.
He realized that Professor McGonagall was anxiously awaiting his request.
"I need to return to Hogwarts, the sooner the better," he stated coolly.
The witch seemed surprised by his request, as if she had been reading his thoughts, or at least suspected them.
"Hogwarts?" she whispered.
"Yes. I read in the papers that the Ministry of Magic is back to its delusionary tactics. It is my understanding that it has launched a campaign to restore normalcy and a sense of security to the Wizarding community, and that the campaign includes plans to reopen Hogwarts as soon as possible, preferably this year."
Professor McGonagall listened attentively.
"I assume that you're in dire need of staff."
She nodded emphatically.
"Then it shouldn't be hard to have me reinstated to my post, especially now that I'm a bona fide war hero," Snape added bitterly.
Professor McGonagall seemed to weigh his words carefully, her beady eyes glinting -- whether with enthusiasm or trepidation Severus could not tell. She finally took a deep breath and looked him directly in the eyes.
"It will take some doing. We have Kingsley in the Ministry, and that should help. But, there are still a lot of open questions and the Ministry will want answers. They are not taking any chances this time."
Severus nodded. From what he had read in the papers, since the fall of the Dark Lord the hunt for his supporters had been both fierce and brutal. Many homes had been raided, entire families carried away. Claims of being under the influence of the Imperius Curse or intimidation by the Dark Lord had been summarily dismissed. No more excuses, no more deals. Many of the accused had never even made it to trial, murdered on the streets while conveniently resisting arrest. It was a brave new world.
"There is also the matter of... Well." The witch hesitated. "As you have already correctly assumed, some of the old professors have no wish to return to Hogwarts. Still, the Ministry insists that all positions must be filled before the start of term. Madam Maxime generously offered to lend us one of her more experienced teachers for this year – a Potions Professor. She arrived just this morning, I can't possibly send her back. So, as you can see, your position has already been filled."
Before Severus could protest, the Professors' expression brightened a bit and a small smile curved her lips.
"However, the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, for which you are perfectly qualified, is still open. Is it safe for me to assume that this post would be agreeable to you?"
Severus' lip curled into a semblance of a smile. "Absolutely."
"Very well, then, I believe that everything else can be arranged." Her tone was lighter, more congenial. "Now, please do tell me how it is that you came to be here."
In a detached voice, Severus told Minerva McGonagall the story of how after Nagini's attack, he had awoken to find himself in a strange room under the care of a house-elf he barely recognized. When questioned, the elf had shown him a handful of bezoar stones and Severus understood. Winky had pushed several of the stones down his throat when she had first found him, effectively neutralizing the snake's venom, before Dissaparating them both. There had been other things he needed and the elf had been expeditiously dispatched to procure them from Severus' own stores. A blood-replenishing potion to restore his strength and keep him alive until the wound healed, wound-cleaning potion to desinfect the wound, and an ointment of his own device to halt the flow of blood and speed the healing. He had cared for his own wounds, with Winky's help. The elf had proven itself to be proficient in medical care, having taken care of her previous master's son, Barty Crouch Jr., following his escape from Azkaban. A week went by before the paralizys caused by the snake's venom completely relinquished it's hold and he was able to move all his limbs. Afterward, Severus had remained holed up in the old Crouch residence, waiting for his body to heal and plotting his next move.
"But, I don't understand. Potter said you were dead, that he watched you die. And how did the house-elf know?" Professor McGonagall interrupted.
Severus snorted. "Stupid Potter didn't even stick around long enough to see if I was alive or dead. Never bothered to check for a pulse, or at the very least poke me with his wand. Not that I am surprised, I was never that important to him. As for Winky, those blasted elves have a habit of being everywhere, always snooping around!" He said derisively.
After the brief interruption, Severus repeated Winky's tale of how she had come to find him.
Winky had said to him, "Ah! There was much fighting at Hogwarts. Wizards running and yelling everywhere. Winky come out to see, but then Winky was much frightened. Hid behind a big statue. That's when the strange girl that likes to make trouble for the house-elves come."
After some prodding, the elf had clarified that the 'strange girl' had been no other than Miss Granger.
"The strange girl tells someone," Winky continued, "Winky didn't see who, that Professor Snape is dead, bitten by a snake in the Shrieking Shack..." Winky stood up straighter, "but Winky don't believe the strange girl. Winky knows that the strange girl likes to tell lies and make trouble, so Winky goes to see."
Professor McGonagall nodded her understanding. Hogwarts elves considered the Wizard staff their masters. She also had enough knowledge about elves to know that, although normally servile and meek, house-elves were perfectly capable of showing initiative and cunning, particularly when it came to protecting their masters.
Severus pinned Professor McGonagall with a stare. "I hope I can count on your discretion. As I'm sure you're well aware, it is illegal for house-elves to use magic." He glanced poignantly at the wand dangling from his right hand. "In the current climate, I'm afraid it wouldn't bode well for the elf..." he let his words trail, certain that he had made himself understood.
Professor McGonagall nodded slowly. "Of course. Actually, I find it encouraging that you would concern yourself with the welfare of a house-elf."
"It is not so much a matter of concern, Minerva, as it is one of self-preservation. Winky has so far proven herself to be both loyal and useful. One can not have too many allies, do you not agree?" he said with a gleam in his fathomless eyes.
Professor McGonagall gathered her cloak about her, as if the room had become suddenly chilled.
"I guess I should have known," she muttered. "Very well, then, would you like me to contact the Ministry to make them aware of your whereabouts, or would you prefer to do that yourself?" she asked in a stronger voice.
"No need, I shall take care of that myself."
Professor McGonagall rose from the chair and headed toward the door. "I assume I can't Dissaparate from inside the house," she said.
"That is correct, and I'm afraid that the fireplaces are non-functional." Severus rose from his seat to follow her. "There's one more thing, Minerva."
The witch stopped in front of the door and turned, looking inquisitively up at Severus.
"Are you not going to ask me why I need to return to Hogwarts?"
Professor McGonagall breathed deeply, as if she had been dreading just that moment.
"Severus, I admit I've had my doubts about you..."
Doubts, what a gentle euphemism, Severus thought.
"... but Albus trusted you, and he was right to do so. I will not question his judgment again." She paused, her brow furrowed. "If I have one concern, it is for the safety of the students," she concluded.
Severus' expression turned somber. "No harm will come to the students; I would not allow it," he said in a tone that invited no argument and left no doubt about his sincerity.
"Then there's nothing left for us to discuss," said Professor McGonagall as she stepped out the door and disappeared into the night.
End of Chapter 2