The Headmaster's Tale
Standard Disclaimer applies - it's all JKR's
Acknowledgments and many thanks to Hobgoblinn who first wrote that Snape was the best Headmaster at Hogwarts, and explained the reason for giving him this tribute, in her beautiful story "Lost Boys" where I read the idea that, later, inspired the words of the letter that Snape receives in my fan fiction.
Without the help of whitehound this story wouldn't be here, like all its predecessors. Many thanks to her for her patient and accurate editing
"You should watch your back better, next time!"
"I didn't ask for your help!"
"Aha, but where would you be now, in that case?"
The two boys, more self-confident than worried, were walking away from the corridor where a fight had just ended, their wands once more hidden in their sleeves. No real harm had occurred, in fact, even if the row hadn't been without consequences, as they would soon learn.
A thin, blond witch was running, unnoticed, out of the castle, and she wasn't seeing where she was going, because her eyes were full of tears. She had met one young wizard who had stopped her in her stride, a short while earlier, and had started on the usual mocking words with which he always greeted her:
"So we have come back, have we? To do what? Filthy scum like you runs away, usually."
She had made a great effort to ignore his insults, until the last one was thrown into her face: "Little, subtle coward Slytherins like you don't belong here, don't you know?"
Then, when the boy had decided to leave, she had tried to hex him, in rage, but the spell she had cast hadn't succeeded because another wizard, approaching, had blocked it. Perhaps she should have made a second try at retaliation, but to see her first tentative attempt go so badly wasn't an incentive.
So she left the corridor, but not quickly enough to avoid the echo of their repeated insult: "Coward, coward…"
He hadn't asked for this. He had endured such a dreadful time, when he had accepted the task before, that it was simply unthinkable to believe that he could resume that role. Only, once again, someone had arranged things so that another side of his past had to be recreated in the present: and no matter if after his near-death-experience, accepting a second life still seemed to him to be enough of a challenge in itself.
He was staring at the parchment without really reading the message, partly because memory had imprinted its words in his mind: "…and we acknowledge the recipient of this offer, Professor Severus Snape, to have been the best Headmaster Hogwarts ever had, at least in recent centuries, he being the only Headmaster all of whose students stayed safe and alive – and that during the most adverse of times - thus succeeding where even his highly honoured predecessors, Armando Dippett and Albus Dumbledore, failed."
That sentence had halted him in his intention of throwing away the message, and caused mixed feelings to begin to grow in his soul. He had never before realized the truth of this fact. Accustomed as he was to being perceived by everyone, not only by the students, as a frightening teacher, with all the well-known corollary of names that they had coined expressly for him, to guess that one day other people might honour his memory in the way which this letter was stating… well, it was utterly unexpected.
He was once more lost in his reverie, where the faces of his former colleagues - those same that now were so ready to became friends, one after the other, after the acceptance of what he had done for all of them - showed themselves as they had been for those long months when he had ruled the school: full of distance, disdain and discontent, every time he felt their eyes on him. To resume that role meant to confront them, again.
In the past he had done nothing to change their opinion, the limited choices which his task had left him had made that impossible, and the sudden change of heart that everybody had now developed towards him was too recent to be reassuring. He was divided about his intentions, and knowing that the letter asking him to resume his role was sent by someone less horrible than his previous hirer didn't make a great deal of difference, to him.
But still, after several months when the castle had been nothing more than a refuge for some people who seemed lost elsewhere, it was time once again to give Hogwarts its ancient, magnificent function of celebrated School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and he knew that Minerva wasn't keen to continue the role which she had assumed during the vacant period that had begun after his sacking. She wasn't the caring colleague to him that some people had supposed, but she had been a presence in his life for so many years, and now she was tired and less strong than she appeared… Snape knew that what she was doing was only temporary, and he was aware of the many holes in the current situation, a sort of limbo that couldn't last long.
Hermione Granger, seated at the High Table near to her former teachers since the day when her decision to stay at Hogwarts had been acknowledged, was watching, worried, the tables where the youngsters were eating their dinner. She had got used to seeing the not too big group, made up of those boys and girls whose families had had the most awful experiences during the war and who had, therefore, been accommodated within the safe walls of the castle after the last battle, when they knew of nowhere else they could go.
Many of them were not yet of age to become students, and their wide eyes told more than any words how fearful they still were; others, older, had spent their last year in the school living a nightmare, because their birth in half-blood families left them unprotected when the Carrows were in the mood for discipline. A few, a very small remainder, were sons and daughters of Voldemort's followers, and even though it was for totally different reasons they too were alone, orphaned and in need like the others.
So this last little group of young wizards and witches, too, had been allowed to stay, with the hope that, with the end of the war, the younger generation might achieve a real unity. Things weren't going too easily, as far as that went, but one can always hope for improvements - or so the few resident adults seemed to think, because they hadn't yet restored the rules of the school… Everything seemed ruled by a sort of mutual help and fellowship which was coming along not too badly, given time.
The witch, however, knew that under the façade the old prejudices hadn't ended, nor the mourning. She had witnessed some hard moments endured by those young witches and wizards in front of her, and therefore she wasn't sure how good the current situation truly was.
Hermione was, indeed, noticing something strange, someone missing from the tables, when her attention was taken away by a slight movement to her left. Severus Snape had just now reached his seat, and greeted her with a small nod.
Hermione smiled, glad to see him approaching, as ever. After the many shared experiences which they had lived through together after his salvation from death, and after some particularly revealing moments, his presence felt to her most reassuring and precious.
Now he was less thin than in the past, and was regaining his powerful appearance, with his long and sure strides, with his robes billowing as he walked and his words and his gaze once more firm and determined, as he had always presented them in front of the world.
"I don't recall having seen you arriving late, before" said Hermione with a light tone. "Actually I think this is the first time I've seen you sit after the others."
Snape scowled: "You aren't the only one allowed to forget the passage of time;" then, in a lower voice: "I was delayed by an owl".
Slowly, he begun to eat, silent and a bit amused by her inquiring gaze, and the witch wasn't able, for the time being, to persuade him to say more than that. So Hermione had to suppress her curiosity, knowing that later a better time would come for further questions; instead, she resumed watching the youngsters, trying to remember what had seemed wrong to her before Snape's entrance had distracted her attention.
It was one of them - that was what she had missed when she looked at those chatting, laughing, eating boys and girls. The blonde little Vivian wasn't among her friends.
She was a shy, nice student who had begun her first year at Hogwarts when Hermione was fighting through the woods with Harry and Ronald. She was a pureblood, and she was a Slytherin, but a strange kind of member for that house, as Hermione had quickly noticed. Where could the girl be now? To be alone in the castle, where old secrets were still hidden and new dangers had started from the damaged parts of it, was not a good idea, as Hermione herself well knew after the day when Minerva had told her so out loud…
"I must go," she said to Snape, and after little pause to question the girl's closest friends, she left the room, eager to find Vivian and to see if everything was right with her. Snape raised an eyebrow, perplexed, but she had moved so hurriedly that he had had no time to ask, or observe, the reason for her departure.
He hadn't been a teacher so many years for nothing, though. On the faces of the boys whom Hermione had questioned he noticed signs that something had happened, and he supposed that it wasn't anything good. With a sigh he stood and followed not far behind Hermione's footsteps.
Her long blonde hair covered her face, and her wet cheeks. Vivian was glad for this concealment. It wasn't fair. If Slytherins were the scum of the student body, why bother to send them the letters when the time to begin the term approached? Why that bias? Why couldn't a person be considered for her actions, rather than her House?
The previous year, that she had awaited with such a sweet anticipation for so long, had been a nightmare. She was born into a pureblood family and her parents were followers of Voldemort, but she hadn't known what it meant until the day when the school had hired those Carrows, who had shown perfectly what the Dark Arts were.
She had been fearful, for some time, that she would be subjected to their detentions, but later the reality had been worst than her thoughts. It wasn't detention which was the thing to fear; it was the practicing, and being chosen to do it, which was the frightening thing to avoid.
Except that avoiding it wasn't an option.
Lost in her sad thoughts, the little witch didn't see the wild creature approaching.
She had asked the house elves, who were as willing to help as ever, then searched in the common places, and found nothing. Perhaps the next best possibility was to go outside and towards the forest. Shivering, Hermione collected herself and after having put on her cloak, decided to make a last attempt.
Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps, she turned on her heel. She wasn't alone in her search anymore, it seemed. And that fact warmed her more than a charm for a moment, but this feeling lasted only until the sight in front of her sent a freezing shiver through her body.
A few steps into the depths of the wood, a form was visible among the trees, lying immobile on the ground and almost shining under the rays of the moon. Suffocating a cry, a hand over her mouth, the elder witch looked at it for an instant, stunned, then in a few quick steps she approached and tried to ascertain what if anything could be done.
Snape moved Hermione firmly aside from the little body and began to perform a few revealing spells, after which he became more confident of some success. In a moment his companion saw Vivian's body levitating on a conjured stretch and moving towards the castle.
Words and inquiries had to wait, of course, but as she followed in Snape's footsteps Hermione couldn't help but wonder what on earth could have led the girl to a dangerous place like that. And she realized suddenly that every possible answer which came to her mind was very unpleasant, to say the least.
A little crowd was assembled not far from the girl, who was now sleeping and recovering. Minerva was listening to a very tired Madam Pomfrey, who was once more complaining about the current state of Hogwarts.
"At last they have nominated the new Minister for Magic! And a good one, thank Merlin. So hopefully he will do something soon for the school! It's about time that this place came back to its proper purpose and that the children were kept out of trouble!"
Hermione was hoping that the following morning she would be able to extract from Vivian the truth about the events which had led her to run away without considering the hazards, because as yet they knew nothing about it. So, lost in her thoughts, she missed the way Severus Snape, too, was listening to Poppy's words: rather than his usual unreadable expression, and in contrast to Minerva's exasperated look, he was following the exchange with a sadness which anyone could have read on his face.
A bitter thought had risen in his mind, listening to the matron's outburst - 'Ha! As if the school, when open, had ever prevented bullying...' - but this time he couldn't express his sarcasm out loud, because other feelings were gnawing him. Suddenly aware of the fact that his feelings were too exposed, he said his goodbyes to the women and, after a promise to be reachable if needed, abruptly left the room, alone.
The witches, made anxious and pre-occupied by their duties, didn't stop him.
And, so, he was back to square one. He remembered very well the day when, the previous year, he had seen the girl performing a task that he very well knew she could not endure. He had hated every time he had had to witness the new discipline of the school, and the fact that he had only rarely found an opportunity to change things. Merlin! He was so tired of being silent, of being composed… and of letting everybody make assumptions about his feelings, misunderstanding them, in the majority of cases.
It had been his choice, once, to keep his heart secret, and to conceal it under a sneering manner more than under the black curtain of his hair… only he wasn't that man anymore, since further back than he could remember, and concealment was no longer what he wanted. This time he wanted to say out loud what that lying double life had meant to him, and what cost his House had paid, and was still paying.
Hermione, meanwhile, had just caught up with him near the greenhouses, where he had gone in search of a peaceful place for thinking, and had told him of the events which had led to the current situation. He had surprised himself by being able to listen until the end of her tale, without revealing what was boiling inside his chest.
The witch hadn't found it easy to make Vivian willing to tell her story, but in the end, thanks to the kindness Hermione had always shown to all the youngsters, she had sobbed out how for the umpteenth time her persecutors hadn't left her alone. The girl hadn't named the two boys, but Hermione had a pretty good idea about their identity, and now was approaching her former professor to discuss the situation with him and decide on the necessary measures to be taken.
"Madam Pomfrey is right. They need rules, and it's only if Hogwarts starts up again as a school that it will be possible to make them disciplined and respectful. I know," she added then, "that the last year must have been the peak of the already high mountain of hate between the two Houses… I suppose that the Carrows favoured Slytherins… Neville told us of the horrible way they forced the students to cast Unforgivables during detentions… All this enmity must come to an end now… even though I don't think it will be easy, I can see that they all suffered, and one can hardly say what they endured…"
"I can, actually, say that" answered Snape, in a dangerously low voice. "Longbottom, and his friends, weren't the only victims of all that."
"How is this possible? I saw Neville, before the battle and after those months of 'school', and he had been a target, he was wounded, injured… then he told us what happened to Michael Corner when he refused to torture another student!" And Snape had 'hated'that, Hermione remembered suddenly from the comment by Neville that had ended the report…
"I understand…" she added thoughtfully. "You had to keep them safe, and every time some of them tried to fight or react YOU had to endure the consequences, and nobody was aware of this." Tentatively, Hermione touched his arm.
"I couldn't help my Slytherins " he began, apparently without noticing her gesture. "They thought, always, that my silence meant that I agreed with those ugly imitations of teachers!"
Snape lowered his voice, as if once more ashamed and tearing apart as he had been that last day: "And later I flew away, so they, too, didn't fight for the right side but stayed out of it, despised by everyone."
"They called her coward" murmured Hermione, and Snape raised his head and laughed loudly, bitterly, almost crying.
"She wasn't able to do harm to anyone, I saw her eyes, so frightened when Amycus ordered the first years to learn how to cast Crucio on their mates… I couldn't misunderstand her gaze, doomed and pleading, yet I couldn't spare her from it... and they ask to me to resume that place!" he added, throwing towards his friend a piece of parchment which he had kept tightly in his left hand until then.
She read it, and her eyes brightened. "But they are right! You succeeded in keeping them safe, and only you, nobody else, now, can give a new start to the school, and bring real peace and unity to the Houses."
Severus looked at her. He should have guessed that she would be pleased to see his worth acknowledged, at least - what had he been thinking of, to expect any other reaction? She had been at his side, in this second life of his, with a devotion they both knew to being growing into something more than a mere friendship. She was so trusting and young… Her hand was still firmly on his arm; he placed his own hand over hers, clasping it, and, confident that the closeness they had lately experienced could make a difference to them both, didn't release it. The bright eyes with which she was continuing to look at him seemed, if possible, larger and brighter.
"You are not alone, this time," she affirmed.
"I know," answered the wizard.
Then, still holding hands, they went back to the castle.
After a few steps, though, Severus halted and induced his companion, too, to stop in front of him. "It has been so long since I last felt free to speak so easily, like this," he declared all in a breath, and it was his gaze, now, that was shining as if brightened by a new light.
"It's about time, then" she answered, and on impulse caressed his check with a hand.
"About time indeed" he repeated, moving closer and holding her with a fierce strength, as if his arms tightened around her could keep all the time lost and all the life to come held forever, trustingly, in that embrace.
Some reviewers asked for more on this thread, and I hope they'll like this sequel; so here is this last part of a trilogy that started withWatching the Witch and then added A Challenging Change of the Heart as a prequel, two stories which better explain some things which are briefly mentioned in this one.
For me, however, the main reason for writing this fan fiction is the fact that here Severus can tell his side of the story of that miserable year, not only through a memory from the past but with his own beautiful voice, which I have tried to reproduce here a bit more than in my previous stories and hopefully not too wrongly.
Some time after I had finished writing this story, JKR told us something redeeming – and more positive than what one can see from the seventh book - about Slytherin's role during the final battle; but I think that in the aftermath of the victory the words spoken by Phineas Nigellus - "And let it be noted that Slytherin house played its part! Let our contribution not be forgotten!" - weren't heard or heeded by many people, and that, therefore, it would only be if Snape's sacrifice was more acknowledged than it was in canon that that house would have been considered at the same level as the others.