"Healer Lythe," Albus Dumbledore greeted once more.
"Headmaster," the Healer calmly replied, "how are you?"
"Nervous," the old man admitted as they walked the corridor, and the Healer, taken aback, stole a quick glance at the aging wizard. An honest reply. That was promising.
"Severus is waiting for us in the same room as last time," the Healer said.
They entered the room where Severus was sitting on the couch. Aidan went to sit next to him as a House Elf quickly brought in refreshments. He did not really react to the Headmaster, but Aidan knew that was from insecurity. Resting his hand briefly on the black-clad shoulder, he leaned forward to pour tea.
"We were interested to learn of the changes you have been making to the school over the past weeks, Headmaster," he commented lightly. He immediately felt Severus tense next to him.
"They were long overdue," Dumbledore said seriously, "I fear I have been remiss in that part of my duties."
Severus stared at him.
"Severus," the Headmaster finally pleaded, "please. Talk to me. Shout at me. Punch me if you wish. I can offer nothing more than apologies and assurances that I have tried, and will continue to try, to do better."
"You don't care for Slytherin," Severus accused softly, "you never did. You want me to believe that you changed your attitude in weeks where you have been biased for decades? This is just for show, to get me to come back, and then you'll revert to normal again."
To his utter surprise, the Headmaster nodded. "I can see that it seems that way to you, Severus, and you have every reason to mistrust me."
Confused, and not knowing how to proceed, Severus turned to Aidan.
"Severus mentioned needing three things from you," Aidan prompted the Headmaster. Severus was bound to be confused – the healer himself was a little surprised with the Headmaster's changed attitude.
"I am aware of that," Albus answered, "You do matter, Severus."
The Potions Master narrowed his eyes. "Why are you going through all this trouble to get me back? I am not going to spy again, no matter what you do. What do you want from me?"
"At first, I pursued this because of my own pride," the old wizard bluntly admitted, "I could not stand not being seen as the wonderful leader of the light. You were…no, it was not you. My behaviour was a blemish on my reputation that I wanted to get rid of. And instead of getting rid of my own sins, I tried to push you away, the victim of my mistakes, thinking that if I could not see the results of my wrongdoings, they did not exist."
He sighed heavily. "I am an old man, Severus. I have had to face up to many mistakes and I cannot promise you I will change completely. I will mess up again. I am glad that you now have people looking out for you – I kept that away from you as well, to hide my treatment of you. Aidan's reports have triggered many investigations by the Ministry and power is being transferred away from the Headmaster position. I am…I am not fighting that. Power is my weakness and I allowed it to come to me…no, I gathered it to me these past decades. I cannot promise you I am completely changed. I can only promise you that the people around me, and myself, are busy installing many protections for the future."
He shook his head, a tear running down his beard. "I am ashamed that it is I that you need to be protected from."
Severus felt stunned. Here was everything he had wanted to hear, everything he had longed for. It surprised him that it moved him so little. Perhaps because he was all too aware that the Headmaster was a master of rhetoric and could produce a single, dramatic tear at will. He had trouble believing that this one would be genuine for once.
"So you think you deserve another chance," he said harshly, to hide his own mixed feelings, "another chance because of a few weeks of actually doing the job you were hired to do ages ago."
"No, Severus," the Headmaster shook his head, "I do not deserve another chance. What I did over the past weeks was an attempt to earn this; this visit."
"And now you are going to remind me how I got another chance when I did not deserve one, right? How no one but you would give it to me?" Severus scowled, his voice hard and hostile, but he scooted just a little closer to Aidan, just a little closer to safety.
"You would not have needed another chance, if it had not been for me," Dumbledore suddenly groaned and covered his face in his hands. "Oh, Severus – if I had been more attentive to you at school, how much might have been different? If I had been less biased towards Slytherin, would they have been as tempted to throw in their lot with Tom?"
He shook his head as if to clear it. "Many of these things are far beyond repair now. The only thing that matters today is if it is too late for you and me, Severus. Are we beyond repair?"
Severus turned around, seeking his Healer.
"What are you thinking, Severus? About Albus's question?" Aidan gently encouraged.
"I don't know," the younger wizard muttered, "I don't know. I don't feel safe with you, Headmaster, and at this point I am unsure if I ever will. But you have been…despite how much you have hurt me, you have been the only person to even pretend to care for many years. That…has left its mark. I find that I cannot simply walk away from this…whatever it is, as I desire. I want to rebuild something at the same time I want to walk away from you. I'm…Aidan…"
"It is perfectly normal to be confused," the Healer assured him. Then he turned to the Headmaster. "If you are sincere in wanting a relationship, you will have to wait for Severus. You will have to be patient and consistent. That is not to say you are not allowed to make mistakes, but you must learn to admit to them and apologise. I suggest therapy with one of my colleagues."
The Headmaster nodded. "And what now?" he asked quietly, "are you resigning from Hogwarts, Severus?"
Severus shook his head, to the Headmasters utter surprise. "No, I am returning to teach in the fall. During summer I am going to stay with Abe at the Hog's Head, and depending on how things go, I might move back to the castle for at least part of the week when school reopens."
He sighed. "I can't leave my House, not now, not with this war going on. I can still be of some use to the Order, and now I can speak more freely to many of my older students about the choices they have. I know Draco, for one, is having doubts about following the Dark Lord…"
"I do not think anyone else would be able to lead them effectively, Severus," Dumbledore admitted, "they do need you, but that does not mean you have to be the only one available to them. Why not take an assistant, or an apprentice?"
Severus' eyes widened. "I did not think I was allowed," he admitted, "an apprentice that would teach the younger years while I focus on the older students…that would be a very welcome idea."
"Most professors do not take an official apprentice or teaching assistant, but many have the NEWT students help them. Of course, they did not have the long list of duties you have had to juggle all these years. Think on it, and let me know if you have anyone in mind."
Severus nodded, absentminded. He looked insecure.
"What is it, Severus?" Aidan asked.
"I…" Severus eyed the Headmaster warily, "do you resent me for being the reason Black is gone?"
"Severus!" Albus gasped, "that was not your fault! Sirius brought it on himself."
"If I had not tried to kill myself, you would have made me apologise to him. You would have ignored what he did," the Potions Master pointed out bitterly, "you would have lectured me on the need to let go of grudges and stop telling lies. I did not, I drank that poison and set things in motion that made it impossible for you to ignore what he did. You are going to want revenge for that, are you not?"
"I would not have made you apologise," Dumbledore said brokenly, "Harry came to me and told me what had happened. That is why I went to your rooms, to talk to you. To tell you I believed you."
"You did not believe me! You believed Harry," Severus accused.
"I know. I know," the Headmaster sank back into the chair, "I did not want to believe Sirius capable of that."
"What hurt you the most about that whole situation, Severus?" Aidan asked.
Severus looked at the Headmaster. "That you did not want me. You would not keep me with you even though I begged you to. You foisted me off on Black, you never checked up on me. I – it hurt, what Black did, but I expected it. I did not expect him to treat me well. But you did not want me! You blamed me for that stupid accident and you could not wait to get rid of me."
"I thought it would be very boring for you, staying with me," Dumbledore defended feebly, realizing how ironic this sounded compared to what Severus had gone through, "I thought you would be less bored at Grimmauld Place…"
"Yes, being beaten up and worked like a house-elf certainly is much better than boredom. And of course, those days locked in a tiny room without food easily qualify as the most exciting time of my life," Severus bit out sarcastically.
The Headmaster did not deny anything. He regarded Severus sadly. "My poor, poor boy," he sighed, "there is absolutely nothing I can do to ever make this right again."
"No…" the young wizard trailed off, "not make it right. Just…make amends. I have tried to do that…"
He looked up again. "I will come back to teach and retain a professional relationship with you, Headmaster Dumbledore. Perhaps at some point, it can become more than professional, but I am afraid for now you will have to settle for what I can offer."
"I am glad, and a little amazed, that you are able to offer this much," they stood, sensing that this conversation had reached its end, "I will endeavour to earn your trust."
"Professor Snape! Professor Snape!"
Of the three people awaiting him at Hogsmeade Station, the slim black-haired boy was easily recognizable – the only one jumping up and down as he got off the train. The other two were far too dignified for that, though they smiled happily when they saw him.
"Hello, Harry," he nodded at the teen as he Kingsley helped him heave his trunk off the train. A featherlight an levitation charm later, it was hovering, ready to be taken to the town.
"I'm glad you're back," Harry said excitedly, "I've been wanting to show you my animagus form. Abe says you'll be living with him and Kingsley says I'll be allowed to go into Hogsmeade…"
"Harry my boy, give the man a moment to reply and yourself time to breathe," Kingsley admonished with an apologetic grin to Severus.
"Harry and I are living in the castle for now," he explained, "it is far safer for him, if a bit empty at the moment. I Floo to work from the castle – we've set up a secure connection."
"I have bad news, though," Harry said gravely.
Severus narrowed his eyes. He knew that look. It meant the boy was up to some kind of mischief.
"What would that be, Mr Potter?"
"Well, Neville and I both got an O on our OWLS so we will be in your NEWT class," Harry told him seriously, "are you still sure you want to return to teaching?"
Severus made a show of moaning. "Oh no! What awaits me this year? The horror!"
Harry grinned widely. "So I can come pester you a lot with questions this summer," he said brightly, "isn't that wonderful?"
Severus gave him a small smile. "It is, Harry," he assured the boy, his tone sincere.
"Yeah," the teen leaned into Kingsley, who put a hand on the back of his neck and shook him affectionately.
"If he pesters you too much, just tell me and I'll give him a few extra rounds of ropes course," he teased the boy, who looked up at him both amused and indignant.
"I have heard about this ropes course," Severus nodded, "I believe I should come investigate it one of these days."
"Be my guest. You can even try it out if you like," Kingsley made a wide sweeping gesture as if he wanted to personally open up all available training facilities to Severus, "Harry is getting quite good at it, I must admit."
"HEY! I broke my own record three times this week," Harry complained, "I'm not 'quite good' I am REAL good!"
"I will be over to see you soon and you can show me," Severus promised, "If you don't mind, though – I would like to go with Abe now."
"Of course," the Auror nodded, "Harry and I need to pick him up some clothes anyway. We will see you later."
Abe led Severus to the back of the Hogs Head, where the entrance to his own house was. He levitated the trunk into the bedroom that was going to be Severus's, and then they headed downstairs for a well-deserved bottle of butterbeer. The bar was closed, it being morning, and Severus examined the tap.
"I'll show you how that thing works," Abe pointed towards the handles with his bottle of butterbeer, "it's easier than it looks."
"Yes," Severus nodded. He had expected that. "I'll become a star waitress, I promise. I'll make sure to earn my keep," he promised sincerely.
Abe growled and banged his bottle on the bar putting it down with considerable force.
"Don't EVER let me hear you say that again," he stated, turning fierce blue eyes on his young friend.
Severus recoiled, taking a step back until he was backed up against the bar. Abe shook his head in concern took his chin.
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you, boy," he frowned, "you do not 'earn your keep'. If you want to help me out in here, I'm glad, but only if you want to. You do not have to do anything to repay me. This is your home. You are always welcome here and I will never ask anything in return."
He took Severus's shoulder and shook him gently. "So no more of this nonsense, alright? You owe me nothing."
Severus slowly relaxed a little, and Abe pushed him down on a bar chair. "Sorry I frightened you. You know you have nothing to fear from me, right? You…well. You belong here now. You're my family."
Trying to swallow the tight lump in his throat, Severus nodded. "Thanks," he managed hoarsely, "I…I like that."
"Me too," Abe slung an arm around the Potions Masters shoulders. "Now, my boy, let me show you where I keep my stock…"
Severus let himself be led to the basement to be educated in the wonderful world of tending bar. And the dusty basement, with rows of bottles and cans and other assorted groceries, suddenly seemed like the most beautiful home in the world.