Chapter 1 – The Headmistress Remembers
Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, gazed out of the window of her office and was greeted by the sight of a beautiful May morning. The bright sunshine reflected off the lake and a few small, fluffy white clouds hung in an otherwise clear, bright blue sky. There was a slight breeze rustling over the tops of the trees of the Forbidden Forest. Here and there, she could see pupils dotted like ants on the grounds, sitting in small groups. Some were studying; others were spread out on the ground with their robes loosened, hands behind their heads and enjoying the warmth of the sun. Minerva thought the scene was very peaceful and tranquil, and could not have been more different from the fateful events that had unfolded at Hogwarts just over ten years previously.
Ten years! Minerva shook her head ruefully. The time had gone so quickly, as it did when one aged, she reflected, and yet the memories were still raw to her. The Battle of Hogwarts, and the awful aftermath, haunted her still. Of course, she had been a key figure in rebuilding the castle and ensuring both the school and the education of magical children had got back to normality as quickly as possible once Tom Riddle had been finally vanquished. And as much as the work she had thrown herself into was a kind of healing process, the pain she felt in her heart from those she'd lost in the battle never truly went away. Her eyes flicked to the beautiful marble war memorial that stood near Dumbledore's tomb, etched with the names of all who had fallen.
She sighed, turning from the window. She was now eighty-two and was starting to feel her age. Albus Dumbledore had been well over a hundred years old when he was headmaster, and he could have undoubtedly kept going for another thirty years at least, had he been able to live out his natural life. And eighty-two was comparatively young in wizarding terms. But Minerva felt very tired and seemed to carry a perpetual stone around in her stomach since the war, and she had the sneaking suspicion it had nothing to do with her duties at Hogwarts.
With another sigh, Minerva took her seat at her desk and peered over the wire-rimmed frames of her spectacles, her lips set in a disapproving purse as she sorted though the morning's mail. An invoice from Madam Malkin. The minutes from the school governor's tri-annual meeting. A copy of the latest Daily Prophet. Yet another letter from Mrs. Diggson-Clarke, probably once more bemoaning how her precious son Tarquin had been unfairly overlooked at the Hufflepuff Quidditch trials. And a whole host of Hogwarts-related administration. Yes, the owls had brought her plenty of post to be getting on with, but not the one thing she was waiting for: an envelope bearing the spiky, neat handwriting of Severus Snape.
She frowned as she tossed the mail onto her desk. It wasn't as if she was expecting a reply; he never replied to any of her letters. He was as stubborn as a Hippogriff when he was at Hogwarts, and she was quite sure that was a trait he would take with him to the end of his days. However, Minerva herself was blessed with her own fair share of obstinacy, and so she had written to him every year for the last ten years on the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. The message was simple: Come home. But it seemed that Severus no longer regarded either the castle or the wizarding world that he had almost died protecting as his home. Everyone else in the wizarding world assumed he was dead, of course. But only Minerva knew the full truth.
It was Minerva herself who had found Severus clinging to life on the floor of the filthy Shrieking Shack, tipped off by the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. Albus had urged her to hurry and find Severus, and although she had protested vehemently, at that point still believing him to be on Riddle's side, Albus had been insistent and had told her that all would be revealed later. Trusting Albus, she had transformed into her Animagus form and dashed across the grounds as fast as she could, dodging rogue spells from the battle, falling stone from the battered castle and the trampling feet of giants, and had finally reached the edge of the Forbidden Forest, where she had transformed back into herself and Apparated into the Shrieking Shack.
She had not expected the mess that lay before her. There had been a dark bundle sprawled at her feet in black robes, who she had recognised straight away to be Snape, surrounded by thick pools of blood, which seemed to have permeated the whole floor. As she had glanced at the deep, ripped wound in Snape's neck, and the seemingly lifeless black eyes gazing up at the ceiling from his chalky, alabaster face, she feared she was too late. No matter what Severus Snape had done, he didn't deserve to be killed in such a brutal way. Avada Kedavra was, at least, clean and quick. Whatever had injured Severus was not human, and the fearsome beast must surely have been poisonous, judging by the yellowish tinge trickling from the gash in Snape's neck. This sight, on top of the sound of all the chaos still raging at the castle, had almost tipped her over the edge, and she had felt sick to her stomach. What kind of creature could have done such a thing? What kind of creature could have overpowered the formidable wand skills of Snape?
Realising she had no time to think but instead had to act, she had hastily bent over the former headmaster, putting her ear close to Snape's open mouth, listening for the sound of his breath over the loud tattoo of her own heartbeat and the distant screams and crashes from the war thundering up at the castle.
She had felt the slightest warmth tickle her ear and had heard the faintest rattle of breath and almost could not believe it. He was alive! But what could she do to save him? She knew that, as Potions master, he had always kept a bezoar on his person in case of emergency. Of course, he had not held that position for nearly two years, but surely, old habits die hard? She had begun searching his pockets frantically with shaking hands, patting them down, trying to feel the outline of the unmistakable stone. But alas, there had been no bezoar to be found, which had led Minerva to believe either that he had already taken it, or he'd not had it on his person in the first place. And even if she could have found it, Snape was hardly breathing. He would have surely choked to death if she'd tried forcing it down his throat.
Sitting back on her heels in frustration, she had cursed herself inwardly for not bringing essence of dittany or Blood-Replenishing Potion or anything else of use. But she wasn't to know what state Snape would be in when she had found him, and she hadn't had time to prepare. Drawing her wand, she had begun muttering a spell to stop the blood flow and then another to siphon off whatever poison which had still been leaking from the wound. These had been basic, perfunctory measures, and Severus had urgently needed further medical attention immediately, but what else could she have done? She had not thought she would have had the strength to Apparate with him by herself to St. Mungo's. And she had needed to get back to the battle. But she had also known that she couldn't have just left him there.
Then, out of absolutely nowhere, an idea had struck her. She had seen a group of house-elves running towards the battle and preparing to fight as she'd skittered towards the Forbidden Forest. Maybe, she had thought, there was still hope.
'Winky!' Minerva's voice had called firmly.
The crack of Apparition had ripped through the darkness with the violence of an expletive, and a small elf with enormous brown eyes and a nose like a tomato had stood before Minerva, dressed in a dishevelled Hogwarts tea towel and shaking with fear. The elf had taken one look at the bloodied figure of Severus Snape lying on the floor, and her eyes had opened even wider.
Before Winky had even drawn a breath however, Minerva had continued.
'Winky, you must go to Professor Slughorn's quarters and bring back all the essence of dittany, anti-venom and Blood-Replenishing Potion you can find, and administer them to Sev–' She had paused, catching herself; the bizarreness of the situation had made her lose her usual formality. She had taken a steadying breath before continuing. 'And administer them to Professor Snape. Stay with him until I return.'
'But Headmistress,' the elf had squeaked fearfully, winding the bottom of her tea towel between her fingers, 'We knows Professor Snape is a bad man! He is with... with You-Know-Who!' she had finished in a whisper.
Minerva had swallowed hard. She too had been fighting with her own turbulent feelings regarding Snape's loyalties, but she had trusted Dumbledore. Dumbledore had wanted him to be saved, for whatever reason, and she had decided that she would not let Dumbledore down.
'Winky, there is no time for discussion! Get the potions and return here immediately!' Minerva had instructed firmly, and with a quick bow, the elf Apparated with another sharp crack.
Not a minute later, Winky had returned once more, bearing the phials of potions as instructed. Minerva had told the elf how to administer the potions and had once again reiterated that the elf was to stay by Snape's side until she returned. Then, after one last glance at the dreadfully pale face of Severus Snape, she had Apparated out of the Shack and had thrown herself back into the midst of the battle.
Dumbledore's motives for saving Snape had become quite clear once Harry had revealed the truth about Snape's alliances in his final showdown with Riddle. Minerva had felt all kinds of feelings wash through her then: guilt at believing only the worst of Severus and for their fight the last time they had faced each other, anguish at the pain and pressures of spying that Severus had borne alone for so many years, and fear that she had arrived too late and he was now lying dead, still on the floor of the dirty old Shrieking Shack.
But when Minerva had returned to the Shack later that morning, the body of Severus Snape had gone. The floor had still been covered in a carpet of crimson, but aside from that, there had been no evidence of what had happened to him. Not even the little empty potion phials had remained.
Winky, who had not been in the Shack either when Minerva had arrived, had faced intense questioning when summoned, but the little elf, who could not remember being called to assist Snape at all, had obviously had her memory modified. And so Minerva had come to the conclusion that Snape had survived and had somehow managed to leave the Shack, with or without Winky's assistance.
Why he had run away, she could not say. He would have surely been treated like a hero had he stayed. But Severus was not the kind of man who would have relished his personal life known by all and sundry. He had always been a private man. Perhaps, knowing that his obligations to Lily, to Dumbledore and to Hogwarts were finally fulfilled, he had run away to escape everything that he had been chained to for so long and to start afresh. Either way, Minerva would not deny him the chance for freedom after a lifetime's service to bring down Riddle. So, she had kept quiet about her own theories about his body's disappearance, instead pretending to agree with the majority view that Riddle or one of his cronies had disposed of it during the battle.
But the real giveaway for Minerva that Severus was indeed alive was the absence of his headmaster's portrait within her own office at Hogwarts. It had been clear after Harry's revelations that Snape had never deserted Hogwarts, even when he'd taken flight after his argument with Minerva. His loyalties had been very firmly to Dumbledore and, by association, to the school. If Snape had died, he would indeed have had his own portrait, right next to that of Albus Dumbledore. This was some comfort, to know he survived his terrible injuries. But still, her guilt gnawed at her, like Bowtruckles on Doxy eggs. She wanted Snape to realise how important everyone thought he was. She wanted him to come home to Hogwarts, the place he'd nearly died trying to save. And, most of all, she wanted to apologise for the appalling way she had treated him.
Minerva knew that Severus was getting her letters, even if he never responded. Her owl always came back empty-beaked. She often wondered where he was, what he was doing now, but knew better than to go looking for him. She had to resign herself to being happy with the knowledge that, wherever he was, Severus Snape was alive and well and enjoying peace and freedom at last. But she would not give up on him, and so every year she wrote him a letter, on the anniversary of his "death", trying to make amends, trying to show him somebody out there knew he was alive and cared about him.
One day, she hoped, Severus Snape might feel ready to respond.