"I am not such a coward."
"No," Albus agreed, and his voice was almost affectionate. "You are a braver man by far than Igor Karkaroff. You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon..." He smiled at Severus, before turning and walking away.
Severus remained where he was, swallowing and staring after the Headmaster with an air of stricken incredulity. Did he know? Did the Headmaster known what the Sorting Hat had said to him, all those years before? Did he know that the Sorting Hat had struggled?
Nervous, almost to the point of being sick. So excited that his body was a trembling wreck. Eager to learn, determined to succeed, looking forward to a future free of his terrible father and his upsetting home life.
His name was called, and he stepped forward. He walked up to the stool and sat down, relieved not to have to stand any more. He thought perhaps his knees would give way.
The magical hat was placed upon his head, and he waited.
There was a pause, and he wondered if something was wrong. Then a voice, calming, spoke near to his ear.
Severus didn't like the word interesting; it suggested far too many things and was ambiguous. He swallowed and continued to listen.
"Where to put you? I see an interesting future ahead of you, Severus Snape."
Severus nearly flinched, surprised that the Hat knew his name.
"Brave—yes, you are brave. I can see that. Would you stand strong to defend your friends in a time of crisis? I cannot tell—for you have had no-one in your life to protect, have you, Mr Snape.?"
Severus frowned, closing his eyes. "I protected my mother." He answered, careful not to let the words fall from his lips, and concentrating on communicating them mentally.
"You did. And yet, your intelligence and potential intrigues me. Perhaps Ravenclaw would be your true friends; the academics? Do you like to study?"
"Yes." He liked to lose himself in his books. He liked to create new things, to do things perfectly...
"But still, you are difficult to place. Because you are ambitious. So very ambitious. You could do great things. You prefer to work alone. You prefer to be alone." The Hat continued to consider. "And then, of course, there is your loyalty. I sense it, deep in you. When you choose a friend or a mentor, you will stay loyal to them until the day you die."
An eleven-year-old boy was not quite used to talking about his death...so he didn't answer that.
"Your path is unclear. You could become greatness, yes, but that will depend on your choices. You could be a hero—perhaps Gryffindor?"
He thought of the boys he had met on the train, and how he had not liked them. He shook his head, almost involuntarily. But the Hat noticed. "Ah. So, not Gryffindor, then? Pity...for you could do well there."
Still, he would not be convinced.
There was silence again, as the Hat came to a final decision. "In that case...and listen to me now, Mr. Snape, for this is important. The house I choose to place you in has stereotypes and prejudices that span generations—but there are always those who do not conform to tradition. There are always those who can break the bonds that tie them to the past." A moment, and then, "Slytherin!"
Severus was still contemplating the memory when he headed toward Albus' office two days later. He wondered if the Hat had been right—if he had been placed anywhere else, perhaps he would not be condemned to the path he walked now. Because he had not had the strength to defy those stereotypes. The idea that all Slytherin wizards turned bad. The attraction to the darkness was so powerful when there was ambition and desire and loneliness.
It was the words of the Sorting Hat that had encouraged Severus to seek the position as Head of House fourteen years before. He understood the pressures that all Slytherin students faced, and he wanted to be there to guide them...in the way that he had not been guided.
"Cockroach Cluster," he barked at the gargoyles, and they leapt aside. He mounted the spiral staircase, still lost in his thoughts.
The Hat had, of course, been right. Severus had become loyal—to two Masters in his past, although only one of those would he be willing to die for. That was his current Headmaster, mentor, and the one person Severus considered a true friend. He had demonstrated the trait that most Hufflepuffs prided themselves in.
He sat down in the office, looking down at the desk. The Headmaster had not yet arrived for their weekly meeting, so he had a few moments to gather his thoughts together.
"Do you think I placed you in the wrong house, Mr. Snape?"
He turned at the voice. The Sorting Hat was placed atop a cabinet opposite him. He regarded it for a moment. "I do not know."
"Had you been elsewhere, would you be where you are now?"
Severus considered. "I turned to the Dark Lord because it seemed to be the easiest escape for the world in which I lived. I do not know if, had I been in Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff, I would have followed the same path."
The Hat was contemplative for a moment, "You still do not consider the noble house of Gryffindor in your calculations?"
"Gryffindors are foolish. They know nothing of nobility or loyalty." Severus replied acidly. He exhaled slowly.
The Hat did not respond to that.
Severus chose to speak again. "Do you think you placed me in the right house?"
The Hat seemed to regard him. "If I said no, what would it change, Mr. Snape?"
Severus shrugged. "I don't know."
"I stand by that you were hard to place, and would have done well in any house. However. I stand by my decision; you have been one of the first to show that not all Slytherins are dark wizards."
Severus turned his head away when Albus walked in, "I am sorry to be late, Severus, I was held up in a disturbance involving Peeves, Minerva and a box of fruit." He offered no further explanation and sat down opposite him. "Now. Let us begin."
The meeting was pleasant enough—Severus, although he would be loath to admit it, quite enjoyed the time he spent with the Headmaster, who made a considerable effort to listen to the younger's wizards thought and opinions. Now they had descended into comfortable silence, which Albus ended when he leaned forward. "I think that shall be all for tonight. You appear tired, my dear child."
Severus stood and bowed his head in respect to his mentor, "Good-night, Headmaster."
As he turned to leave, Albus spoke up. "The Sorting Hat put me in Ravenclaw, you know."
Severus froze. He turned back. "I assumed you had been placed in Gryffindor?" He knew that his tone did sound slightly incredulous.
"Most people do. And they would not be far wrong—the Hat really had to think about me." Albus smiled, "But it chose Ravenclaw because it thought that Gryffindor could cause problems for me in the future."
Severus frowned. "Why did it choose Ravenclaw?"
"Because of my superior intellect, of course!" Albus answered with a jovial tone.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Good night, Headmaster..."
"I can imagine the Hat would have had a hard time placing you, Severus. You are a rather confusing individual—if I do say so myself."
Severus rested a hand on the door. "Where would you have placed me, Headmaster?"
Albus pressed the tips of his fingers together. "What an interesting question." He considered. "Based on what I know of you now? The brave and noble individual that you are?"
Severus was well aware that he had turned back to face the Headmaster, genuinely intrigued and curious about what the response would be.
"I would have kept you where you were, because I would not wish to change you in any way. Good night, Severus."