Disclaimer: See this? It's under the "Harry Potter" category on a fan fiction site. This means that, hey, this story is written by a fan of Harry Potter, not its wonderful creator and owner, J. K. Rowling. Big shocker, I know. It's all hers—except for the shameful spelling/grammatical/stylistic errors, of course. Honestly, though, just having fun here. ;)
Author's Note: Hey there! Glad you found your way here—it's good to be back, though sporadically. Just a quick FYI: This is a sequel to The Leaving, an AU one-shot of mine set during Harry's sixth year at Hogwarts (in which Snape is still the Potions Master and the students of Slytherin House are mysteriously absent). If you haven't read that yet, I'd encourage you to do so, though if you don't mind missing a few references in this first chapter, you won't be too lost along the way if you haven't read it. Yes, I know that fic is old and riddled with errors, and doesn't seem as though it would work for a longer fic—but I promised I would continue with a sequel if the bunny bit, so here we are.
I can't promise consistent updates—life is a crazy thing. However, I'll do my best, and I hope you enjoy!
The fact that Severus had been expecting the knock did not make it any more welcome.
He sighed and contemplated the door to his quarters, wondering if it was worth pretending to be asleep, but decided that lying to his employer could only make the upcoming conversation more uncomfortable for both of them. It would be far from pleasant as it was—and there was no avoiding it. He had practically heard the gears turning in Albus's head from the moment his Slytherins had failed to step foot in the Great Hall.
"Severus? May I come in?"
No, he thought savagely. You insulted my house, ignored me, took the lives of my students for granted, tried to turn it into one of your jokes—no, you may not come in. But he stood and went to the door anyway. He made sure his face was stony as he pushed it open—not that it took much effort.
The usual brightness in Albus's eyes was, for once, utterly absent. "Might I have a word, Severus?"
"Will it make a difference if I say 'no'?" muttered Severus, turning on his heel and leaving Albus to deal with the door. It was stupid of him—unfair of him—to make this harder than it needed to be, but Severus didn't care. He was too angry.
"Of course," said Albus calmly, though he followed the younger wizard into his sitting room nonetheless. "I know you are upset with me. It is perfectly understandable if you do not want to talk. Know, however, that you cannot avoid facing me forever."
"And what, precisely, is there to discuss?" snarled Severus, already having to ball his hands into fists to stop their shaking. This was not good...he could not afford to lose control so early… "My life has clearly always meant little to you. It should not surprise me that you think the same of my students."
Albus was silent for a moment as he took a seat and stared at his fingertips. "I am not entirely sure how to begin to answer you, Severus. If that is truly what you believe, then I fear we have misunderstood each other for a very long time."
"Perhaps we have," Severus snapped, refusing to join his mentor around the fire. "But I doubt it. What have Slytherins ever been to you? An inconvenience, at best—indifferent or unconvinced of your power, if not openly opposed. And then, when one comes around, it's suddenly a case of them having been sorted into the wrong house to begin with."
He was pleased to see Albus flinch slightly; that offhand comment of his had caused, once Severus had overcome his shock, a row that had made for an uncomfortable several weeks. It still rankled, even to the point where Severus was loath to bring it up for fear of reopening the argument again, but he knew it caused the headmaster just as much discomfiture, which he surely deserved at the moment. Severus would have smirked if he hadn't been so furious.
"Did it ever occur to you that there might just be decent people in Slytherin? Those that were chosen for its admirable traits, and don't need to be 'rehabilitated'? No. No, of course not. They're pushed aside and taken for granted, and everything other than trouble from them is overlooked from the moment the hat comes off their head. Don't pretend you care about them, Albus. No one does. Not really."
"Do not make the mistake of thinking I do not care for all of the students that pass through these halls, Severus," said Albus, rather more coolly than usual. "And, forgive me, but with all the 'decent people' in your house, perhaps you can explain to me why not one of them stayed behind."
That stung, more than Severus cared to admit, but he hardly needed to—he was shouting before he knew it.
"Goddamnit, Albus, you know why!" he bellowed. "Do you think all of them left by choice? Oh, but of course, I've forgotten. All of them were already Death-Eaters-in-training!"
"That is not necessary, Severus…. What do you mean? You know where they've—?"
"YES! Isn't it obvious? Those that didn't go willingly were forced, and by god, if they want to survive, they'll fight for the Dark Lord!"
"As I suspected...but why didn't you tell me of this, if you knew?" said Albus sharply, and Severus was torn between wanting to shake him or breaking down at the trace of suspicion he heard there.
"I didn't know. Not until they weren't here. But I'm—I'm fairly certain they will be there, when he next calls for me."
"Severus, this is not a time for uncertainty."
"It is not a time for jokes, either!"
Albus nodded. "I am aware of that, and I apologise. It was thoughtless of me. However, the importance of appearing to our students as though—"
"As though what? As though everything was under control, as though it were no surprise? Merlin's beard, all they had to do was glance at our table—"
"—which was made even more conspicuous by your leaving, I might add."
"Because my students are OUT THERE PREPARING TO DIE FOR A CAUSE THEY CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO WIN, AND ALL YOU CAN DO IS SIT THERE AND ACT AS THOUGH IT'S A JOKE!"
"That's enough, Severus." For the first time, Albus sounded truly angry, his light blue eyes icy as he surveyed his Potions Master with a frown. "Do not think I don't realise the position in which they are placed, or what it means we may have to do."
"Which is what? Sit back and let them remain with him, where they'll either be killed there for insubordination, or by us for cooperating with him? I won't do it, Albus; do not ask it of me!"
"I would not dream of asking that of you, if I could not ask it of others."
"Severus, we will do what we must. For now, that means keeping things under control here, until we determine what exactly Voldemort plans to do with them, and considering what to do from there. There is no room for us to act rashly."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Severus thought he should have been cowed by the warning in Albus's voice, or the sheer power filling the room, but he didn't care. He was trembling with rage, not wanting to believe that his mentor would pronounce a death sentence so easily upon his students. What right do you have, to say what matters most? he nearly shouted.
"You're going to do nothing," he said instead. "You're going to sit here and do nothing, while the Dark Lord weeds out all those that don't truly want to commit, and they'll be dead long before you get around to figuring out a plan—and by that time, the only ones left will be the ones that don't want anything to do with you! All those that could have helped us, that would have been glad to have been returned here, will die and YOU'RE DOING NOTHING!"
"Get out," he stammered. "Leave my quarters, Headmaster!"
"Severus, sit down and listen!"
"You cannot possibly have anything else to say to me," spat Severus. "Get out. GET OUT!"
"No," said Albus simply. "We need to have this conversation, Severus, and you need to understand me before it is over."
Severus turned on his heel. There were so many snappish replies and insults and curses flying around his head that he was not entirely sure what made it out of his mouth; then he was running, storming out of his office and nearly destroying the door in the process. He heard the headmaster calling him back, rather angrily, but didn't stop—he wasn't sure if either of them would have survived, had they remained in the same room for much longer.
He was several floors away before he finally stopped, panting. His anger had not abated, but now it was tinged by trepidation—he'd never gone so far in an argument with Albus before. Surely he would not just let that go. If Albus Dumbledore thought something needed to be said, it would be said, come hell or high water, and now there would likely be a reprimand thrown in, as well. Severus ground his teeth—it just wasn't fair. He didn't deserve this, and neither did his Slytherins.
His fear for them cramped his stomach into knots and clouded his mind; he regretted fleeing from his only available sanctuary in the castle. There, at least, he could be comfortable and secure as he worried—or, at least, he would have been until Albus intruded, he thought angrily. Instead, he stalked the corridors restlessly, unable either to settle anywhere or to face going back to the rooms where Albus awaited him, not caring where he was going. Up staircases, down passages, through doors, doubling back...it didn't matter, really, so long as he didn't have to see that weathered face that infuriated him like none other…
He paused in the middle of his failed attempts not to rant to himself. As he had not really been paying attention to where he was going, he had ended up in a long, unfamiliar room, its many tables covered in an array of glass instruments that put his own potions lab to shame. He surveyed it curiously—surely no one could have known this was here? Granted, he had occasionally caught students in abandoned rooms attempting illicit potions, but this was far too elaborate of a set-up, and—as he looked around, noticed there were no ingredients or other paraphernalia—just rows upon rows of bottles and flasks and phials, glittering faintly in the dim light.
Strange. He picked up a small flask and examined it, feeling a stab of annoyance. What the hell was all this doing here? What the hell was he doing here? This was surely some trick of the castle's; Hogwarts liked to surprise the unwary wanderer, though he thought he'd certainly outgrown this sort of thing by now…. He refocussed on the flask again, noticing dimly it was not clear as he'd expected, but a brilliant light blue. Almost like—
He broke off that line of thought immediately; he was suddenly overwhelmingly, irrationally angry. Before he could stop himself, he'd hurled the flask across the room in a fit of temper. It exploded against the flagstones with satisfying force, and Severus stared at the shards without feeling. He hardly dared to glance at the table beside him: it was too tempting, all that fragility within reach, practically begging to follow its blue-tinted companion...and yet…
The contents of the first few tables quickly littered the ground; it was a convenient, if unexpected, outlet for Severus's rage. Not a single piece was left untouched by the time he stopped, breathing heavily, slightly ashamed of the destruction he'd caused and not entirely sure whether it made him feel better or worse. He sighed and turned to leave; he had better things to do with his time, like thinking of what he was going to say when he returned to his rooms to face Albus again, that manipulative son of a—
He jumped at the deafening shattering sound, and whirled to face the room again, only to see that the tables of glass had repaired themselves without his raising a wand. His neck prickled.
"What is this?" he whispered. "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?"
There was, of course, no answer, but the room mocked him with its pristine condition. He upended the first table in annoyance and quickly demolished the others, taking care to trample any pieces he found that were that curious light blue. Twice more the room repaired itself, and twice more he attempted to destroy it, growing ever more frustrated, but too tired by the time he turned away for the third time to seriously consider going at it again. Fine. If the castle insisted on being as insufferable as its master, he would leave.
He was glad to see the door disappear as he slammed it shut; he never wanted to see the place again. He resumed his pacing of the corridors, still unwilling to return to his quarters in case Albus had decided to wait him out, and found himself halfway across the first floor when he turned a corner and collided with another person.
"Ouch!" Their exclamation was slightly more eloquent, and understandably so; Minerva was blinking at him in surprise, looking remarkably human with her dark hair falling in a loose plait over her dressing gown.
"Goodness, Severus, you gave me a fright...It's late; I didn't expect anyone else to be—Severus, you're bleeding," she said in concern, reaching for his face before he could object. His cheek stung slightly as she touched it, and her fingers came away clutching a stained shard of glass. He focussed on this instead, unable to bear the understanding that dawned in her eyes as she examined it and gave him a searching look.
"You're up late," he muttered quickly. It was a tactless way of changing the subject, but she seemed to accept it nonetheless.
"I was going to the kitchens for hot chocolate. Care to join me?"
"I—" Severus hesitated. He wasn't sure he wanted anyone's company at the moment—particularly someone who had seen him completely humiliate himself mere hours ago—but Minerva was kind enough that she would not likely bring it up, and it beat the alternative of facing Albus. "All right. If you don't mind."
"Of course not," she said, falling into stride beside him. "I don't mind sharing traditions."
"Would you believe, after over forty years of teaching, I'm still anxious the night before a new term," she said, smiling slightly. "Of course, it's more to do now with the scheduling than anything—you only cause a train-wreck with the schedules once, but the fear you'll do it again never really goes away."
Severus snorted. It was hard to believe that clever, efficient Minerva could ever have messed up anything so badly. She raised an eyebrow as though she knew what he was thinking.
"It's a lot harder than it looks."
"I believe you."
"I wish I'd believed it sooner. The first year I was deputy headmistress, I—well, I bungled it so badly that half the day was over before everything had been sorted. I was so nervous after that, I'm afraid I was rather insufferable." Minerva caught him smirking at this, and laughed. "Not like that, you know...no, I couldn't sleep at all before the next year—Albus finally took me aside and told me to stop worrying—and I didn't, of course, but we stayed up a bit, had some hot chocolate, and I slept easier after that."
Her cheeks were rather pink, but she drew herself up, abruptly seeming much more like her usual self. "So. I come down here every year, now. I think it's something in the way the elves make it, but it does help me relax."
They had reached a tall still-life of a bowl of fruit, and Minerva reached for the pear, which turned into a handle at her touch. Severus hesitated, but she pulled the painting out of the way and gestured him inside, the look behind her smile all too knowing as he passed her.
"Professor Snape—and Professor McGonagall, Mistress!" squeaked something at about thigh-level. Severus raised an eyebrow at the beaming house elf, but it did not seem to be intimidated.
"Hello, Nimsy," said Minerva graciously.
"We is wondering when you is going to be coming, Mistress, but I is saying you was going to be here, no matter what! I is telling them, I says, 'Professor McGonagall is coming for her chocolate, and we is going to be ready for her!' You—you is coming for your chocolate, Mistress?" added the little elf anxiously, glancing at Severus.
"Of course I am. I wouldn't miss it," Minerva reassured her. "And—Professor Snape would like some as well."
Nimsy's eyes widened. "Sir—Sir is wanting to have some too?" she said in awe.
"I—Minerva—" Severus started, but Minerva's face brooked no argument, so he swallowed instead. "Yes. I'll have some as well."
Nimsy squealed in excitement and pattered away, joining the elves by the stoves as they babbled contentedly. Severus did not want to catch their eyes, so he allowed Minerva to lead him to the long table nearest the immense fireplace.
"I'm sorry," she said in an undertone. "You don't have to drink it if you don't want to...it's only that I've known Nimsy for a very long time, and she's very excitable. They love visitors—they so rarely get to fuss over anyone in person, I think they'd be hurt if you didn't let them serve you."
There were so many incredulous responses on Severus's tongue, he wasn't quite sure which would be most appropriate. "You know the house elves?" he said finally.
"Nimsy has cleaned my office for over forty years, Severus. There's nothing wrong with taking an interest. It's a bit non-traditional, certainly, but she's a gentle creature with some rather fascinating stories."
Severus stared, barely taking note of the mugs that were shoved in front of them by elfin hands. "You are full of surprises, as ever, Minerva."
"As are you," she countered, her gaze piercing over the rim of her mug. "I—I take it you have seen Albus, then," she prodded gently.
"He's probably still waiting for me in my quarters," he said bitterly. "Suffice it to say I am not eager to return. I—hell, I completely lost it with him."
"I won't say he didn't deserve it."
Her words took a moment to register, and then he stared, his automatic anger fading. "I—you agree with me."
Minerva shook her head. "You know how I feel about what he did earlier—"
"He said he was trying to keep everyone calm, keep up appearances for the students."
"Well, it was a crass way to go about it, and it clearly didn't work, did it?" sniffed Minerva. "And, knowing you, I expect you told him so."
"Among other things."
"Ah. And there's the problem, isn't it?"
"I'm not quite sure what you mean."
"You know perfectly well what I mean, Severus. It's completely understandable that Albus was out of line, and Merlin knows he needs someone to remind him when he is, sometimes. However, neither of you had any business trying to confront each other when you're both angry."
"I—what?" said Severus, feeling rather wrong-footed by this. "He came to me! Do you think I wanted to speak with him?"
"Of course not. Hence, you probably managed to say quite a few things to deliberately make him feel worse, but never mind that now…" she sighed. Severus opened his mouth angrily, but she forestalled him with an upraised hand.
"I'm sorry, Severus. I didn't mean it as judgment. Merlin knows I would have done the same."
"He would have taken it from you, though," Severus muttered, taking a swig of his chocolate and suppressing a shudder at the disconcerting warmth. He had no rational reason for being happy; it was no right of a drink's—and a non-alcoholic one, at that—to attempt to comfort him. He was slightly appeased, and simultaneously depressed, by Minerva's lack of response.
"I should just go," he said quietly. "Like the rest of them."
"Severus, you agreed—"
"—that I would stay, because you insisted, and because I thought—" he paused, irritated with himself, "—that somehow, it would work out, and Albus and I could come to some sort of understanding. I thought he would do something."
"Even Albus's power has its limits, you know," said Minerva softly. "He cannot fix something like this overnight."
"He has no intention of fixing this at all."
Minerva eyed him sternly. "That's not true, and you know it. He just needs time to figure out what exactly is going on, and he'll have all your students that want to be rescued back before you know it. In the meantime, he needs our trust."
"In the meantime, half my students could be dead, and he's willing to sacrifice them so he can plan a strategy that better fits into his scheme for the 'greater good,'" said Severus hotly. He regretted his harsh tone when he saw that Minerva's eyes were unusually bright.
"Oh, Severus, I know," she said gently. "I know you care for them. It's hard to stand by and do nothing—I know you feel like you've failed them, and that waiting while they're in danger just feels like failing them even more." She reached for his hand—the one she had healed hours ago—and he surprised himself by letting her take it.
"But—Severus—you also know what would happen if you tried to drop everything to help them."
"I do," he conceded. "But—" He felt childish for saying it; Merlin, he was no better than a schoolboy whining to his professor about the amount of homework, but he ploughed on regardless. "I'm tired, Minerva. I'm tired of giving up everything for a cause and watching people die anyway."
"I know. I'm tired, too."
"It's just—I want to save them, for once. Say to hell with my duty."
"Could you live with that?"
"No," he admitted. He wished he were lying—he was a Slytherin, for God's sake, he should only be caring about his own skin if he wanted to fit his house's typical expectations, shouldn't he? But, somewhere along the line, Dumbledore's annoying sense of sacrifice must have rubbed off onto him. Or was pounded into me. Damn him, Severus thought.
Minerva nodded. "I know you couldn't. And so—manipulative as it may seem—does Albus."
"And so he's using me. Again." He sighed. "He has always asked so much that I honestly thought—"
He broke off suddenly as he realised Minerva's hand was still placed over his, though he had curled it into a fist at some point; she was staring at him like few ever had. Bloody hell, what was he doing? He was a spy (and, more importantly, a man); he couldn't afford to be pouring out his frustrations to anyone, even if Minerva was likely as close as he had to a friend, and had already seen him cry. Especially since she'd seen him cry. Complaining now was—was just begging for sympathy, wasn't it? He took a breath and tried to return her gaze levelly.
"It doesn't matter. It's just that I—I can't do everything," he finished, lamely.
"No," she agreed. "You can't. You can't fulfil your duties here, and to Albus, and also to You-Know-Who, and still try to take on reclaiming your Slytherins by yourself. It was hard enough for you last year—"
"And with Umbridge gone, there is considerably less stress—"
"—from the school, yes. But with You-Know-Who out in the open, there's bound to be more to do on that front, and in dealing with the Ministry, and of course with the Order. If you intend to focus on that, Severus, something else must give."
"My Slytherins, naturally," he grumbled, still annoyed. No surprise there. "If only it could be the school instead…"
"Severus," Minerva started, sounding exasperated now, but he waved her away.
"Only wishful thinking. I'm not going anywhere."
"Good, because even if Albus hadn't outright refused the idea of your resignation, I would have," she said, smirking slightly. "And I believe procedure calls for my signature, as well."
"Pulling rank? How very Slytherin of you," said Severus wearily, but he was glad they could bicker about something properly.
"I won't say I wasn't considered for Slytherin."
"And you ended up in Gryffindor? The hat must have been having an off day."
Minerva shrugged. "I chose it. It often leaves such decisions up to personal preference if the choice isn't always obvious—at least, so I've heard."
Severus had nothing to say to this, so he settled for trying his chocolate again, glad to find that it had cooled somewhat. They sat in silence for a while, before Minerva heaved a sigh, and he raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"I was just wondering when I'll know how—how many of my new Gryffindors would have been yours," she finished quietly, looking apologetic.
Severus ignored the sharp pang beneath his ribs. "None, I suspect," he answered instead. "It's not your fault the Dark Lord got to them first."
"No, I mean the first years," said Minerva. "Nearly all expected were present—there should have been at least some of them heading to Slytherin. But I saw...well, you remember what it was like...it's terrifying enough wondering where you'll go, with all four houses present. Can you imagine being picked to be in a house alone? It's no wonder they were frightened. I wouldn't have had the courage to stand out like that, right after arriving."
"If any of them had, they likely would have really belonged in Gryffindor, anyway," Severus mumbled.
They lapsed into silence again, Severus eyeing the witch across from him. She seemed perfectly at ease—not at all uncomfortable in front of the house elves in her night things, nor by the quiet. He, on the other hand, felt the awkwardness of the situation creeping up on him again; he hardly knew her as more than a colleague, and yet here they were, calmly discussing matters as though they were intimate friends. He wondered vaguely whether breaking down in front of her had given her some odd sense of being closer, and why the hell he was allowing this nonsense, but his snide remark on her choice of companionship for the night was forestalled by the yawn that slipped out instead.
Minerva spared him a glance that was just hard enough not to be considered pity. "You should get some sleep, Severus. It's very late."
"Is it late enough for Dumbledore to have given up for the night?" he sighed, getting to his feet.
"Of course. We have classes in a few hours."
"That hasn't stopped him before," said Severus irritably, but it was time to leave nonetheless. He paused near the door. "Goodnight, Minerva."
He didn't linger to hear her reply, but quickly discovered that she had been right; Albus was gone by the time he made it back to his quarters. Severus allowed himself a slight sigh before he headed for his bedroom, wondering just how much of this he could take before his position drove him utterly mad. At the moment, his prospects didn't look promising, and perhaps that was why he was less annoyed than he should have been by his honesty with Minerva. She had seen difficult years before; she was, if not precisely a kindred spirit, another survivor; if she could face her dragons and come out all right, he certainly could as well.
It was a troubling thought, and one that tormented him long past climbing into bed. He had to keep going—he had no choice—and yet, he felt horribly as though he were only trying to convince himself. He eventually drifted into an uneasy sleep, made all the worse for knowing that whatever he did, it was going to be a very difficult year indeed.
Author's Note: Thanks very much for reading! As usual, I will update when I can, and comments/questions/etc. are welcome in the meantime.