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Always, but Not Necessarily Forever.

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Severus Snape was disconcerted to wake up in Saint Mungo’s with a sore throat and the unpleasant after-effects of some amateur’s attempts to revive him from near-exsanguination. Needless to say, he was not at all surprised to be dragged before the Wizengamot as soon as he could stand unaided, accused of murder and dispatched to Azkaban. His life had always tended towards the darkly surreal, so ten years hard labour was no less of a reward for saving the Wizarding World than he had expected. He was amused when Harry Potter appeared as a witness for the defence, lost his temper, shouted a lot, and got thrown out for contempt of court, but that was the one bright spot in a very depressing day.

He was stripped of his belongings, clad in badly-fitting boots and itchy robes, given a hard pallet, a single blanket, and the appellation Prisoner 9696. The dementors might have been banished but Azkaban remained a dark, damp and dreary place. On the first day, he estimated that he would probably survive six months. On the second, he was led down to the prison’s kitchen, a long, low room filled with steam and the scent of boiled cabbage.

‘9696,’ the guard said, peering at a note on a clipboard, ‘used to make potions, did you? Brew up the potato soup for lunch, the stuff’s all over there. Don’t try to poison it, the guards have their own food and you’ll just make yourself and the other prisoners ill, and you’ll be on clean-up if everyone gets the shits. The knives are charmed, they won’t cut anything but food and the monitoring charms let us know if you try anything funny. Go on, get to it!’

Snape shuffled across to where an elderly witch sat on a stool beside a pile of potatoes, peeling them and dropping them into a bubbling cauldron. She glanced at him through tangled hanks of hair and muttered something; he caught the words ‘dust’ and ‘raven’.

‘Shut up, you daft old crone,’ barked the guard, ‘you know the rules on fraternisation! Not that anyone would want to fraternise with either of you.’

‘All right, all right,’ the witch said, groping for another potato, ‘is it time for tea? I’d love a mug of tea. All hot and strong with two sugars and a splash of milk. Biscuits? Aye, there’d better be biscuits, nice crunchy ones, ginger newts, that’d do.’

‘Oh shut it, grandma, before I come over there and belt you one.’

‘A belt to hold your trousers up,’ crooned the witch, peeling the skin from her potato in one long, twisting strip.

‘And sweep up the peel when you’re done, prisoner 9580, or you’ll be back on laundry duty!’

‘Duty, booty, fruity!’

The guard pointed his wand and she gave a little yelp, glared balefully and subsided onto her stool, her gnarled fingers working the knife with the dexterity of long practice. Snape caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, but his reflexes had been weakened by three months of illness and a string bag of onions hit him across the back of the head. The guard sniggered. ‘Not so dangerous now, are we, Mr Death Eater? Here’s a hint; when I tell you to jump to it, you jump. Got it?’

‘Got it,’ Snape said and picked up a woefully blunt knife.

‘And you call me “sir”, 9696.’ A stinging hex bit into Snape’s thigh, a taste of things to come. ‘Sir,’ he said, too tired and dispirited to do otherwise. The witch sniggered.

oooOOOooo

The days blurred into each other, filled with the drudgery of the kitchens. He ached from the cold and damp and was always hungry. He had no company but the lethargically sadistic guards and the old witch. Snape was unsure how sane she really was; perhaps her dottiness was an act that had been kept up for so long that it had become real. He suspected that as soon as he recovered his strength, he would be transferred out of the kitchen to even more arduous work.

‘9696, drag your scrawny arse over here! You’ve got a guest, lucky old you, get your best bib and tucker on and come up to the drawing room!’ His new masters were not inclined to respond to questions; Snape had learned better than to ask them. Chuckling at his little joke, the guard hustled Snape from the kitchen to one of the bleak rooms reserved for interviews with prison visitors. There, looking unperturbed yet completely out of place in his immaculate robes, sat Kingsley Shacklebolt.

‘Here you go, Minister,’ the guard said, pushing Snape down onto the unoccupied chair, ‘I’ll be outside the door if he gives you any trouble. Give us a yell when you’re done.’ With a grin and a sketchy salute with his wand, the guard backed out, pulling the door closed.

Snape stared at Shacklebolt, who gazed levelly back.

‘Apologies for the delay,’ Shacklebolt said, his voice as deep and confident as Snape remembered, ‘I had to let the Wizengamot lock their teeth into the genuine Death Eaters and work some of the bile out of their systems before we could risk springing you.’

‘Springing me?’ Snape had intended to maintain his truculent silence but a treacherous spark of hope ignited inside him, prompting his rusty voice into life.

‘You didn’t think we’d leave you here, did you?’ Shacklebolt sighed and shook his gleaming head. ‘I suppose you did. Someone should have been in touch but it’s been a chaotic few months. Here’s the deal.’ He clasped his hands on the wooden table. ‘The Wizengamot refused to reduce your ten year sentence despite our appeals for clemency. However, it isn’t up to them to decide what constitutes hard labour, that’s up to the Ministry and the final decision is mine. You’re far too skilled to rot in this place.’

Snape felt sluggish, his brain stultified by illness and malnutrition, unable to order his thoughts into a coherent argument. He wanted to wrest his fate out of the hands of yet another powerful wizard, but lacked the will or energy. He also realised how vulnerable he was. He had a momentary fantasy of working out his sentence by brewing potions for Saint Mungo’s, scuttling away after dark to dreary lodgings in Knockturn Alley, dodging the curses of late-night revellers and the cries of ‘Death Eater!’ from citizens offended by the very sight of his face.

‘Doing what?’ he asked. There was a look in Shacklebolt’s dark eyes that made him unaccountably uneasy.

‘A task that you’re uniquely qualified for,’ the Minister began and Snape shook his head.

‘I’d rather die than spy for anyone again.’ By the completion of the sentence, his voice had died to a breathy rasp.

‘I appreciate that,’ Shacklebolt said, ‘although you’ll probably consider this equally cruel. Even though many of us believe you deserve an Order of Merlin and a pension for what you did, this has to be a punishment, Snape, I’ve no choice. However, it’s a punishment that you can turn to your advantage.’

‘Go on.’ Snape had a bad feeling in his gut. Shacklebolt’s expression looked too much like sympathy.

‘There’s something bizarre going on at Hogwarts and I want you to sort it out.’

Snape hadn’t realised that he was capable of laughing, or that his laughter would sound so like a death-rattle.

‘Go back to Hogwarts? They’ll never allow it.’

‘No-one can get into the head’s office, not even Minerva, and the portraits tell everyone who’ll listen that Hogwarts wants you back. The castle‘s developed a mind of its own and it appears to be somewhat malevolent. You can sort it out. You’re still Headmaster.’

‘You’ve got to be joking!’

‘Believe me, I’m not.’

‘The Board of Governors – ‘

‘They’ve voted to extend your contract for the next ten years.’

‘You must be mad,’ Snape whispered. ‘They all hate me.’

‘You haven’t read the papers, have you? Everyone knows what you did, there’s a strong upwelling of sympathy for you.’

‘That sounds like the kiss of death. Who’s responsible? Potter?’

‘Among others, yes.’

Snape sighed. The tiny spark of hope burned hot, or else he had indigestion again from the gritty breakfast porridge.

‘Have I a choice?’

‘Yes,’ Shacklebolt said, ‘fight against it and fester here for ten years, or make the most of the opportunity.’

‘When?’

‘Now. My assistant’s sorting out the paperwork with the prison governor as we speak.’

Snape nodded. Had they attempted to get him back to Hogwarts immediately after his recovery, he would have refused, but anything had to be better than this.

oooOOOooo

Prisoners were allowed a single tepid shower a week, and Snape was very aware that his last had been five days ago. His hair was clotted with grease from the kitchen and he suspected that there were lice in it. His robe smelled musty and felt damp, but none of that mattered when at last, he curled his fingers around his wand. It thrummed gently, as if he brimmed with the magic that he had been denied for months.

‘Be careful,’ Shacklebolt murmured as they climbed into the boat, ‘a single misstep and you’ll be dragged back here and there won’t be anything I can do.’

‘What if I can’t solve the problem with Hogwarts?’

‘I’ll send the Unspeakables in, but I’m trying to keep the Ministry out of Hogwarts as far as possible.’

‘How long do I have?’

‘That’s negotiable. The school needs to reopen but it has to be safe for the students, or as safe as Hogwarts ever was - which it wasn’t, let’s face it.’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘Do you?’

‘When this all goes tits-up, you’ll have the ideal person to blame, already in situ.’

‘Welcome to post-Voldemort reality, Snape.’

Snape snorted, but said nothing more as they disembarked. There was the soft pop of displaced air as Shacklebolt disappeared, the delicately-controlled apparation of an experienced Auror. Warmed by this display of trust, Snape drew himself up, twisted upon one heel and vanished with barely a sound. He reappeared just outside the gates of Hogwarts.

The castle seemed to drowse in the golden light of autumn. It was as if none of it had happened; he could climb the hill and find Dumbledore in his tower, awaiting him with tea and biscuits, and all would be well. The wave of nostalgia hit hard even though he had expected it. His eyes prickled. He forced himself to examine the building, to see the scars and jagged edges, the gaping windows and fallen stones. He reminded himself that if Albus had lived, then Voldemort would most probably have won and Harry Potter would be dead. When Shacklebolt turned towards him, he knew that his expression was once more under control.

‘They’re expecting us,’ Shacklebolt said, leading the way.

‘Who are?’

‘Most of the staff are in residence, plus the elves. Some of the older students have volunteered to help with the repairs, they’ll be arriving next week.’

‘Let me guess, the Golden Trio?’

Shacklebolt laughed. ‘Harry and Ron have started Auror training but Hermione wants to take her NEWTS as soon as possible.’

‘How surprising.’

‘The rest of their year are all invited back.’

‘Including the Slytherins?’

‘Especially the Slytherins.’

‘Did Slughorn insist on that as part of the deal? I can’t imagine McGonagall finding anyone else prepared to take on Slytherin House.’

‘He’ll teach Potions and look after Slytherin, but no deal was necessary; Minerva agrees that demonising and ostracising an entire house will only lead to another war.’

A lone figure stood in the great doorway, a witch in dark teaching robes, her hands folded at her waist. She wore a broad-brimmed hat which obscured her face, but he would have known her anywhere. McGonagall’s shoulders were squared, their angle subtly hinting at the tension in her body, and Snape found himself echoing her stance as he approached. Her competence and self-assurance had always made him feel young and gawky, and here she stood, looking down at him as if he was once again arriving at Hogwarts as a distrustful eleven-year-old.

Snape realised that Shacklebolt had paused, leaving him to face her unsupported. He took a deep breath and braced himself, then he realised that she was no longer alone. Out of the shadows of the entrance hall, emerging into the sunlight, came the other senior teachers; Flitwick and Sprout, Sinistra and Vector, Slughorn and Trelawney. Behind them he saw Filch carrying his cat, Hagrid looming like an animated tree, and Poppy Pomfrey in her starched uniform.

Minerva McGonagall walked down from the top step, her boot heels tapping in the still air, until she stood level with him. She raised her wand, touched the tip to the brim of her hat in salute and said, clearly and steadily, ‘Welcome home, Severus.’

He inclined his head, his throat thickening painfully at this unexpected olive-branch.

‘Thank you, Minerva.’ The words came out as a rasping whisper. Suddenly they surrounded him, his old colleagues, the people whom he had once considered his friends, almost his family. Filius Flitwick beamed up at him, reaching to shake his hand. Sprout patted him on the back, even Trelawney gazed mistily at him. He felt awkward and adrift, unsure how to react. The last time he had been here, they had been trying to kill him.

‘The Ministry’s still in chaos,’ Shacklebolt said, ‘if you’ll forgive me, I must return. Please keep me updated on the situation.’

Snape turned and gave him a slight and somewhat ironic bow.

‘The best of British luck, Minister.’

‘And the same to you, Headmaster.’

Kingsley Shacklebolt strode away and left him standing in the sunlight, with Hogwarts at his back.

oooOOOooo

‘I wasn’t sure where you’d prefer to stay,’ McGonagall said with uncharacteristic hesitancy. ‘Horace is still in the dungeons to be close to the Slytherins but he says he’ll move out if you want your old rooms back.’ Slughorn nodded affably in agreement.

Returning to the old order would not restore the past. Snape shook his head.

‘Shacklebolt told me that the Head’s suite is locked.’

‘That’s right,’ Flitwick exclaimed in his squeaky voice, ‘Even Minerva can’t get in!’

‘Let’s give it a go,’ Slughorn boomed, ‘start the way you mean to go on, that’s the ticket!’

Snape found himself buoyed along on the wave of their optimism, along corridors where the portraits whispered and pointed and waved. The gargoyle had been repaired; he could see the faint lines of cracks, like scars in the stone.

‘Headmaster,’ it croaked, and shuffled aside before he could speak the password. He stepped onto the stone step and ascended to the doorway. The others clustered behind him, murmuring to one another. He rather wished that they had left him to make the attempt alone; he had always preferred to keep his failures private.

McGonagall reached out to the doorknob and a fat blue spark arced to her hand and made her start back, shaking her fingers in annoyance.

‘Does it always do that?’ he asked.

‘Usually, yes.’

He drew his wand and eased it towards the door. The wards bristled with dark energy and he could feel them pushing back against his presence. When he braced his magic against them, they were like steel, implacable, unyielding, and as formidable as anything Dumbledore had ever created. He decided to start with the simplest of spells to gauge their depth, and flicked his wand, casting ’Alohomora!’ while readying a Protego shield against any possible booby-traps. The wards pulsed. There was a distinct popping sound and he felt the change in air-pressure in his inner ears as the wards snapped out of existence, like elastic breaking. The door clicked and swung open.

‘Gosh! Fancy that!’ Slughorn exclaimed and McGonagall exhaled audibly. Snape knew without looking that her lips were twitching in amusement.

‘Were the elves able to enter?’ Snape asked, mostly of himself.

‘Clearly not,’ Sprout said. The room was untouched since the day he had left, even to the cup of congealed cocoa and half-eaten biscuit on the blotter. Sprout swiped a finger across the edge of the doorframe and held it up. ‘The elves wouldn’t have allowed this level of dust to accumulate.’

Snape warily stepped across the threshold. In their frames, the portraits stirred, exclaimed, called out his name, and began to applaud.

For too long, they had been his only friends and supporters. He raised his wand and saluted them, as McGonagall had acknowledged him.

‘I’m so glad to see you alive, my dear boy,’ Dumbledore said, ‘although your grooming habits seem to have deteriorated somewhat.’

‘Really?’ Snape said wryly.

Little Professor Flitwick thrust his thumbs under his braces and bounced on his toes, grinning up at Snape.

‘I’m afraid that you do whiff a bit, Severus.’

‘No,’ Snape told him, ‘I don’t whiff, I stink. Before you make any further demands on me, I’m having a bath.’

‘Of course you shall,’ McGonagall agreed, sounding slightly too much as if she was humouring him, ‘just as soon as Filius and I have checked the Headmaster’s rooms for traps and jinxes.’

‘I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself.’

He knew them so well that he felt the change in the atmosphere from levity to something more sober.

‘Severus, you don’t know what’s happened here recently,’ Sprout said.

‘Then hadn’t you better tell me?’

‘After dinner,’ McGonagall said curtly, ‘let the poor lad bathe and eat first.’

‘Let me!’ Flitwick hurried across the office, wielding his wand in a flurry of diagnostic charms. As he reached the doorway into the Head’s private sitting room, he paused and looked back. ‘I’ll do a sweep of the bedroom,’ he remarked, ‘Minerva, would you like to do the bathroom?’

As Snape stepped forward, Minerva McGonagall clicked her tongue and strode past him.

‘Yes, go ahead, Filius, I’ll check in here.’ She waved her wand and glanced back at Snape. ‘We’ve been doing this for months, Severus, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what we’re looking for now.’ She spun around in a circle, her robes flaring and wand flying in a rapid series of charms. ‘Hm, nothing untoward so far…’

She thrust open the door to the bathroom and disappeared from sight. As Flitwick emerged from the bedroom, Snape heard McGonagall give a sharp cry of surprise. He reached the doorway at the same time as Flitwick. McGonagall stood in the centre of the bathroom, her shield charm fending off what appeared to be a half-grown Acromantula, which was attempting to scramble out of the sunken bath. The clacking of mandibles and scrape of claws were loud in the marble room. Flitwick immediately cast a Stunner around the edge of her shield, which made the monster flop backwards into the bath, and before Snape could even decide upon a suitable spell to immobilise it for future examination, McGonagall Banished it in a shower of sparks.

‘I could have used that!’ Snape objected, but Flitwick shushed him with a wagging finger.

‘Don’t tell Rubeus, for Merlin’s sake!’ he whispered, ‘he’s a nightmare; he keeps trying to breed them with his blast-ended screwts!’

‘Well that appears to be it,’ McGonagall said, shaking her sleeves down over her wrists in a workmanlike manner. ‘You have your well-earned bath, Severus, I’ll tell the elves to serve lunch in an hour.’

As they reached the outer office, Snape saw Flitwick reach up to pat McGonagall on the arm.

‘Well done,’ he remarked, and she nodded, smiling down at him with an air of collusion, as if they duelled giant spiders together on a daily basis as a form of recreation.

oooOOOooo

It wasn’t that Severus Snape had been unaware of the general consensus of opinion concerning his personal hygiene. As a teen, he had refused to allow anyone the satisfaction of thinking that he actually cared what they thought, particularly as all his most vocal denigrators were bloody Gryffindors. If he had suddenly paid attention to his grooming, they would have assumed that their insults mattered to him. After Lily’s death, he had been too depressed to care, then it had become an issue of strange, inverted pride; if people couldn’t accept him as he was, then he wouldn’t bother with them either. He knew his faults and his virtues, or liked to think that he did, and he refused to become a preening ponce like Malfoy or, Merlin help him, Lockhart.

The Head’s bathroom was not huge, by Hogwarts’ standards, but it held a sunken tub large enough for a tall man to stretch out in. It appeared that the plumbing had escaped damage during the battle, because the taps gushed hot, scented water as soon as he touched them. He wrinkled his nose at the blast of patchouli and adjusted the charm to a hint of vanilla and cedar. The settings had been made semi-permanent in Dumbledore’s day, another reminder that he could have done without. He threw off his musty robe and lowered himself into the bath.

It seemed to Snape that he had not felt warm since the day he discovered that Albus Dumbledore had to die at his hand. He had not dared to allow comfort or kindness or companionship to touch his being, because only by becoming utterly unfeeling could he tread his designated path to its bitter end. Now, he felt the heat of the water penetrating his flesh and bones, easing the ache of Azkaban, and he sensed a tsunami of emotions towering above him, threatening to crash down and swamp him in a tide of rage, regret and grief. He hastily cast a delousing charm on himself, shampooed the grease from his hair and clambered out, groping for a towel.

oooOOOooo

‘It’s like this everywhere,’ Poppy Pomfrey remarked over cold chicken and salad, when he told her about the invader of his bathroom; ‘the number of people I’ve had in with boils, bites, damaged limbs and scalds, extraneous tentacles and embarrassing tattoos!’

‘Isn’t that just Hogwarts on a bad day?’

‘Everyone here has fought in the war, they really aren’t bothered by petty house squabbles anymore and they certainly don’t stoop to the level of nasty practical jokes. Plus of course there was that terrible death.’

Snape felt something clench inside him.

‘Whose death?’

‘Pemmy, Minerva’s personal elf. We found her crushed under a heap of masonry fallen from the top of the Astronomy tower, exactly where Albus died.’

‘Have you questioned the other elves?’

‘Minerva did, didn’t you, dear?’

‘Hm?’ McGonagall turned from Sprout, with whom she had been discussing the budget for the greenhouses. ‘Did I do what?’

‘Ask the elves about poor Pemmy.’

‘Yes, of course. They’re as much in the dark as anyone. She was crossing the quadrangle on her way to the laundry, levitating a pile of dirty washing, and the top quarter of the tower came down on her, poor little soul. There were no witnesses.’

‘Had the tower been assessed as unstable?’

‘We hadn’t completed the initial survey. I cleared the castle immediately and sent in a team of structural surveyors on brooms before I allowed anyone back, but it was too late for Pemmy.’

‘Was that the first incident?’

‘Was it?’ Pomfrey pondered, frowning, but Flitwick leaned across from his pile of cushions, almost overbalancing into the potato salad.

‘No, there was the plague of cockroaches in all the bedrooms, remember? And that nasty hex that turned the milk into urine as it was poured from the jugs!’

‘Don’t remind me! I couldn’t face a cup of tea for a week!’ Pomfrey shuddered. ‘I haven’t seen any of the old heads around in their usual haunts, or I’d have asked them what was going on, Dilys Derwent often used to pop in to the infirmary for a chat about medical advances.’

‘Perhaps it’s all connected,’ Flitwick said thoughtfully. Sybill Trelawney gave a little gasp and clutched at the amulets dangling on her chest.

‘Of course it’s connected!’ she exclaimed, ‘Haven’t you been listening to me? The dead shall return and the dark and the light mingle in one man and no-one can be safe while this threat looms over the castle!’

‘Yes, dear,’ McGonagall said, rolling her eyes, ‘do have another sherry and a sausage roll. Anyone would think you’d been listening to the conversation after all.’

oooOOOooo

Snape steepled his fingers and focussed on his still-ragged fingernails.

‘Let me get this straight. There has been one death since the end of the battle – ‘

‘We’ve been lucky not to lose more,’ Flitwick protested, and Sprout exclaimed ‘There’s a banshee wailing most nights in the forest!’

‘One death, of an elf, which could well have been a tragic accident, and a lot of inconvenient hexes and curses, and the Head’s office warded so that only I could enter.’

‘Very heavily warded, against Minerva, who ought to have been able to enter, being deputy head and acting Headmistress!’

‘Filius,’ Snape sighed, ‘I know that.’

‘What about the Acromantula?’ Slughorn demanded. He had been most put out when he discovered that the beast had been disposed of. ‘How did it get through the outer wards?’

‘Give the lad a chance, he only got back this morning!’ Sprout got to her feet, placing her glass on the sideboard.

‘I’m for my bed,’ Flitwick said, also rising. ‘Another long day tomorrow, trying to get the school ready for the NEWT students next week!’

‘Shacklebolt said that they were helping with repairs?’ Snape said.

‘They are, but we’ll be starting lessons part-time. It’s only fair that they get some tuition.’

Slughorn, Flitwick and Sprout hovered in the doorway of the Head’s sitting-room, casting glances at McGonagall, as if they were wary of leaving her in the Slytherin’s den. Snape glared at them.

‘She’s perfectly safe. I don’t make a habit of murdering my colleagues; Albus was a one-off!’

Sprout gave a distressed little gasp, Flitwick looked shocked and Slughorn peered at Snape as if unsure whether he had heard correctly. McGonagall flapped a hand at them in irritation and they retreated, albeit reluctantly.

‘That certainly dragged the elephant out of the corner of the room,’ she observed.

Snape, accustomed to years of subterfuge and evasion, and heartily sick of it, felt almost grateful for her Gryffindor candour.

‘I was never quite sure if you suspected my true role in that,’ he began, delicately.

‘You didn’t kill us. You fled rather than attempt to cast Dark curses at us – and I’m sure you always knew even more Dark curses than you let on. That gave us pause. Filius and Pomona always think the best of people but we all wondered. Then of course there were the Carrows…’ she shuddered and picked up her mug of fire-whisky-laced cocoa. ‘After the Carrows arrived, in that strange, inverted world that we inhabited, we wondered if you knew what you were doing, if you had a plan.’

‘You have a better poker face than I’d dared to hope, in that case.’

‘You kept the Carrows under control, you restrained them and they were too stupid to realise it. Filius was the first to grasp that we mustn’t suspect you of being loyal to us, mustn’t succumb to hope, because if we trusted you and Voldemort paid us a visit, then he’d read our hopes and he’d suspect you too.’ She took some pleasure in rolling the once-forbidden name over her tongue, exaggerating her brogue.

‘As it turned out, he always trusted me but I was disposable anyway.’

‘Not to everyone,’ she murmured, with a smile so smug that he imagined her licking the cream from her whiskers. He cocked an eyebrow at her and waited. She cocked an eyebrow back, but she was a Gryffindor, despite her feline tendencies, she was never one to wait for ever at a mouse hole. ‘Oh Severus!’ she exclaimed, eventually, ‘did you really think no-one cared? I sent an elf to follow you before the battle began!’

‘Was I saved by an elven stasis charm?’

‘Yes, although it barely held, you were so terribly wounded. Hermione Granger went to collect you and she had to do some hasty work to keep a dim spark of life in you until she could get you to Poppy. She knows Muggle CPR, it appears.’

‘I was ready to die,’ he whispered. ‘I had done all I could, and I deserved it. I was guilty, Minerva!’

‘Stuff and nonsense, Severus!’ She leaned across the low table to take his hand. ‘You made no more mistakes than any of us.’

Her fingers were warm, from holding the mug of hot cocoa; their touch made something tighten inside his chest. How long since anyone had deliberately made contact with his flesh?

‘I took his life, and I stood by and I watched as people died.’

‘But you saved many more lives. We’re still here, because of you. Hogwarts stands and will soon be filled by Muggleborn and half-blood and pure-blood students, because of what you and Harry did.’

Snape wanted to sneer at the mention of Potter, but no longer had it in him. The boy was foolhardy, ignorant, belligerent and disrespectful, but he had had the determination to overcome almost impossible odds and the courage to walk to his death. Not to mention that Potter calling the Wizengamot a ‘pack of ungrateful bigoted old farts’ when they pronounced his sentence had slightly endeared him to Snape. Only slightly, mind.

‘So I owe my life to you and to Miss Granger,’ he said. She let go of his fingers and he resisted an urge to grasp at her, unwilling to relinquish the comfort of her touch.

‘Hermione insists that you owe it to Loppy as well.’

Loppy had been Severus’ personal elf when he had been Head of Slytherin; a quiet, humble and obedient creature. Severus had been guilty of taking his servant for granted for years. Eventually, he had realised how loyal the little elf truly was. The fact that Minerva had noticed, that she had deliberately sent the one elf who would have done everything in his power to save Severus, made his throat close up. He doubted that the others would have risked being so close to the Dark Lord, even for their Headmaster. Snape had not been in control of the school for long enough to win over the rest of the elves; they had served him because that was their job, not because they had liked him. He had not dared to treat them with kindness.

He could hardly breathe. His sight blurred and great, heaving sobs bubbled up from the depths of his soul.

‘Severus?’ Her voice came from a distance, sharp with concern. He expected her to tell him to pull himself together, perhaps offer him a ginger newt. She had always had a very brusque and practical attitude towards hysterics. He covered his face with his hands, shaking his head – go away, Minerva, just go AWAY! – and he heard her heel scuff on the carpet as she got to her feet.

Then he felt her arm around him, pulling him against her side. He went rigid, horrified yet desperate for human touch. He heard her speak his name, her voice softer now, and she stroked his hair. No-one had held him like this since he had been a small child, and his mother had been happy, in the brief and wonderful time before his childish magic had manifested and his father had rejected them both. Starved of affection, forced to grow up unsupported and then to forge a powerful persona out of the iron of his will to become Dumbledore’s instrument, Snape had believed himself to be strong. Now all at once, he shattered.

oooOOOooo

He was an exceptionally powerful adult wizard, yet here he was, being helped into his bedroom like a home-sick first-year, and by the Head of Gryffindor, no less. He ought to have been utterly humiliated, but he was too exhausted and wrung out to care. In fact, he was dimly grateful that it was her, not Pomfrey or Sprout, either of whom would have smothered him with kindness. Minerva’s concern was tempered by practicality. Briskly, she ordered an elf to fetch a calming draught – ‘yes, you WILL take it, Severus, you’re exhausted and you need sleep!’ – and busied herself with lighting the fire and casting airing charms upon the Head’s bed. She politely turned her back as he cast off his robes and pulled on a nightshirt.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, his nose clogged and eyelids swollen with weeping. Merlin, what must she think of him?

‘Don’t be silly, Severus.’ When he risked a glance at her, she was watching him with as gentle an expression as he had ever seen on that austere, perceptive face. ‘When I think how terribly alone you must have been for so long, I’m astonished that you held yourself together as well as you have. Now get into bed, there’s a good lad.’

He obeyed, the feather mattress puffing around him, warmed by her heating charm. She perched upon the edge of the bed and held out the vial of calming draught. He shook his head.

‘It won’t be enough. I’ll take a sleeping draught later.’

‘Nightmares?’ she asked quietly and he shrugged. She must be ridden by similar demons. Once again, she reached out and placed her warm fingers upon his wrist, a touch light enough that he would be able to shrug it away with a mere twitch, but he found himself turning his hand and intertwining his fingers with hers. ‘It is far too late, of course, but you’re not alone any more, Severus.’

Her words made his already sore throat threaten to close up again and he swallowed audibly.

‘I – thank you, Minerva. I doubt that the rest of the Wizarding World will be so forgiving.’

She sniffed, and then she astonished him by toeing off her shoes and swinging her feet up so that she sat there beside him, propped up against the heap of feather pillows. It felt oddly intimate, even though she was fully clothed and their bodies were physically separated by the billowing eiderdown comforter. Perhaps it was because this was Minerva McGonagall, the prim and proper schoolmistress of his youth.

‘The rest of the Wizarding World can go hang, as far as I’m concerned. Where was the rest of the Wizarding World, when its very existence depended upon the efforts of a little group of teenagers? Albus Dumbledore had so much to answer for.’

‘You’re welcome to hex his portrait.’

‘I doubt that will feel as satisfying as I’d like.’ That she would prefer to hex him to his living face, remained unstated.

She had not pulled her hand from his, and he realised that he relished that point of warm contact, and held her fingers lightly, not daring to increase the pressure in case she realised what she was doing and withdrew again.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye, her angular profile against the firelight. Sluggish in the aftermath of his emotional meltdown, he realised that he had always admired sharp women. Voluptuous curves and simpering femininity left him unmoved, as the occasional sixth-form Slytherin with an inappropriate crush could attest. He admired wit, courage, intelligence and curiosity. Lily Evans had displayed all those qualities, although her implacable morality had been the downfall of their friendship. Minerva had the maturity and strength to offer the forgiveness that perhaps Lily would have come to, given time.

‘Minerva,’ he began, hesitantly, and she simply rolled her head a little towards him and waited with the patience of the cat. ‘I never saw the newspapers. Whom did we lose?’

She drew in a steady breath and he felt her fingers tighten.

‘Are you asking so that you can continue to flagellate yourself for deaths that you couldn’t prevent?’

‘The Potters were my fault.’

‘You didn’t point the wand that killed them.’

‘I did kill Albus.’

‘Harry told us about Albus’ outrageous plan. It was war, Severus! We all fought to kill. Did you know that Horace, Kingsley and I duelled Voldemort?’

‘No,’ he murmured, ‘Horace, really? Good for him.’

She laughed aloud. ‘In silk pyjamas, no less! You expected it of me and Kingsley, then?’

‘Of course; I’ve seen you duel, Madam. I fled because I wanted to keep my bits intact, by the way, not because I wished to avoid casting Dark curses at you. I’m being brutally honest here.’

‘My dear Slytherin, you’re losing your touch.’ She took his hand in both of hers and patted it before releasing it. He made one, tiny reflexive move to retain his hold before controlling himself and letting go. Soon, she would leave, and he would be alone again, with his memories and the knowledge that the last occupant of this supremely comfortable bed had died by his hand. His eyelids felt gritty and heavy, but he feared the dreams that awaited him. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll bring you the papers with the reports of the battle,’ she told him. He knew that she would not shield him from the worst, and he respected her for it.

‘Thank you.’

She was watching him, a tiny wrinkle in the skin between her eyes indicative of indecision. He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘Are you going to check for incursions of Acromantulae before you go?’

There was a flash of something in her eyes, perhaps just the reflection of the dancing firelight, but it looked like amusement.

‘If you wish. There could be boggarts, of course.’ She lowered her head and gave a little shiver, and with the elegant ease that he had always secretly envied, she shrank down into her feline form and prowled off into the shadows. The almost inaudible sounds of a hunting cat, the scuff of a paw upon the carpet and the soft clink of something stirred by her passing, indicated her progress around the Head’s apartments.

He dozed, fearing nothing while she was present, until finally, he felt the small weight of the cat land upon the bed. Half asleep, he reached out, and her whiskered face rubbed against his hand. He mumbled her name, and then she turned into the curve of his body and curled up against his chest, and her quiet purring wove into his snores and kept the nightmares away.

oooOOOooo

Snape woke alone, but there was a circular indentation in the bedclothes beside his abdomen. She had left to spare him embarrassment, with more tact than he expected from a Gryffindor. He was still lethargic and dull-witted, but something had loosened inside him, a suggestion that his life might improve. For the first time since Lily’s death, he felt that contentment was within his reach, if only he could bring himself to accept it. Perhaps, even, the possibility of joy, if he could remember what such an emotion felt like.

He rose, washed and dressed, meeting his own gaze in the mirror that he had hexed into silence when he first took over these rooms. The face that looked back was just as gaunt and unprepossessing as he remembered, but there was a hint of softness about the eyes and mouth, and his eyes were a little less haunted. Probably because he no longer had the energy to maintain his Occlumency shields.

His internal clock told him that breakfast was long overdue, but he decided to go downstairs in the hope of joining the staff for lunch. He had a job to do here, his freedom depended upon it, so he ought to make the effort.

One of the trick steps had moved in the back staircase. Something about the way the light shone from the polished wooden treads alerted him to take care, so he caught the faint glimmer of a trip-wire and avoided the new trick step that attempted to grasp his foot. He prodded a second suspiciously reflective step with his toe, reached out to hold the bannister rail for balance and the whole of the bannister gave way, pitching him over the side. He threw himself into the air and activated his flying charm. Being out of practice, he alighted rather clumsily, but at least he suffered no injuries.

‘Severus!’ Flitwick came hurrying to his side, alerted by the crashing of wood and metal. ‘Great Merlin, are you hurt?’

‘No,’ Snape said, irritably shaking the dust out of his robes. ‘Have the Weasley twins been visiting, by any chance?’

The little man’s face fell. ‘Fred died in the battle, I’m afraid.’ He heaved a deep sigh. ‘We lost too many good people.’ He blinked up at Snape, his bright eyes gleaming with moisture. ‘Which makes it all the more poignant and pleasing to have you back with us, my dear chap!’ He twirled his wand as he spoke, his agile fingers spinning the length of wood with a familiar flourish.

Once again, Snape was rocked back by a surge of unanticipated emotion. For so long, he had schooled himself rigorously in the dichotomy of his thoughts. Voldemort had expected to read scorn and dislike for his Hogwarts colleagues, and so Snape had automatically laced his recollections of their interactions with the least positive aspects of their characters. He had deliberately dwelled upon Sprout’s soppy sentimentality, on Flitwick’s frivolity, McGonagall’s prim severity and the general idiocy of the DADA professors. At last, he was free to appreciate his old workmates exactly as he wished.

Filius Flitwick had never been a member of the Order, but he had given Snape the benefit of the doubt from the start, only seeming to lose faith in him after Dumbledore’s death. He was easy-going and lenient with the students, but he was widely read, intelligent as befitted the Head of Ravenclaw, mischievous and witty. Snape had liked him as his teacher and always wished that he had been in a position to be friendlier when they worked together.

Snape mumbled a few awkward words of thanks. Flitwick was unfazed, astute enough to discern Snape’s unease with emotional interactions. He patted his arm and led the way towards the Great Hall, pointing out how the repairs were coming on as they went. The others had gathered around a buffet table, chattering as they helped themselves to sandwiches and mugs of tea. Minerva nodded amiably to him.

‘Severus has fallen foul of a rogue staircase,’ Flitwick remarked, levitating a selection of savoury rolls onto a plate.

‘Not another one!’ Pomfrey exclaimed, while Slughorn tutted and shook his head.

‘My classroom’s full of ants,’ Vector said morosely, ‘just when I thought I’d got the mess cleaned up.’

‘I nearly fell down a well, crossing the lawn,’ Hagrid muttered. ‘Never bin a hole there before, dratted thing opened up right under me feet. It’s a hassle just getting about the place.’

‘This is getting out of hand,’ Slughorn agreed.

‘Someone will have to die to satisfy the bloodlust,’ Trelawney intoned, ‘You-Know-Who must have laid another curse upon the castle!’

‘Plenty of people have already died,’ Minerva snapped. ‘There’s no need to exaggerate!’

‘There will be a meeting of the Heads of houses, immediately after lunch,’ Snape said, lifting the edge of his sandwich and scowling at the contents, as if offended by the very idea of cheese and pickles.

‘I suppose we could try putting some sort of a plan in place…’ Slughorn said dubiously.

‘Oh lighten up, Horace!’ Flitwick said, ‘I’m sure Severus has several ideas already.’

‘I do hope so,’ Pomfrey said. ‘We can’t call the students back while their lives are at risk.’

‘It never stopped us in the past,’ Snape pointed out, then stepped aside, withdrawing from the conversation to watch and listen as he consumed his lunch. By the time he had made his way back to his office, he actually felt his mood lighten somewhat.

They settled on the upright chairs which had replaced Dumbledore’s squashy armchairs and Snape looked at their faces. Flitwick appeared almost inanely optimistic, Slughorn perplexed, Sprout vacantly cheerful and Minerva amused. He smirked at her – for how long had he thought of her as ‘Minerva’ rather than ‘McGonagall’? She smirked back.

‘All right,’ he said, as if addressing a bunch of his sixth formers, ‘I know who’s responsible, I’d just like to know exactly how, and why.’

They stared back at him. ‘Really, Severus?’ Sprout breathed, batting her eyelashes, ‘you haven’t been resorting to Legillimancy, surely?’

‘You’re lousy actors,’ he pointed out.

‘What do you think has happened, then?’ Flitwick asked, trying to appear innocent.

‘The wards threw me off the scent for a while; I didn’t recognise them, but you know enough people who could have set them. I suspect a Ravenclaw designed them and a Slytherin put them in place, am I right?’

‘Near enough,’ Flitwick agreed, his eyes sparkling, ‘go on.’

‘The traps and hexes felt like Weasley creations, despite the loss of a twin.’

‘Ron and George,’ Minerva said, complacently.

‘I wouldn’t have been seriously hurt even if I’d fallen from the staircase, Filius rushed over to distract me while he removed the cushioning charm from the lower level. I hadn’t registered the charm itself but I saw the wand movement that unlocked it. As for the Acromantula in my bath, that was the Transfiguration of a common wolf spider with a huge dose of “Engorgio”, hardly a difficult task for a Transfiguration professor.’

‘Ha! I told you he’d catch on quick!’ Slughorn crowed, slapping his thigh in delight.

‘Was the elf’s death simply an accident?’

‘Yes, that was what gave us the idea,’ Minerva said. ‘Everything else came after, but it was quite easy to convince people that the booby traps had been in place for a while. As for the wards; Filius devised them, Draco Malfoy adapted them using the Arithmantic equations behind the wards of his parents’ manor and Harry set them using Albus’ old wand. The portraits of the Heads were in on it, they helped by persuading the other portraits that the problems could all be resolved by getting you back.’

‘The traps and hexes interlock,’ Flitwick explained, ‘you can dismantle everything yourself. Miss Granger came up the idea, it’s a real corker! Harry set it up with that wand. He said you need to put the tip of your wand on a retaining wall and say the word you used when you cast your Patronus. Miss Granger came up with the suggestion that your password should be in Latin, though, just to prevent anyone else saying it accidentally while touching a wall.’

Snape reached out and tapped his wand to the exposed stone of the tower wall, and whispered ‘Semper.’ There was a brief shivering sensation, then a series of tinkling crashes, thumps and rattles, which settled again like a great animal letting out a breath and subsiding into sleep. He turned back to his colleagues, who were all grinning at him as if he had done something heroic. ‘Why?’ he enquired, genuinely confused.

‘Oh Severus!’ Minerva exclaimed, her expression a mixture of fondness and exasperation, ‘we had to do something to get you back!’

‘We couldn’t leave you in Azkaban,’ Sprout said, her voice quivering with emotion.

‘But we had to let the Ministry think it was their idea, otherwise they’d never have agreed.’ Slughorn told him complacently, ‘even dear Kingsley wasn’t in on it.’

‘So what do you intend that we should tell the Ministry now?’

‘The castle accepted you back as Head and the problem resolved itself,’ Minerva said, with her whisker-licking grin firmly in place. ‘Hogwarts isn’t an inanimate pile of stone, it’s a school, and the school is made up of its staff and elves and students, who all worked together to bring you home, so strictly speaking, it isn’t a lie.’

He looked around at the Heads of house, his colleagues and yes, his friends.

‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘but does that mean I’m stuck here for the next ten years?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ Minerva said, ‘however, this time, it’s up to you to make up the rules.’

‘I’ll hold you to that, Professor McGonagall.’

‘I’m sure you will, Professor Snape.’

oooOOOooo

He spent the afternoon reading through the newspaper reports on the Battle of Hogwarts. He learned of the deaths – what on earth were the Werewolf and the Metamorphmagus thinking, to both fight when their son was merely weeks old? – and he acknowledged the startling maturity and courage of those blasted Gryffindors. He had always grudgingly expected heroism from Potter but he was pleased to discover that Longbottom had grown a spine. He must ask someone to let him see a memory of Longbottom defying Voldemort and chopping off Nagini’s head. He might even thank the lad when he next saw him – ideally in front of a suitable audience, he should start work upon his image straight away. This time, he intended to make changes to Hogwarts that would outlast him.

After dinner, he wandered out to watch the harvest moon lay a golden track across the lake. A grey cat joined him, content to sit beside him, and listen to the calling of the owls as they left the owlery to hunt.

‘I want to do something about Muggle studies,’ he remarked. She turned her head to watch him. ‘And the houses. It should be possible for students to get resorted, people change an awful lot between eleven and eighteen.’

She stretched upwards and transformed. ‘Will you teach me how to fly?’ she asked, fastidiously shaking the skirts of her robes free from dead leaves.

‘If you’ll teach me the Animagus transformation.’

She smiled. ‘I’ve a bottle of Islay single malt, if you fancy a wee dram.’

‘Lay on, McGonagall,’ he muttered.

‘That makes you Macbeth, does it not? Hardly auspicious.’

He shrugged. ‘They’re going to have to live with me and everything that I’ve done, they’ll all have to get used to it.’

‘That’s the spirit.’ She turned and strolled towards the castle, tipping back her head to gaze up at the newly repaired ramparts. ‘You’re going to shake us up, aren’t you?’

‘I hope so. You did tell me to make up my own rules.’

‘You would have, anyway.’

‘Of course; but I appreciate your support.’

‘Mm. Let’s start with a night-cap, shall we?’

The night-cap turned into two, then another, and Snape found himself being chivvied to bed once again by his deputy head. Muzzy-headed, he wondered if she, too, found sleep came more easily if she was not alone. Perhaps she took the hint, because he fell asleep again to the soft vibration of her purr.

oooOOOooo

‘We’re worried about you, Min.’ Snape stopped short outside the staffroom door. Something must be the matter with his deputy to cause such concern in Poppy Pomfrey’s voice. Was Minerva unwell, and he hadn’t even noticed? The idea made his chest feel constricted.

‘Why?’ Minerva asked.

‘You’re not sleeping, dear.’ That was Sprout. ‘You weren’t in your bed again last night and your door guardian had no idea where you were. You can’t spend your nights hunting the castle and your days hard at work, you’ll burn out!’

‘I realise that cats can manage on little sleep and then catch up,’ Pomfrey said dubiously but Flitwick interrupted her, sounding amused. ‘The Grey Lady informs me that she gravitates towards the Headmaster’s tower, so perhaps you were looking in the wrong place, Pommy!’

There was a speculative pause. Despite the bitter consequences of listening at a different door, Snape could not possibly leave now.

‘Oh very well!’ Minerva snapped, ‘I confess! I tie Severus to the bedposts and have my wicked way with him all night! Now may we get this rota finished before we all lose the will to live?’

‘Or Severus demands the staff timetable and makes you pay a forfeit because it isn’t ready,’ Sprout said with an earthy snigger.

Snape stepped silently away from the door, deep in thought. Loyalty always took him by surprise because he never truly believed that he deserved it. Minerva had distracted her friends, simply to avoid telling them that their Headmaster was scared to sleep alone. Her diversion was making synapses fire in his brain, however, arousing thoughts and feelings that he had long believed shrivelled from disuse.

oooOOOooo

After dinner, he caught her eye and tipped his head towards the main doorway. Minerva shrugged, got to her feet and accompanied him. Pomfrey, Sprout and Flitwick noticed, of course, and he smirked at them for good measure.

‘It will be a cold night, you might want to summon your winter cloak, scarf and gloves,’ he murmured.

‘And why would I wish to do that, Severus? I’m perfectly competent with warming charms.’

‘Holding a charm in place will be too distracting to begin with, and it is far colder high up. I’m going to teach you to fly.’

She drew her wand, Summoned her warm clothing and then faced him with her chin raised, daring him to set her a challenge that she couldn’t meet. She was fierce, shrewd, loyal and courageous, and with abrupt clarity, he realised that she had become dear to him.

Of course she quickly grasped the tricky nature of it, the ways in which the spell was affected by the external conditions and the flier’s emotions. She excelled at charmed flight and she loved it. They circled the castle and the lake, flying with the owls as the moon rose cold in the sky.

When they landed, tired and exhilarated, she strode beside him towards a side entrance to the castle.

‘I’ve a drop of that whisky left, if you’d like it,’ she remarked, stripping off her gloves.

‘I’m not sure that’s an appropriate custom to establish,’ he said, and was privately pleased to see a hint of disappointment in her eyes. ‘My family doesn’t have a good record with handling alcohol. I wouldn’t mind a mug of cocoa, though, if you’d care to join me?’ He turned to face her. ‘Unless you’d prefer to tie me to the bedposts and have your wicked way with me, of course.’

He did not need Legillimency to read the emotions that flashed across her face; for a moment, she was taken aback, embarrassed and annoyed. Then as if this was simply another challenging charm or transfiguration, she took a step towards him. They were the same height, she could stare directly into his eyes.

‘Do you want me to?’

‘Only if you wish.’

She, too, had considered it, he realised in a moment of pure triumph, and she was unable to hide her interest.

‘It would be somewhat improper,’ she murmured as if to herself.

‘You did say that I should make my own rules.’

‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘I did. And I think that after all we have done, we deserve to spend a little time doing exactly as we wish.’

‘What do you wish, Minerva?’

‘I’d rather like to ravish you, Severus, if you have no objection?’

‘None at all. My lair or yours?’

‘Oh, yours, I think. You do have the nicer bathroom and the larger bed and there is a precedent for my spending the night.’

That night, she learned to fly, and he learned a number of dazzling new truths. He learned that the angles of her collarbone and jaw were exquisite, that her tongue was very wicked indeed, that she did not care about his scars and had some impressive scars of her own, and that she was passionate and affectionate. He learned that there was nothing wrong with a forthright Gryffindor approach to ravishment, but that she was very amenable to Slytherin subtlety. It was the best damn night of his life.

oooOOOooo

Hogwarts celebrated its full reopening with a Yule ball. The atmosphere of celebration was tempered by the awareness of those missing, but the occasion was deemed a success. The food was delicious, the decorations dazzling and the band was tuneful (or as tuneful as the Weird Sisters ever got). Snape presided with an edgy civility that implied he was still the same old Snape underneath his veneer of good manners, and the students were too in awe of him to risk much in the way of smuggled alcohol or mood-enhancing potions. Which was more than could be said of the unofficial party in the staff room after the students were sent to bed.

The Hogwarts staff got spectacularly hammered along with a number of specially invited guests. Kingsley Shacklebolt’s karaoke rendition of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ was the stuff of legend. Percy Weasley could not handle Slughorn’s punch, and was really going to regret snogging Trelawney under the mistletoe when his mother found out. Pomona Sprout seemed entirely content to sit with Flitwick in her lap, while Poppy Pomfrey, Argus Filch and Irma Pince danced with their arms around each other to the strains of a waltz from Filch’s ancient record player.

Harry Potter lurked in the corner looking furtive (who on earth had invited him? Snape fully intended to reprimand them until he realised that it was most likely Minerva, and then his imagination turned to more mutually satisfactory reprimands involving tying her to the bedposts for a change.) Eventually the Boy Wonder sidled up to him and said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘D’you want your memories back?’

‘Not particularly,’ Snape said, slightly perturbed to find that his old resentment had faded to boredom.

‘The ones of my Mum, I mean. Don’t you want those?’

‘No. You may keep them.’

‘Oh.’ Potter considered this. Snape wondered if he had already been at Sluggy’s punch. ‘I thought that you loved my Mum, you know, for always…’

‘Potter, do you consider that my crimes are so great that I must pay penance forever?’

Potter stared at him. Snape noticed that the round school-boy spectacles had been replaced by modern rectangular-framed versions.

‘I suppose not,’ Potter said eventually, ‘You’ve paid enough. I’m sorry you’re stuck here for the next ten years, though.’

‘I shall survive,’ Snape said magnanimously, without making the mistake of glancing in Minerva’s direction. ‘There are compensations.’

‘At least you don’t have to teach potions to dunderheads,’ Potter agreed. ‘I wonder if your Patronus has changed.’ He wandered away, probably sensing Snape’s increasing irritation.

‘Why would your Patronus have changed, Severus?’ Dumbledore enquired from the corner of a painting of a hippogriff in a stable yard. A small crup ran in circles around his feet, yapping.

‘That’s no longer any business of yours!’ Minerva exclaimed, firing a hex at the painting that made Dumbledore duck hastily away. ‘Really, that man is the limit. People aren’t chess pieces to be sacrificed at whim!’

Snape, who had definitely sampled the punch, drew his wand, conjured up a particularly satisfying memory from the previous night and cast his Patronus. It was a sleek silver cat.

‘Bugger,’ he muttered, realising too late that everyone else in the room was watching in fascination. Minerva McGonagall snorted like a particularly refined dragon, drew her wand and cast her own Patronus charm. A sinuous shape emerged, a flying snake which wound around the cat. Both vanished with a faint pop.

‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘that’s answered that question.’ There was mirth and that perpetual Gryffindor challenge in her eyes.

‘Always needn’t be forever,’ he remarked as she linked her arm through his, ‘but I’m rather looking forward to the next ten years.’

‘Why stop at ten?’ she enquired. ‘Believe me, I have plans for you, Severus Snape.’

Snape took his pleasures where he could nowadays. It was satisfying to steer her beneath a bunch of mistletoe and kiss her in front of the lot of them, but even more rewarding to hear Harry Potter splutter in horrified disbelief.

The end, or perhaps, the beginning.