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We Learn These Things Too Late

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The castle of Hogwarts lies silent and broken on its dark clifftop. The Death Eaters, alive and dead and those hovering in between, have been taken away by what remains of the Ministry, marshalled under Shacklebolt's command. Families have taken their living and their dead home to celebrate their victory and mourn their losses. Those with no family left have been offered hearth-space by friends, unwilling to see any left alone this night.

Very few of the living are left behind to wait the night with the Hogwarts ghosts.

In his office Filch is stroking Mrs Norris and muttering to himself about the terrible amount of mess in the castle.

In her unstable tower Sybil Trelawney sips tea with shaking hands and fogged glasses.

Climbing the stairs to the Headmaster's office with a heavy tread and a heavier heart is Minerva McGonagall. With the guardian gargoyle knocked askew she has to summon herself a set of stairs to climb and she is feeling every one of her 63 years. It has been a long and terrifying night and an even longer day.

All she wants to do is sit down on a dusty step and cry. So many students dead in that terrible battle. Most of them were her students at one time or another: Fred, Tonks, Remus... and so many more. Dead in that battle and over the past year of war. Passed beyond the veil, beyond her reach. Her children. The only family she ever chose to have.

And their killers. Most of them were also her students, a few her schoolmates. Most of them gone now, beyond the veil. Even after all that has happened she still remembers their faces as though they had started at Hogwarts only yesterday. Their faces soft with childhood, with all the tangled potentials of life's choices still ahead of them.

With her eyes full of tears and remembered faces it takes her a moment to fumble open the door. The room is dark and still. Moonlight trickles in through the windows and dances over a disk of liquid resting on the desk.

A thought flashes across her mind, bringing with it a surge of adrenaline. It is just the sort of place a Death Eater might have chosen to hide so as to cause one last splash of chaos.

"Lumos!"

Her wand flares and the shadows stream away from her. She is alone.

"Well," she mutters to herself, covering her momentary embarrassment. "Here I am again."

She looks around the Headmaster's ... no, not any more ... around the office. Technically she wasn't deputy Headmistress this year, which means that technically she won't automatically replace Snape ... At least until Kingsley Shacklebolt gets the paperwork done, which she has no doubt he will do as soon as he stops long enough to remember it.

"Well, I could refuse the position," she tells herself, feeling tired enough in this moment to do just that, but she knows that she won't.

The room still feels strange without Dumbledore's clutter of odd devices and without Fawkes on his perch. It also seems odd that Snape has left so little mark of himself on the room given his delight of filling his Dungeon rooms with odd things in jars to unnerve the students.

She is distracted from those thoughts by the dance of light on the pensieve. Approaching it she hesitates for a moment. With a pass of her wand she checks for tampering but finds nothing that shouldn't be there. She purses her lips and frowns at the silver liquid before leaning over to look into it.

She tumbles from a grief stricken spring night into a summer's day. Two girls are playing on a swing. One of them is a stranger and the other is heart wrenchingly familiar. A girl dead these sixteen years although her eyes have been haunting the Head of Gryffindor House the last seven years in the fast maturing face of a young boy, her son.

Pain squeezes Minerva's heart while she watches one of her lost children, unhurt and alive in the light of memory. Whose memory?

While the girl flies from the swing like a leaf on a breeze Minerva looks around to find whose memory this is. She finds him hiding behind a bush. Another face to wrench a teacher's heart, if not for the same reasons.

His mismatched clothes and sallow thinness make the neglect he suffers much clearer than the second hand robes and good dinners he had at school. Watching his furtive manner the Transfiguration Mistress and Head of Gryffindor House frowns.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the boy Snape rushing out to join the two girls. Their awkward interaction makes her smile, its flavour is familiar to her from decades of watching awkward younglings growing into themselves.

She hadn't realised that Snape's odd friendship with Lily Evans had started so early. As Lily's Head of House she had found it disquieting at times, especially given some of Snape's other school friends.

He’s a small boy. Selfishly greedy over his only friendship, her sharp eyes can see that in him. Yet there is an odd generosity in him, freely sharing the only thing he has in abundance; his knowledge of the wizarding world. It reminds her that he'll be a teacher.

Yet she can also see that streak of darkness in him, even so young.

The memories jump forward to Platform 9 3/4. Still familiar despite the decades since she was there in her own childhood.

"That's where you're going," Petunia said with relish. "A special school for freaks. You and that Snape boy... weirdos, that's what you two are..."

Minerva winces, reminded that this is the girl, woman, that Dumbledore left the baby Harry with. To be raised by such spiteful anger. She wonders if he would have changed his plans had he seen this memory first. She wonders and she fears that she knows the answer, Dumbledore always had his reasons.

They're on the train now. Snape is trying to cheer Lily up and is meeting James Potter and Sirius Black for the first time.

Minerva is torn between her own long distaste of Slytherin House and her distaste of bullies. No matter what they grew up to be and to do she has to admit to herself that James and Sirius were bullies, especially to young Severus.

It is decidedly strange watching herself placing the sorting hat onto Lily's head. Her noticeably younger self.

There is a parade of young faces between Evans and Snape and she can count on her fingers the ones still left alive. On far too few fingers. It feels like this is the generation that has taken the brunt of... he is dead now and she can use his name, curse him... the brunt of Voldemort's wars. Looking over the faces of the students already seated in the Great Hall only reinforces that feeling.

She is still counting the faces of the dead when the scene dissolves again.

Lily and Severus are a few years older and are arguing while they walk. Minerva vividly remembers the incident with Snape, Potter, Lupin, and the Whomping Willow; or the aftermath of it, at any rate. She had been furious with them. After all that they had gone through to bring Lupin to Hogwarts as a student and the young idiots had nearly ruined it all. Although she admits to herself now that she had assumed that Snape's part in it had been purely the usual Slytherin spite against a group of Gryffindors.

In retrospect she is glad that Dumbledore had refused her permission to come down on the lot of them as heavily as she had wanted to.

Back to the Great Hall, now filled with familiar ranks of exam desks. Rows of students bent over their papers with varying degrees of frenetic focus. Around her she can see older versions of the faces that sat under the Sorting Hat so recently and so long ago.

She could spend hours watching these faces and remembering the children they were and the adults they became but five minutes is all that she gets before the exam ends and the students scatter. The memory follows Snape, naturally, as he walks out into the sunshine, still studying his exam paper.

Absorbed in watching the teenage Snape she doesn't notice the other four relaxing on the grass nearby until Severus moves and they fix their attention on him.

Their taunts of the solitary boy make her narrow her eyes and purse her lips. When they attack him with spells she steps forward, opening her mouth in a sharp rebuke before remembering that this is a memory and stopping herself. She watches with clenched fists. If she had known at the time of the depths of their behaviour to their fellow student they would have felt the edge of her wrath.

Yet within that wrath there is a moment of pride for the teenage Evans as she stands up against her fellow Housemates and chastises them for their behaviour.

Then there is that moment of anger and humiliation, when tempers run high and words are quickly said and quickly regretted. Minerva knows that moment well both from her own temper and from decades of trying to guide generations through adolescence.

Mudblood.

Too late she understands why, for all of his known history as a Deatheater, she had never heard Severus using that word.

A sundering of paths. As McGonagall listens to their final argument she can't help wondering what would have been different had Lily managed to turn young Severus away from his path towards Voldemort. Certainly some things would have been better and yet she can't help suspecting that the final result might have been worse.

Despite knowing the future she sympathises with the young Slytherin who has just lost what may have been the only true friend he ever have.

It's a long jump this time: to an adult Snape, waiting full of fear on a dark and windy hilltop. Waiting for a confrontation with Dumbledore.

She knows of the prophecy, everyone does now, and has long suspected Snape's part in it. But suspicion is not the same as hearing the confession from his own lips. Her anger flashes hot but is as quickly quieted again by the his clear anguish at the way his actions have rebounded on Lily. She can still see within him that grasping jealousy of a selfish child but there is more to it than that and his anguish is genuine.

The two of them make their deal and she watches, knowing what will come of it. Slowly she is starting to understand the strange relationship that bound Snape and Dumbledore together in ways that never made sense to her when they were still alive.

Snape’s cry of anguish makes her skin crawl as she stands there unable to do anything to comfort the distraught man, and unsure what she would do even if she could. Tears trickle down her wrinkled face as she remembers that terrible night when she learned of Lily and James' deaths. Two of her Gryffindors. Two of her children.

She watches Dumbledore goad Snape into not giving up. Watches him manipulate the grieving, younger man into promising to protect Lily's son. She shakes her head at Snape's demand that Dumbledore never tell of his love for Lily and all that surrounds it.

"Oh, Severus. If I had known..." she murmurs, at a loss for what she would have done if she had known.

A more familiar Professor Snape now, arrogant and snide as he compares the boy unfavourably to James, his father.

The Yule Ball now. The time when... Voldemort's power was growing again. Something Dumbledore says catches Minerva's attention: "I sometimes think we sort too soon..."

That thought echoes in Professor McGonagall's mind with a tumult of memories, decades of eleven year olds and equal decades of deep rivalries between the Hogwarts Houses.

She is snapped from those thoughts by the shock of seeing Dumbledore slumped over his chair, semi-conscious, with his hand blackened and burned. She gasps and steps forward before remembering that this is a memory and that while Dumbledore is now dead this isn't the way he died.

Snape is there. He's helping the headmaster with potions and spells, and chastising him for putting on a cursed ring.

Her eyes narrow as they talk of the powerful curse now trapped in Dumbledore's hand and Snape predicts that they can hold it back for no more than a year. Many things start to become clearer to Minerva McGonagall.

She listens closely and with fascination as they unwind Voldemort's plot to have Dumbledore killed and rework it to serve Dumbledore's purposes. Her teacher's ear does not miss Dumbledore's casual acquisition of Snape's promise to do all he can to protect the students when Voldemort takes... took the school.

"You must kill me," Dumbledore's voice is (was) so calm and matter of fact. Minerva squeezes her eyes closed then snaps them open again, not wanting to miss a single nuance of this conversation.

Snape's familiar defense of irony brings a small smile to her wrinkled lips.

Dumbledore's concern for the state of Draco's soul, even now, brings a pang to McGonagall's heart and she resolves to do what she can to help the young man. Perhaps, now that Voldemort is gone, there is a chance for him to turn to another path.

Dumbledore's words seem light but their meaning is clear and serious as Snape silently agrees to the task. McGonagall is bitterly reminded of how she has thought of and spoken to her colleague over the past year.

"If I had only known..." she whispers in anguish.

She listens quietly to Snape and Dumbledore conversing beside the dark forest, sensing that it is one of their final conversations.

It's a conversation that continues in Dumbledore's Office where she finds out the secret instructions for Harry that Dumbledore had held from the boy, even beyond his own death.

Even with her own knowledge that the boy... no, the young man, at the very end walked away alive from his confrontation with Voldemort, Minerva still pales with shock at Dumbledore's calculated sacrifice of him.

Then the silver doe of Snape's patronus bursts into the room. Tears roll down her cheeks as she remembers a very promising young student producing just such a patronus for her NEWT exams, Lily Evans. Minerva recognises the implications even before Dumbledore turns to ask and she shakes her head gently, still crying.

"Oh Severus, you..." but she can't bring herself to call him an idiot, not at this moment.

Even after his death Dumbledore continues to manipulate events. She watches Snape, now Headmaster, taking advice from Dumbledore's portrait.

Scenes are moving faster now. Snape maiming George by accident. Weeping over an old letter and photo from Lily to her friend, Sirius Black. Snape taking Gryffindor's sword to the Forest of Dean for Harry to find. Minerva finds herself increasingly fatigued by the welter of images and emotions.

Abruptly the memories cease and she is returned to the darkened office. Her wand hangs forgotten in her lax grip. She leans heavily on the edge of the desk, only her familiarity with pensieves keeping her on her feet. Her tears drip unheeded onto the rippling silver surface.

She pulls herself upright.

Relighting her wand and looking up she notices that one of the portraits is no longer empty. Severus Snape looks down at her, dressed in his severe robes with a potions lab painted behind him. His expression is stiff and he watches her with a wary, unblinking gaze.

"I'm sorry, Severus," she whispers, feeling her emotions naked on her face. "I'm sorry that I didn't know. That I misjudged you."

The Snape in the portrait gives her a familiar bitter smile but she doesn't take offense, it is a smile that mocks himself more than it mocks her. "I didn't want you to know. I didn't want anyone to know. That was rather the point of it all."

"But I made things harder for you. I could have trusted, could have tried to be your friend as well as your colleague."

A slight shake of the painted head. "For that to work it would have required me to give up my bitterness and isolation... and my guilt."

McGonagall frowns although not at him. "At the very least I could have trusted you and Dumbledore enough to have not made this last year worse for you."

His smile is sad but unusually it isn't twisted by arrogance or bitterness. "I needed your hate this last year, Minerva, yours and the rest of the staff. I needed it to help keep the Dark Lord convinced of my loyalty and I needed all of your opposition to help keep the students safe from him... as safe as we could make them."

Tears spill from Minerva's eyes again as she looks up at the portrait of her student and her colleague. They blur her sight and yet it feels like she is seeing him clearly for the first time.

"Well, there is one thing it isn't too late for, Headmaster Severus Snape," it's the first time she has used that title for him without twisting the words with hate and accusation. "I welcome your advice in this office, as I welcome the advice of all the former Heads of Hogwarts."

His expression is stiff but his eyes show her that he recognises the full intent of her words. "Thank you, Headmistress."