The Sugar Quill
Author: Violet Azure (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Gifted and Talented  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

A/N: This chapter is based on the events that occurred in Chapter 10 of High Spirits

A/N: This chapter is based on the events that occurred in Chapter 10 of High Spirits.  Set during PoA and GoF.

A/N: Updated to be Book 7 compliant.

Thanks to the ouroriginalfiction workshop and to everyone who reads & reviews. 

 

Gifted and Talented

 

“I see.  So you want to be an Auror?”

Severus steepled his long fingers together and tried to keep a straight face as he surveyed Liam Maverick seated across from him.

Liam nodded eagerly.  The look in his pale blue eyes was bright, if but hollow; the same sort of flickering glow a jack-o-lantern gave off. 

A thousand occupations in the wizarding world and all they can come up with for a future career is Auror.  Auror—ha!  These little snots wet themselves at the mere mention of the Dark Lord’s name—as well they should.  

Severus fought the urge to rub the heel of his palm over his eyes and forehead.  Was this afternoon ever going to end?  Spending his time advising his fifth and seventh year students on their potential career paths, knowing all along that they were completely ignoring his advice, was a month of Friday afternoons he would never get back.  And he was only up to the M’s. 

“Mr. Maverick, do you know anyone who is an Auror?  Or what the job entails?”

 “No, I don’t know any Aurors personally, sir—but I know they hunt down and catch vampires, werewolves, and Dark Wizards!”

So much for your keen powers of observation since you’ve failed to notice that your Defense professor is a werewolf.  And as for catching Dark Wizards, Mr. Maverick, you wouldn’t last five minutes alone with me even if I gave you a four-minute head start. 

Severus cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.  Stalling for time, he looked down at the parchment containing Liam’s marks. 

“Mr. Maverick, you are aware that your marks in Defense—not to mention Charms, Transfiguration and Potions—while…adequate are nowhere near the levels required to be an Auror?  Only those at the top of their class are accepted for Auror training right out of Hogwarts.  Since this obviously does not apply to you, your journey toward becoming an Auror would be a bit more difficult.  Your career would most likely begin with the M.L.E. squad in an entry-level position where you will spend your days writing citations for such crimes as flying a broomstick in restricted zones or Apparating without a license.  You will work long hours for little pay until one of your superiors recognizes your talents and recommends you for Auror training. 

If and only if you pass the battery of tests designed to measure your magical prowess as well as your mental stability, you will spend the next few years shadowing a senior Auror.  Once your supervisor decides that you are capable of doing field work without getting yourself killed, you will begin with small assignments, mostly zombies and other Level Two and Three Dark creatures, the occasional witch or wizard dabbling in the Dark Arts, maybe a raid or two in Knockturn Alley.  As you work your way up, you will spend all your time traveling.  Cut off from your family and friends, you will live in harsh, squalid conditions as you track and capture Dark Wizards and more dangerous beasts and beings.  Then one day, probably when you are forty or so, you will reach the rank of a junior Auror—that is, if you have not yet managed to get yourself blown up or rendered permanently incapacitated.  May I suggest you rethink your career path?” 

Liam’s shoulders slumped but Severus was too busy scanning the parchment before him to notice.  He settled on Muggle Studies as a bright spot.  Few Slytherins took the course, preferring to continue their education in more traditional magical areas like Ancient Runes and Arithmancy.  It was also considered to be one of the easier courses in the Hogwarts curriculum.

“Your best marks are in Muggle Studies,” he continued, barely noticing how the boy’s face had fallen.  “If you are set on working in law enforcement, I recommend a career in Magical Catastrophes, Muggle subdivision.  You will still have all the thrills,” here Severus was barely able to contain the sarcasm that leaked into his voice, “and excitement as you would have as an Auror and you will be putting your talents to good use.  You will need to do exceptionally well on your Charms O.W.L., though.”

“Yes, sir,” Liam mumbled. 

“Between now and the end of the year, I suggest you send an owl to Robert Scorpios, the head of Hogsmeade’s M.L.E. squad.  Although this year’s extenuating…circumstances,” Severus spat out the word as if it were a piece of bone hidden in a chunk of meat he had been chewing, “will restrict his schedule, I am sure he or one of his colleagues would be happy to speak with you during the spring Hogsmeade weekend.  Do you have any questions?” Severus asked, hoping the boy wouldn’t. 

“No, sir.”

“Fine.  You are dismissed.  Please send in Mr. Montague.”

Liam shuffled out.  Severus glanced at the boy’s stooped back and bent head.  He couldn’t feel too bad.  There was a difference between crushing someone’s dreams and putting an end to childish nonsense.  They lived in a magical world, not Fantasy Land.  All too soon these students would be leaving the coddled halls of Hogwarts; it was high time they grew up and learned that life was nothing more than a series of unrelenting compromises, an endless exchange of whimsy for reality.  Welcome to adulthood, Severus thought bitterly.

His interview with Damian Montague, the elder of the Montague brothers, went somewhat better.  Damian was a Chaser on the house Quidditch team, a fair student but not exceptional.  He was a nice enough boy, handsome and popular—but not a show off or a bully like that damnable James Potter had been.  They chatted briefly about Slytherin’s upcoming match against Hufflepuff before getting down to business.  Damian expressed interest in working for the Magical Games and Sports Department at the Ministry.  Severus nodded; that would be a good fit for the boy and he was pleased to see that Damian had made a practical choice instead of deluding himself that he was going to turn professional.  Their meeting was brief and, thankfully, productive. 

“Would you please send Miss Moon in?” Severus asked without looking up from the next sheaf of parchment as Damian left the dungeon. 

Severus heard the door open, then a giggle followed by an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice, “Hi, Damian!  Good luck on Saturday!”  Damian murmured something back and then soft footsteps echoed on the stone floor.

“Hello, Professor Snape.  How are you?”  Hester Moon stood in front of his desk.  Severus glanced up from the parchment.  Her hands were folded and her head slightly bowed.  She gave him a timid smile.

“Please have a seat,” he indicated the chair across from his desk.  She quickly sat down, knees together and hands still clasped.  The prefect badge on her chest glinted in the dim light.

“Well, Miss Moon…your last year at Hogwarts.  How are your N.E.W.T. preparations coming along?”

“Very well, sir.  The prefects have a Sunday study group.  It’s rather informal, but it can sometimes get a little competitive.  Everyone wants top marks.” 

A low snort came from the back of Severus’s throat.  The Illustrious Percy Weasley was most likely driving the others mad in his quest to set a new record for number of N.E.W.T.s earned.  Percy was starting to make him batty, badgering him in his office with requests to look over his practice essays and asking him ridiculous questions like, did he need to know how many grams of dried henbane could be substituted for fresh henbane in a Suffocating Potion?  Severus wondered if ‘being annoying’ was a sufficient enough reason to take house points away from the Swelled Head Boy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate intelligence.  Far from it.  It was a relief to have students in class that did something besides stare blankly at him and blow up their cauldrons like that idiot Longbottom.  However, it was a little known teacher’s secret that smart students were frequently just as irritating as dim ones.  Perfect Percy Weasley, Know-it-All Granger and most of Ravenclaw only cared about getting the correct answers and memorizing what they needed to know for exams.  There was no thought process to their knowledge, no sense of grasping the logic or thinking beyond what the textbook told them to do.  Few of his students realized that in life, the ability to ask the right questions was more important than reciting the correct answer.  Their intelligence was joyless and he wondered if they had ever known the love, not just the satisfaction, garnered from spending the day pouring through a moldy smelling book to find a curse or a forgotten potion.  No earning House points or gaining top marks, just the shear pleasure of unearthing that which had once been unknown, harnessing power for your sake and your sake alone.  He doubted it.  Other students, though…they were a different story altogether.  He gave Hester a thin smile. 

“Naturally.  Now, you were undecided on a career when we spoke during your fifth year.  I assume you have given the matter some thought since then.  Judging by your performance in my classroom, may I presume that you plan on a Potions career?”  He looked down his nose at her and waited for an affirmative answer. 

Ummm, no, sir.  I want to go to culinary school.”  Her head tucked into her neck like a tortoise retreating into its shell.  She pressed her lips together and waited for his response.

The news came as a shock but years of carefully controlling his feelings kept him from responding beyond a mere raise of the eyebrows.  It was a rare student who gained admittance to his N.E.W.T level classes and those students usually went on to top careers.  And Hester Moon was that sort of student.  She had a neat hand, a careful eye, and a real intuition at interpreting a potion’s directions for ‘a pinch’ or ‘a dash.’  Nor did she act like an intolerable show off in class, speaking out of turn like Granger, who tried to show him up every single class. 

He appreciated Hester’s talents and tried to nurture them as best he could these past seven years.  And now here she was, bold as brass, waltzing into his office and announcing that she was going to pursue the same type of career held by the castle house elves.  It was a slap in his face.  She should have left after her O.W.L.s and not wasted his time and hers in N.E.W.T classes these past two years.  Before he got angry enough to snap out a reprimand for taking up valuable class space, he paused.  Perhaps she was still undecided about her career goals and was in need of a little gentle persuasion.

“Culinary school,” he turned the words over on his tongue.  “Why on earth would you want to go to culinary school?”

“I like to cook?”  Her shoulders reared higher and her chin tucked into her chest, although to her credit, she still managed to maintain eye contact with him.

“Hobbies and professions should not be confused, Miss Moon.  Not everyone who bandies about a Quaffle on the house Quidditch Team ends up playing for England.  May I ask why you are not pursuing Potions career?  You excel at the subject and you seem to enjoy it.  At the very least, you are one of the few seventh year students capable of making healing potions that actually heal people instead of making them sicker.  Have you thought of a career as a Healer?  Your Transfiguration marks are not the best, but that can be remedied.” 

Severus didn’t know why he cared so much about Hester’s future.  Let her suffer in a hot kitchen for the rest of her miserable life or until she realized she had made a mistake.  He should just nod and get her out of there.  But for some reason, he wasn’t going to let her leave his office until he got a satisfactory answer out of her.

Maybe he cared so much about what Hester Moon did with her life because he knew the influence a mentor could wield over a pliable and talented young mind.  He knew all too well the seductive nature of being sought out by those who were older and who seemed all powerful, pretending to have their students’ best interests at heart.  Hadn’t his old prefect, Lucius Malfoy, signaled him out when he was a first year, praising his extensive knowledge of the Dark Arts? 

Maybe he cared because Hester was a genuinely nice girl and not an obnoxious wand polisher, like Malfoy.  And he hated to see waste.  It was bad enough that week after week countless caldrons full of ruined potions had to be dumped down the drain.  But what was more tragic than wasted newt’s blood and powdered unicorn horn was wasted potential.  He had squandered his own talents and he’d be damned if he saw one of the best students he had ever known throw away a bright future. 

He looked at Hester across the desk.  Noticing her hesitation now that he was challenging her plans, he calculated his next move.  What did he know about Hester Moon?  She was a good girl, smart and polite.  She was popular enough within a small circle of girlfriends, not exactly the leader but someone you could depend on in a crisis.  Ambitious but not ruthless, a refreshing change from her housemates.  A bit shy, but able to exercise discipline when the situation called for it.  But most importantly, she wasn’t arrogant or pigheaded and was therefore open to suggestion.  Someone had put this cooking idea into her head and Severus wanted to know why.  Although the wizarding world tended to be fairly egalitarian, Severus had still seen far too many young witches leave Hogwarts underestimating their potential.  And in a house known for its ambition, that disturbed him a great deal.

He refocused his attention on Hester, who was answering his question.  “I don’t think I’d make a good mediwitch, sir.  I get sick at the sight of blood.  My brother cut his arm really bad one time and I passed out cold.”

Severus suppressed a groan.  That would be her dunderhead of an older brother, Samuel.  Gryffindor.  Left six years ago.  No doubt he had injured himself whilst dealing with some creature bestowed with more teeth and claws than brains.  Useless with a cauldron but Bernard Kettleburn had praised the boy’s skills with some of the more temperamental beasts in his Care of Magical Creatures class.  Then again, Bernard was missing two and a half fingers, a chunk of his nose, an eye, four toes, and an ear, so perhaps he wasn’t the best judge of abilities.

“And Potions?  I thought you liked the subject?” 

“Oh, I do, sir!” Hester smiled and nodded, her brown eyes wide.  “It’s my favorite subject, but I don’t want to be an apothecary.  I don’t—I don’t want to make potions for people unless I know they’re going to be used properly.”  She raised her chin and dared him to contradict her.

Severus grimaced.  He would bet his broomstick that this ethical streak of Hester’s had stemmed from what he called the Fourth Year Split that had culminated with Hester’s housemate, a Muggle-born girl by the name of Courtney O’Sullivan, leaving Hogwarts forever.  Neither he nor Dumbledore had managed to wrestle the full story out of the fourth year Slytherin girls at the time, but Severus noticed that ever since that year a subtle shift had occurred in his House and that Hester had taken to questioning the ethics of her magical education to the point where other professors had commented to him.  “Wrote a whole essay on whether or not it was right to use Cheering Charms,” Professor Flitwick had mentioned to him in the staff room.  “Seemed quite upset at the idea of…here, let me read it to you: the creation of false emotions and feelings by magic…used against another human being….deception of self…it was quite an essay,” Professor Flitwick said, waving the parchment around.  “I’m curious to see what Miss Moon will have to say when we get to Memory Charms her sixth year.”

Even in Potions, Hester had, if not questioned his authority outright, expressed some concern for what they were doing.  “Sir,” she had asked one day after class during their sixth year, “why are there Unforgivable Curses but no Unforgivable Potions?  I mean, we’re learning all about Polyjuice Potion and while the theory is fascinating what if…what if people use this potion to do something illegal or immoral?  You can go to Azkaban for forcing someone to do something bad under the Imperius Curse, but there’s no law preventing you from taking a hair of that person’s head and impersonating them and just committing a crime yourself.” 

Her questions, when he had the time to answer them, had led to some interesting if unsettling conversations over the past few years.  And when he didn’t have time for Hester’s philosophical musings, he had merely sent her on her way or told her to read a book on the subject.  But Severus hadn’t seen that perhaps she was bothered enough about these questions to give up on Potions entirely and he was determined that she shouldn’t do that.       

“I don’t think I could teach Potions, either,” Hester continued.  “I mean, I don’t think I could stand up and talk in front of a class full of students every day.”  She looked at him and there was a hint of admiration in her voice.  Severus couldn’t help but feel a little bit flattered.  “I just don’t know what else I could do with Potions, sir.”  She cocked her head, a quizzical expression on her face like a dog trying to comprehend what its master was saying.

So she feared public speaking, hated the sight of blood, and didn’t want to be an apothecary.  He could work around that.  In fact, he was looking forward to the challenge.  He might be resigned to spending the rest of his life teaching a bunch of ungrateful, snot-nosed brats how to make Shrinking Solutions, (and a part of him was grateful for that second chance) but it didn’t mean Hester had to settle for anything less than her full potential.  He switched his tone so that his voice glided like silk over ice. 

“Your marks in your other subjects are very good.  Your O.W.L.s were almost all Exceeds Expectation and Outstanding.  You are a hard worker, disciplined, and fairly intelligent—in short, you have all the qualities of an excellent researcher.  Have you considered that option?”  He leaned forward and fixed her in his most penetrating stare, attempting to keep his brow from furrowing too much.  He wanted to sway her, not scare her.  Her cheeks went from pink to crimson and he felt a small rush of triumph. 

“I-I’ve never really thought about a career in research, sir.  I didn’t think I was clever enough.  I mean, I like Potions; it’s sort of like cooking.  Everything in balance and certain things just go together and others don’t.  It just all makes sense to me.  But I’m usually following instructions.  I don’t know if I can think up completely new potions.”  She looked at him as if hoping he would be able to shed some light on her capabilities.

“Untrained, no.  But you said it yourself, that it all makes sense to you.  And I have noticed that you have a real talent for modifying a potion’s instructions when the situation calls for it rather than stumbling along blindly.  I think you should consider all of your options before deciding that you want to bake biscuits for the rest of your life,” he chuckled softly, treading the fine line between encouraging and patronizing.

Hester’s face now resembled a badly sunburned tomato.  She gave a modest shrug and continued looking at her hands, unsure how to handle this outpouring of praise. 

“Hmmm,” Severus tapped the parchment with her school record on it with his quill.  She was still reluctant.  All right.  Time to pull out his trump card.  He didn’t want to make her any promises per se, but he knew a little temptation went a long way.

“Miss Moon, what if I told you I may—and I do stress the word may—be able to get you an apprenticeship for the summer in Potions research…with Damocles Belby?” He sat back and watched her reaction, careful to keep his smirk in check.

“Damocles Belby?”

“Yes, Dam and I are old friends,” he said casually, enjoying the effect of his words. 

Really?  Wow!  I read two of his papers in the Periodical of Poisons.  He’s brilliant!  Do you really know him?  Oh,” Hester’s face fell.  “Doesn’t he live in Australia now?”

“Yes, in Sydney.  Why?” He frowned at her.

“It’s just that…it’s so far away from my family, sir.  I mean, culinary school is in France, but it’s within Apparating distance and you can still talk through the Floo network without spending a fortune on Floo powder.  It would be such an opportunity though…” Hester bit her lip.  “Is Belby still working on the Wolfsbane Potion?”

At the mention of the Wolfsbane’s Potion, Severus was reminded of the fact that he had to start brewing that very potion tomorrow…bloody Lupin.  He resisted the urge to rub his temples or perhaps throw one of his glass phials against the wall.  As if he didn’t have enough to do, now he’d have to check his storeroom and prep ingredients after an afternoon of student meetings.  He had fantasized many times about slipping an undetectable poison into Lupin’s goblet.  Too bad the Wolfsbane Potion was so sensitive; he couldn’t even spit in it unless he wanted to render it completely useless.  But given the choice between poisoning Lupin and disappointing Dumbledore, he would rather labor over a cauldron every day of the year than see those blue eyes look at him with anything less than kindness ever again.  A kindness he knew he barely deserved. 

“It would be an incredible opportunity, sir.  I-I’m very flattered that you think I could work with him.  I’m just not sure if I want a career in Potions,” she cringed as if expecting a tongue lashing to follow. 

Severus wondered why she was suddenly so afraid of him.  Students like Longbottom fearing him, he could understand, but Miss Moon?  He had never said a harsh word to her—well, not an excessively harsh one at any rate—since her first year when his impressions of her had been based on her imbecile older brother.  She had quickly set to work proving him wrong.  Over the next seven years, a mutual respect had grown between them and Severus was hurt to think that she still regarded him as someone to be afraid of after all these years. 

“Well, I can not guarantee that he will consent to take you.  Damocles is a bit eccentric and some find his methods…unorthodox.  I am not even certain that he will be around in the summer as he does travel quite frequently.  If he is agreeable to taking an apprentice, I strongly urge you to seize this opportunity, even if you do so only for the summer.”  

Hester seemed to be considering his advice.  She bit her lip and then without warning, blurted out, “How did you become interested in Potions, Professor Snape?”  She leaned forward, waiting for his answer.  

Severus blinked several times.  For the second time during their meeting, he was caught off-guard.  It was a simple enough inquiry, the sort of question one would expect from a friend rather than a student, and it was one of the most personal questions he had ever been asked.  She also seemed genuinely interested in hearing his answer. 

“Hmmm,” Severus chose his words carefully, the corner of his mouth twitching in a sort of smile.  He tapped one long, slender finger against his lips before answering.  “As you said earlier, Potions just made sense.  I have always found something very satisfying about the subject.  It requires subtle skill and there is quite a lot of room to improvise.  When I was younger, I never understood the merits of turning knives into mice and buttons into beetles with a wave of your wand.  All you were doing was temporarily switching one thing for another, but in Potions you could create something out of nothing.  If you are able to master potions, you could create luck, love, truth, power…the possibilities are endless.” 

Potions had been one of his best subjects in school, but he refrained from mentioning that he had excelled at—and much preferred Defense—and had hoped to make a career out of curses, not cauldrons, when he was young.  He knew what was whispered about his past in the Slytherin common room and he didn’t mind if the rumors continued, albeit at a low volume, if it meant his students had a healthy respect for his authority. 

“And,” he continued, “I am sure you are aware of the restrictions on underage magic.”  He looked sternly at her.  The Moons were an old wizarding family and Hester knew very well what he was talking about.  She nodded promptly. 

“Well, the Ministry only tracks underage magic done with a wand.  They are quite incapable of tracing potion attempts, unless of course, something goes horribly wrong.”  He paused.  The corner of his mouth began twitching and he gave her a brief smile.  “And I was very careful to ensure that no accidents occurred.  It certainly helped alleviate boredom over the summers.” 

Hester looked positively delighted and began giggling.  She clamped her hands to her mouth and quickly got herself under control.  Severus watched her for a minute, amused.  Lily had been the only person who ever really understood his jokes.  It was almost…fun having someone else laugh with him instead of at him.  The whole school had been snickering behind his back since term began.  Bloody Lupin.  Just this morning two Hufflepuff third years had earned themselves a week of detention after he had caught them passing a note in class that featured an illustration of him in a frilly sort of dress complete with earrings, a handbag and high heels.  It was just like how it was back in school, James Potter and his little fan club mocking him.  Well now the joke was on Lupin because at the end of the day he was still a werewolf.  Potter and Pettigrew were dead and Black was going to be worse than dead once the Dementors caught him.  That thought cheered Severus up slightly.

Hester eyed him with new respect, her cheeks still flushed from her small fit of hilarity and a bright smile on her face.  She leaned forward ready to hang on his every word.  He had been right, using a bit of personal information to get her to trust him—and he trusted that she wouldn’t run off to share this bit of gossip with her girlfriends.

“Now, may I ask you a question?  Why are you interested in cooking?” Severus linked his hands together and waited for a reply.  She had her answer ready immediately.

“I always liked baking with my mum.  It’s like you said about Potions…creating something extraordinary out of something ordinary.  We used to make Christmas biscuits together when I was a girl and after a while, I began helping her around the kitchen more and more.  It was nice, all warm and cozy, and just the two of us.  And I think I’m good at it.  Mum would let me cook dinner when I was home for Christmas and summer holidays and everyone seemed to like what I made.  Well, my dad and brother will pretty much eat anything that doesn’t eat them first.”  She grinned and shrugged.  “It’s something…good.  It makes people happy and people do need to eat.  My father says it’s an occupation where you can always find a job.   Healers and robe makers too, because people are always going to get sick and they need to wear clothes.  Undertakers also never go out of business,” she added after a pause.  

“Indeed,” he nodded with the faintest trace of a smile. 

“And,” she continued, a bit more firmly.  “I want to own my own restaurant.  Arithmancy will help me with business forecasts.  It’d be nice to have my own business, be my own boss.  I’d start out as an apprentice after culinary school, work at one of the nicer restaurants, like the Golden Goblet or La Mer for a few years and build up a following before opening my own place.  Or at the very least, start off with my own bakery and do a bit of catering for weddings and such before opening my own restaurant.  It’d be a lot of work, but I don’t mind that.  But I might like research, too.  I don’t know.”  She gave a quick shrug and looked to him for advice.

Severus frowned and nodded.  She had put more thought into this than he had expected.  When she had first mentioned cooking school he had visions of his prized Potions student spending the rest of her life peeling potatoes and frying fish fillets in some dingy tavern like the Three Broomsticks or the Leaky Cauldron.

“Very well, Miss Moon.  I will owl Damocles over the Christmas holidays and see how he feels about a possible apprentice.  In the meantime, study hard for your N.E.W.T.s and work on your marks in Transfiguration.  You are dismissed.  Please send in Mr. Mounce on your way out.” He nodded at her to let her know their meeting was over.

“Thank you, Professor Snape.  I really do appreciate your help and you going through so much trouble to get me an apprenticeship.” Hester said this to his desk before peering shyly up at him.  Severus heard the gratitude in her voice and he felt his muscles suddenly relax, like he had just realized that he had been clenching them. 

Hester got up and gave him a bright smile before bounding out the door.  Severus watched her go, pleased with himself.  At least one of his students listened to reason.  He began looking over the record for his next appointment.  He groaned softly.  At least he was almost through with the M’s.

“So, Mr. Mounce,” Severus began as the next student came in.  “You mention here that you want to be an Auror…”

***

Severus finished rinsing out the silver cauldron.  The water from the gargoyle spout flowed across his hands, cool and fluid.  He stared at the effect for a minute, the water streaming over his knuckles, rippling the flesh beneath.  The paths of his veins wound over the backs of his hands like a mariner’s map.  The cadence of the water splashing against the sink lulled him into thought.  Hester Moon had come to his office after the Christmas holidays and announced that she wouldn’t be taking the internship that he went through so much trouble to obtain for her.  Her brilliant plan was to work at the Three Broomsticks for a year and then go to culinary school.  She even had the nerve to ask him for a recommendation!  After today’s class in which she produced a perfect antidote to Red Pixie Fever he wanted to tell her that his recommendation was to abandon this cooking nonsense and follow her true talents.  But no one ever listened to him.  Not his students, not Dumbledore…

The water gurgled down the drain; the loud sucking sound snapped him out of his nearly hypnotized state. 

Lupin.  That damned werewolf.  It was bad enough he was back, bad enough he had to see him at staff meetings every month and at meals.  But this, this!  Spending a week every single month bent over a cauldron like a common apothecary was intolerable.  At least the year was nearly over.  Severus had already informed Dumbledore that he had plans for the summer holidays and Lupin had bloody well find another source for his monthly potion.

He gave his head a violent shake and snapped the water off.  With a bang, the cauldron hit the stone counter near the sink.  A quick Drying Charm and then the silver cauldron was put away for another month.   

Severus was locking his supply closet shut when he heard a knock.  Before he could answer, the door, which he had left partially ajar because of the potion’s fumes, swung open all the way.

“Severus?” 

Lupin.”  The name came out through clenched teeth.  “I don’t believe I invited you in.  Pity you aren’t a vampire.  Perhaps then you’d be forced to display some manners.” 

Lupin’s face betrayed no evidence that he had heard Severus’s comment.  “I was down here and thought I’d save you the trip to my office.”  He flashed a pleasant smile as if he frequently visited the dungeons to chat.

“How very considerate of you.”  Severus stalked across his office and picked up the smoking goblet.  He thrust it at Lupin without another word and crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Lupin to drink it and be gone.  But to his annoyance, Lupin did not immediately gulp down the potion. 

“Thank you, Severus.  I do appreciate you making this for me.” 

“Thank the Headmaster.  It was his idea.”  The tone of Severus’s voice left no doubt as to what his opinion was on the matter.

“Severus,” Lupin began in that maddeningly calm, low tone of his.  He faltered and looked down at the smoke swirling up from the goblet.  “I know we shall never be the best of mates, going for pints at the Three Broomsticks and such, but I do want you to know that you’re a brilliant Potions master and I respect you as a colleague.  And if we are going to continue teaching here in the years to come, I hope that we could put aside old hostilities and treat each other with professional courtesy.”  He looked up with a hopeful smile and shifted the goblet to his left hand, tentatively stretching out the right.

The vein at Severus’s temple began to throb and a wave of red seems to flash across his vision.  “I suppose ‘professional courtesy’ has been the reason the entire school has been laughing behind my back since September?” he snarled.

Lupin pulled his hand back and had the good sense to look slightly ashamed before saying, “You’re quite skilled at Defense, Severus.  You of all people should know that the only way to banish a boggart is to force it to transform into something humorous.  I was only trying to help Neville overcome his fears.”

“Oh, so you were just helping Longbottom?  How noble.  I suppose if I’m his boggart then that makes you his Patronus?”

“No,” Lupin replied, growing more indignant as he continued.  “But I was a little surprised to see that what Neville Longbottom fears most in this world is you.  A teacher.  Someone charged with looking out for his well-being.  After all that’s happened to that poor boy, of all the things—and people—in the world that he could be frightened of, the shape his boggart took was you.  You are his boggart.”  Lupin seemed to pronounce every letter, letting that word sink in. 

Remus Lupin, patron saint of lost causes.”  Severus retorted with a sneer.  “I wasn’t aware that you were the type to speak up in defense of someone else.  Forgive me my misconceptions.”

The two of them locked gazes.  Hatred was etched on one face, sadness and regret on the other.  Linked together by an untoward intimacy, there was no distinguishing past from present from future.  The silence continued to stretch as the two men stared at each other across the dungeon, across the years.

Finally, Severus spoke.  “Shouldn’t you be getting to your office, Lupin?” he said, icicles hanging off every syllable.  “It’ll be moonrise soon.  You wouldn’t want to accidentally kill one of the children.  Unless Potter Jr. happens to pull off some suspiciously miraculous last minute heroics, like his thankfully deceased father.” 

Lupin’s body went rigid and a veil seemed to drop over his face.  He braced himself before draining the goblet and setting it down on a bench top.   

“Severus,” Lupin nodded at him and walked stiff-legged out of the dungeon. 

The door was barely shut before the ringing of metal colliding against wood echoed throughout the dungeon.

***

Two days before Christmas a package arrived for him.  Lily had been only one who ever sent him Christmas presents and that had been a long, long time ago.  He remembered his fifth year, the last year he had received a present from her.  Before everything had gone so horribly wrong.  Lupin’s fault, again.  If Black hadn’t played that trick…if Potter hadn’t pulled off that “rescue” attempt in order to impress her…Severus knew it had been a set-up from the start.  Those feelings of anger simmered all year—anger at Potter and his gang for playing him for a fool, anger at Lily for falling for it.  Everything had come to a boil after their O.W.L.s and everything had ended with him calling Lily that awful word.  Mudblood. 

Their last real conversation was that night outside of Gryffindor Tower.  He remembered her voice, heavy with sorrow.  “I know you Severus.  I know you—but I don’t think I will ever understand you.  You are capable of such kindness…but there is a cruelty to you that I just can’t reckon with.”  Severus remembered just how her face shimmered in the moonlight as she looked at him and shook her head as if he was a lost cause. 

And then she climbed back through the portrait, back to Gryffindor, back to Potter.  Six months later, it was the first Christmas since he was eleven that he didn’t receive a present from her.  And Severus knew then, knew without a trace of uncertainty that he had lost her forever.    

Now here it was, nearly twenty years later and a mysterious package had arrived for him at Christmas time.  The postage was local.  Who did he know in the village to warrant a package from them?  The bloody robes from Gladrags had already arrived for that damned Yule Ball and he wasn’t expecting a delivery of supplies or books.  Maybe it was a prank—or something more sinister. 

He moved his wand over the package to check for curses and hexes and finding none, he gingerly picked it up and studied the return address more closely: H.M., 42 High Street, Hogsmeade.  HM…HM…Miss Moon?  He had seen her last month at the first task.  They had spoken briefly at dinner.  Why had she sent a package?  

Puzzled, he tugged at the brown paper and tore off a piece.  The sound of ripping paper echoed through the dungeon.  After a bit more crumpling and cracking, he found himself staring at a green tartan tin with a card attached.  Feeling that someone was playing a prank on him, he glanced around before opening the card.

Dear Professor Snape,

It was very nice seeing you last month at the first task.  It must be so exciting at Hogwarts with the Tournament taking place!  Thank you again for writing my letter of recommendation to culinary school.  They received it last week and are processing my application.  I’ll know by March if I get in.  Things are going very well at the Three Broomsticks.  Madam Rosmerta is a great boss and I’m getting some practice at cooking.  Please come by for dinner sometime!  Have a Happy Christmas.

Sincerely,

Hester Moon

P.S.  These are the holiday biscuits I told you about.  I hope you enjoy them!

A student sending him a thank you note—and biscuits?  A sudden urge came over him to go to the nearest window and check to see if any members of the porcine family had sprouted wings and were now flying about.

He lifted the cover of the tin.  There was a pause, and then the warm smells of vanilla, nutmeg, rum, cinnamon and butter began permeating the dungeon, displacing the stale, closed air.  A charm appeared to be in place so the biscuits did not crumble and smear against one another. 

He took inventory of his gift.  Delicate lacy snowflakes covered in powdered sugar, rum balls as big as Gobstones, some covered in chopped nuts, several slices of fruitcake with large chunks of pineapple and cherry glinting like jewels, and shortbread biscuits in the shapes of bells, holly, reindeer, and stars all decorated with a careful hand.

He was turning over one that was in the shape of Father Christmas when the door to the dungeon flew open.  Hastily, he dropped the biscuit back into the tin and shoved the tin inside a desk drawer.  He was greeted with the unpleasant sight of Igor Karkaroff striding up to him.  Igor stopped in front of his desk and Severus rose so the two men were eye to eye.

“Haven’t you heard of knocking?” Severus snapped.  “We do live in a civilized society.”

“Not for long,” Igor muttered.  “Severus, we have to talk.  You’re starting to feel it too, aren’t you?”  Igor’s voice was low and shaky.  “Do you think…?”  Against his will, Severus’s eyes flickered to his left arm. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Severus lied, hoping Igor would let the subject drop. 

“Yes, you do, Severus and-”

“Igor, I am a very busy man and have no time for a social call.  You may be on holiday here, but I-” he gestured to the stack of parchment on his desk, “have work to do.  You will excuse me if I do not see you to the door.”  He nodded and sat back down. 

But Igor didn’t see himself to the door.  He remained where he was and began twirling his goatee.  After a moment, he started up a new thread of conversation.

“So…are you going to that Christmas party at the village tavern tonight?”   

“No.  I see enough of the staff as it is and there is no one in town I care to see.”  Severus picked up a quill and pulled an essay toward him, hoping Igor would get the hint.  Igor remained standing over his desk. 

“That tavern owner is something else, isn’t she?  Think she’ll give me a kiss under the mistletoe?”  Igor smiled unpleasantly and chuckled.  Severus felt his stomach fold inside out.  One didn’t have to be a Legilimens to read the thoughts going on in Igor’s head.  He hoped Hester had left the tavern for the holidays.

“Igor,” Severus drawled, his eyes still on the essay, “I would highly advise you against doing anything that would piss off Madam Rosmerta.  Hagrid is quite smitten with her and unless you would like to have your arms ripped off, leave her alone.”

Karkaroff made a low snort of dismissal.  “That big oaf is too busy mooning over that French oaf.  I could use a few drinks and some fun, couldn’t you?  Maybe we could talk after.”  His tone was heavy with suggestion and Severus knew exactly what topic of conversation Igor wanted to discuss.

Severus merely shrugged in response.  “Well, when you have to hold your wand between your teeth, don’t say that I failed to give you sufficient warning.”  He looked pointedly at Igor, then to the door before turning his eyes back to the essay

“Yes,” Karkaroff frowned, absentmindedly rubbing his left forearm before getting a hold of himself.  “Maybe losing an arm wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” he muttered before turning and exiting the dungeon in a swirl of black. 

Severus listened to his fading footsteps, a blanket of nausea settling over his middle.  He was unaware that his right hand had begun rubbing his left forearm.  Igor was a foolish man, always had been.  And he had some nerve, pretending that they were old friends.  Severus was itching to call Karkaroff on the fact that Karkaroff had named him to the list of Death Eaters during his Wizengamot trial.  In fact, Severus half-hoped Karkaroff would do something stupid around Madam Rosmerta, just so he would get what was coming to him.  Rosmerta was a mediocre witch at best, but after years of dealing with rowdy warlocks she did have quite a few nasty spells up her sleeve.  However, she wasn’t as bad as Miss Maddie who, rumor had it, turned disagreeable patrons into frogs and then displayed them in jars behind the bar at Lorelei’s Layer. 

He looked down at his arms.  Wrenching his right arm away from his left, he tried to ignore the faint burning sensation under his skin.

A jar in a tavern, he thought, might soon be the only safe place for me. 

***

The wind whipped at his cloak as he strode through the castle’s gates.  He walked past his normal stopping place, the first Apparation point outside the perimeter of the castle, and continued following the dirt path to Hogsmeade.  Above him, the sky transitioned from day to night, the brilliant reds and oranges of sunset yielding to the soft violets and blues of night. 

For the hundredth time he wondered if he was being foolish.  This errand was something that could be handled quite capably by a school owl.  No.  He was not going to do this by owl.  That stubborn part of him prevented him from breaking stride.  He would make the delivery in person.  He wanted to watch her expression when she opened it.  To see her beam at him so he could verify with his own eyes that he was capable of doing something right, something good.  Between nearly a year under Moody’s suspicious gaze and Lupin’s boggart remarks last year, Severus was eager to prove both of them wrong.  The errand he was on tonight would attest to the fact that he wasn’t some sort of monster.  He let out an impatient huff before clenching his jaw.  Was he completely incapable of making a single gesture that wasn’t totally rooted in selfishness? 

After a brisk half-hour’s walk, he reached the Three Broomsticks.  He pulled the tavern door open.  A quick look told him that the tavern was nearly empty.  He didn’t see Hester; perhaps she was in the kitchen. 

Madam Rosmerta came over to him when he had opened the door.  A smile played on her lips, a dreamy look in her eye.  He expression flickered when she saw who it was before she fixed a polite, welcoming smile back on her face.  Obviously she had been expecting someone else.  Severus was used to that look of disappointment he elicited.  He crossed his arms and waited, his dark eyes hard.

“Pro-Professor Snape, what a lovely surprise,” she said graciously. 

A low snort escaped from the back of his throat.  He was sure she meant the surprise part; he doubted the lovely bit was sincere.  “Is Miss Moon here?” he asked, getting immediately to the point. 

“Hester went home to the Porters’ for a little bit.  She should be back shortly.  Can I get you something while you wait?”

Damn!  I should have just sent the stupid owl.  “No, thank you.” He crossed his hands over his chest.   “When exactly will Miss Moon be back?  I do not have time to linger.”  Let’s just get this over with. 

He kept his cold gaze on the proprietress.  Instead of cowering, she seemed downright amused, biting back her giggles like a fourth year.  How dare she laugh at him!  That woman was nothing more than a provincial tart while he was a Hogwarts professor—Head of Slytherin House no less!  He was a respected Potions expert, a brilliant researcher, a skilled Legilimens, and someone more deadly than she would ever know…and she had the audacity to laugh at him! 

“I believe Hester will be back here in about ten minutes.  Please, have a seat while you wait.”  Madam Rosmerta gestured to a chair, her blue eyes twinkling. 

He ignored her and continued to stand.  Madam Rosmerta gave him a small nod and began moving about the tavern, straightening chairs and gathering up stray mugs and plates speckled with food.  She hummed the entire time and seemed to be in disgustingly good cheer.

A few minutes later the door to the tavern opened again.  Severus turned his head to see a man about twenty years older than himself politely indicating that Miss Moon should enter the tavern first.  The image of Gilderoy Lockhart and his flamboyant doorway gesturing whenever any of the female staff members—or the more attractive sixth and seventh year girls—were around popped into Severus’s head.  This man didn’t look quite as foppish as Lockhart, but he was good-looking and he knew it.  Without realizing it, Severus found that he was scowling.

The wind whipped fiercely, drawing the hem of Hester’s robes to almost her knees and sending her hair into a tornado of brown around her face. 

“Professor Snape!” Hester’s face lit up as she stopped halfway into the tavern.  Her hair flopped back into place and her cheeks and nose were pink.  “What are you doing here?”

Unlike Madam Rosmerta, Hester seemed to find his surprise visit a genuinely pleasant one.  He couldn’t believe that someone was happy to see him for no other reason than because it was him.  At best, people tolerated his presence, acted polite because they had to.  No, that wasn’t entirely true.  He could remember a time when someone else’s face brightened at the sight of him.  That someone would wait in their special place in the woods near Spinner’s End.  Sometimes, when she was younger, she’d hide behind a tree or bush, and then launch herself at him in a surprise attack, a tangle of arms and long flaming red hair.  He would indulge in allowing himself to be embraced briefly, keeping his hands at his side by no small strength of will, before pushing her away, embarrassed and uncomfortable with the strange sensation of being touched.  He wished he had hugged her more often. 

“May I speak to you for a few moments, Miss Moon?  There is something I need to discuss with you.”

“Sure,” Hester said, taking off her cloak.  “Oh!  Professor Snape, this is Mr. Hopper; he’s a fellow Silver Serpent!”

Severus almost smiled.  Hester always had a lot of pride in her House, imparting an infectious school spirit to her housemates.  It was one of the reasons he had made her a prefect. 

“Ah, yes.  The new Potions Master.  You replaced OlSluggy.  A pleasure,” Mr. Hopper said, extending his hand.  Severus shook it reluctantly. 

“Hester has told me so much about you.  Seven years in row for the Cup, how about that!”  A strong hand forcefully contacted with Severus’s back, sending him stumbling.  Severus straightened up and gave him a begrudging smile. 

“Max, would you…help me in the kitchen?” Madam Rosmerta said in a rather sultry voice.  “I need a second opinion on tonight’s…dessert.”  Severus watched Madam Rosmerta bat her eyes at Hopper before slowly turning around and strutting to the kitchen, her hips swinging like a wanton pendulum.   

“Professor Snape.”  Mr. Hopper tipped his hat politely to him, but his eyes were focused on a place that was nowhere near Severus’s face.  Severus bit back a comment as he watched this Mr. Hopper trip over himself as he followed Madam Rosmerta into the kitchen like a dog after a bone. 

“How are you, sir?  Are you staying for dinner?” Hester grinned at him and clasped her hands together

Dinner?  After watching that little display his appetite was certainly quashed.  And Severus did not want to even contemplate what was currently happening in that kitchen.  He thought he heard a faint giggle.  Appalling!  What sort of example was that woman setting for an impressionable young girl?

“No, Miss Moon.  May we sit down?”

“Sure!” Hester’s eyes darted left and right until she saw a clean table.  She pulled out a chair and plunked herself into it.  Severus slowly lowered himself into a sitting position across from her and glanced at the wooden tabletop. 

“I received your letter and the accompanying biscuits.  Congratulations on your acceptance to culinary school.  And a scholarship no less.  Well done.” He nodded at her. 

Hester pursed her lips together to avoid a gloating smile from spreading over her face.  She looked modestly at her hands in her lap.  “Thank you, sir.  I’m really looking forward to going to France!  I’ve been talking to one of the Beauxbatons students and Madam Rosmerta had been trying to teach me some French.” 

Severus nodded again, feeling quite stupid.  How did one go about doing this?  Plunging his hand into his cloak pocket, he pulled out the long wooden box and card.  He pushed them across the table without saying a word.  Hester looked at them and then back at him.  He drummed his fingers on the table and gave her an impatient look that clearly told her to hurry up and get on with it.   

“For me?”

“Yes.  Open it.”  He folded his arms across his chest and gave her a curt nod, although for some strange reason he found that he was nervous.  Should he have wrapped it first?  What if she didn’t like it?  Severus pressed his lips together.  Well, she had better like it; it was a gift, wasn’t it? 

Hester cautiously pulled the box a few inches closer to her.  She glanced at him again to make sure it was all right and then flipped back the hinges of the mahogany box as if expecting a ghoul to pop out.  She gasped and spent some moments sputtering and stammering with amazement and Severus knew he had made the right decision in delivering the gift in person.  While he did enjoy watching her girlish enthusiasm, he hoped she would remember to keep her head.  It wouldn’t do to have her do something silly…like throw her arms around him, or perhaps even peck him on the cheek…although given the trouble he went through, he felt a rather showy display of gratitude was warranted.

Hester picked up her gift, a small ladle made of pure silver, goblin-made.  Her eyes and mouth were wide open.  “Oh, it’s so beautiful.  What is it?”  Her voice was full of awe and the silver from the handle reflected a shiny patch of light onto her cheek.

“It’s a…replica of a tasting ladle.  If you remember from my lecture on the history of potions, in ancient times there were official tasters who drank a bit of the potions served to royalty and other important people to test for poisons.  They used special ladles to do so.  Not that I expect your cooking to kill anyone,” he arched his eyebrows to let her know that he was joking. 

He had lied about the replica part.  The ladle was from the sixteenth century and had been used by Italian nobles.  He had made a rare foray to Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley last week.  When he stepped out of the shop and prepared to Apparate, a glint of silver caught his eye.  Across the street in the window of Biddle-Brattle’s, a store that sold over-priced jewelry and other useless luxury items, was this silver ladle on a swatch of black velvet, like a single star in the night sky. 

He looked at the ladle, wondering what type of person would be so inclined to spend good gold on such a foolish trinket.  He turned to go, but then the image of the ladle flashed in his mind and for some reason he thought of soup, and thinking about soup made him remember that he had received a letter from Hester that day, complete with another batch of biscuits, telling him of her admittance to culinary school and the scholarship.  And in that moment he was seized with a powerful need to do something, to express what he wished somebody had expressed for his talents so long ago without expecting something from him in return.  He had to make sure that Hester knew that someone out there was proud of her.  Other than his students, there were no children in his life.  No nieces or daughters or godchildren and there most likely would never be one.  In that instance, he was keenly aware of that void—and keenly aware of the fact that he missed having Hester in his classes.  It would be a long time before another student like Hester Moon crossed his path.

Before he could change his mind, he was in Biddle-Brattle’s arranging to have a large amount of gold transferred out of his Gringott’s account.  He didn’t want Hester to know how much he had spent on it.  A gift from him was unusual enough.  If Hester’s father, who worked for the Museums of Magic, asked any questions, he could pretend that it was a rare find; that the proprietor of the store didn’t know the magnitude of what he was selling.

“I can’t believe you gave this me!  I don’t know what to say…Oh, thank you, Professor Snape!”  She beamed at him and hesitated for just the merest fraction of a second before flying across the table.  She squeezed him tightly around the shoulders and before Severus could wrap his mind around the idea of someone touching him, she was back in her seat.  A few men playing chess in the corner turned to look at them.  Severus nodded in response, his face expressionless.  He didn’t want to give the villagers any more cause for gossip.

“I can’t believe I’ll be in France in just a few months!  We’ve never even been there on holiday.”  At the mention of her going abroad, Severus remembered that there was another reason he had come to the tavern in person.

“Miss Moon, I understand that you are excited about France, but there is a concern I must speak to you about.  What I am about to tell is of the utmost seriousness,” his eyes bore into her and he saw the flush in her cheeks disappear.  She stopped admiring her gift and stared at him, her brown eyes wide.

“Miss Moon, there is some political…unrest brewing in the wizarding world.  I am not at liberty to say what exactly, but I do think it may be in your best interest if you delayed your admission by a year.”

“What sort of unrest?  Not You-Know-Who?”  Her face turned the color of fresh milk, the few freckles on her cheeks becoming very apparent.    

Should he tell her?  She was mature enough to handle the truth, but he didn’t have truth right now.  All he had were speculation, disconcerting coincidences, and a slight burning sensation on his left arm that grew stronger every day.  It wasn’t exactly proof, but it was enough to have him—and Albus—worried.  And he would never forgive himself if anything happened to one of his students because he kept silent. 

“Miss Moon, there are other Dark Wizards in the world besides the Dark Lord.  I am not at liberty to say what exactly is going on, or what might occur.  This entire situation may just be a bunch of brouhaha, but I urge you to consider waiting a year to see what develops.” 

She shrank back slightly, but was brave enough to keep her eyes on his.  He noticed that her breathing had become much more rapid and she trembled slightly.  He relaxed his stare and pulled away slightly.  The petty thrill he normally got out of frightening students was inappropriate here and a brief flash of shame stabbed at his heart.  How many times had he referred to Lupin as a monster, when all the while people drew back from him in fear and loathing as they would from a known werewolf?  What did that make him?  Unwilling to answer that question, he squelched those thoughts and feelings and prepared to leave.

“I’ll-I’ll think about it, sir.”

“Good.”  Severus nodded and stood up.  Hester did the same.  “I must be on my way back to the castle-”

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay for dinner?  Madam Rosmerta is letting me cook all by myself now and I made tonight’s stew—split pea and ham.  I’m sure she’ll let me cook anything you want for dinner, even if it’s not on the menu.  And I made dessert!  You really should try some!  I can give you a plate to take back if you can’t stay.  Madam Rosmerta won’t mind.”   

A very unpleasant image of what was currently going on amidst the pots and pans flashed into his mind.  He would be damned if he ate anything from that kitchen ever again.  He shook his head and a greasy lock of hair flopped across his forehead.  He tucked it back behind his ear with much annoyance.  

“Unfortunately, I can not stay tonight, Miss Moon.  And I still have those biscuits you sent, so no more dessert for me.” 

He hadn’t the heart to tell her that he didn’t care for sweets very much and had groaned when the second batch of biscuits came so shortly after he had finished the ones she had owled him for Christmas.  Every night with his evening tea, he forced himself to eat one or two biscuits and he was becoming quite sick of them.  He knew he was being silly, but she made those biscuits especially for him and he didn’t want to get rid of them in one fell swoop at a staff meeting where they would be gobbled down without receiving the appreciation they deserved.

“All right.” Hester gave him one of her infinitely sweet smiles.

Severus moved to the door and Hester followed him, chatting.  “It was really wonderful seeing you again, sir.  I won’t be able to make it back to the castle for the Third Task—Madam Rosmerta is going to need me that night—but I hope Hogwarts wins!  I’ll say good-bye before I leave for the summer, and I’ll think about what you said about France.  Thank you so much for my gift.  That was incredibly nice of you.”

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Moon.”  Severus gave her a smile of his own.  It was a rare smile, containing no hints of sarcasm, wryness, or malice, but just the barest sincerity he was surprised he was capable of sometimes.  He placed his hand on the metal door handle and prepared to open it when Hester spoke one last time.

“You know, Professor Snape, you were the best teacher I’ve ever had.  I mean it.  When I open my restaurant, I want you to be one of the first people there!”

It felt as if his heart had been replaced by some sort of cheerful, levitating object.  “The best teacher I’ve ever had.”  Me?   Severus looked down at his former student’s smiling face and knew she did mean those words.  He could count on one hand the events in his life that he was proud of.  Miss Moon had made it so that now the counting would require two. 

“Well, Miss Moon, you were one of the best students I have ever had.  Good luck with all of your future endeavors.  And…take care of yourself.” He took his hand off the handle and held it out for her to shake.  She grasped it without hesitation and Severus again felt a shock go through him as he realized how long it had been since he had had physical contact with another human being. 

“Thank you, sir!  And do come visit again!” 

He opened the door and braced himself against the bitter March wind.  His cloak flapped around him and he stepped out of the warm and glowing tavern into the early evening air.  Hester waved at him before a gust of wind sent her hair whirling and she quickly shut the door.

He was tempted to Apparate, save himself a good twenty to thirty minutes, but there was something about the night’s coldness that he needed. 

***

Albus Dumbledore smoothed his beard as he extracted the parchment from the blueberry pie Madam Rosmerta had sent him.  He cut himself a piece of pie and read over her note:

Dear Professor Dumbledore,

You asked me to keep you informed of any news that I might hear at the Three Broomsticks.  Something peculiar did happen the other day—Professor Snape stopped by.  That in and of itself is odd, but he said something to my waitress, Hester Moon, that stood out.  He was concerned about her going to France next year for culinary school and he mentioned that it might be a good idea for her to delay her application for a year.  He told her there was a “political situation” brewing, but he wouldn’t give her the details.  I’m sure Professor Snape has already spoken to you about what this political situation could be, but I thought I’d inform you that he’s made us aware that something is going on.  In addition to his visit, Professor Snape also gave Hester a very expensive gift, a sixteenth century silver ladle. Quite an exquisite piece, although Hester said it was a “replica.”  Please forgive me if I seem to imply that Professor Snape has done anything inappropriate with Hester.  That is not my intention at all.  It just struck me as unusual and I thought you should know about it.  Other than that, life in our little village is well.  I do hope you’ll be able to come for a drink and relax once this Tournament is over.

Sincerely,

Rosmerta

 A knock sounded on his study door.  “Come in,” Dumbledore said.

“You wanted to see me, Headmaster?”  Severus slunk into the room and stood in front of Dumbledore’s desk, arms folded. 

“Have a seat, Severus.  Would you like some pie?  Madam Rosmerta is quite a cook.”

Severus shook his head, his heart sinking.  Had that tavern slut said something about his visit?  Severus straightened up in his chair, ready to offer an argument about why this wasn’t anyone’s damn business.

“Madam Rosmerta told me about your gift to Miss Moon.  It’s all right, Severus,” Dumbledore added when he saw that Severus was about to open his mouth and speak.  “I understand Miss Moon was quite the Potions student.”

“Yes.  Unfortunately the same can not be said about her sister, Mary.”

Dumbledore chuckled and scooped up a forkful of pie.  “Yes, it is funny how talents do not always run in the family.  Look at Aberforth and me!  I am quite hopeless when it comes to mixing drinks and yet Aberforth makes the most wonderful screaming banshee daiquiris.  I believe the trick is to add just the right amounts of cream and firewhiskey.”  Dumbledore smiled and continued eating his pie.

“There are always those students who stand out in our memories long after they have left school.  I do envy you, Severus,” Dumbledore mused, ignoring the incredulous look he was getting from across his desk.  “It has been many years since I have been in a classroom and I do miss it, the thrill of seeing students grasp the knowledge you impart to them, however long that may take.  But,” Dumbledore leaned his elbows on the desk and looked at Severus over his half-moon spectacles, “every once in a while a most exceptional student will come along.  Not only are they academically gifted, but their character stands out as well.  When they do come along, they make you so proud and you are reminded of why you became a teacher in the first place.”  Dumbledore smiled at him and once again Severus felt a sense of self-respecting pride.  “It is a noble calling, is it not?”

“Yes,” Severus replied slowly.  “It certainly is.”

The dungeons were cool even though it was late summer.  It seemed as if he had barely left this place and now he was back.  Everything seemed to be the same.  The same dark, dank walls.  The way footsteps echoed longer and louder down here.  The way the quiet seemed to fall like a blanket, hushing your voice so that a whisper would suffice.  The faint odor of mildew and herbs still lingered.  It smelled like home.

“I am quite pleased that you decided to take this appointment, Severus,” Dumbledore said as they walked down the hall.  “I am sure it will be an interesting experience being on the other side of things,” he chuckled as he opened the door to a small office. 

“Welcome back to Hogwarts, Professor Snape.

//
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