The Sugar Quill
Author: Hecate (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Return  Chapter: Default
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We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

~ T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Chapter 1

Albus Dumbledore drummed his fingers on his desk blotter.

"So what is it you need to tell me, Oliver?" he asked the stooped wizard seated before him, even though Dumbledore could guess what his Potions master had come to say.

"I understand that youíre still shorthanded, Albus, but I really canít see my way to staying any longer," said Professor Graves. "I remained at my post through the war, as I said I would, but now that young Potter seems to have actually put paid to You-know-"

Dumbledore cleared his throat.

"To Voldemort," the professor continued, "I feel that I have met my stated obligations. I will, of course, carry on through the end of the year."

"Thatís very kind of you, Oliver," Dumbledore replied. "If there is anyone you would care to recommend for your post, Minerva and I would be most pleased to hear it."

"Of course, Headmaster," said Professor Graves replied."I shall consider the matter carefully. Good day." The wizard rose from the armchair opposite the Headmasterís desk, reached a steadying hand toward the rook that rested, as always, upon his shoulder, and turned to descend the moving staircase.

Dumbledore sighed. Gravesí was the third faculty resignation he had accepted since the winter holiday. The release of tension that had accompanied Voldemortís downfall and the subsequent roundup of the Death Eaters had begun to eat away at the Hogwarts teaching staff. Now that it appeared to be safe to leave the school, Graves was only the latest to want to return to what remained of his family and life beyond the grounds.

But neither Professor Noether, of the Arthimancy Department, nor Professor Benedict, who taught Muggle Studies, had been members of Slytherin House. For years, Graves had not only served as Head of Slytherin, but the Potions master had been the only Slytherin on the faculty. Madam Pince, it was true, had been in Slytherin during her school days, but she had abjured all connections to the Serpentís Den many years ago when she returned to Hogwarts to care for the library. And in any case, the rigidly strict librarian would never agree to any task that would remove her from the bays and alleys of her quiet domain.

There was nothing to it but that Dumbledore would have to replace at least one of his departing teachers with a Slytherin whom he could trust with the oversight of the Slytherin students, several of whom had seen their families disrupted and divided by the Ministry trials that followed Voldemortís mysterious departure. Not to mention a few of whom he suspected of still attempting to follow in the footsteps of their wayward parents.

"And you didnít try to talk him out of it?" Professor McGonagall asked glumly as she and Dumbledore headed back to the staff room after dinner that evening.

"What would be the point, Minerva?" replied the Headmaster. "Itís been clear for some time that Oliverís heart is no longer in the work. I would almost prefer to have no Slytherins among us than one who has ceased to observe even the most cursory changes in his chargesí behavior."

"Or to notice their intellectual accomplishments, or the lack thereof," Minvera wearily agreed. "The next lot of O.W.L. candidates arenít too bad, but the marks on last springís N.E.W.T.s in Potions were disgraceful, even considering the recent, er, distractions. Heís been letting the students slide much too easily, especially in the sixth and seventh year."

"Still," Dumbledore continued, "that does leave us with yet another vacancy to fill."

"I suppose we might look for an Arithmatician to fill the Slytherin Headship?" Minerva inquired.

"Only if you happen to have perfected transfiguring ravens into serpents. No, Minerva, I suspect that the pattern will hold true and that we will find that our new Potions instructor will be able to take on the responsibilities of Slytherin as a matter of course."

"Very well. Iíll send to the Prophet in the morning with another notice."

"Not just yet, I think," Dumbledore replied. "I have an idea."

McGonagall flinched inwardly, but she knew better than to ask.

*~*

Later that evening, Dumbledore returned to his office, fetched parchment and quill, and sat down to write.

It was, after all, a most complicated proposition. The candidate he had in mind was, for many reasons, an exceptionally unconventional choice.

That didn't stop Dumbledore from pursuing this solution to his problem.

Loading his quill with ink, he considered the obvious difficulty: his candidate was sure to decline any such offer of employment. In comparison, the candidate's age, temperament, and relative inexperience were mere bagatelles, unworthy of excessive thought in the present moment. Dumbledore had not reached his current position in life by dwelling on the irrelevant.

I have encountered a most unusual situation, one in which your advice would be much appreciated. I will come to see you at four o'clock on Thursday. If, as before, there is a library volume which would aid your current research, I would be pleased to bring it with me if you will send me a title by return owl.

Albus Dumbledore

Summoning a school owl, Dumbledore folded the parchment carefully and attached it to the bird's outstretched leg. "To Severus Snape," said the Headmaster. The barn owl flapped its wings twice and soared out of the window. On his perch by the fire, Fawkes keened softly. "You never know, my friend," said Dumbledore. "This might be just the thing. For all of us."

The barn owl returned the next morning just as Albus and Minerva were finishing breakfast. The parchment read:

Moste Potente Potions 153/37

"Most excellent," said Dumbledore, as he incinerated the parchment scrap over an empty saucer.

"Good news, Albus?"

"Potentially," the Headmaster replied. "Our new Potions master has agreed to an interview, although I must confess he is not yet fully aware of the scope of our discussion."

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "That was fast. Pray tell, who is this person?"

"Severus Snape."

The Deputy Headmistress set down her teacup with rather more force than she had intended. "Excuse me?"

"Severus Snape, Minerva."

"I heard you, Albus. But isnít he a bit . . . well, young for this sort of responsibility?"

Dumbledore chuckled. "Yes, of course he is. But think what a nice change it will make for the Slytherins, Minerva. They might actually even talk to him."

"I canít argue the fact that Graves hasnít spoken to his own students since 1973, Albus, but do you really think that Snape is a wise choice?"

"He was an excellent Potions student, Minerva, and he has continued his work in that field since he left us five years ago. Thatís why the Death Eaters kept him in the fold even after some of them surely began to suspect that his loyalties were not what they once were."

"And youíre convinced that those loyalties-"

"Yes, I am," Dumbledore insisted rather sternly. "As you should be. And I am afraid that those of Voldemortís followers who remain at large suspect as much, which is yet another reason to bring Severus here. He undertook enormous risks for us, Minerva. We owe him shelter, at the very least, and I would like to think that we could offer him a great deal more."

"But heíll know nothing about teaching, Albus."

"Niether did any of us, at one point or another. Iím sure I can count on you to assist him in that regard?"

Professor McGongall's customarily stoic mien slipped for just a moment.

"He was a very good student, Minerva," Dumbledore chided gently. "He will learn."

Why, Minerva mused, as she strode toward the Transfiguration classroom, must Albus always be coming up with schemes he feels are certain to improve my character? First things first, however. Having arrived at her classroom door, she straightened the collar of her emerald green robe and adjusting her glasses a bit further down her nose before entering to face the stares of the fourth year Hufflepuffs.

*~*

It being Thursday, she had only one free hour between breakfast and four o'clock and she found herself preoccupied even then with Sinistra's reports about a new variety of cheating charm that had surfaced in some Slytherin Astronomyessays. As the afternoon wore on, Minerva longed for the peace of her own sitting room, if only for a brief interval before dinner.

When she finally achieved her own rooms, she found Poppy already ensconced in front of the fire at one end of the long leather couch.

"Oh, Min!" Poppy exclaimed, "you look as if you've been wrestling dragons since lunchtime at the very least. Do come and sit down. Scotch?"

Minerva smiled. "You do know just what I like, don't you?"

"Of course I do," said Poppy, as she levitated a decanter and two glasses from the sideboard and brought them to rest on the table in front of her.

Minerva folded herself onto the couch and accepted her glass gratefully. Only after she had emptied it by about half did Poppy speak again.

"So what is it, Minerva? You've not become this exercised by chasing errant truants or preparing the term's exam lists, have you?"

"No, it's rather more complicated than that. Albus-"

"Humph, I might have known," Poppy muttered, "what has he done this time?"

"He's decided that he has the perfect replacement for Oliver Graves. He wants to hire a mere child both to teach Potions and to step in as Head of house for Slytherin. And won't I be oh so pleased to make sure this infant doesn't drown in his own ignorance?"

"Who is it, Min?"

"Severus Snape."

Poppy hooted. "Snape? That unctuous little git? Well, he's not exactly an infant, is he?" Poppy calculated for a moment. "He'd be what, twenty-three now?"

"Twenty-two," Minerva replied acidly, refilling her glass.

"Well, he did survive his own experiments with belladonna in fifth year-"

"Barely."

"No one was in hospital for more than a week-"

"Except for Ludtz."

"Except for Ludtz, but the mediwizards at St. Mungoís learned a great deal from that case, you have to admit-"

"No, I donít."

"Fine. Have it your way. Although," Poppy smiled somewhat wickedly, "I canít fathom why youíre getting all hot and bothered over some man."

~*~

On Thursday afternoon, Dumbledore stopped by the Restricted Section of the library to fetch Hogwartsí copy of Moste Potente Potions from Madam Pinceís heavily guarded shelves. As the book was a rare edition, the librarian was not eager to see it leave her premises in even the Headmasterís capable hands, but Dumbledore insisted, promising that he would return the volume both promptly and unscathed.

"After all, Headmaster, itís been stolen before, as youíll remember," Madam Pince recalled. "A nasty little Slytherin made off with it for three whole months a few years back and the house-elves had to practically dismantle the dungeons before I got it back."

"Never fear, Madam Pince," Dumbledore replied, patting the bookís mottled and stained green leather cover, "I wonít let him keep it this time. Good day." The Headmaster turned swiftly and headed for the door, leaving the speechless librarian in his wake.

Dumbledore Apparated in a rather dank alley that meandered behind a petrol station, a mouldy-looking greengrocerís, and three different pubs, each of which managed to appear Ė and smell -- a bit seedier than the one before. He walked down the alley until he reached an iron door set into the wall opposite the third pub and tapped it with his wand. The door disappeared, admitting Dumbledore into a small foyer lit by a bare 15-watt bulb. The next door had no handle at all.

Still not in the mood for company, are you, Severus? mused the Headmaster, smiling briefly. He removed Moste Potente Potions from one of his robesí copious pockets and opened the volume to page 157, which was the third page of a recipe for Draught of the Living Death. Dumbledore then counted thirty-seven words from the bottom of the page until he reached the word "pulverized," which he spoke aloud. The inner door opened with an unappetizing squeal, revealing a rather cramped and grungy flat within.

"Good afternoon, Severus," said Dumbledore, although Snape was not anywhere to be seen. "Iíve brought your book."

"Thank you, Headmaster," said a voice emanating from what looked to be a narrow kitchen off to the right. "Tea?" A tall young man, exceptionally thin, appeared bearing a tray loaded with a stained ironstone pot and two mugs, one of which was chipped.

"Please," the Headmaster replied, helping himself to a mug from the tray and glancing around the small sitting room as he took a seat. The fireplace was cold, and it had probably been many years since anyone had taken a paintbrush to the sooty wall above it. The only element that kept the flat from being completely devoid of personality was an ordered rank of books and notebooks on the small table under the window.

"You wrote that you wanted my advice?" Severus asked, somewhat hesitantly.

"Yes, indeed," Dumbledore replied. "But first tell me how youíve been keeping, Severus. I imagine that this recent bout of inactivity must seem rather odd, if welcome."

"This isnít the easiest place to work, but I have made some progress with that new class of antidotes OíHalloran stumbled upon last fall."

"And youíre still maintaining all of the old safeguards, I see."

"I thought it best. I probably wonít stay in this flat much longer, however. Itís become too habitual."

"Ah," said Dumbledore, slightly pleased. "Where will you go next?"

"I hadnít really thought about it," Snape replied. "I suppose it doesnít much matter."

"But it may, my friend. Iím afraid that this peripatetic life doesnít suit you, Severus. You neednít spend the rest of your days in hiding, you know."

"Iím not hiding," Severus snapped. "Iím just being . . . cautious."

"Caution has its place, but not at the expense of that which makes life worth living," Dumbledore remonstrated gently.

"And that would be?"

"Meaningful work, a comfortable home, the company of likeminded friends . . ."

Severus snorted.

"You came to ask my advice, Headmaster, not for me to ask yours."

Dumbledore smiled. "Iím afraid itís all one and the same, Severus. I have a favor to ask of you."

Snape looked wary. Couched in those terms, there was little he could bring himself to deny Dumbledore.

"Professor Graves will be leaving Hogwarts at the end of the year. Now that Voldemort has been removed from the field, Oliver is determined to return to what remains of his family. His grandchildren will need him, now."

Snape snorted again. "They needed him before. But Graves is a coward as well as a fool."

"Graves is human, Severus, as are we all," Dumbledore countered. "I know that you resented his inattention to your own progress at Hogwarts, both in Potions and in the affairs of Slytherin House, but that time has passed."

"And?"

"And I find myself with the need to replace Professor Graves with one who is both skilled in Potions and capable of giving the Slytherin students the direction they most sorely need."

"I see your problem, Headmaster." Snape thought for a moment. "Magda Romowski might be persuaded, although she never really mastered truth potions. . . . . There arenít many Slytherins who would welcome a place at Hogwarts at the moment."

"Iím not looking for recommendations, Severus. Iím offering you the job."

Snape looked as though the Headmaster had just flung a Stunning Spell at him from across the room.

"Me? You want me to come to Hogwarts?"

"Yes, thatís exactly what I want. Think of the possibilities, Severus. A laboratory. Support for your research. A hand in the future of your House. To my mind, you are the only suitable candidate and I would very much like you to accept."

"But Iíve never even considered teaching, Headmaster. I . . . I wouldnít even know how to begin."

"You are an excellent student, Severus," Dumbledore replied. "You will learn to teach as you have learned many other things." The Headmaster grinned in a most disconcerting way. "And I am sure that Professor McGonagall will be only too pleased to assist as you gain your bearings."

"There are many members of Slytherin House . . . students . . . parents . . . who will object to such an appointment," he added guardedly.

"There may be some protests, but I cannot imagine that they will be too strenuous in the current environment. I could, after all, place Slytherin in other hands entirely." Dumbledore paused for a moment, as if to consider his options. "Professor Sinistra might be persuaded to take on the additional responsibility." Snape shuddered at the thought of the Astronomy teacher exploring the reaches of the Serpentís Den.

"I think," Dumbledore continued, "you will find that the current members of Slytherin have a great deal to learn from you beyond the techniques of the Potions laboratory."

"Such as?"

The Headmaster became uncharacteristically grave. "Our charges must learn many things, Severus. Including the importance of making the right decision even when it seems certain that the moment for deciding has passed."

Snape had no reply to this statement. And as he had known from the beginning, there was only one response to the Headmasterís request.

"When would you like me to begin?"

Dumbledore smiled.

//
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