Young Wei was confused.
Detention was supposed to be a punishment. Instead, she wished that it would never end. She was sitting behind Headmaster Dumbledore’s own desk, in the Headmaster’s chair magically made taller to accommodate her short stature. The glass bowl of sweets by her elbow completely forgotten, she was doing what she loved most in the world: writing a free essay. The headmaster had assigned her the subject “Meditation on a Phoenix Feather”. An actual phoenix feather, a tiny one, from Fawkes’ throat, was magically attached to the desktop next to the inkwell. For inspiration, the Headmaster had said.
“Meditation on a Phoenix Feather”, she had mused. “What does it mean?”
And the Headmaster had replied: “I’m not quite sure. Whatever it means to you. Make it mean something. Or, even better, think of something that Fawkes would enjoy.”
The big golden bird on the perch next to the desk had tilted his head at her and made some gentle, agreeable clucking sounds.
It was the strangest school task she had ever received, and the most enjoyable one. The essay was rapidly growing to resemble the ones that she spent most of her free time writing in her large, spell-locked book. No ordinary girlish diary for her: she filled the book with poems, invented stories, reflections about life, about growing up, about how it was possible to know whether anything in the world existed at all…
The Headmaster’s quill glided, silky smooth, over the thick parchment, and the feeling brought her back into focus on the essay.
Headmaster Dumbledore, his hands clasped behind his back, paced the thick, soft rug down the steps from his desk. His presence or movements did not seem to disturb the fourteen-year-old serving her detention at the desk.
He knew very well that Wei was being bullied. Her plain physical appearance, combined with a brilliant intellect beyond her years, and with a directness and bravery to match any boy’s, excluded her from all the usual pupils’ constellations. She had no interest whatsoever in fashion, gossip or flirting, but spent all her free time writing in her big, leather-bound, spell-locked book.
Earlier that day she broke a bully’s nose with her elbow. The tall, big-boned boy’s nose was quickly mended at the infirmary. The same evening he was serving his detention with Filch, the caretaker, washing all the school’s blackboards without magic.
As for Wei, she had to be punished for her part in the fight, but the detention was easily turned into a calm and comfortable opportunity for the girl to do what she truly enjoyed.
The headmaster ceased his pacing and walked up to one of the tall windows of the study, to observe the resident rook colony
Dumbledore liked rooks. They were intelligent, social birds, and quite beautiful, once you had a proper look at them. Now the Hogwarts rooks were having one of their “conference flights”, a ritual that took place every evening at dusk. The entire colony rose into the air and circled the buildings, caw-caw-ing loudly, before settling down in their nests for the night.
On top of the wall opposite Dumbledore’s window, a strangely unseasonable young rook was struggling to master the art of flying. It flapped its wings, rose a little into the air, and dropped back onto the wall. After several tries it rested, grooming itself. It had not completely changed into the sleek adult feathers; it had some wing and tail quills, but here and there scruffy juvenile feathers still fluffed out awkwardly. It picked at them desultorily, caw-ing to itself and tipping its head from side to side to keep one eye or the other on its surroundings.
It reminded Dumbledore of someone: the youngest member of the Hogwarts staff, the potions master.
Young Professor Snape sat on a stone bench in the courtyard, absorbed in a book. Dumbledore imagined the light to be barely adequate for reading, but the young man seemed to find it satisfactory. The threadbare second-hand robes offered little protection from the cold of the spring evening. Severus often appeared to seek out the cold, Dumbledore mused. It seemed almost like a penance of sorts.
Dumbledore felt guilty about Severus, and guilty about his guilt being irreparably late. From the very beginning, many years ago, the school’s popular and charismatic unofficial leaders had singled out Severus as a target for their bullying.
Dumbledore had seen nothing, or chosen not to see. He had considered the young Gryffindors a group of charming rascals, their pranks stemming from simple youthful high jinks. The gloomy, bookish, stringy-haired, sallow-skinned Slytherin, in hand-me-down clothing and with the personal charm of a stone gargoyle, surely had himself to blame... or did he? – Dumbledore was too well aware that he had seen the truth too late, far, far, too late. The bullying had been cruel, destroying what might have been a new beginning for a gifted young boy with a background of poverty and abuse.
Some time after leaving Hogwarts, Snape turned to Dumbledore in a crisis. He had witnessed the murder of the only person who had ever paid him any friendly attention. The perpetrator was a dark wizard whom Snape had considered his leader, the creator of a new age of strength and rightful dominance for wizard-kind. Snape had joined the dark wizard’s forces in an attempt to make himself powerful and feared, having lost all hope of being liked or at least accepted by any of his peers. After the murder, the dark wizard disappeared, believed to be dead.
Dumbledore and Snape both realised that the disappearance was only temporary – the enemy would gather new strength and return. If Snape was to become the spy in enemy ranks that they intended him to be, something had to be done. At present, Severus was a suffering, confused boy, not a poised, suave, sophisticated double agent.
‘How do you give a person a normal life?’ Dumbledore thought. ‘Particularly since he’s never had one. How do you give him a fresh start, a chance to discover and develop his potential? Particularly since the time is limited. He’ll have to come back, join the fight.’
Dumbledore was lost in his musings. Did he know of something, anything, that Severus actually enjoyed, something that would help him become a more complete human being, and – let’s face it – a less flawed weapon in their future war?
Yes, of course. There it was. Learning. Studies. And perhaps forcing some degree of creature comforts on him, to begin with.
The headmaster noticed that the girl behind his desk was not writing anymore – she was simply exchanging friendly looks with Fawkes. The golden bird made a low, gurgling noise in his throat, and the girl laughed, barely audibly.
“Well, Miss Wei, have you finished your essay?” Dumbledore asked.
“Yes, Headmaster, I think so,” the girl replied.
“It’s your decision,” Dumbledore commented mildly. “If you believe it’s finished, then it is. If you’d like some more time, please, take it.”
“It is finished,” Wei admitted. “It’s just... I’m in no hurry to leave,” she added honestly.
“I’ll want to talk to you about your text, of course, when I’ve read it,” the headmaster suggested.
The girl’s radiant smile tugged at his heart.
“Yes, Headmaster, when do you want me to come back?”
“There’s something I’d like you to read until the next time,” Dumbledore said, choosing a slim volume bound in red leather from his personal book collection. “A play, by a famous Muggle playwright. It’s about a prince and a ghost, and it has a lot of sword-fighting in it. Oh, and some of it is in verse, but I don’t think you’ll mind.”
“May I really borrow it?!”
“How else would you be able to read it?” he smiled, cocking a bushy grey eyebrow at her.
“Oh, thank you! I swear I’ll be careful with it!”
“I don’t doubt it. – So, how about three days from now? Friday, after dinner?”
“Yes, Headmaster, thank you!”
Her enthusiasm warmed him – but then he noticed a worried frown on her face.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“They’ll say that I’m putting on airs. That I think I’m something special. Having private lessons with you.”
“Who said anything about private lessons?” he scowled with mock severity. “I’m giving you another detention. Totally unfair. And on a Friday, no less. Definitely something to complain about, wouldn’t you say?”
The look she gave him was a little puzzled, but soon she put on an air of mock indignation.
“Oh, yes. Bitterly.”
They both laughed and the phoenix added his gentle gurgle to their voices.
“When you leave here, Miss Wei,” said the headmaster, “would you do me a favour?”
Flattered to be asked, not told, Wei said: “Of course, Headmaster.”
“Find Professor Snape for me. He may still be in the courtyard, or he’ll have gone back to his office. Ask him to come and see me as soon as possible, and give him the password.”
The girl bit her lips. “Professor... Snape?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, he won’t get angry. He’ll want to see me.”
“If you say so, Headmaster.”
The resignation in her voice almost made him smile.
“I’ll see you on Friday,” he said.
“Good night, Headmaster.”
Dumbledore nodded to her, and busied himself with some parchments on his desk.
Wei caught up with Snape just as he was about to leave the courtyard. Dumbledore watched them through the window. She greeted the young professor politely; he replied with his customary scowl. Wei gathered her courage visibly and relayed Dumbledore’s request. Snape stopped scowling and said something; Wei stood with surprise written all over her face when Snape turned and walked away.
‘He must have thanked her,’ Dumbledore thought wryly.
“Good evening, Headmaster.”
“Welcome, Severus. Please, come in. And the name is Albus, remember?”
“Oh... Sorry, Albus.”
“Come, sit with me, and let’s have some tea.”
A smooth, well-accustomed gesture of Dumbledore’s wand produced a tea tray complete with teapot, cups, sugar, milk, and a plate of Danish butter biscuits.
Dumbledore poured the tea, giving Snape a chance to settle in the somewhat unfamiliar comfortable chair.
“So, what was that very interesting book that kept you reading in the dark and cold?”
“It’s Francalanci’s latest monograph, on healing applications of potentially lethal vegetal potion components. Yes, the light was getting a little murky, but I just had to finish the chapter. It’s so fascinating: the difference between healing and killing, just a matter of dosages and combinations.”
“You really enjoy that, don’t you, Severus?”
“Potions work is very rewarding. It’s meditative. It demands total concentration over long periods of time, or a fatal mistake may be imminent.”
“It keeps your mind off... other things.”
The young professor sighed in agreement, while his face remained impassive.
They drank some tea in silence. Then Snape changed the subject.
“No offence, Albus,” he said, “but I don’t quite believe that you’ve asked me here just to keep track of my current reading.”
“No, you’re right. There is a problem that I need to discuss with you, to prevent it, if possible.”
“What is it?”
“Your position at Hogwarts may be in jeopardy.”
The young man’s face remained still, but its already white skin paled even more.
“Have there been complaints?”
“No.” Something in the headmaster’s voice implied ‘not yet’.
“But it’s a risk we can’t afford to run,” he continued. “For our plan to succeed, your position here has to be unassailable.”
“Albus, do you intend to ask me to coddle the young dunderheads? I only teach them not to kill themselves or each other.”
“No, no, nothing like that, Severus. You know what you’re doing, and I won’t interfere with your teaching methods. It’s more a question of appearances.”
“Oh?” the black-clad young man scowled.
“I know that you don’t care about frivolous matters, and I respect you for it. But some of our pupils’ parents are rather... particular about matters of form and appearance.”
“Yes, I realise that,” Severus agreed.
“All right. Forgive me for prying, but I have to ask this. How many articles of your clothing were actually bought or made for you to begin with?”
“Oh... I don’t know. Come to think of it, none, probably.”
“Well, unfortunately, the school has to maintain peaceful connections even with people who think that a well-fitting coat matters more than any number of brilliant publications.”
“I’m sorry, Albus,” replied Snape, sounding more angry than repentant. “You realise that I can’t afford a whole new wardrobe: not on some superficial twit’s say-so, and, sadly, not on your personal wish either.”
“I’m perfectly aware of that,” Dumbledore answered mildly. “You’d have to stop buying books, and I won’t ask that of you.”
He Accioed his quill and a sheet of parchment, and leaned over the tea table to write a note. When finished, he handed it to Severus.
“That’s why I’m setting you a task, as a part of your Hogwarts duties.”
Snape’s face remained immobile, but there was suspicion in his eyes.
“As soon as your schedule permits it,” said the headmaster, “you will go to Diagon Alley. You will find a good tailor, the choice is yours, and get a whole new wardrobe. Show my letter to whatever tailors, shoemakers and other merchants you deal with, and they will send their bills to Hogwarts.”
“What do you mean, a whole new wardrobe?”
“Is that so difficult, Severus? I mean, say, four suits, a cloak, three or four sets of teaching robes, one set of formals, a few pairs of shoes, and ask the tailor for advice about shirts, socks, underwear, that sort of thing. Oh, yes, the formal robes should be tailor-made. You can go for good quality ready-made with some of the other items, if you prefer.”
Severus was looking increasingly uncomfortable at the mention of such personal details. He glanced at the note in his hand, then read it, re-read it thoroughly.
“Albus,” he said in a low voice, “this is a complete ‘carte blanche’. There’s no limit.”
“Yes, that’s right. I want you to get whatever will work for you, without having to worry about the last few sickles. I assure you, I wouldn’t give this note to a frivolous nitwit,” Dumbledore finished with a smile.
Speechless, Severus put the parchment in his inner pocket.
“Now we have that out of the way,” the headmaster said, “there is a more important issue. That of your academic qualifications.”
Severus paled again, and had trouble keeping his composure.
“No! You know I’m competent. You can’t mean...”
“Don’t worry, Severus, I know you are more than competent,” Dumbledore calmed him. “Unfortunately, you don’t have very many formal documents to prove it.”
“I am a Magister,” Snape defended himself. “That is the official requirement. And formal studies... well, I just haven’t been able to...”
“Ideally, to make your position here completely secure, you should have a Doctissimus degree.”
“Albus, please!” Severus’ voice was part angry, part desperate. “You are talking about four or five years of full-time studies. And in the meantime, what? Shall I turn myself into a horse, so I can go out and graze?!”
“There’s that, yes,” Dumbledore said musingly. “Let’s leave that aside for a while, shall we?”
“That’s easy for you to say!”
Severus’ shout told of all the sleepless nights he had spent wishing, desiring, racking his brains for a way to finance further studies and research.
“Calm down, Severus,” the headmaster demanded firmly. “I need your sober and level-headed opinion on something.”
Severus’ hands were clutching the arms of his chair. After a few deep breaths they relaxed enough for him to take another drink of his tea.
“I am sorry, Albus. I had no right to lose control like that. What do you wish to ask me?”
“Severus, what do you honestly think of the Greylock Institute of Magic?”
“The Massachusetts place, yes” Snape said, carefully. “Their academic level is short of legendary. Probably the best in the world for advanced studies and research. What I personally like most about them is that they work across boundaries. You get brilliant minds from all specialities working together. Arithmancy, healing, potions, charms, theory of magic, connections to Muggle philosophy, physiological foundations of magic, you name it. And they have an internship programme for students to work with the greatest minds of our time, directly, in person, one on one.”
Severus looked and sounded as if depicting his idea of Paradise. Then, on a more critical note, he added: “Only, their entrance examinations...”
“Difficult?” the headmaster enquired.
“No. Not at all. Almost criminally lax. I don’t see how they achieve the results they do with their sloppy entrance requirements.”
Dumbledore probed on: “So, theoretically, if you entered the examinations, you feel certain that you would pass?”
“Yes,” Severus answered with a bravado that Dumbledore never had seen him show before. “I would pass. Even hung over and with one arm tied behind my back, I would be admitted.”
“So... ” Dumbledore ventured a provocation. “Why are you here, and not at Greylock?”
Snape checked himself with an effort, and forced himself to answer calmly:
“Living expenses. Tuition fees. Does that answer your question?”
Another moment of silence, interrupted only by the
subdued clank of tea cups.
Dumbledore went on: “I wish to found a scholarship, to improve the academic quality of Hogwarts.”
Only the rising and falling of Severus’ chest betrayed that he was alive.
“Severus, I intend to send you to Greylock.”
Snape remained quiet. Then he swallowed hard, wet his lips and murmured:
“Greylock... me... to Greylock...”
He stared at Dumbledore.
“But that’s in... I’ve never...”
“The Greylock Institute of Magic, in Massachusetts. Just think of it,” Dumbledore said slowly. “Four years’ respite from our war, before the next battle. And it’s far away. There will be people from all over the world, people who have never heard of the Marauders, or of ‘Snivellus, the greasy git’. You have your brilliant mind, and that’s what everyone will get to know. You can become what you want to be.”
“Albus, how can I...” Severus’ face was still artificially impassive, his eyes shiny.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Dumbledore said, rising from his chair. “I have to finish something.”
He sat down at his desk and added some phrases to a half-filled parchment. Then he stood up and beckoned to the young professor.
“Come here, Severus.”
Stiffly, like an automaton, the young man complied, and sat down at Dumbledore’s desk. The headmaster handed him the quill.
“This is your application for admission to post-graduate studies at Greylock. It only lacks your signature.”
Slowly but steadily Severus reached for the quill. He read the document carefully, paused for a brief moment, and signed, clearly, with determination.
He stood up and turned to face the headmaster.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
Dumbledore simply nodded.
“The entrance examinations are in six weeks. Do me a personal favour, Severus.”
“Be sober, and use both hands.”
There was almost a grin on the young man’s ever composed face as he left the room.
As he crossed the courtyard to return to his rooms, Severus Snape noticed a large, black, tousle-feathered bird solemnly stalking about and inspecting the lawn for edibles. The rook noticed the young wizard, cocked its head and looked at him with one beady eye.
“Caw,” it said.
It flapped its wings, flew up on the bench where he had been sitting earlier, and looked at him with its other eye.
He looked around to make sure that he was alone with the bird.
“Caw, caw, caw,” he answered.
The bird caw-ed once more, then it took wing smoothly, circled Severus’ head once, and flew over the wall to join some other rooks still circling the Hogwarts buildings.
Severus followed it with his eyes, another almost-smile lighting up his face.
If you want to know how Severus fared at finding a normal life at Greylock,
read the next story.