"As I know you to be humorless, I will assume this is no joke."
The man before her desk shrugged indifferently and did not reply.
Another long, cold stare, then she sat back in her chair almost casually, as if relaxing before the curtain rose at the theater. "Very well, then. I am obligated by the Board of Governors to review all serious applicants. You may make your petition, Mr. Snape."
He exhaled loudly though his nose, then strode across the room to pull a chair from against the wall. Ignoring her flattened lips and piercing gaze, he placed the chair squarely before her desk and flopped into it with no pretense of formality, propping his ankle atop his knee. He opened her tin of shortbread biscuits and took not one but two. "A bit of tea would be gracious of you, Professor McGonagall."
Her hand shook ever so slightly as she raised her wand and summoned a silver tray from some unseen chamber to her desk. She decanted the teapot with a flick of her wand, rather than grasp the handle and further reveal her angry tremor. There was a hint of a sneer on the man's face as he appraised the contents of the delicate porcelain cup, but he nodded after taking a sip.
"These pretenses annoy me, Minerva," he finally said. "You are in need of a Potions professor; I am in need of a job. I am not about to plead my case. I know full well that you are familiar with both my qualifications and my reputation. You have undoubtedly made your decision already--far be it from me to attempt to alter it. And your old brand of shortbread was far superior to these."
She leaned forward at last, resting her forearms against the edge of the golden teak desktop. "Fifty years in Azkaban did nothing to improve your temperament, Severus."
"Was it meant to?" he said quietly, staring into the depths of the teacup.
"I am in rather a dilemma," the headmistress continued. "You are quite correct in that we have needed a Potions professor for some time now. There are so many lucrative careers in that field, it has been impossible to retain anyone on the faculty for long. And as you say, I am quite familiar with your qualifications to fill the post. I am also aware that your reputation basically eliminates the likelihood that you will abandon us in a few years for a better offer, as so many others have." Her voice had dropped to a scathing growl, but she sat up a bit straighter in her chair and adjusted it back up to its former level of mere stern reproach. "These are factors that would generally make a candidate attractive; however, I find myself wondering, Mr. Snape, why in the name of Merlin you would even consider teaching again."
He scoffed. "It is as you say, Headmistress. Although I have 'served my time,' the wizarding world has not seen fit to forgive me. Do you know, I have actually tried to apply for work under assumed names, in the hopes that I can be judged on merit alone? It never works. I have been blessed with a memorable face, it seems." He laughed again, a single bark of mocking disdain. "Funny, is it not? The choices of my youth have severely restricted my options for the remainder of my life, and yet if history had taken but a slightly different turn, my choices would be virtually limitless."
"If you still lived, that is," McGonagall said venomously.
Snape cocked his head. "Touche', Minerva. Death does put an end to freedom, or so we believe."
The headmistress sighed and allowed her shoulders to sag. This was exhausting. Contrary to Snape's assertion, she had not already decided whether to hire him or not, and had hoped that the interview would give her some idea of the man's motivation. But it was as if the past half-century had never happened, save a few wrinkles around his eyes and a lock of gray hair behind his left temple. He was as irascible and unfathomable as ever.
"So you think that Hogwarts may be desperate enough to overlook your sordid past and accept your service, even though no one else will. I must say, Severus, I hardly feel honored by the implication."
"Those are your words, Minerva. Perhaps I believe that Hogwarts may be a place of refinement and intellect, one which can rise above the baser, petty instincts. Perhaps I think that the people of this institution can comprehend that I have paid for my crimes and welcome me back into the folds of society."
She stared long and hard at him and still couldn't decide if he was telling the truth.
"If I were to hire you, Mr. Snape," she finally began, "there would be considerable controversy. Not that this is unusual for the faculty of Hogwarts; Professor Lupin's long tenure as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor continued to beget Howlers from irate parents even after he moved on. Nonetheless, I would expect exemplary behavior from you, Severus. Exemplary. Not so much as a hint of unfairness or prejudice, nor even a whisper of Dark magic. I would have enough on my hands, fending off the protests of parents who object to a war criminal teaching their children--I want no additional grief about insulting comments or biased deduction of House points. Are you even capable of that, do you think?"
Snape gazed thoughtfully into the teacup again, then sighed. "I am a middle-aged wizard, Minerva. Vengeance and outrage are for the young. I have spent fifty years practicing the art of quiet endurance, and have become quite good at it." He rolled his lower lip between his teeth in an expression of frank distress. "I must have a place to live and work. If I can find it here, I have no intention of losing it over anything as inconsequential as House points."
She stood up and slowly made her way around the office, facing each of the portraits of former Headmasters in turn. "You would be hired on probationary status," she said without looking at Snape, "with the option of dismissal at any time for any reason. This could last for years, perhaps even indefinitely."
"In addition, your contact with students would be restricted to the classroom and mealtimes, and events like Quidditch matches. I will not have you prowling about the corridors at night. Even your detentions would have to be chaperoned."
He gritted his teeth, but his voice remained calm. "Naturally."
She spun on her heel. "This is for your protection, Severus. I want no student left alone with you. In an accusation, no matter how ridiculous, if it came to your word against a student's, you know how that would end. This would require effort on your part, Severus, continuous effort. You would be the last to arrive in your classroom and the first to leave. Your office will be off limits to students. You will not even use the public bathrooms! Am I making myself clear?"
Her shoulders dropped again, and even her expression softened. "It goes without saying that you would not be restored as Head of Slytherin House."
"I am happy to leave that honor to the current Head of House."
"Professor Potter will be relieved to know that you do not plan to challenge him."
Snape's eyes widened, but that was the extent to which he expressed his indignation. Good, good, she thought. This may really be possible.
"I have one more question, Severus." She returned to her chair and folded her arms, taking several deep breaths before uttering, "Why?"
Snape rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue against his teeth; she was not inquiring about his motives for teaching. "Really, Minerva. Don't you think that's a bit trite? Surely you read all the explanations in the old Daily Prophet."
She glared at him, cold and unmoving. He knew instinctively that he couldn't bluff his way beyond the question forever, but it was still worth a try.
"I was a soldier in the Dark Army," he said slowly and quietly. "I had my orders. I could carry them out or die."
Her voice was like a chip from a glacier, razor sharp and cold. "You were also a soldier in the Order of the Phoenix."
"And I had my orders there as well, Minerva."
He looked her straight in the eye and began to count inside his head. By seven, the comprehension dawned in her eyes. By twenty-three, she was shaking her head in disbelief. "What are you saying, Snape?" she gasped at thirty-four.
"Nothing. Nothing at all, Headmistress. Read the history books. The answer you want to hear can easily be found in them. Now am I hired or not?"
He counted to fifty-nine before she composed herself enough to reply, "Classes begin next Monday."