Snape studied the features of his former student as she sat down on the armchair, her eyes narrowing in reply. Her brown hair was longer now, her face older and, perhaps, wiser.
Wisdom seemed to give her an air of sadness somehow; the old fire was gone from her eyes. But her dislike of him still rippled like waves across the room.
As her mouth opened to speak, her eyes travelled away from him, focusing on a spot on the wall behind him. Snape turned around and found himself face to face with Albus Dumbledore.
Within moments, Contessa Marchbanks was at his side, agog at the portrait snoring softly in its frame.
“Another surprise?” Snape asked.
Marchbanks nodded shakily, staring at the framed portrait as if she had seen it for the very first time.
“I have had the portrait for almost a year, but it was a still-life picture, until now. This must mean…” Her voice faded as she assessed the repercussions.
“Dumbledore is dead,” Snape finished for her, his voice soft and low.
They stood together for a few moments watching the slumbering Headmaster’s chest rise and fall in its frame. Snape noticed tears forming in Marchbanks’ eyes as she absorbed the news.
Behind them, Snape heard the flutter of wings as Fawkes lost his balance on the telescope and glided safely to the floor. They turned around to see an agitated-looking phoenix glaring up at them in exasperation, clicking its beak irritably.
Marchbanks sighed as she crossed the room, removed a plant from its wooden stand and placed it on the window sill. Taking her cue, Snape drew his wand and Transfigured the plant stand into a makeshift perch for the phoenix, complete with a basin underneath for the ashes.
On seeing the Transfigured stand, Marchbanks assessed him suspiciously. Little did she know of the amount of time Snape had spent with Dumbledore and Fawkes in the Headmaster’s Office at Hogwarts. Or the conversations to which the phoenix had borne witness.
Fawkes watched them weighing each other up for a moment, before warbling an impatient message of thanks and flying onto the new perch. The bird scrutinised them from this new vantage point with a look of bemusement.
The phoenix’s stare shook Snape and Marchbanks out of their wariness and they turned to face Dumbledore’s portrait.
The Headmaster was surreptitiously peeking at the two members of the Order of the Phoenix, as if curious to see what was unfolding. His momentary surprise was quickly concealed as he straightened in his frame, his blue eyes twinkled and a knowing smile played out under his long white beard.
“Ah, Severus,” said Dumbledore cordially, “I see you’ve found your way to your safe house. Excellent.”
Snape nodded jerkily as the confirmation sank in; a couple of days with the Marchbanks woman was not ideal but would suffice until alternative accommodation could be found.
“Professor Dumbledore, I…” Marchbanks stammered.
Dumbledore smiled kindly at the woman and said, “Tess, please do call me Albus. It is many years since I was your Professor.”
She seemed to accept this with the ease of someone who had been told it many times before. However, Marchbanks seemed to be struggling on the verge of speech. Snape felt some pity for the revelation she was processing, as well as some amusement at watching the woman wrestle with her words.
“Albus,” she began, “I’m so sorry. When did it happen?”
“Over an hour ago.” He replied lightly, as if commenting upon the weather.
Marchbanks dropped her head. “He Who Must Not Be Named found his way into Hogwarts?”
Dumbledore hesitated and considered Snape before he replied. “No. But some of his Death Eaters did.”
She raised her head inquiringly and Snape held his breath, his fingers twitching on his wand.
“Who then?” Marchbanks asked.
Snape shifted uneasily as Dumbledore considered his response. She was going to find out sooner or later. On balance, it would be better if the news came from him.
“I killed him,” Snape said slowly.
Marchbanks rounded on him in a heartbeat, her wand pressed against his chest, her eyes alight with hatred and fear. “You!” she growled at him. “You! He trusted you!”
Snape took a step backwards but found himself up against a wall, his wand hand hanging uselessly at his side. Sparks were erupting from her wand with barely-controlled aggression. She had him cornered.
Fawkes screeched a warning at them, but neither listened.
Dumbledore spoke patiently to Marchbanks. “I trust him still.”
She faltered at these words and confusion spread across her distraught features. Snape took advantage of her indecision and raised his wand in defence.
Marchbanks, however, backed away. When she spoke her eyes did not leave his, but her voice addressed Dumbledore.
“Trust?” she said sceptically. “What do you mean?”
“Severus was acting upon my command. I asked him to kill me.”
She lowered her wand and turned to face Dumbledore, her face awash with conflicting emotions. “You asked him…but why?”
“I was already dying,” Dumbledore said simply.
Marchbanks paused as the new information sank in. Snape stepped forwards and addressed Dumbledore, not wishing to go into more detail.
“I’m sure the accommodation in Miss Marchbanks’ home will be satisfactory,” Snape began. “However, I will begin the search for new quarters in the morning.”
“No, Severus. That will not be necessary,” Dumbledore said tolerantly.
“Where am I to stay?” Snape asked.
“You will stay here, at Squirrel’s Leap with Tess. She has made extensive preparations for your stay. The cottage is protected by a Disillusionment Charm so that it appears empty and derelict. There is a first-rate Doorbell Charm and defences against intruder Apparition. You will be safe here,” Dumbledore said in an uncompromising tone. “The Order and the Ministry will not search for you in the home of one of their own.”
In synchrony, Snape and Marchbanks’ jaws dropped as they regarded each other with contempt.
“Most amusing, Dumbledore.” Snape smirked when he had recovered himself.
“I am perfectly serious, Severus,” Dumbledore replied.
“Albus, no! I can’t! Not him…” Marchbanks pleaded, her voice trailing off hopelessly.
“Remember the vow you took, Tess,” Dumbledore reminded her, firmness edging his voice.
Marchbanks looked like she had swallowed Polyjuice Potion as her features contorted with distaste. She looked up at Dumbledore, appealing to him silently, but Dumbledore gazed steadfastly at her until her head dropped in defeat.
“Now, I suspect your hot chocolate is still awaiting your attention. Perhaps Severus would care for a cup?” Dumbledore inclined his head in unspoken command. Marchbanks nodded in subjugation and left the room.
Snape rounded on Dumbledore instantly. “You made her take an Unbreakable Vow?” he asked disbelievingly.
Dumbledore deliberated carefully before answering. “The vow she took will ensure your safety, so that you may return to Hogwarts and protect the students.”
Snape was dumbfounded. How could Dumbledore do that to the woman?
Dumbledore seized the moment of silence and distracted Snape from his thoughts. “Thank you, Severus. What you did for me on the Astronomy Tower required a lot of courage. I am eternally grateful to you.”
Snape’s head twitched slightly. He’d done what had needed to be done. “You are most welcome,” Snape replied, his voice heavy with irony.
The sound of a spoon clinking in a cup drifted in from the kitchen. Fawkes seemed to decide the show was over and tucked his head under his wing.
“Why her?” Snape asked Dumbledore after the moment’s pause.
“Tess has certain abilities and skills, and connections at the Ministry and in the Order. She will act as an informant and spy, so that you may retain your influence with Voldemort,” Dumbledore replied. “She will need to perform the Tongue-Tying Curse on you before you next meet with him, to protect the location of Headquarters.”
Snape swallowed this with some resentment then asked, “How long am I to stay here?”
“Until the Ministry falls and you are a free man again,” Dumbledore answered simply.
Snape heard nervous laughter and turned to see Marchbanks standing at the doorway, two mugs of hot chocolate in her hands.
“You cannot be serious,” she said to Dumbledore.
The Headmaster nodded. The phoenix looked up from underneath its wing, waiting for an encore.
“But that could take all summer!” she exclaimed incredulously.
“Indeed,” Snape agreed.
Marchbanks looked stunned, frozen in the doorway, her mouth gaping slightly. Dumbledore rolled his eyes with amusement.
“What do you expect us to do?” she asked, looking at Snape’s tall, dark frame, dislike etched on every inch of her face.
“You will find a way to help each other,” Dumbledore replied.
“How?” Snape asked.
“You are both intelligent enough; I’m sure you will figure it out for yourselves.”
Dumbledore smiled at them both before standing and striding purposefully from the frame.