"Honestly, this isn't complicated," Severus told them later in the staff room, rolling his eyes over a cup of the tea Poppy had insisted he put a few drops of phoenix tears into. He'd let her, without arguing she should use everything Fawkes gave them for students worse off than he was. He hadn't even protested the blanket. That, even more than the way his voice had been rasping at the beginning of the pot and how undead he still looked, told them how much pain he was still in.
He was not, in fact, undead. A happy fact in most people's opinions, now that Harry had explained, although the pleasure sat uneasily and alongside a strong desire to box his ears (and the thought of the PR problems, even with Kingsley in charge, and sorting out how the school hierarchy was going to work next year simply appalled).
Most of the doubts on this subject had been allayed when the first thing he did, before he'd even begun to get his voice back, was to snatch up a quill with his good hand and take 'all the points' from Granger (Filius had, in slightly-hysterical relief, laughed himself nearly sick because they were just from Granger) for having a wounded enemy professional-spy at her mercy and letting him die instead of capturing him for interrogation. It had also helped that the second had been to wax acidic-enough-to-scorch-the-parchment about it possibly being a good idea to start teaching basic first aid skills like taking a pulse.
Which had been more like getting back someone who'd been thought dead for a year than for a day. Even two years; he hadn't been himself since Albus's hand had blackened. Nothing could have reassured them Harry was right about him more than the relieved relish with which he'd relaxed out of his stiff-faced, black-hole-eyed corpse's mask in favor of Senior Faculty Meeting levels of snark the moment he was sure he wasn't going to be Kissed, killed, or strung up from the highest remaining turret in his pants as a graffiti wall.
He'd started gesticulating again, too, for nearly the first time since Remus Lupin had come to teach, although only with his right hand. Phoenix tears were miraculous, but Nagini had done a real number on some important tendons, as well as his throat proper. An only-professional potioneer like Horace with Severus's temperament might have risked being a terrible patient, but Severus would never risk either hand's functionality when he didn't have to.
He hadn't argued with Poppy about the sling, either. In fact, he'd been so docile about it she'd given him a black one without even making him ask. Filius had gone all sniffly. Minerva was trying not to be suspicious.
"We do realize you must have taken precautions," she began tartly.
"A few," he allowed with a grimace. "I expected it as a general act, but one couldn't predict the method of delivery with any confidence."
Poppy and Filius glanced at each other. He hadn't said snake, bite, cut, throat, attack, or anything similar since he'd woken up. Severus was sufficiently wordy as a rule that they weren't sure whether anyone else had noticed how far he was going to avoid it.
"More pastimes than anything else, really," he went on with a good approximation of clinical detachment, "although I did think the need for an antivenin more likely than anything else but an avada. I must remember to express appreciation to Arthur Weasley that his unfortunate experience provided the opportunity to develop one. Preferably while his wife isn't there to hit me repeatedly over the head with a large cast-iron saucepan. But I'd think he'd be glad it wasn't an ultimately pointless hurt, wouldn't he?" He looked at Minerva, presumably as the Gryffindor expert.
"I would imagine," she agreed, drolly enough that it sounded more like you think? Not every Gryffindor was that generous, of course. Arthur, though, might even have been glad the same day, let alone years later.
"Then you did expect it," Horace said shrewdly, leaning back in his favorite armchair and taking a Hobnob. He regarded it mournfully before taking a dejected bite.
The staff room was in a part of the castle that had been largely unaffected by the battle. The kitchens were not, and Hogsmeade was in a bit of a state as well. They'd had to send Pomona, who could handle anything without fuss, to a grocery, aided by a passel of muggle-raised students. They were out on their third trip now, being able to buy only so much at a time without raising questions. The elves were very upset about it all. Especially the artificial preservatives.
"Of course," Severus agreed, eying Horace suspiciously.
"Bellatrix Lestrange harping at him, was it?" Horace asked sympathetically, patting his long hand, now practically skeletal, with a pudgy one. "I knew Harry must have gotten that part wrong."
"Oh, no, he never made me." Severus settled back in his own armchair, and took another sip of tea. This may have been a token effort to hide how smug he was looking, but it only hid his mouth, not his eyes or every line of his body. "He apologized."
Horace sprayed biscuit across the room.
"'I regret it,'" Severus added coldly, in an accent and an octave not his own, still looking unutterably smug, and poured himself more tea.
"Then you knew about the wand when he called for you?" Minerva asked, looking on the verge of unstarching, pulling out a handkerchief for purposes of eye-dabbing, and possibly losing a hairpin.
Severus narrowed his eyes at her. "If you say anything even remotely resembling 'perhaps we sort too soon,'" he threatened, "I'm throwing the sugar spoon at you."
She threw it at him, universal balance was restored, and the world breathed again.
"Hear, hear," Horace toasted him belatedly. "Percy Blakeney was Slytherin, you know. You don't get all the valor in the world, m'dear."
"Just all the thoughtless, heedless, careless, reckless, scattershot kind," Severus 'finished for him,' and then sighed as blissfully as if saying it had been the first coffee he'd had all year.
"But how did you know?" Filius asked eagerly. "Did Albus tell you?"
Severus rolled his eyes again. "I think it caused Albus physical pain to look out the window and tell anyone what color the sky is," he said sourly. "Grindelwald-related scars, I assume."
Filius and Horace, who remembered that war, nodded.
"This isn't complicated either," he told them. "I am a brewer. I go to conferences and talk with other brewers. Horace is an anomaly: mostly, we are the only people we like to talk to, because talking shop does not require social grace, and no, you need not keep a straight face at this juncture."
They tried anyway.
"The potions crowd," he went on, "has a massive overlap with the alchemy crowd, which is almost indistinguishable from the maniacs who quest for the Deathly Hallows. Nearly all of whom turn frothingly evangelical at the drop of a hat. And I knew the story from childhood anyway.
"I know about invisibility cloaks, and I've known for several years that the Potter family has one that has held up for far too long to be like any kind we know how to make today. Little twit left it up the Astronomy tower his first year, when he was sending off that dragon of Hagrid's. Should have just kept the damned thing."
"I would have," Horace commented. "Lost item, confiscated on rounds, perfectly fair."
"I know," Severus said mournfully. "Only Albus had plans."
"It wouldn't have been right," Minerva said severely. "Not something that valuable."
"It would have been beautifully and poetically just," Severus insisted, but sighed and made a face. "Well, there was that. And then, I know far more about that damned ring," he spat, hands spasming on his cup and his face changing color around the eyes. He pressed his lips together, and went on, measured again. "About that stone than I care to. And while I have no opinion on the existence of fate, destiny, deity, or coincidence, I do believe that, as the man said, one cloud feels lonely."
Most of them just furrowed their brows a little at that before working out what it meant. Filius, however, recognized the quote, and blinked. It wasn't a book he would have expected Severus, of all people, to casually reference like that. Not a muggle book about bunnies. Even if it was a classic for a reason and only pretending to be a children's book. Severus and muggle fiction?
"And Albus always has been ridiculously over-powered." He paused. "Well, I suppose portraits aren't over-powered… no, I expect he'll find some way to manage it. Then, of course, I knew Riddle was fixating on wand-makers, and I knew he'd gone to Nurmengard."
"Oh, no," Poppy said dryly after a moment. "That's not complicated at all."
"Riddle," Minerva turned the name over in her mouth, beginning to smile, not nicely. "Are we calling him that now?"
"I am." Severus's smile was oily, cold, and flat-eyed, perfectly serpentine, and everyone in the room was in perfect sympathy with it. Filius held up his teacup, and they all clinked and drank.
"Well, all right," Horace said doggedly, "but how did you keep his confidence? No offense, m'boy, but Bellatrix had means of persuasion at her disposal that you, well, don't."
"Well, the reverse was also true, for one thing," Severus shrugged with his good shoulder. "Her buxom panting after him may have been reassuring, but there are enough similarities in our biographies that he never really thought of me as more than a younger, more malleable, and higher-strung version of himself."
There was an awkward silence.
This smile, while still serpentine, was wholly unlike the previous one, and entirely sardonic. "I am aware," he answered what everyone was thinking. Or rather, had been thinking all year. "That was rather the point of the persona." He favored them with another long, sticky silence while he took more tea, then appeared to let it go.
No one was fooled. But that was fine, because he wouldn't be hearing the end of last year for at least the next five, either. Even with Kingsley and Horace to smooth over the real problems for him, at least with the public and the press.
"You said 'for one thing?'" Filius prompted.
"White noise," he answered.
Then there was a pause while Poppy explained that to everyone, with reference to crickets, breathing roommates, and, with a smile at Minerva, cats purring.
"But it needn't be pleasant things," Severus put in. "People who live in the city get used to all sorts of loud, artificial, man-made noises, and learn to let them fade into the background. And trying to sleep away from all that when you're used to it is just as bad as the other way around."
Filius looked at him curiously.
"No," he answered the silent question. "But I get most of the students from places like Knockturn, and I've had to stay in noisy places for long enough to get accustomed to it, at times. Coming back once you've gotten used to the noise is always a shock."
"I imagine you're not talking about crickets chirping now," Minerva supposed trenchantly.
He looked just as dry. "Debatable. There was so much jockeying for power after he came back—well. Not even power. For favor. He was very different. Favor meant survival, theoretically less pain although in fact being noticed meant more, and most of them were parents, you know. I don't think there were any true believers, really, who hadn't spent the years in Azkaban and been freed by him. Oh, in pureblood supremacy, no doubt, but not in him. Most of them were simply trying to minimize the catastrophe that would fall on their children, with no good options to choose from between slavery and Bellatrix's wand, and perhaps save themselves. And when it comes to a choice between throwing one's compatriots or one's children under the Knight bus…"
He gave that one-shouldered shrug again. "Everyone was accusing everyone of everything from incompetence to outright treachery. And Bellatrix had never liked me. And Pettigrew had certainly never liked me. And every time Riddle went into my mind he saw Albus's Order showing me hostility and suspicion. The suspicion, the accusations, they all became white noise to him very quickly. I think people forget he started off wanting to be a legitimate politician, until Albus blocked him; insinuation and mud-slinging wasn't exactly a new concept. He stopped paying attention to the fluff and looked at the evidence."
"And you showed him evidence of loyalty," Minerva said, her voice hardening.
Severus looked at her steadily. "That's what a mole does. I gave him a better than average ratio of information that did and didn't make him happy, but not a suspiciously good one. When it made him unhappy, I took my punishment without cavil. I didn't hide my annoyance with the others when I felt it, but I never accused any of his supporters without rock-solid evidence—often manufactured," he added, a sly half-smile flickering across his mouth, "but solid. I let him into my mind without any resistance he could detect. I showed him respect and a lack of fear and, again, took my punishment without complaint when the lack of fear went a hair too far. Which I made sure it occasionally did, so I could show him that. That is the face of loyalty within a strict hierarchy."
Horace had flinched once or twice, usually on the word punishment, but was beaming moistly. "I would never have thought you had it in you, m'boy," he said, and actually heaved himself up to hug Severus around the shoulders. "Never."
Severus colored, which didn't make him look significantly less skull-like. "Yes, well, you weren't supposed to," he muttered, giving his old Housemaster possibly the most awkward pat on the back in the history of the Empire. Which was saying something.
"All that shouting and raving," Poppy put in, her mouth twitching. She'd heard more of it than most, because so much of it happened in her domain after one or more of the students had had a fight or an accident. Not that anyone was spared during staff meetings. "I don't think anyone would have." Horace nodded enthusiastically, fit to burst his buttons.
"No, we did hope not," Severus said, trying for humble and only managing insufferably pleased with himself again. Except that it was actually sufferable, because there was something sly and shy and bright-eyed about it. It was exactly the look he had when he refused to acknowledge one's birthday all day, and then one got back to one's room and found a bottle of something excellent laced to a very thoughtfully chosen potion, beautifully wrapped—shrunken and stuffed somewhere remarkably inconvenient he ought not to have had access to, like inside one's carpet slippers. "You really can't blame him for falling victim to one of the classic blunders."
Everyone looked at him with suspicious, narrow eyes. They Knew That Tone. The airy, offhand one. With the glittery, hidden-smirk-under-the-deadpan thing you couldn't call a twinkle, because no, and also because evil.
Finally, Minerva said, flatly, "No." It wasn't an agreement. It was a forbidding.
"Give in," Poppy said resignedly, while Filius frowned, racking his brain for that hint of familiarity. "What blunder is that, Severus?" she asked, half in weariness and half in dread.
"Well," Severus said, enjoying himself, "the most famous of them, of course, is, 'never get involved in a land war in Asia.'"
Filius frowned harder. It just sounded so… Oh, well there was that. "Didn't Albus do that once?" he asked Horace. "More or less Asia? Middle-East?"
"And won," Horace nodded. "Afghanistan. Before my time."
"Well, Albus," Severus said in a long-suffering voice, explaining the win.
They clinked teacups again.
"That's not the one you meant, though," prodded Poppy, who believed in ripping bandages off quickly.
"No, just the most famous," Severus agreed, standing up and stretching. He wand-folded the blanket down onto his armchair, saying, "Only slightly less well known is this: never go in against a Slytherin when peace is on the line."
It only took a moment before Filius's jaw dropped.
"Much though I hate to—" Horace began, looking as though he really, really did hate to.
"He started his own not-especially-noble House," Severus cut him off, in the very quiet voice that could silence the Great Hall with his bottled, ringing savagery. "And did his best to corrupt mine. Slytherin wasn't what he wanted. He catastrophically misunderstood it, and if he hadn't it still wouldn't have been what he wanted. He got everyone else in the world to misunderstand my House as well, including those it should have fed and sheltered. No. He was not Slytherin. I've no idea when he left us; before I was born, no doubt; but he was not. He was Flight From Death: a craven, selfish, unambitious, unsubtle, parasitic House of one that was nearly the death of us."
He breathed out, one long, slow, white-lipped breath. Then he reached over and picked up his teapot, asking Poppy, who'd been nodding fierce agreement but was still trying to work out why Filius was looking gobsmacked, "To be drunk continuously as long as it hurts? The refilling charm will work even with the phoenix tears?"
"Filius did the charm," she confirmed, giving up on understanding his esoteric lunacy. Not an unusual reaction to a Severus who was being Severus. She couldn't quite help smiling at the renewal of an irritation that had been suddenly and brutally murdered along with so many less complicated victims it had never seemed right to mourn it. "Yes—keep sipping until you're sure you don't have to, then a half-cup every half-hour until you get a chance to see me."
He nodded briskly and turned to go, teapot in hand.
"You didn't really say that!" Filius blurted, eyes wide.
Severus turned in the doorway, and grinned like a crocodile. "Serpents of unusual wise?" he scoffed. "I don't think they exist."