You followed the command and closed the heavy door behind you, guiding it shut to quiet the sound.
The domed ceiling made the dungeon corridor feel like the inside of a giant stone flask. Rows upon rows of wooden shelves lined the walls, stacked with glass bottles of specimens whose labels were difficult to discern in the candlelight. A museum-like scent of history and liquid preservation hung in the air, dull and familiar; the office smelled just like the Potions classroom, only more concentrated, more complex.
The man who beckoned you sat behind a round table at the back of the room, busying his quill to a hardcover journal lying open in front of him.
You claimed one of the chairs in front of his desk, sliding your bookbag from your shoulder and resting it on the ground by your feet.
He did not look up.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked, scratching away at his parchment. He sounded bored.
You adjusted your glasses. “To discuss my career options, sir.”
“I was interested in working for the Ministry.” You were cautious to keep all doubt from your voice, lest he advance on your insecurity like a shark catching blood in the water. “As a detective for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”
“Yes, you and half your year.” He dipped into his inkwell impatiently, keeping his eyes to the page. “Bewitched by the glamour of hunting dark wizards, are we? How inspired.”
“Not exactly, sir.”
“Enlighten me, then.”
“Dark wizards aren’t the only fugitives who need tracking down.” A sliver of excitement returned to your voice. “There are all sorts of criminals out there who don’t believe they can be outsmarted. I would like to make a career of proving them wrong.”
He scoffed. “Bold of you to assume you’d be suited for a government position reserved for the elite. You consider yourself to be among the best, do you?”
“Not yet, Professor. But I’m hoping you can help me get there.”
Snape showed no immediate adverse reaction. After five years of having him as your Head of House, you learned to take this as a sign you’d done something right.
His quill did not leave the pages as he spoke. “The majority of law enforcement positions in the Ministry require five or more N.E.W.T.s to be considered for application. You will need Transfiguration, Potions, Charms, and Defence Against the Dark Arts, at minimum.”
You nodded, silently. Part of you wanted to reach into your bag and take notes, but a larger, more sensible part didn’t want to give him the chance to say something snide and break his string of useful information.
“Professor Flitwick assessed your Charms work as suitable for admission to his N.E.W.T. course, provided your O.W.L. grades reflect accordingly. And, lucky for you,” he added, as if the result pained him to admit, “Professor McGonagall continues to rate your Transfiguration skills at the top of your year.”
You swelled a little in pride, in spite of yourself. Although he was only repeating evaluations from other teachers, this was as close to an actual compliment as you’d ever receive.
“I , however, am not so easily impressed.” His sharp tone sliced through your air of sudden confidence. “Other teachers may have lesser standards, but I for one do not accept any O.W.L. grade lower than an Outstanding for my advanced courses. You will need to work harder in my class if you expect to be considered.”
“I will, sir.”
“That being said...” A sneer curled at his mouth’s edge as he continued writing, and you braced yourself for the worst. “For a Ministry hopeful, your Defence Against the Dark Arts grades are remarkably pitiful.”
You felt something heavy tighten into a ball deep within your stomach. The news didn’t come as a surprise to you, of course, as Defence Against the Dark Arts had never been your best subject, but facing the challenge was hard enough without having to discuss them openly with your Head of House.
“I know,” you replied, releasing the breath you’d been holding. “I’m trying to stay consistent with my other coursework, and I’m...with Defence Against the Dark Arts, I have a hard time adjusting to a new teacher every year.”
“The core content of your lessons remains the same, regardless.”
“Yes, but different teachers have different expectations of--”
“You mean to say Professor Quirrell’s expectations of you as a student differ from other teachers’?” he snapped. “Even more egregious than following a syllabus?”
“No, sir, but--”
“Shall we pay Professor Quirrell a visit, then? Perhaps let him know that you find his teaching method to be inadequate to your standards?”
“...no, sir. Of course not.”
“Then consider taking ownership of your failures instead of blaming those around you for your shortcomings.”
You kept your head high as your concerns died in your throat. “Yes, Professor.”
Snape lowered his quill. He folded his hands on the desk, and for the first time that afternoon, took a moment to look at you. He held the same passive, appraising stare, with deep-set black eyes from behind a hooked nose too large not to look down. Though his flowing black robes and dungeon residence earned him comparisons to a bat, you’d always considered him more suited to some great bird of prey--a keen, unrelenting hunter, unafraid to posture the wingspan that always afforded him a wide berth.
Over the years, you’ve learned not shrivel in his wake.
You did not look away, and instead waited for him to break the silence between you.
“I don’t believe I need to emphasize how important your O.W.L. scores are for your sixth and seventh year.”
“And I don’t believe it bears repeating,” he continued, firmly, “that failure to qualify for your N.E.W.T. Transfiguration or Potions course will result in a premature end to your Animagus training.”
The ball of stress weighing in your gut instantly gave way to fire.
“No, sir,” you said. “Professor McGonagall does not waste her time with sub-par students.”
“Nor do I,” he replied, with a cold tone of finality. “Is that all?”
“Just one question, Professor.” Pausing for a moment, you broke eye contact to consider the desk in front of you, choosing your words carefully. “How...can I be better? What’s holding me back?”
“That’s two questions. Learning to count would be a good place to start.”
It took all of your willpower not to laugh.
“Your failings across classes have something in common,” he started. “The more stressful your situation, the worse your performance. If you cannot remain calm under pressure, you lack the temperance required to become an Animagus, let alone to pursue a career in magical law enforcement. You require self-control. Learn to hold your nerve.”
He slammed his book shut.
The sudden noise gave you a start, and you immediately felt like an idiot--doubly so when you noticed the glint of satisfaction in his eyes.
You knew the word was coming before it left him.