As the only entirely wizard-occupied village in Britain, Hogsmeade had several unusual, if not unique, features. Most of them would be considered advantages by any reasonable witch or wizard, like the fact that Muggles never found their way into the village accidentally. This meant, of course, that nobody ever had to pretend to shovel snow off their front doorstep in the winter instead of risking a wand blast, or put up with noisy and easily broken Muggle devices to perform simple tasks instead of clean, efficient magic. As Madam Puddifoot was fond of saying, you couldn't beat a Gardenia Arkwright Everlasting Self-Lighting Candle or a nice modern SuperSweep Safety broom, and she didn't know why Muggles wasted their time trying.
The most unusual thing of all about Hogsmeade, however, was the Owl Office.
It wasn't the largest Owl Office in the world; not even the largest in Britain, though many wizards might have guessed it to be just that. Wizards, on the whole, had very little imagination. The Ministry of Magic had a larger Owl Office, for a start, as did (as far as could be ascertained) the goblins, though nobody knew much about that one.
It was, however, the most well-organised. Each Postmaster treated the job as a sacred duty, part of which was to improve the system enough to leave their mark on it for future generations. Each successive set of colour-coded boxes and roosts, each new service implemented or extension added had to meet with the approval of the owls before the Postmaster could pat himself on the back, and there had been some notable failures in the past. Nobody was going to forget the mess made by the Automatic Owl Cleaning Station, nor would they be in a hurry to try another exciting efficiency drive by doubling the delivery routes, but those were rare occurrences; mostly the Postmasters' efforts met with the approval of the birds and customers alike.
It was generally considered to be an impossible task to beat old Gideon Arbuthnot's contribution of a complete classification system for owl post, a fact which had caused considerable dismay to the current incumbent of the role, Alfie Prendergast.
It was June 22nd 2013, and it was about to be Alfie Prendergast's lucky day.
* * *
Minerva McGonagall peered down her nose at the spotty fourth year shuffling his feet in front of her.
"A problem?" she said, as if it was a new concept, and one she didn't plan to have any truck with. "What do you mean there's a problem?"
"Wiv the post, Professor Mac," Stanley Wilkins said. He held out a battered letter in a very familiar-looking envelope.
"Don't call me that, Wilkins," Minerva snapped. She eyed the letter suspiciously. "Why has that letter not been sent?" There had only been two Hogwarts letters sent out this month, she knew that even though she no longer supervised them personally.
"It has, Miss— Professor Mac-um, McGona-gonagall." Stanley put the letter down on the desk in front of him, and she could see now the extent of the damage. Part of it looked like it had been set on fire, there were a couple of holes in it, and the seal seemed to have melted enough that the Hogwarts crest was all but unrecognisable.
"My Uncle Alfie says it's been sent back four times now, and that's never 'appened before." Stanley hadn't been able to fathom why his uncle had been beaming as he broke the news, but being unable to fathom something wasn't exactly an unusual experience for Stanley. "The owls are going round in circles, 'e says, they don't know what to do wiv themselves."
It had been a long time since there had been this much trouble over a Hogwarts letter. Not since Potter, Minerva thought. There were always a few that had to be resent, or that needed a personal visit to be made — always with the Muggle families, of course. But this one couldn't have been flagged as a Muggle family, or she would have been alerted when it went out.
Curious, she turned over the envelope.
Emily Harriet Smythe
42, Sunset Crescent,
Slowly, she closed her eyes.
"Thank you, Mr Wilkins," she said, and leaned back in her chair. "Tell your Uncle Alfie I'll take care of it."
Now if only she had the faintest idea how she was going to do that.
* * *
It wasn't the cowardly way to deal with it, really it wasn't.
Hogwarts letters and their recipients, along with their families, they were first of all the business of the Records Keeper, a position currently occupied (in addition to her Muggle Studies teaching duties, never all that burdensome) by the sadly misnamed Patience Strong.
Professor Strong came back tear-stained with a singed hat, and couldn't be prevailed upon to tell her story without several muddy cups of ridiculously sweet tea.
"A-and then, then he s-said," she sniffed, "if I didn't leave, he'd, he'd— do something unspeakable w-with my broomstick!"
"Unspeakable?" Minerva repeated, trying not to smile. "Dear me."
"I-it was a dreadful ordeal," Patience sobbed. "I d-don't think I can go back there, H-headmistress."
Minerva watched tear splodges plop onto her desk and wondered who on earth she could send next into the lion's den. Or was it the snake's nest?
Of course. There was only one person she could ask.
Potter came back unsinged, but pale with anger.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded. He ignored the cup of tea Minerva offered him, and continued to pace up and down the rug in front of her fireplace.
She'd expected that question. "You were very young, you'd been through so many ordeals—"
"The real reason," Harry said. "Tell me the real one."
Minerva was silent for a moment. "You wouldn't have left it alone," she said simply. "If you'd known he was alive, you would have wanted to know who and where and why. If you'd known who and where and why, you wouldn't have been able to keep away."
"I could have asked him—" Harry's hands were clenched into fists. "He could have told me so much."
Minerva shook her head. "No," she said. Fifteen years and still the spectre of those days and weeks hadn't truly left her. "You have no idea, Potter. There was so little of him left. He didn't know his own name, and his magic—"
There were few things more harrowing for a witch or wizard to witness than the true destruction of another's magical ability. It could save a life, rarely, but at a cost most wouldn't have willingly paid. It wasn't the only time Minerva had seen it, but it was the one that kept her awake at night still, sometimes. Those were the really bad nights.
"You don't think—" she said, but she found her words dried up in her mouth. "He sent the letters back, and without magic or knowledge, I have no idea how he did that."
"He doesn't remember anything," Harry said, and he sounded as certain as she'd ever heard him. "I think the owls were just trying to be helpful."
Minerva sighed in relief. If anything or anyone was going to spark memories, she was as sure as she could be that Potter would have been the one. She picked up the latest (fourteenth now) returned letter from the Helston house and tapped it against her hand.
"This wasn't supposed to happen," she said, pulling herself together. "Evidently I underestimated the appeal of a bad temper and sarcasm to the local Muggle women."
Harry smiled then, which wasn't quite what she'd expected. Although there was sadness in it, a little resignation too. There was also something else that Minerva couldn't quite put her finger on.
"You should go and see him," Harry said. "I think you'll be surprised."
* * *
Minerva remembered the house, of course.
She might have been surprised that he still lived there, but he had always been a practical man, and the house was large enough for a family. It was certainly larger than the house he had grown up in, she knew that.
She remembered the bright yellow door and window frames, though she was surprised to see they were still the same colour. Nicely maintained, too, and really, what had she expected? That he'd have turned the house into a replica of the Slytherin dungeon and painted it in his house colours?
She was forced to admit that yes, she had expected something of the sort.
She was being ridiculous.
She remembered the honeysuckle covering the front wall, and the neatly pruned rose bushes too. The bench under the front window though, that was new— as were the teenage boys sitting on it.
Minerva frowned. These boys were too old to be his children, surely?
As she pushed the gate open, one of the boys, a tall one with shaggy fair hair, stood and tapped on the window above the bench. He kept one eye on Minerva's progress up the crazy paving path until he noticed the envelope in her hand, then he called out, "Got another one, Mr Smythe."
The window cracked open a little, but the sun was bouncing off the glass and Minerva couldn't see who was inside. She couldn't hear what they said, either, but apparently they were speaking as both boys looked towards the window.
"No, different sort of bird this time." The boy smirked, but the window jerked shut abruptly. A few moments later, the front door opened and a man stepped outside.
"Have a little respect, Johnson," said Severus Snape, in a familiar acid tone.
Minerva caught her breath. She knew the changes they'd made would settle in his features as he healed, but this was— it was Severus if you knew him well, as well as only a few people ever had, but at the same time it was a whole new man. Still not particularly appealing, still with those strong features, but it was as if several people who had never met Severus Snape had painted a portrait, taking it in turns to draw, and paint, and smudge, and paint again, until the original subject was almost — but not quite — lost.
The eyes, though. There was nothing even magic could do to change those eyes. The gaze was as intense as ever as he appraised her.
"Sorry, sir," the boy said cheerfully. "Should I fetch the flamethrower?"
Minerva pursed her lips. What on earth was going on here?
Severus— or rather, Edward Morgan Smythe, if she recalled correctly, actually smiled.
"I think you can stand down for now, Johnson," he said. "Why don't you put the kettle on?"
"Lemon?" asked Smythe, when Johnson had poured them some tea and returned to his station outside the front window. "Unless you prefer milk."
It was tempting to think he remembered how she took her tea, but there was no sign of recognition in his eyes. "Lemon," she confirmed, and took the cup he passed to her.
Minerva wasn't sure what she'd expected, but it certainly hadn't been this.
"So," she said. "I'm sure you realise that I'm from—"
He didn't let her finish. "I read the letter." He frowned. "I thought I'd made it clear that my daughter will not be attending your school."
"But not," Minerva said with some asperity, "with any form of explanation, Mr Smythe."
His frown deepened. "I explained everything to your Mr... Potter, was it?"
Minerva was going to have serious words with Mr Potter when she saw him next. He'd managed to leave her with the impression that he'd come away no wiser than when he'd headed out to see Mr Smythe, but she should have seen through that. Harry was nothing if not persistent, and he'd never been reasonable where Severus Snape was concerned.
"Mr Potter," she said, keeping her voice calm, "appears to have left a few things out of his report. Perhaps you would be so kind—"
Smythe sipped at his tea.
"My daughter, Miss—?" he paused, and Minerva could have kicked herself. Of course, he had no idea who she was.
"Professor McGonagall," she said, and he nodded.
"My daughter is the only thing I have in the world since my wife's death," he continued. "I have no intention of sending her off to some government-sponsored boarding school that I've never heard of on the say so of people who think birds are an appropriate way to carry out important communications."
"But Mr Smythe," Minerva said. "Your daughter's magical talents—"
"Have been obvious for many years," Smythe said dismissively. "We've muddled along just fine so far without your help, thank you very much."
Minerva coughed. "From the state her letters were returned in, Emily seems to have some... destructive tendencies?"
Smythe, to her surprise, smiled once more. "My fifth form science class, actually. Some of them are really getting the hang of chemistry at last." He looked more than a little proud.
"The, um." Minerva had to ask. "Flamethrower?"
"Class project," Smythe said, and yes, that was definitely pride. Severus Snape, returned to teaching when he could do anything, anything he wanted? She would never have believed it.
Perhaps this was what Potter had wanted her to see.
"There is one way this might work," Minerva said. She hated not having time to think out a strategy — at this rate she would be turning into Albus, making it up as she went along — but she had a strong feeling this was going to be her only chance. "What if you were to come with Emily?"
"What?" Smythe looked startled, then confused... then speculative. She could almost see the cogs turning in his brain. Just like the old Severus.
"I have a feeling," Minerva said. "That I may be looking for a new professor for the next school year." And even if Professor Strong stayed, perhaps the Muggle Studies curriculum could do with a little expanding. Science, that would be an interesting addition.
"But no flamethrower projects," she warned.
When Smythe looked up at last and smiled, she knew he'd made a decision.
* * *
Alfie Prendergast was quite pleased with his new addition to the Owl Post system. It was simple enough — a box with a slot in the top, covered in stars that sparkled day and night. The sparkling wasn't strictly necessary, but Mrs Prendergast had picked up this new spell from one of her magazines, and it was better than having all the curtains in their house sparkle.
Anyway, it worked well for the Mystery Box. Any weird mail, anything the owls didn't know what to do with, it all went in there.
The funny thing was, he realised after a few months, all the post in there was always addressed to one man. That new teacher at Hogwarts, the one that was teaching their Stanley something called kimstree, or suchlike. He'd be down, regular as clockwork, once a week to empty the Mystery Box. Alfie knew that, because he'd seen the letters go in, but he'd only taken them out the first time for him. Since then, he'd handled them himself, had Mr Smythe.
He was a Squib, they said. Or maybe a Muggle, nobody was quite sure. But Alfie knew better. After all, he'd invented the Mystery Box. Being a wizard, he hadn't bothered to put in a way to open it without magic.
But being a Postmaster was, as Alfie knew, a sacred duty. And he knew he had Mr Smythe to thank for being able to do his part in the development of the best Owl Post system in the wizarding world.
If Mr Smythe wanted to keep his secret, Alfie Prendergast was more than happy to let him.