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In the shocked silence that followed Severus' words, Potter quietly excused himself from the staff table, and left the dining hall.

Severus focused his attention on his chop and potatoes, and pointedly ignored the laden silence of the others. His conversations with the Wretch Who Lived were none of their bloody business, and even had it been one of his better insults, (which it was not,) he'd hardly have given them the satisfaction of second thoughts. Severus Snape hadn't bought into kissing Harry Potter's arse when Dumbledore endorsed it, and he wasn't about to begin now that it was a national pastime, by God!

He was the Headmaster of Hogwarts – his penance for having survived the war, apparently, was to rebuild the school with the new-and-improved board of trustees up his arse, -- and how he chose to address his own subordinates was his own damned business.

The building glow of his well-deserved indignance was interrupted by another scrape of chair. Minerva had stood as well. "Professor Flitwick, Professor Slughorn," she nodded to each, "please excuse me." Then she too left the table, casting Severus look that tried, and failed, to project neutrality with just a hint of disappointment. He rather thought she looked like she had gas instead.

But before he could enjoy that private thought, two other chairs pushed back on the other side of the table. Vector, Hooch, and – oh, three chairs, apparently, -- Sprout. All of them left the hall, with faces set, and as cold as ever they'd been when the Carrows had shared their table. Severus felt his own stomach clench around a pocket of rage as one by one, the rest of his teaching staff left the table.

Not one of them said a word to him, but each of them looked him in the eye before they went. The message was clear, and it filled him to the brim with fury. A year and a half of cooperation, rebuilding, restocking, refurnishing the damaged school meant nothing. All the explanations, restitutions and revelations apparently did not satisfy these lily-handed, sanctimonious, Potter-worshipping-

A cough brought Severus around savagely, wand in hand. But it was only Hagrid, still seated at the table's far end, watching him with that simple expression he adopted whenever he was dealing with one of his bloodthirsty creatures again. Severus showed his teeth obligingly.

"What, not leading the rescue charge?" he asked, voice fully envenomed. "I'm sure your handkerchief will be wanted for drying the Hero's tears as well."

The idiot only kept staring, chewing unhurriedly on whatever was in his mouth. Only when he had drained his goblet to wash the mess down, and patted his beard with a ridiculously undersized serviette, did the half giant bother to reply. "Oh, they din't leave on Harry's account," he said, setting his fork and knife down at last. "We all know he's fit to handle yeh all on his own by now."

Fit to handle me? The thought brought steel to Severus' spine, but Hagrid went on before he'd managed to find the words.

"No, I reckon they all left on account of you, Sir, not Harry." One shoulder rolled in an earthquake of a shrug. "T'warn't Harry as was making dinner so unpleasant, after all."

"Unpleasant!" Severus threw his own serviette now. "They know me! You all know my nature, and I have never pretended to be a nice man! You've no right to act surprised that I-"

"Aye, that's about it, Sir," Hagrid cut him off, infuriatingly unruffled. "They all knew yeh during the war, and we've all tried to understand now, why yeh were as that. What none of us can figure, though, is why you're so much worse, now. Well, no," He waved a hand, and stood as Severus opened his mouth to reply. "It has got much worse this past three months, of course. Since Harry came."

Under Hagrid's idea of a searching look, Severus nearly burst with indignation. They were passing sentence on him, in favour of that… that…

"Why did yeh hire him, hating Harry as yeh do. If yeh don't mind me asking, Sir." Again, Hagrid cut him off.

And Severus could have blamed it on the school board, on the Ministry, or the funding committee, or any of a billion of the petty little political reasons that had sweetened the deal back when Potter had signed the contract. He could also have mentioned Potter's careful, consistent, persistent courting of Severus' friendship since the war, and that no matter what fit of rage or embarrassment sent the boy away, he always came back to Severus' door again. He could have (possibly under torture) said that he had become to find that surety endearing, and wished to rely upon it. Or he could have pointed out that Potter was actually a reasonably good choice for the DADA position, all things considered. He said none of those things.

"I do mind you asking," he said instead. "If you do not mind me asking, why exactly is it you are still here, sharing a table with a man none of your peers seem to be able to respect?" Merlin, but those words burned his tongue to say! Still, he was no coward. He would not hide from the truth of who, and what he was.

"Oh, we respect you, Sir. It's not like any o' them as left just now woulda done it if the kiddies had been in yet, ye do know that." Earnest, artless, Severus longed to believe he was lying, but could not so deceive himself. "It's just that we don't much like yeh, when yeh go over all hateful like that, is all."

"Why are you still here?" Severus barely managed to force the words out through the blockade of indignant fury, and mortification the giant's words had roused in him.

"Well, I reckon it was because I wanted to put a question to yeh, in private like, and this seemed a good time for it." Hagrid replied, pushing his plate away, and folding his great paws in its place when the Castle Elves vanished it. "Now, I reckon you're in a temper just now, and you're like as not ter give me my walking papers after I've spoke my piece. And tha's all right. Ye'll have no trouble gettin' a Care o' Magical Creatures teacher, or even a groundskeeper if yeh let me go, and I've a few choices of my own I can follow if it comes ter it."

Severus blinked, a little startled to realize that the giant actually thought he might banish him from his home just for speaking his mind. Merlin, was he such a tyrant as that? Into the expectant pause, he waved a negligent hand, as though he couldn't be bothered to reply. In truth, he could think of no words.

"Well then. This question, yeh see, it's not that I want the answer from yeh, Sir. It's just a question I been thinkin' yeh needed to answer fer yerself-like. An maybe before too long." And here, at last, the giant stood. "After all this time, after all tha's changed now the war's done, after nearly dyin' o' that great dirty snake's attack, and the whole world forgivin yeh for what happened with Headmaster Dumbledore, yeh just have to ask yerself; 'What do I get outta bein' such a prick?'"

And he dusted his hands, great useless claps, as like to pulverize any lingering food, and wipe it away, and he pushed his huge chair to place, and he left the dining hall without looking back.

And Severus was left there, alone in his chair, alone at his table, with the last staff-only meal coagulating in front of him, to wonder just how it could be that the words of a half-wit should hurt so much.

He had not yet answered that question when Potter came back.

"Where's everyone go?" the boy… man asked quietly, coming around the table as if he meant to resume his place.

Severus did not look up from the whiskey he'd ordered the Castle Elves to bring him. "Midnight Quidditch match," he lied, "Staff only. If you run, you'll just catch them."

Potter sat down instead. "It's rather pouring out there," he observed.

"Scotland," Severus replied with a shrug, and Potter laughed, surprising him with the sound. Now he came to think of it, though, Potter often laughed like that; as though he were simply happy, or pleased to share in the merriment, without any ghost of malice, or cruelty behind it. The startling thing, was that he should offer such a laugh to Severus, in particular. Even more startling in light of certain recent… developments.

He closed his eyes as the enchanted ceiling echoed the rising storm's growl. "Why are you here, Harry Potter?" He set the question like an abstraction onto the table in front of them; a centerpiece for discussion, a problem to be argued.

He could have predicted the answer would have involved that shrug, and that sidelong glance as well. "Didn't finish my dinner," Potter replied, forking a chunk of ham steak long gone cold into his mouth.

Strangely, Severus found himself unable to rise to the bait he'd have struck without a second thought just earlier in the evening. "That is not what I mean," he said.

"Oh, right," he replied, then waved his fork vacuously in the air. "Well, there is that whole being employed here thing, and what with the school opening for the first time since the war and all-"

"No!" He hadn't meant to shout. Why had he shouted? Why had he shoved his chair over backward, and leapt to his feet as though to fight, with the tumbler of whiskey in his fist instead of a wand? Potter hadn't moved, only watched Severus with calm, sober eyes that held not an ounce of joke in them now.

"That is not what I mean either." Severus' voice did not shake. Nor did his hand when he set the tumbler down with a precise click.

Potter nodded, held his gaze. "I know. I guess I'm here because of hope, really."

"Hope?" Severus could not contain the bark of wild laughter following on the heels of that awful word. "Hope for what? What can the Wizarding World's hero possibly have left to hope for?"

But Potter, it seemed, was in no mood to rise to bait either. He simply stared at Severus for a long, horrid moment, then flicked his wand to set the overturned chair back upright again. "There's always things to hope for," he said, grave and beautiful. "Hope for good things, hope for fair things, hope for what could just turn out to be wonderful things." Severus made a noise of scorn in his throat, but Potter's quick seeker fingers caught his hand before the matching words could find the air.

"Hope opens the door, you know? If a man can't hope for good things," he said with the air of a madman, or prophet, "then all he'll ever see around him, is the bad things, right? And how long can a man go on like that without doing his nut?"

Twenty six years, apparently. Severus thought, staring down into those green eyes that still somehow managed to pierce him to the quick when he let himself look.

He made himself look. Made himself keep hold of the young man's hand, and take in the planes and weights and shifting, ephemeral mysteries that loaded that green gaze with so much mystery, so much power. Made himself just take it in whole, and not parse it out for shadows and hints and subtleties. And when he could look no more for blushing, he looked away, shook loose his hand, and sat once more.

"Elves," he barked, taking up his glass once more, "Serve a whiskey for Professor Potter." He marked from the corner of his eye, the young man's pleased, if startled grin, and allowed himself a scowl in reply. "It would be unseemly for the Headmaster of Hogwarts to drink by himself on the last night before classes."

And when the glass appeared before him, Potter took it up, and held it out toward Severus, with every sign of a mawkish declaration, Severus cut the imminent horror off with a crystal *ting*, and a sidelong smirk of, "Cheers."

"Cheers," came the reply.

And for the first time in months, what followed was not silence, but rather quiet.

Severus thought that he might, perhaps, be able to get used to that.