"Pardon me, Headmaster, but I don't believe I heard you correctly," Snape murmured silkily, just loud enough to hear.
"On the contrary, Severus, I believe you heard me perfectly well," Dumbledore said calmly, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses. "You merely do not wish to understand."
The Potions Master glared his best glare at the ancient wizard, a glare that had caused many a first or second year student to lose consciousness. It, however, had no effect on Albus Dumbledore. "But this is demeaning, embarrassing, not to mention probably illegal," protested the dark-haired man.
"That never stopped you before," mumbled the headmaster under his breath, but then added more loudly, "Nevertheless, you are the only man with the, er, talents for the job, Severus. The whole of the wizarding world could depend on you."
Snape hung his head. "I understand, Headmaster. But did it have to be Potter?"
"I am well aware of your feelings for the boy, Severus," Dumbledore began, and the professor began to splutter. "I mean to say, I know you harbor a bit of animosity toward Mr. Potter."
"A bit?" Snape managed to spit out, his face twisting with anger.
"Animosity," Dumbledore went on, "That really should be directed at the father and not the son."
Snape had no answer to this, so he just glared, not bothering to mention that James Potter was dead so there was no satisfaction in hating him any longer.
"And Harry fits the image exactly of what we need," the headmaster pointed out, quite correctly. "We must have a seventh year student, so he can be as old as possible while still being obviously a minor." Snape glared but did not object. "Not to mention that the boy needs to be attractive, and intelligent enough to think on his feet."
Snape didn't comment, feeling that any comment about a student's attractiveness could be taken the wrong way. Dumbledore continued. "I have contemplated this for a long time, and while Draco Malfoy might be of more suitable character for this type of deception, I don't trust him in the slightest. In addition, Mr. Malfoy tells his father everything and I doubt Lucius would stand for it." Dumbledore looked over the top of his glasses at Snape, taking on a more serious air. "If there were anyone else, Severus, anyone at all, I would not ask you to do this thing. But, I fear I must. Please, consider well before you refuse." The headmaster sat heavily down at his desk, and Snape suddenly realized that this was the first time he had seen the old wizard look his age.
The Potions Master took a deep breath. "I'll do it." He looked at Dumbledore, who was looking up at him skeptically. "And I'll get along with Harry Potter for the good of the mission." He looked down at the floor, wondering how was going to survive this.
Dumbledore's eyes lit up. "Excellent! The preparations are already underway. As soon as the students leave for the spring break, you and Mr. Potter will depart. That gives you," the headmaster considered, "Three days to get ready." He looked seriously at Snape. "We're counting on you and Harry."
Severus nodded curtly, and turned to go. He was just reaching for the door when a thought occurred to him. He turned back. "Have you talked to Potter about this?"
Snape thought he saw a guilty look cross the old man's face, but it was wiped away by the casual wave of his hand. "A mere formality, Severus. Now go on, I'm sure you have exams to attend to."
Snape frowned, but stalked back down to his dungeons, cape billowing around in him an extremely intimidating manner.
"WHAT? YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? WITH WHOM?" Harry seemed to have forgotten to whom he was shouting in his righteous indignation. He glared at Dumbledore, who sat placidly behind his huge desk, Fawkes perched on his shoulder, looking protective, when suddenly he paled. "Headmaster! Sir! I didn't mean to shout! But..." The seventeen-year-old paused, searching for strong enough words that wouldn't sound offensive. "But, but, SNAPE!" He stood there, almost trembling, trying to wrap his mind around what the wizard was asking him to do.
"Now, now, Harry, don't you think you're overreacting just a bit?" Dumbledore said amiably, not at all put off by the youth's outburst.
"No," replied Harry shortly. "Sir," he added.
The headmaster sighed. It was going to be a long day.
Finally, the term was over, nearly all the students were off on holiday, and Severus Snape and Harry Potter stood in the headmaster's office, looking anywhere but at each other. Dumbledore beamed at them from behind his desk. The phoenix sat on its perch, hacking and looking pathetic. Its change wasn't far off. "Well," the headmaster announced. "I'm so happy to see that you've both accepted the challenge of saving the world once again." He paused, looking over his glasses seriously. "Please, know that you both have my undying gratitude and admiration for choosing this path you're about to embark upon. The world may not know your sacrifice, but I do, and you make me proud that you both have come from the finest wizarding school in the world." Dumbledore paused, appearing to be overcome with emotion. He coughed, and said, "Go now, and do your best." With that, the old wizard disappeared into his private chambers, followed by the nearly bald phoenix. The two wizards were left alone in the office with their packed bags.
They stood there for a long moment, both men silent in their own thoughts. Then Harry spoke up resignedly. "He sure is good at piling on the guilt, isn't he?"
Snape snorted. "Decades of practice, I'd wager." He sighed, picking up his bag. "Let's get out of here before I change my mind, Potter." He headed for the door.
"I'm right behind, you, Professor," sighed Harry. At least this couldn't be worse than spending the holidays with the Dursleys'.