Disclaimer I do not own or lay claim to any part of J. K. Rowling's HarryPotter universe. Neither do I have any claim to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", which very obviously inspired this story and lent me a few lines. I can claim Jarvis, Higgins and Luc, the sleeping, redheaded toddler.
A/N Big thank yous, to Vaughn for the quick and always excellent beta work, and to Cyn for talking me down from the tree.
Malfoy was dead, to begin with.
This news is actually rather insignificant, as the list of the no longer living is a lengthy one, and certainly filled with names more worthy of remembrance. The war against Voldemort and his Death Eaters had taken many lives; the fact that Lucius Malfoy was among them was neither surprising nor so much a pity. Surprising was, instead, much more aptly applied to the status of Severus Snape—former Death Eater, former Hogwarts Professor, former fugitive from justice, former spy, current apothecary and, if not popular, much sought after Master of the craft of Potions.
Though he wasn't one to acknowledge such an emotion, he had been, nevertheless, quite astonished to be counted among the survivors. During the final confrontation with the Dark Lord, he'd fulfilled his Life Debt to the name of Potter, fully expecting to die for his trouble. Waking up afterward in a somewhat dreary room at St. Mungo's, with an Auror guard, no less, had not been the plan at all.
Of course, a good many things in Severus Snape's life had not been in the plans. Not dying wasn't even the strangest. Perhaps being exonerated of complicity in Albus Dumbledore's demise was the strangest. Or perhaps it was that Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived Again, had been instrumental in that acquittal. But Severus Snape worked very hard to keep his well-ordered mind free of that particular person and any of the associated flotsam collected over the years. The part of his brain that housed those things had long ago been locked down tight, bolted and the key thrown in the bin—the true Strangest Thing of All safely contained inside.
That Severus, hunched over his lukewarm bowl of gruel and stale bread in the small flat above his shop, was now thinking of The Boy caused him to become dyspeptic, to say the least. It was Potter's fault, as he'd had the audacity to waltz into the shop and request a potion for the werewolf. Whether or not The Boy, now twenty-three and not a boy at all, had looked delicious and tragic while doing it was not the point.
"Severus, couldn't you make an exception? Yours is the only potion that could truly help him." He'd made many improvements to Belby's original award-winning Wolfsbane Potion. Snape's brew not only further calmed the beastly dementia, enabling retention of the human mentality, it eased the physical transformation cycle itself so much that it was nearly painless, and in most cases, it also alleviated the joint and muscle soreness that naturally followed. He had no doubt that Lupin, whose middle-aged body has been subjected to monthly transformations since childhood, would benefit greatly from such improvements.
While denying the wolf over the past few years had given him a twisted sort of satisfaction, Snape had not been at all prepared for the appearance of The Boy in his Knockturn Alley shop to plead his case.
The Boy looked hopeful, though there was something else in his eyes that had made Snape wary. His customary sneer fixed firmly into place, he replied coldly, "I fail to understand why that is any concern of mine. No doubt he should have thought of that before nearly killing me—again."
"You are unbelievable with grudges—that was almost five years ago. He still blamed you for Dumbledore's death and was under the mistaken impression that you were kidnapping me. Can you blame him, really? He didn't know about us, about the training—or the other..." Pain flashed briefly in the green eyes as the rest was left unsaid, but Snape kept his demeanor cold, distant, and pointedly ignored the roiling of his stomach. He would not be weak again. His only response was an arched eyebrow.
"Severus, please, it's Christmas..." The Boy seemed to sense his error and let the statement stand unfinished.
"Mr. Potter, what occurrence in our past association has given you the delusion that I am sentimental about the Yule? Frankly, I'm stunned that Lupin had the gall to send you to fetch it for him. I've made myself perfectly clear—his business is not welcome here."
"Remus doesn't know I came. He's told me countless times that I should give up on you, that it's a lost cause—but I can't seem... There are people who care about you; why do you choose to live like this? What's happened to you, Severus? To us?"
Snape's chest felt as if a knife had been firmly planted into it. Outwardly he gave no sign of anything other than stony contempt. "Us, Mr. Potter? There was never an 'Us'. An occasional hurried buggering, while entertaining at the time, does not constitute an 'Us'. It was nothing, it meant nothing."
The Boy looked as if he'd been struck; a hand dragged through the impossible raven hair before disappearing once again into the folds of his forest green cloak. Snape fought the stab of emotion that the simple, familiar gesture elicited.
Green eyes searched his face before he quietly stated, "It meant something... to me."
The knife twisted in Snape's chest, but still he fought it, turning his anger at himself for his weakness toward the source of the pain. It was indeed The Boy's fault; Snape would be gratifyingly numb and isolated were it not for his disrupting presence. Maintaining the coldness that had served him well in the past, he responded icily, "You...are a fool."
The Boy exhaled sharply, and then said, "I shouldn't have come. I just wanted to see if... needed to... never mind."
He turned on his heel and strode toward the door, pausing with a shaking hand on the door's handle. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you. Happy Christmas, Severus."
"Keep your Christmas." He had sneered as the door quietly snicked shut. The only sound to be heard was the very satisfying shattering of glass, as the nearest phials had become the victims of his ire.
With an impatient 'Reparo', Severus had promptly repaired the broken vessels, fortunately empty at the time of impact, and had gone about his regular closing-time routine, paying no heed to the ache deep within his chest. It wouldn't do to dwell on the incident with The Boy. Certainly it would not be repeated—except in the wee hours, when his treacherous mind often visited such horrors upon him.
Disgusted with himself, Severus raised his wand, banished his dishes to the sink and set them about cleaning themselves. A single candle burned on the table near his elbow, and the low fire in the grate cast long shadows on his austere room—reaching like bony fingers across its length to caress the books that occupied the entire wall opposite.
He snorted at his own fancy and stared into the fire. In an effort to clear his mind, he put his considerable Occlumens' skills to the task, but was distracted by yet another fancy. For a moment, only a moment, the face of the long-deceased Albus Dumbledore had appeared in his fire. Unlike a Floo call (which would be improbable for a number of reasons, but chiefly because his fire was not connected to the Network) it was as if the fire itself had taken the Headmaster's shape.
Cursing The Boy and his indigestion-causing presence, he gathered his wits and closed his eyes, mentally building the walls. He was nearly there, had almost contained 'the incident' when he heard it.
A whisper, "Severus."
His eyes shot open and looked wildly around the room. Nothing looked amiss: his bed was currently unoccupied, the heavy bed curtains hung parted and waiting, the armchair in which he sat, the threadbare braided rug, the books, the table—all in order. Although, the deepened shadows at the corners of the room had suddenly taken on a slightly more ominous appearance.
He wondered briefly if he possessed the ingredients to concoct a remedy for hallucination-inducing dyspepsia. Shaking off the foreboding, he closed his eyes and once again bent his mind to his wall-building efforts. And heard it again, this time louder and unmistakable.
He silently counted to ten before slowly easing one eye open.
"Severus, my boy... good, good, you are not sleeping."
"Albus?" It was, of course, impossible. Albus Dumbledore was dead, and surely would never have chosen to become a ghost. Therefore, he could not possibly be standing in front of Severus. He closed his eye against the sight; the only reasonable explanation, of course, was that he'd gone mad.
"Yes, yes, Severus, it is I. Have no fear—you are correct, I have not chosen to become a ghost, nor have you gone mad."
"That is apparently debatable." He opened both eyes this time and was met with the same scene. A seemingly solid Albus Dumbledore, wearing outrageously colored robes, was standing on his worn rug, doing little to contain the still-irritating twinkle in his bright blue eyes. "If you are not a ghost, how is it that you are standing before me now?"
Dumbledore conjured a chintz-covered chair and sat down, arranging his robes before answering. "I am not truly corporeal; it is difficult to explain, and it is neither here nor there. Let us just say that it was an enormous undertaking; I had to pull quite a few strings, so to speak, to make it happen. However, I have no doubt that the effort will prove to have been worthwhile when all is said and done."
"What on earth could possibly be so important that you would go to so much trouble?"
"You, my dear boy. I am very concerned by what I see of your progress." Dumbledore looked at him over his half-moon glasses, smiling warmly, and with an air of caring that Severus had almost forgotten existed in the world. He resisted the pull of it.
"My life is what it is. I am not displeased with my business' success. You seem to have gone to these great lengths for no good reason, Albus."
Dumbledore did not seem convinced. He looked around the spartan room without comment, and Severus felt compelled to further his case with the... spirit? Specter? Figment? "I have the basics. I have never been one for luxuries."
"I do not speak of material possessions; though, you could certainly do with a few creature comforts, I daresay. I'm talking about your life, Severus, your heart. You survived the war, but you barely exist. Dying inside, as I see it, and I will not stand by and let it happen." He stood, and vanished the chair. "I have arranged something. It is my Christmas gift to you—the gift of insight. I beg you to use it wisely." He paused, sending Severus a significant look before continuing, "Tonight you will be visited by—"
The whole situation had had a familiar feel about it, and Severus suddenly realized why. Interrupting Dumbledore before he could continue, he raised a hand and said dryly, "No, let me guess—I will be visited by three ghosts?"
Dumbledore looked delighted. "Wonderful! Yes, three spirits whose job it is to give you a much needed bit of perspective."
"I know how it works, Albus, I've read the book. The first spirit will, no doubt, show me my mother in an effort to reduce me to puddles; the last spirit will show me my long overdue death. I'll be redeemed, then wake on Christmas morn filled with the spirit of the season. I shall buy a fat goose and race to the Weasleys', and then carry tiny Ginny Weasley around on my shoulder. Sounds ludicrous, and unnecessary. Thank you, but no, I'll pass." The situation was truly ridiculous, and Severus wondered, again, if he'd finally gone round the twist.
"Not entirely what I had in mind, Severus. And the choice is not yours to make; it has already been put into motion." The old man paused, perplexed, then asked, "Why ever would you carry Ginny Weasley on your shoulder?"
Severus shrugged. "The Weasleys seemed fittingly Cratchet-like, but the youngest boy is taller than I." He threw his arms up, surrendering to the absurd. "Could we please get on with this, then, so that I may get some well deserved rest?"
"Now, Severus, you know how it works; the first visitation will occur as the clock strikes one." The twinkle turned more serious and the blue eyes filled with concern. "Please do not squander this gift, Severus. It may be your only chance, and I'd rather not meet with you again until you come to me as an old man of one hundred and fifty, full of the stories of a life well-lived."
The thought of living this life for another hundred or so years filled Severus with a weighty dread. His only response to the plea was a curt nod, though he felt that he must say something more to the man before he departed. "I... Albus, your absence..."
He suddenly felt horrifyingly sentimental and was disconcerted by his inability to speak properly. Dumbledore seemed to understand and responded, "I miss you, too, dear boy. Please take care of yourself."
Severus' responding response, "I shall try," was said into the empty room.
He felt unaccountably lonely in his familiar room, and prepared to retire for the evening wondering again if he'd lost his mind.
Severus awoke suddenly, for no reason that he could discern, and he parted the bed curtains in an effort to determine the time. The light from the dying fire was not sufficient enough to see the clock on the mantle; however, just as he fished under the pillow for his wand, the clock chimed one time.
One o'clock, then.
Despite his certainty that the earlier episode had been a bizarre hallucination, brought on by The Boy's visit and the digestive trouble it had caused, his heart started beating a slightly anticipatory tattoo in his chest. He could hear the seconds ticking away on the clock.
Tick. Tick. Tick
And still nothing happened.
Clearly, it had all been a manifestation of his disturbed mind. He attributed the disappointment he felt to the loss of his mental faculties and made to pull the bed curtains closed against the chill—that's when he saw it.
In the middle of the room, there was what appeared to be a single fairy light hovering in mid-air. Upon closer inspection, however, he realized that the small light was slowly growing in size. Mesmerized, he watched it take larger and larger proportions, the illumination increasing along with it.
Finally, it reached a distinguishable human shape; however, the brightly glowing light that accompanied the figure was obscuring any details from his view. Severus lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the brightness, then lowered it again as the light diminished.
Without the glare he was able to see his visitor—a vision in flowing gossamer robes and waves of copper colored hair that seemed to have a light of its own.
"Evans. You could have just knocked," he said sardonically. His earlier sense of anticipation was being replaced by unease. What had Dumbledore been thinking, sending The Boy's mother of all people?
His statement was met with clear tinkling laughter. "You really haven't changed, have you, Severus? It's all part and parcel, I'm afraid. If we're going to do this, then we must do it properly. Shall we?" She raised her arm for him to take hold of.
"Would it be too much trouble for me to don a dressing gown?" He gestured toward his gray nightshirt. "My dignity, I am certain, will be in tatters at the end of all this; I should like to at least be clothed for it."
"Be quick about it, then. I have much of your past to show you, and very little time in which to do it." Severus did not hurry deciding that he would take that little bit of control of this disaster. When he returned, he received a pitying look. "Oh, Severus, I do wish I'd been granted more time—I'd take you shopping."
He looked down at his worn slippers and old dressing gown, drawing the latter closer around his lean frame. "They are perfectly serviceable. I wasn't aware that I had to pass inspection in order to be done with this nonsense."
"You're right, Severus, I apologize." Lily looked contrite, and Severus stopped breathing for a moment. There was something in that look, something in that face that was painfully reminiscent of The Boy. It was disconcerting to look down into those green eyes while delicate feminine features and red hair surrounded them.
If Evans knew of Severus' thoughts, she made no mention of it. "Take my arm. It's a bit like Side-Along Apparation, but without the horrible squeezing sensation. I never did enjoy that."
Severus placed his hand lightly on her arm. As the room around them disappeared he said, "I'll warn you now, Evans, if we're on our way to see my mother in an attempt to bring me to tears, you will be most disappointed."
Evans made a non-committal noise and they materialized in a very familiar setting. They were in the Potions dungeon, where Professor Slughorn was monitoring the progress of the seventh-year N.E.W.T. class. Severus looked at the young faces around him. Evans sat near the front, concentrating fiercely on the cauldron in front of her, coppery tresses pulled neatly away from her face and spilling down her back like a fiery waterfall. Lupin was seated next to her, and Black and Potter sat just behind them. On the other side of the room, he saw himself at eighteen—lank haired, big nosed, sallow skinned, sour look on his face—concentrating on his own potion, but surreptitiously keeping track of Evans' progress, as well.
"Look at us, Severus. Why in the world were we so competitive?" Severus did not answer her, though he knew precisely why he'd felt that way. He had always been the best in their year at potions, and a Slytherin to boot, and Professor Slughorn, his own Head of House, had consistently bestowed his praise upon the Gryffindor, Lily Evans—by then, their illustrious Head Girl—and he'd topped it off by inviting her into that detestable Slug Club.
The door suddenly opened, and a dark head appeared; Severus felt his stomach drop. He recognized this day. "Well, not mucking about, are we? Sneaky way round the mother angle, Evans, but it won't work." She declined to respond and Severus watched the events unfold before him—intimately familiar with what comes next.
"Professor Slughorn, sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Black, what is it?" Severus paid no attention to the chattering and snide remarks from the Gryffindor trio at the appearance of Black's younger brother, taking in the sight of the young man.
"The Headmaster has sent me to fetch Severus. He needs him in his office right away, sir."
The professor looked at the clock on the wall, then responded, "Very well. Mr. Snape, if you would, please set your cauldron on a low heat. I'll see to it for you. Be on your way."
They followed the two young men on the long trip from the dungeons to the Headmaster's office. Memories assaulted him at every turning. He'd lived in this castle as a student, and then as a teacher for over twenty years combined. He hadn't been inside its walls since that day, the day that he'd put Albus' terrible plan into action atop the Astronomy Tower, and it was still more home than any other place on the planet. A twinge of regret, and perhaps of longing, rippled through him unchecked. He'd missed this place more than he would have ever imagined possible.
His lamentation was interrupted when, in a voice that was still a mere shadow of the velvet timbre it was to become, his younger self said, "Not here in the hallway, Reg, are you mad?"
His heart lurched a bit at the sight. Regulus Black, a sixth-year at the time, had been brushing his hand against Severus' as they walked. He'd wanted the contact more than anything, but had been reluctant to chance being spotted by anyone who might happen across their path.
He had softened the admonishment by gently bumping his hip against the younger boy. "Do you have any idea what Dumbledore wants of me?"
"Not the foggiest. I was on my way to the library when he asked me to get you out of Potions." Reg brushed his hand again, and this time Severus let him clasp it for a moment.
Even though he knew what they were heading to, and despite the pang he felt at seeing Reg again, Severus enjoyed watching the interaction between the two boys. He could recall, quite clearly, how it had felt with Reg at this age: the racing heart, the flush of excitement, and the wonder at the reciprocity of feeling.
"That's very sweet. I had no idea you were so close to Regulus." Lily's voice brought him back from his musings.
"That was the idea, Evans. Reg's mother would never have approved. Black knew, though. He hated me for it." Lily looked skeptical, so Severus elaborated with a slight involuntary sneer. "He blamed me for Reg's involvement in the Dark Arts, but the notion was preposterous. Admittedly, it was an interest that we shared. However, Black certainly knew his mother, and was aware of his own upbringing. Reg had been introduced to the Dark Arts long before he and I had ever made acquaintance."
As they knocked on the Headmaster's door, Reg gave young Severus' hand another squeeze before it swung open on its own. Dumbledore rose from his seat behind his desk; his face had said it all to Severus in that moment.
The Headmaster gestured Severus into a chair, and turned his attention to Reg. "Very good, Mr. Black. Thank you for your assistance."
Young Severus, sensing the imminent, had made a request. "Please, sir. I have a feeling that you are about to deliver bad news. Reg is my friend, and I'd like him to stay, if it's all right with you, sir."
"Excellent. Most fortunate that I should have come upon you in that case, isn't it, Mr. Black?" He hadn't noticed at the time, but he had suspicions now that it hadn't been serendipitous at all.
The Headmaster gestured toward the other chair and continued when both boys had taken a seat. "I'm sensing, Severus, that you have more than a fair idea the reason behind my summoning you here at such an odd time of day?"
Young Severus nodded. "My mother, sir. He's finally gone too far, hasn't he?"
Dumbledore looked at the young man with much concern. "I am afraid it is so. This does not come as a shock to you?"
"No, sir. He's been consistently violent; he broke her wand in two some years ago, but she refused to use magic against him anyway. What is to be done with my father? Will he go to the Muggle authorities?"
Sympathy filled the Headmaster's face. "Situations of this nature, involving both Muggle and magical folk, are typically governed by our Ministry. However, in this case, justice has served itself."
"She fought back?" Severus watched the shock register on his younger face before it was schooled back into the stony set that he'd already perfected at that age.
As Dumbledore discussed the arrangements that were being made, Evans turned to him. "I'm so sorry, Severus. I never knew that you'd gone through this—that your parents..."
"Why would you, and what difference would it have made if you had? It is not something that I would have deigned to discuss, even with Reg, whom I'd confided in regularly."
They followed the boys out of the Headmaster's office and Severus wondered what the point had been, and why they were still there. "Evans, why are we loitering about this place? I informed you early on that I was not going to shed tears for you."
Before she could respond, Reg suddenly pulled young Severus into an empty classroom.
"What are you doing?" Severus' book bag had hit the floor with a loud thunk as Reg pushed him against the nearest wall.
"This," was all he said before capturing Severus' lips in a needy, hungry kiss. The older man watched his younger self surrender to the onslaught and remembered fondly the sensations that it had created. It wasn't the first time they'd engaged in such activities; however, when he'd left the meeting with Dumbledore, he'd felt numb. His senses had suddenly come alive with Reg's warmth pressing against him, and he'd responded in kind. He watched as Reg plunged his hand into the folds of young Severus' school robes as his lips made a heated path up and down his neck.
Evans' eyes widened; she looked away and Severus snorted, "What's the matter, Evans? Don't get squeamish now, we are likely to come across much worse than this on our journey."
"I'm not squeamish, Severus. That is a perfectly normal reaction to hearing news of the sort that you'd just received. I'm merely respecting your privacy."
Severus snorted again, and watched as the boys' fumbling, hurried strokes brought them to a mutual and satisfying release.
"Thank you." Young Severus kissed Reg again, then slid down the wall to the floor, taking the other boy with him. "More comfortable down here," he said by way of explanation.
Reg smiled. "Scourgify." Cleaned and sated, they lay in a tangled heap on the floor, catching their breath.
"I think we should do it, Sev."
"I was under the impression that we already had."
"No. I'm talking about taking the Mark. Malfoy was here again. My cousins have already done it; well, Narcissa didn't take the Mark, but she's very supportive of Malfoy—they're getting married. Anyway, we're both of age, and hearing about your mum..." Reg didn't finish the statement, but looked at Severus' face for a reaction.
Severus looked at the two boys, neither of them angelic in appearance or action, but still innocent enough to make him wish that he could get through to them somehow, to tell them what a bad idea it was, to tell them to what end it would lead. Of course, they couldn't hear him, and would likely not listen if they could. He saw the moment his younger self came to a steely resolve. That moment lived vividly in his memory.
"Initially it was about belonging, but it became largely about power, about feeling helpless and angry." Evans only nodded at his words—that her husband had played even a small part in that helpless rage did not need to be voiced.
She raised her arm, and he reached out, understanding the gesture, and lightly touched her sleeve. As the room started to disappear, he took a last long look at the pile of teenaged boy, a last look at the remains of his innocence.
They rematerialized in another familiar room. Ah, the Snape Family manor, Severus thought scornfully of the tiny ramshackle house he'd inherited on Spinner's End.
"You told him what you'd heard?" Regulus, now a bit taller, a bit older, and perhaps a bit wiser, stood looking incredulously at Severus.
"What would you have me do? There were others in the pub that night, and they'd seen the whole unfortunate melee. I heard only a part of it, but it was appalling enough to be caught out eavesdropping like some gossiping old woman. I fail to see what difference it makes; the woman is a charlatan."
Severus looked down at Lily Evans Potter, whose appearance was frozen in time at twenty-one by a life cut short, and felt compelled to explain, "I did not know that it was you and Potter that she'd spoken of, Evans. In my defense, it seemed more than likely that she'd fabricated the entire thing to secure the position. I am uncertain what I could have done otherwise, but know that, even without that galling Life Debt hanging over my head, I would not have wished his wrath upon anyone, even Potter."
She patted his arm in a comforting manner, and said very generously, "It's all right, Severus. Everything seems to have happened for a reason, wouldn't you say? Harry might never have had what he needed to defeat Voldemort if things had played out in a different manner."
Severus hadn't realized what a weight it had been on his shoulders until she had absolved him of it with those words. If he gained nothing else from this night, he would remain undeniably grateful for the gift that she'd just presented him with.
Their small byplay had caused them to miss a portion of the conversation, but if Severus recalled correctly, Reg had not approved of his divulging information of any sort to the Dark Lord and they'd had a short argument about it—a prelude to what was coming.
"I'm sorry, Severus." Reg looked very much so; he pulled Severus into a warm, apologetic hug and landed gentle kisses on his thin lips. "It's just... he's mad. This isn't at all what we thought it would be, is it? I'd love nothing better than to be able to just follow along blindly, but I can't anymore. He's obsessed with his own immortality and he's amassing an army to serve him for all eternity." He paused, relaxing his grip slightly to better see Severus' face. "I've taken steps, Sev. Steps that I hope will guarantee a better future for us."
"What have you done?" Young Severus looked horrified by Reg's confession, and he made to push away from the other man, but Reg held tight.
"I'm not going to tell you. Don't look at me like that; I know that our Occlumency is solid—a matter of survival, really—but this is too enormous, and if something should happen, I need for you to be able to honestly say you hadn't had any idea as to what I'd done. Which at this point is nothing; however, as I've said, I have taken steps. I've found something out that might just free us all."
The little coloring that he'd possessed drained from Severus' face as the face of his younger self filled crimson with rage, and he jerked free of the grasp, suddenly angry. "Have you lost your mind? Why would you jeopardize what we do have? He will know—he always knows, and where will that leave you? I cannot believe that you would be so foolish."
"I'm doing this because I cannot live with myself; I can't stand another moment of the kowtowing and the subservience for one thing, but he's truly insane. There is no 'cause' for us to rally around; it's all a lie. You know better than anyone that I've never actually bought into that 'pureblood' rubbish. It's just a distraction to keep people from cottoning on to what he's really up to. Our only purpose is to serve him, to entertain him with our misdeeds against innocent people, and to recruit others to serve him while he endeavors to live forever. I'm doing this, Severus, because it's the right thing to do."
Young Severus turned his back on Regulus and moved away from him, staring unseeingly at the wall of dusty old books in front of him, reining in his considerable temper and regaining his stony countenance. He'd inherited his normally sullen demeanor from his mother, but he'd inherited his temper from his father, who'd had very few admirable traits and even fewer that Severus wished to have in common the man; it galled him beyond reason on the rare occasions that it got the better of him. He worked very hard to maintain tight control over it.
"Please, Severus, look at me." When he complied, Regulus left the width of the room between them and continued, "Even if that old fraud turns out to be right, do you want to wait until a child, not yet born, becomes old enough and strong enough to vanquish him? Do you want to live like this for twenty years or more?"
Icy control emanated off of Severus as he responded, "What I want and what I receive are rarely in agreement. What I would do, however, is everything in my power to stay alive. You should do me the same courtesy."
"Severus, please..." Reg moved to close the gap between them, but Severus raised a hand.
"No, if you are going to be stupid and reckless, then you may leave. And don't come back until your senses return to you."
"All right, Severus. I'll go—for now. Just... please think about what I've said."
Evans and Severus watched as a particularly ugly brownish-green vase met the now closed door and then rained shards on the floor beneath it. "That was the last time I saw him, though he tried to see me several times in the next week or so. I believed that I was giving him time to see the error of his thinking. I had every intention of taking him back and accepting his apology."
His heart felt as if it were placed in vice—strangling the middle of it, the pressure threatening to blow the organ apart at both ends. Reliving that moment was comparably painful to the real thing. For reasons that eluded him, he was struggling to maintain his normal reticence. There was something uncommonly soothing about Evans' presence, and he again felt compelled to explain.
"Even now, I do not know all that transpired. The Dark Lord had somehow discovered that Reg was working against him, though I don't believe that he knew Reg had gone after the Horcrux. He was used as an example, a reminder to all Death Eaters what defiance would buy them. Reg must have sensed something, too; I received an owl from him the night before he was killed."
Severus had no intention of sharing the contents of the letter with Evans, but it was burned into his brain. He had received his apology after all—in a hurried scribble, barely recognizable as Reg's neat script, he had not only proclaimed his success at his task and his love, but also apologized for his failure at concealing his subterfuge. Severus had spent the evening and most of that night looking for him, to no avail.
Losing Reg had been a turning point for him. He'd been angry, very angry, with him, but more so with himself. He'd been a coward, and the price he'd paid for it had been very dear; it had cost him the only person who'd ever truly cared about him. Hindsight was a beautiful and terrible thing, and he had known, without reservation, that Reg would likely still be alive if Severus had offered him his assistance, if he'd only had the fortitude to do so. Together they would have been unstoppable.
Something inside of him, something already prematurely toughened and weathered, had hardened completely in that moment. He had vowed to take up Reg's stance against the Dark Lord, and he had bided his time, several months, in fact, until he'd discovered that the Dark Lord had set his sights on the Potters as the subjects of the prophecy. The timing had intersected fortuitously with his orders to once again go to Hogwarts and seek to secure a position. It had been an enormous risk, but one he had known was worth taking. Dumbledore had listened quietly while Severus had confessed the width and breadth of his sins, and then had offered him absolution by turning him into a spy.
"Severus?" Evans' soft voice interrupted his ruminations and brought him back to his current situation. She smiled in understanding. "We still have a bit more to see, are you ready for it?"
"Quite probably not, however, I am prepared to see this through." There were very few moments in his past that he wanted to relive, the one he'd just seen least of all, which led him to believe that the next stop would somehow involve The Boy.
His supposition proved true, as they found themselves in an abandoned warehouse in a somewhat dodgy area of Muggle London, where a vicious duel was taking place.
The Boy had contacted him after gaining possession of Dumbledore's Pensieve, and the accompanying letter the Headmaster had written to him contained specific instructions for locating him. The memories Dumbledore had stored had not only aided The Boy in his Horcrux hunt, they'd exonerated Severus. Despite the pretty apology he'd received, and apart from the fact that Dumbledore had requested it of him, Severus had still been reluctant to help The Boy initially. He truly had found him to be infuriating and insolent, even at times slow witted, while he had been under his tutelage in the past.
He'd asked him, "Why should I help you?"
And The Boy had responded, "Because I get it now. I understand what you were trying to tell me that night... at the edge of the forest. You were trying to teach me; even after all that had happened you were trying to tell me what I needed to know. I have too much to learn, and I think you're the only one who can help me."
Perhaps not as slow witted as he'd thought.
After setting some ground rules, they'd found the warehouse and their first lesson had been about warding and other security charms. He'd found that without the resentment that always accompanied being forced into a situation, as he'd felt when Dumbledore had requested he teach The Boy Occlumency the first time, he'd almost enjoyed teaching again. Admittedly, his previous 'sink or swim' technique, born of loathing and resentment, had left a lot to be desired.
The Boy had continued to surprise him, as well. It seemed that the blind spot he'd always accused Albus of having for The Boy could have been easily applied to himself, in the reverse. He'd loathed him during his school years; The Boy had been a constant, unpleasant reminder of the Life Debt hanging over his head, and quite honestly, however petty it may have been, it had aided him greatly in his role as a spy. But he'd somehow missed that The Boy was somewhat intelligent, and with the proper instructions, often picked things up after only one demonstration.
The whole endeavor had been going fairly well, actually. Severus thought he should have known something would happen. It was unnatural, according to his experience, to have things running so smoothly. He still didn't know what it was about that particular afternoon that had been different from all the others before it; nevertheless, their routine had taken a new track that day.
Severus watched the combatants hurling hexes and curses at one another. Evans' face held a glow of maternal pride as she watched her son not only holding his own, but getting past Severus' shields. They'd been battling for an unusually long time this day and rather than tiring or weakening, Potter had seemed to grow stronger with each passing minute. His face was grim with determination and he was relentless until he'd actually managed to disarm Severus with a simple, but excellently placed, 'Expelliarmus'.
Severus hadn't been at all prepared for the battle to deteriorate into a Muggle-style tussle, so when Potter had tackled him around the middle, sending them both to the floor, he'd been completely caught off guard.
Though slightly smaller, Potter was wiry and clearly experienced in that style of fight; he'd easily managed to take the advantage. Straddling his middle, sweating and looking outrageously smug, he'd had Severus' arms pinned above his head in no time. Of course, Severus could have easily extricated himself; however, he had been strangely intrigued by what he saw in Potter's face and had waited, almost breathlessly, for his next move. Never expecting, never in a million years or in his wildest fantasies, that Potter's next move would be a hard, demanding kiss.
Severus felt an odd, and surely ridiculous, impulse to cover Evans' eyes as they watched the scene. He cringed inwardly, The Boy's mother, for Merlin's sake. But from this angle she couldn't possibly see that the men entangled on the floor had been achingly hard, or that Potter had ground his hips into Severus, creating a delicious friction as his lips had been assaulted by that impudent mouth. His hand actually twitched for a moment before he caught himself; but she clearly intuited something. "Don't be ridiculous, Severus. It's just a kiss. There were more of them, weren't there?"
There had indeed been more. That first one had ended just as abruptly and silently as it had begun—Potter had broken off the kiss without a word, and then had Apparated out of the warehouse. The next time they'd met, he hadn't said a word about it and Severus had just chalked it up to adolescent fantasy, or even the adrenaline rush and stress of their battle—it had been particularly grueling. He had certainly never expected it to happen again. So he was once more surprised when it had. It was, in fact, an event that had been repeated several times, and never once spoken about.
Although he'd left each of these early encounters painfully aroused and unfulfilled, he'd allowed it to happen, without question, because he'd wanted it, because he'd enjoyed it and took what was being offered—a small comfort in a desperate situation. He knew though that he would not be satisfied with just the kisses, now that he'd had a taste of it, he wanted more. He'd wanted it all.
Finally reaching his breaking point after a particularly intense session with The Boy, he'd demanded, "What is it that you want from me?"
Potter had looked startled by the voice in their silent routine, but he'd answered with confidence, "I want you, Severus. I want it all." He'd looked so relieved after saying it, as if he'd been waiting for Severus to take charge of the situation, that it never occurred to him to admonish Potter for being presumptuous with his name.
He'd waited a heartbeat or two, and then, sure in the knowledge that he would not live to see a post Dark Lord world, he'd grabbed what was on offer. A rare occasion, to be sure, when something he so desperately wanted was being handed to him.
"Evans, I suggest we leave it here, unless you're prepared to see much more of your son than you'd ever intended."
She actually fell away from his peripheral vision, whether or not she remained a witness ceased to matter as a series of moments began to unfold before him—a lifetime's worth contained in a heartbeat.
Here were all the items that he'd carefully sealed behind the walls of his mind.
Taking The Boy that first time, watching the pain on his face transition into pleasure, and then bloom into ecstasy when Severus added to the new sensations by stroking him with his long tapered fingers as well. Hearing the slightly surprised note in the, "Oh, Severus!" when he'd managed to rub against his prostate just right. Then the moans when Severus had found just the right rhythm and angle to do it repeatedly, until The Boy couldn't hold on any longer and tumbled over the edge with a tightening that sent Severus chasing after him.
The Boy taking him for the first time, the wonder on his face as he sank into Severus, the exquisite torture endured while he searched for a rhythm, and as he'd experimented, tasted, touched, prodded, and kissed every inch of Severus with enthusiastic curiosity.
Oh, so many times after those firsts. Sexually, they'd been well matched, giving and taking in equal measure, and with equal zest.
There were other moments though, many others, that had involved no more than quiet conversation. While The Boy's intelligence was not superior, it was thirsty and engaging, and he'd found himself, on more than one occasion, surprisingly at the wrong end of a debate. They'd also shared a dry sense of humor, and The Boy had been able to coax a smirk and even a rusty laugh out of him with appalling regularity.
There was the incident with Lupin, when he'd followed The Boy after the remaining Order members, acting on their lack of information regarding his plans, had decided that their 'Chosen One' required a guard, whether he'd wanted it or not. Severus had come very close indeed to death that night. The wolf had been enraged beyond all rationality; The Boy himself could just barely get through to the man. The situation had been dire until The Boy's frantic and impassioned pleas had finally penetrated the fog of rage successfully and convinced Lupin that he was unharmed, and there of his own volition.
And there had been that moment, while enjoying a languid after-glow, The Boy, comfortably splayed across Severus' chest, had looked up with those enchanting green eyes and had asked him, "Severus, what do you reckon it's like when you die?"
He'd been taken aback by the question and had tried to lighten the mood. "Not planning to off yourself, are you, Potter? I should hate to think that I'd gone to all this trouble for nothing."
The Boy's face had looked worried. "I'm serious—I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I don't think that I'm going to come out of this alive, and I just wish that I had some idea of what to expect. I mean, I'm preparing to face him, preparing to beat him, but we both know that he could very well take me with him when I vanquish him." The Boy had rolled off of him so that they were both staring upward. "I'm not afraid to die, but at the same time, there is so much out there that I want to do, that I want to see."
Severus had tested the boy, giving him an out, by stating simply, "You are not bound by anything to do this thing."
"I know—it's my choice, and I'm choosing to do it. Not because I have to, but because I think that I might be the only one who can. Even if I have to die to do it—it's the right thing to do."
He'd often thought, over the time they'd spent together, that The Boy had shared many similar qualities with Regulus. It had been brought home to him, like a heavy lead ball to the stomach, with the utterance of those six words. '...it's the right thing to do.' He pulled The Boy to him, lifting his chin so that he could look into the verdant eyes.
Without divulging his thoughts regarding his own expected (surely inevitable) end during the denouement of this drama, Severus had made a vow, one that he had meant with every fiber of his being, one that had nothing to do with the repaying of debt. "I promise you that I will do absolutely everything in my power to see to it that does not happen."
The moments rolled before him, one after another. Nearly a year's worth of intimacy at a level never before experienced, and never since repeated. Severus looked incredulously at the evidence before him. Seeing it now from outside of himself, he finally understood The Boy's confusion, his refusal to accept Severus' rejection and move on with his life, even after nearly four years.
His certainty of his own end had led him to neglect his mask; the warm emotion and the caring that had grown within him for The Boy with each encounter was clearly advertised on his normally inscrutable face. He'd been completely unguarded with The Boy and, as he'd just witnessed, his rogue mouth, without his knowledge or permission, had cried out "Harry!" in climatic rapture at nearly every coupling.
It was appalling to realize that the only person he'd been fooling had been himself. He had locked the memories into the mental container he'd constructed with Occlumency, and had then had nearly believed the soldiers-on-the-eve-of-battle scenario he'd concocted to feed to The Boy.
He was startled out of his reverie by a touch on his arm. "Severus? We're nearly finished now."
Evans held out her arm and Severus took hold of her sleeve. They landed in his dreary hospital room at St. Mungo's and it appeared to be the moment he'd finally awakened. He felt so close to this particular memory that he relived it vividly as it played out before him.
His first thought, upon the return of consciousness, had been to wonder about Potter's welfare and success. His next thought had been that Albus' much-lauded 'next great adventure' possessed a strong antiseptic odor that he did not care for.
Watching now, he saw the moment the realization had finally come to light. He had not perished in the battle as planned. With a groan, astonishment followed closely by disappointment had gripped him. He had lain there for a while pondering the enormous consequences of remaining amongst the living when the door had opened.
"Professor, you're awake. How are you feeling, sir?" The young man had a slightly familiar face—strong features, clear blue eyes and the pleasant ruddy complexion of a youthful Englishman. The use of the schoolboy honorific meant that he'd been a former student and judging his look, not very long out of school.
Severus ignored the question. "What day is this, Mister...?"
"Mr. Higgins." He paused for only a moment before placing him. "Hufflepuff, not entirely inept."
The young man smiled brightly and looked inordinately pleased by both the recognition and the mediocre assessment of his potions skills. "Today is Friday, sir. You've been in an induced healing sleep for a little over a week. I'm a Trainee Healer, but Healer Pye will be in shortly with a more official report. Your Auror guard looked in on you just a little bit ago and said she thought you might be stirring."
An Auror guard. That seemed to answer one of his questions, and as depressing as it was to consider surviving a war only to languish in Azkaban, it neatly solved some of the other consequences.
"When are they to remove me to Azkaban, Mr. Higgins?"
"Azkaban, sir?" Confusion moved into comprehension, and the young man smiled. "The Auror guard is here to keep people out, not you in, sir. You've missed quite a bit while you were sleeping. A great many people wish to see you, since Harry Potter himself told everyone about your true role in the defeat of You Know Who. He had all sorts of evidence in your favor, and the Ministry cleared you of all charges. I'll see if I can get you a copy of the Prophet with the story in it."
Severus had been at a loss. It was a sensation completely foreign to him. He was not supposed to have survived; he'd made no plans for it. He indulged in a moment of childish temper, and wanted very much to stamp his foot, or better yet, throw something—his petulant expression of choice. This was not supposed to happen. What had gone wrong? More importantly, what was he going to do now?
He tested an idea out for a moment, trying to envision continuing on with Potter as they had done. His overactive imagination conjured a picturesque little stone cottage in a secluded area, perhaps another stone building, which housed a well-stocked laboratory, Potter in the kitchen preparing an evening meal. He took the fantasy a little further and indulged in their bedroom antics, fantasies fueled by and reminiscent of actual events.
The idea was beyond ludicrous, of course. Apart from the fact that he could never live in such a cheerful place without becoming violently ill, or violently irritable, he had absolutely no idea how to operate under non-threatening conditions. He did not even know if Potter could cook. No, he'd certainly not been made for 'Happily Ever After'.
Could they possibly make something out of what they'd started? Potter had had a surprising (and admittedly, attractive) darker side to him and Severus thought it likely that he would not have been partial to the ridiculous cottage scenario either, though, he'd tried and discarded several other scenarios, as well.
While searching for the right course to take, he'd summarily dismissed from his notice, the presence of the Trainee Healer; who, while taking Severus' vital signs and moving about the room doing the mysterious things that healing personnel do, seemed to take his former professor's silence as consent to continue nattering on and on about The Boy Who Lived Again.
"...I mean, I did attend Hogwarts with him, but I never actually plucked up the nerve to approach him. He was two years under me, of course, but he was Harry Potter, not some bloke you just struck up a conversation with."
Severus had watched with incredulity, as the ruddy cheeks had slowly taken on a deeper shade of crimson. Blushing like a maiden, for pity's sake, he'd thought derisively. For one blissfully evil moment he'd considered describing for Higgins, in glorious detail, the exquisite experience of being buried to the hilt inside the blushing Hufflepuff's idol.
"...when he came to see you the last time. He'd already been here twice before, rather insisted on it, actually, and was quite persistent about it. I suspect he'll not wait long before coming for a visit now that you're awake. I daresay he seems to care a great deal for you, Professor. It's really good, isn't it, that he's found a father figure after losing his own so young."
And there it was, the required little push toward decision. He could not conjure a reasonable image of a future together because it could not possibly be. It had been absurd to even consider the notion. Even this pretty, blithering, imbecilic Hufflepuff was more suitable than Severus Snape.
He knew what had to be done. His own pain, his own comfort was no longer a consideration. He could admit to himself, in the moment only, that he'd cared about him more than he'd ever expected, and that was exactly why he would do what needed to be done. The plan had been, all along, for Har— for Pot— for The Boy to mourn him briefly and then move on to someone suitable. He would stick to that plan. The Boy deserved a chance to find happiness, something Severus knew very little about, and the chance to make a better choice for his future.
"Harry didn't take what you'd offered, though, did he?" Evans' voice startled him again out of reliving a moment.
"No, he did not." The room started to change slightly—the light coming in the small single window was stretching across the floor, moving into shadows. Severus started to object; there was no need to show him the event that he knew without a doubt was coming next. "This won't be necessary, Evans. You can take me back now."
She smiled a little sadly, then faded away just as her son pushed the hospital door open and entered the room. Severus looked at himself in that hospital bed and saw his customary sullen expression remain firmly in place at the sight of the brightly smiling young man.
"Severus! I'm so glad you're awake now, so much has happened. You wouldn't even believe." He leaned over the bed, clearly intending to kiss Severus, who shifted to face the opposite direction. The Boy seemed slightly confused, but took it in stride as he fussed with the blankets covering Severus and filled him in on all that he'd missed.
He'd had several hours to do some mental housekeeping and Severus had managed to construct some walls around The Boy's presence in his memories, and as a result, found himself comfortably irritated by not only the intrusion, but also by being subjected, yet again, to youthful nattering endeavoring to fill him in on details that he had no desire to know. He did not acknowledge the ache that was blooming at the very core of his soul. It did not matter.
"I know you said you wanted to see Iceland, but I really think we should go somewhere warm first. I was thinking Tuscany. We could spend a few weeks there recuperating and then we could go to Venice to see the canals and the glassmakers. Or if that doesn't suit you, we can go to Greece, anywhere on the Mediterranean really. What do you think?"
It had been unbearably tempting and Severus had to pool every resource at his command to turn him down, to turn The Boy away in no uncertain terms. "What do I think? I think, Mr. Potter, that you are disturbing my rest, however, I will say that I cannot imagine why you would presume that we shall be vacationing together."
The Boy had knit his eyebrows together in puzzlement. "I'm sorry, Severus. I didn't mean to disturb you, I was just very happy to hear that you finally woke up and I wanted to see you."
"For what reason? The Dark Lord is vanquished, Mr. Potter. The mission is complete. We both got what we wanted. I fail to see what can be gained by continuing our association."
"But I thought—"
"Bravo, Mr. Potter. Entering foreign territory; however, the results of your deep thinking are clearly flawed."
"Severus, what are doing?" The Boy's voice was hesitant and confused.
"Mr. Potter, surely you did not entertain any ridiculous romantic notions? It was war, but the war is over now and I am a free man. I intend to use that freedom to do exactly as I please. And what I please, at this moment, is to be left alone."
"I don't... I'll come back in the morning, after you've rested. Maybe you'll feel like company then." Severus stood watching from his new vantage point. The scene froze before him; and, oh, the look on The Boy's face—the hurt, the confusion and disappointment that was displayed there, had him sucking in a breath. It was a very good thing that he'd been determined not to look at The Boy at the time, if he had seen that face he may not have been able to continue with his plans.
Whether or not The Boy had come back, Severus did not know. He'd demanded to be released from St. Mungo's, regardless of the Healer's stern objections. His experience in stealth had served him well, as he'd managed to evade the reporters, as well as the various and sundry Ministry types that had been lurking outside of his door. He had spent the next week or so keeping a very low profile in a rented room at the Leaky Cauldron, trying to decide what to do with his unexpected life.
He finally had enough of the torturous past. "Evans, I wish to leave. Take me back immediately. Evans? Evans!" Severus shouted to no avail. He closed his eyes to block out the scene frozen before him, but the hurt, betrayed face was now burned into his memory alongside of so many other terrible things that lived there.
"Evans! I demand you take me back this instant!" When Severus opened his eyes, he found himself in his familiar darkened room once again. He should have felt relieved, he knew, but the memories that had been unlocked were haunting him now.
He crawled back into his bed, closing the bed curtains testily. Severus had learned a great deal about himself this night, the intended purpose, he supposed, but nothing as shocking as his behavior while with The Boy. He understood now, the resistance to his efforts to free The Boy for something better.
Despite his new knowledge, however, he decided that he'd still done the right thing; he would stay the course. It was just going to take a bit longer than anticipated. With that thought, he fell into an uneasy sleep.
Severus awoke with a start, full of irritation and wondering how the devil carol singers had entered his flat uninvited. While the infuriatingly joyful chorus sang of decking halls with boughs of poisonous fruit-bearing foliage, Severus disentangled himself from the linens on his bed. His sleep had apparently been more than uneasy, and he was still wearing his dressing gown. He sighed in frustration, then composed himself in order to confront his unwanted guests, and then parted the bed curtains.
The room was bathed in light and warmth from the now roaring fire, and though there were no carol singers, the sight that greeted his eyes was just as unlikely.
"Professor! Er—" His unwelcome guest cleared his throat. With a wave of his hand, the disembodied singing ceased, and then he continued in a booming voice, "Come in! Come in and know me better, man!"
His impossibly large intruder was sitting upon a throne, surrounded by tables and baskets laden and overflowing with the fruits and treats of the season. "Apart from the annoyance at being invited into my own sitting room, I've known you for a number of decades; I wish to remain blissfully ignorant of any details not already cluttering my brain about you."
Rubeus Hagrid laughed a jolly Father Christmas laugh; fittingly so, as he was wearing what may have been someone's green floor covering trimmed with white fur. The half-giant took a deep drink from a bucket-sized pewter mug, then laid it and the enormous turkey leg he held in his other fist on the nearest available tabletop. Severus cringed as droplets of whatever liquid had been consumed, mead perhaps, rolled unnoticed down the man's tangled beard.
"Yer ready, then? Not much ter show yeh in the present, Professor, but Dumbledore himself asked me ter do it, so we're goin' ter do it righ'. Dressed fer it and everythin'. Shouldn't take long." He extended his arm outward. "Grab hold o' the sleeve."
Severus reluctantly complied.
The swirling scenery settled into the front hall of a very familiar house—number twelve, Grimmauld Place. Severus looked around and made note that some changes, though not many, had been made. Gone were the ghastly mounted house-elf heads and the troll leg umbrella stand, but the most notable change was the painting of Mrs. Black that had once terrorized the inhabitants of the house, and was normally contained behind thick black curtains.
The frame remained, though it was scarred; but the painting itself was shredded beyond recognition. The portrait had been sliced in a series of long, intersecting slashes, the edges of which had curled slightly. Clearly the sticking charm used to keep it in place had hindered the escape of the portrait's subject during the attack. The only still distinguishable feature, contained within a jagged piece of the canvas, was a single gray eye, blinking benignly at him.
Hagrid saw Severus' questioning look at the remains of the painting, and said simply, "Remus—after Sirius..." Severus just raised an eyebrow, waiting for elaboration.
Hagrid continued, "Firs' night back here, after Sirius fell, Remus got himself a head full o' Firewhisky, he did, an' she got on one o' her rants. He took a knife ter the bleedin' 'arpie, tryin' ter shut 'er up. She don' have much ter say nowadays."
The front door opened and The Boy stepped inside, shaking snow off of his collar and out of his hair.
"Master Harry, sir." The house-elf took Harry's cloak and gloves from him.
"Thank you, Dobby. How was he while I was away?"
"Oh, much the same, Master Harry, always the same. Dobby is taking good care of him for Master Harry."
Severus watched as the elf popped out of sight, and The Boy moved up the stairs to a room on the next flight up. He knocked on the door. "Remus?"
A throat cleared on the other side of the door and a groggy, "Yes, Harry, come in," was heard.
Hagrid shooed Severus into the room, though he needed no push, as curiosity had got the better of him. The Boy had mentioned several times in their past that he'd intended to level this place to the ground. Now it appeared that he had not only failed to do so, he had taken up residence, and with Lupin as a housemate. Curious didn't cover it.
Severus stared at the sight before him. Remus Lupin seemed to have aged a hundred years since the last time Severus had seen him. He tried to recall when that had been and came up with the morning of the final battle. Lupin had never fully trusted him and could usually be found lurking nearby, ever watchful.
The man's hair, once a tawny mane shot through with gray, was now a tangle of gray and white. His face had a sunken quality to it and his pallor was ashen. Clearly the man was not well.
"How are you feeling, Remus? Can I get you anything?"
A ghost of smile played on Lupin's lips. "Because you don't already do enough for me, Harry. I'm fine. Thank you. Dobby has been in and out all evening. How did your errand go?"
The Boy looked dejected, and didn't look Lupin in the face as he answered, "Not very well, I'm afraid."
Lupin paused for a moment, and then said, "You went to see him, didn't you?"
A sheepish look was all the answer he got from The Boy.
Lupin sat up a little, propping himself against some pillows with The Boy's help, and then looked at him disapprovingly. "Harry, why do you insist on doing that to yourself?"
"I know, Remus. I just thought that he might have changed his mind about the Wolfsbane."
"I've told you already, it's not worth it to me. I'll live without his potion. The other stuff works well enough. The price you'd have to pay for his is far too high."
The Boy sat down on the bed next to the werewolf. "I'm all right, Remus. Honestly. He was fine."
Even though it appeared to sap his strength, Lupin looked as if he were becoming angry. "He's a bastard, Harry, and you know it. Treating you the way he does..."
"He's not. He's made it abundantly clear how he feels; I keep going back for more. That's my fault, not his." The Boy picked at something invisible on the duvet. This was an unexpected sentiment, as far as Severus was concerned. He hadn't known The Boy was so sensible about the situation.
"I just wish you would let him go, move on to better things. And he doesn't have to treat you that way."
There was a flash of something in The Boy's eyes, temper perhaps. "Oy, Remus, how's Tonks? Haven't seen her about in a while."
Severus didn't know if it was the man's condition, whatever it may be, or the conversation, but Lupin looked surprised and then very uncomfortable before he seemed to surrender. "Okay, okay. I get your point. It's not the same, but I get your point."
"I'll wager it feels the same to Tonks—you pushing her away. Again. But I don't want to fight with you about it. It's Christmas Eve. Do you think you'll be up for the Weasleys' tomorrow?"
"Right now, I feel like I could be, but I'm not committing until tomorrow."
"Okay, good night, then." The Boy leaned over and gently kissed the frail man on his forehead. "Happy Christmas, Remus."
As The Boy got up and left the room, Severus turned to his guide. "You are going to make me ask, aren't you?"
"Don' know wha'cher talkin' about, Professor." The sparkle in his beetle-black eyes belied the statement; however, Severus wanted an answer to the question of the werewolf's condition and what had led to it.
"Lupin. What is wrong with him?"
Hagrid looked disappointed that Severus had not played his game, but answered the question, "The final battle. He was injured somethin' awful. Curse caught him 'cross his back an' his legs. Broke some bones an' he couldn't walk fer a long time. But the worst was the full moon that came when he was mendin'. Turnin' into a wolf is no mean feat, mind, but 'ol Remus' poor broken bones suffered a lot fer it. It's the same ev'ry month fer him now. Pain, the likes o' which yeh can't imagine, an' it takes him more'n a week ter start gettin' 'round again. Just in time fer it ter start all over."
Severus looked at the man on the bed, a ghost of a former enemy. He'd gained some satisfaction from holding out on him, but he had never imagined it had been this bad for him. If The Boy had only told him. Despite what the man had just said about him, he could rectify this. Contrary to what some may think, he was not a heartless monster.
"I did not know," was all he said to Hagrid.
The comforting pat on the back he received from a meaty hand nearly brought Severus to his knees.
"Reckon Remus'll be jus' fine. Ready fer the next one, Professor?" Hagrid held out his arm and Severus grabbed the sleeve.
He'd never been there, however, Severus assumed from the abundance of redheaded persons that they had landed inside the Weasley home.
"How could you do that, Mum? What if he would have said yes? Can you imagine what Harry would do if the git actually showed up here?"
"Don't you take that tone with me, Ronald Weasley. I know very well how Harry feels. I do not have to justify my actions to you, but I'll tell you that I invite him every year, and I will continue to do so. There is a good man in there behind that hard exterior, and he has no one."
Weasley muttered under his breath, "His own bloody fault."
"Enough, young man. You are neither too old nor too tall for me to discipline. Christmas is about sharing, it's about reaching out to people in need, and if any human was ever in need, it's Severus Snape."
Severus felt a bit ruffled and irritated by the pity he was sensing. The infernal woman had insisted upon sending him care packages, never taking no for an answer. He'd stopped objecting simply because it was a wasted effort; the woman was relentless. So every few weeks he'd received an owl bearing packages of fresh baked goods and hearty stews. The last parcel had included the yearly invitation to the Weasley family Christmas gathering, which he had, as he'd done every year, pointedly ignored.
It had included the annual gift as well. No one else in the world had a need to know that his collection of appalling Muggle-type knitwear had its own drawer in his wardrobe.
"Harry and Remus are here!" a voice called out from the other room.
The meaty hand landed on his shoulder again, "Come on, Professor."
They were in a larger room this time; boisterous male laughter could be heard coming from another room, the kitchen perhaps. A Christmas tree, festooned in what appeared to be ornaments made by childish hands, twinkled merrily next to the large fire. The Gryffindor trio, the last bane of Severus' career in education, currently occupied a low sofa on the wall opposite the fire. A cozy little scene—Weasley perched on the arm of the sofa on which Granger rested her back, her wild brown curls spilling across Weasley's lap, and her legs were draped across that of The Boy, who sat next to her.
"Harry, Remus said that you'd gone to see Snape." Granger said this in a matter-of-fact tone that was contradicted by the searching look she gave him.
The Boy looked a bit put out, and said in a voice loud enough to reach the ears of his target, "Remus should mind his own business."
Lupin, who still looked dreadful, though not as ashen, sat across the room in an armchair near the fire. It appeared that he wanted very much to rebut the statement, but was unable to for fear of waking the redheaded toddler curled in his lap. His only resource was a squint of his eyes, which he sent in The Boy's direction.
The Boy snickered like a twelve-year-old at the man's predicament, and then completed the image by sticking his delectable pink tongue out at him. Lupin seemed to take the gesture as forgiveness as he relaxed into the armchair, settling comfortably back into his task as toddler cot.
"Don't be angry, Harry. He just told me because he cares about you," Granger admonished softly. "We all do."
"Yeah, mate, the way he treats you... It's just a bit hard to imagine what you saw in him, anyway," Weasley offered.
A spark of mischief lit The Boy's eyes. "It was his kisses, Ron. They were intoxicating—the finest drugging potion, the sweetest nectar. And his hands, Ron, his hands were—"
Weasley turned beet red to tips of his ears and stood up abruptly, nearly falling over atop Granger, who had been leaning against him. "Anyone need a drink?" He did not wait for a response.
"That was mean, Harry." The wide smile on her lips softened the accusation.
The Boy grinned. "Not nearly. I could have started right in on more...intimate...pieces of anatomy."
Granger pulled her legs back to her and leaned forward toward The Boy in a conspiratorial manner. "Okay, spill it..."
The Boy raised an eyebrow, seeming to understand the unfinished sentence. "Are you sure you want to know, Hermione?"
"Oh, yes. I do. You've never talked about it, and we never saw you with him apart from school." She smiled warmly, but there was a spark of mischief in her eyes that Severus had never noticed she'd possessed. It explained a few things about her and Weasley, anyway. "So...?"
"Amazing, truly magnificent. And he knew how to use it. I wasn't joking with that bit I told Ron, either. His hands, Hermione, his hands are incredible. Everything about him is incredible, actually." The Boy sighed and Granger looked a bit dreamy for a moment. "Sometimes, a lot of the time, he just needed to talk. Just his voice alone..."
Severus recalled the moment he'd realized that The Boy could become completely undone by his voice alone—the power and pleasure at the knowledge of it. He let the memory wash over him warmly for only a heartbeat and indulged himself in a tiny moment of pride in The Boy's assessment of their couplings.
"It is a good voice—deep and smooth, like warm velvet."
"Warm black velvet." The Boy amended as they giggled together like teenaged girls.
"Seriously, Harry, you don't know that it can't be that way with someone else." She cut her eyes toward him in a somewhat sneaky manner and added, "Declan's been asking about you..."
"Declan? That perpetually happy bloke you fixed me up with two months ago?"
"Yes, that's the one. He's really quite taken with you. I've never seen him so happy."
The Boy looked pained. "How can you tell? I mean, he wasn't a half-bad shag, but he's too cheerful. It's not natural—he's either taking a potion, or he's an idiot. Either way..." He held his arms out as if to ward off a frontal assault.
Severus snorted in amusement at The Boy's statement and actions, until it hit him what had been said about the unknown cheerful man's sexual aptitude. He felt a twinge of something he chose not to identify.
"Harry!" Granger looked like she'd swallowed her own tongue.
"Hermione!" The Boy imitated her shocked falsetto.
"You slept with him?" she fairly hissed.
"Of course I did." He paused for moment, then shrugged his shoulders. "He offered, I accepted. What? It's not like he's the first one."
"Wait...so you've slept with all of them? All of the nice men that I've set you up with? Even Ethan?"
"Twice with Ethan." The Boy grinned. "He was fun, and didn't want any strings either, so we met up again a few weeks later." Granger put a hand over her gaping mouth. "Hermione, don't look at me like that, it's different for blokes. Like a bodily function—just take care of it and go on about your business."
Severus felt the twinge become a burning deep in his intestines. This was what he'd wanted, right? He dismissed the sensation that others might call jealousy with an impatient wave of his hand.
Granger giggled behind her hand. "I'm just shocked, I guess. I wanted you to find someone to love, not someone to love. I feel a bit like a pimp, pandering for you, however unwittingly."
"You're not a pimp. You don't have the wardrobe for it, anyway." The Boy chuckled, a deep rich manly sound that Severus did not recognize. He again dismissed the pang he felt. It was only natural for changes to have taken place; The Boy had been barely out of adolescence during their association, after all.
Granger giggled with him, but did not respond. "Don't worry about finding me love, Hermione. It's not going to happen."
"You can't know that, Harry. You never will unless you try. And being with someone intimately is so much better when you do love them."
The Boy looked around the room, assessing the ears that may be present, and then in a lowered voice he said, "You're right about that, and I do miss it terribly. But I also know that I'll never love anyone else."
She looked about to object, but he stopped her with a raised hand, and then motioned for her to come closer. "I know I've never talked about this with anyone, but if I explain it to you, there is a chance that you might stop trying to play matchmaker."
Nodding despite the skeptical look on her face, she tucked her feet up under her comfortably, settling in for a long story, and then said, "Okay, go on."
Severus found himself leaning in, keenly interested in what was about to be shared.
The Boy seemed to steel himself and continued, "I went to him originally because of Dumbledore's letter. Yes, he had been a git the whole time that I knew him, but I finally understood what he'd been trying to do for me all of our sixth year. If you think about it, you can see that every lesson he taught us in Defense was tailored to help me specifically. I'll tell you I was gobsmacked when I realized it. And then I remembered, just before he took off into the forest that night when Dumbledore... I'd called him a coward and I wanted to kill him too. Only I couldn't, I didn't know anything—I might as well have been throwing flowers at the man. And he could have easily killed me, like it was nothing. Do you know what he did instead?"
Granger, listening with avid attention to the tale, merely shook her head.
"After all that had happened, and with all the chaos that was going on around us, he was still trying to teach me, telling me exactly what I needed to do to face Voldemort. Learn Occlumency, learn to cast non-verbal spells—not in so many words, mind, but that's what he was doing. I'd have sought him out just to tell him that I finally understood, even if Dumbledore hadn't told me to in his letter." This bit of information was new to Severus. He'd thought The Boy had only sought him out because he'd been directed to. Knowing that he'd already decided to take that action on his own said a lot about him. The Boy wouldn't have found him, of course, but that he would have tried was...interesting.
"Severus was reluctant at first, but I swear to you, when he finally agreed and then started teaching me things, it was like a miracle. He was so completely different than in school. He explained things in detail, and was patient when I didn't get things right the first time. I felt like I hadn't known him at all when I was in school, and it was true, wasn't it? I started really learning from him; it was exciting to finally feel like I was accomplishing something. I started noticing things too. Like the way he moves. Have you ever noticed it—so incredibly graceful? Then his voice started having an unexpected effect on me and I realized that I was attracted to him. The idea was not nearly as appalling as I'd thought it should be, but I didn't do anything about it, thinking it would just go away."
The Boy shifted so he was seated facing Granger, one knee crooked between them.
"Only, one day, I couldn't take it anymore. I was jazzed up on adrenaline from our duel, which I'd won, and the feeling just overwhelmed me. Without even thinking about it, I just jumped on him." He chuckled that lovely rich chuckle again, and Granger smiled encouragingly. "I hadn't the foggiest idea how to proceed, I just knew that I had to taste his mouth, to suck those velvety words right out of the source. I think he was stunned at first, but he kissed me back and it was even better than I'd ever imagined. I wanted more, too, but then it hit me, all of a sudden, what I had done, what we were doing, and I freaked out a little. I didn't say a word, I just got up and Apparated out of there as quickly as I could."
Granger's eyes widened. "Oh, Harry, you didn't? You just left him sprawled out on the floor like that?"
"I did. Like I said—freaked out. I thought that I'd ruined everything we'd been working on, certain that he'd revert back to the bastard I'd known in school. So when I went back the next day, and he acted like nothing had happened, I was relieved. I didn't say a word about it either. But then, I did it again, then again the next day and the next. It was like I couldn't control myself. Never talking about it, for almost a week. The last thing I wanted to do was stop at snogging, but I only had a vague notion of what 'more' entailed. I didn't want him to think I was a kid just looking for a fumble, but that's what it would have been—me fumbling around without a clue—so I waited and finally, finally, he took the lead. And it was absolutely incredible." Severus had suspected as much, that The Boy had wanted him to take control of the situation.
Granger smiled at him and reached out a hand; The Boy took it and seemed to gather strength from it before continuing. "It was mostly physical at first, but we'd spent so much time together—learning theory, debating things, just talking. You won't believe me, but he is really funny. Brilliant and sarcastic. And I actually managed to make him laugh." The girl looked almost frightened at the thought.
"Yeah," The Boy nodded his agreement, "but I made it my life's mission to make it happen again as often as possible. Anyway, I started to have some real feelings for him, which was also scary, but I decided not to fight it. I was absolutely certain that I was going to die trying to get rid of Voldemort. I tried to talk about it with him once, about dying, but I don't think he wanted to talk about it. It's funny though, what you can do when you know, without a doubt, that you are about to die. I thought, 'This is it, my only chance.' And I took it."
Severus sucked in a startled breath as his memory filled in the blanks. Yes, The Boy had brought it up—he'd relived the moment earlier this evening, as well. He'd been so blindsided, at the time, by the very idea of The Boy dying and his own need to stop that from happening that he'd missed the connection: The Boy given himself so freely because he too had been certain he was going to die.
"I gave myself to him, Hermione. Body. Mind. Heart. Soul. All of it is his. I wouldn't take it back if I could. The thing is though, I'm certain it was the same for Severus—that he was so confident that he was going to die, he allowed himself to have what we had. I can't even describe to you the level of intimacy that we shared. There's nothing to compare it to. I gave it all to him. So, you see, there's nothing left to give to someone else. It would be a joke, a shadow of something that could never be duplicated. I loved him, Hermione, with every fiber of my being. Still do. Nothing is ever going to change that."
They'd never used words to express themselves, and perhaps Severus had had an inkling of the depth of The Boy's feelings, but to hear them falling from those lips...
Silent tears rolled slowly down Granger's cheeks before she launched herself at him and they sat that way for a few moments. Strangely, The Boy seemed to be comforting her rather than the other way around.
"I think living through it came as quite a shock to Severus," he said into her hair. "I think he wasn't prepared, at all, for having to deal with me afterward. And I'm fairly positive he thinks that he's doing what's best for me."
Granger sniffled and pulled away. "I could see that. Maybe he thinks he's too old for you, or that you should be with someone less scarred by life. But, oh, Harry, he's even more stubborn than you are and he's had so much more practice at it."
The Boy smiled sadly, "Yes, there is that. I accept the situation, but not what he's trying to offer me. The fact that he cares that much makes me love him more, not less. Even when I sometimes make a right arse of myself, like I did yesterday in his shop." The Boy's cheeks stained a light pink and he answered her questioning look. "He was so indifferent, and I turned what should have been a simple business transaction into something personal. I just wanted a reaction out of him though, something besides the cold indifference that he's so good at, and I got it. He was a bit harsher than normal, actually."
The Boy sighed. "I can't change his mind, and I'm certainly not going to change mine, so we're at a stalemate."
Stunned was not nearly strong enough for what Severus felt at hearing this tale from The Boy's perspective. Even more astonishing was that fact that he knew. The Boy knew exactly what Severus had been doing and why, and had known from the start.
"Oh, Harry, that is so sad. I do understand now, though I think you could probably love again if you let yourself."
"I don't think so, I really don't. It could never reach the same level—the giving of everything you are to someone, and receiving the same in kind. That's what I had with Severus. There's just nothing left for someone else. And if that little bit is all that I get, it's a lot more than some people ever have in a lifetime. I can dine on my memories alone for years." He reached over to wipe at Granger's tearstained cheeks and seemed to bolster himself. "In the meantime, I do have enough love for my family."
With the same hand that had brushed her cheek, he rubbed Granger's protruding belly through what was unmistakably a Weasley knitted creation. "I certainly have plenty in reserve for any more of these the two of you might make."
Granger took the change of subject gracefully. "I don't know how many more that will be. Ron's not keen on a big family. Understandable, I guess, from his perspective. But I hated being an only child. His point is that he wants to be sure that we never lack for anything. I make a fairly decent wage at the Ministry, and he's not doing too badly either. He could make more, of course, but he loves playing for the Cannons. I couldn't deny him that."
The Boy's eyes were alight with mischief. "Well, don't tell him, but he's about to see a big change in his pay packet."
"What? How?" She searched his face, his only response was a very smug smile, but she seemed to read his mind. "You didn't! Harry, Ron was joking when he told you that."
The Boy was fairly glowing now. "I did. It's actually already a done deal. I am the proud new owner of the Chudley Cannons."
"But, Harry, how in the world could you do that?" Granger looked stunned.
"I'll tell you a secret, Hermione." He leaned closer once again. "I'm rich. Filthy, stinking rich. Embarrassingly so. More-money-than-some-small-countries rich." He blushed, proving his discomfiture.
Granger didn't comment, so The Boy continued, "See, I came into my full inheritance from my parents when I turned twenty-one. The goblin who had taken care of it until I was old enough was brilliant at it. He still maintains it for me now—I'm his only client—and it just keeps growing. And I had a fair bit from Sirius, as well. I never said anything about it because I know Ron's take on the subject."
"Oh, but Ron was truly joking when he said you should buy the Cannons. You must know that." The statement had been beseeching, but she looked like she was about to go into the 'bossy' mode that had been so much a part of her character during her school years.
The Boy was ready for it and held up a hand. "He may have been joking, or even half-serious, but the point is that it's a sound investment."
Granger backed down a bit, and he continued, "I've been doing a lot of serious thinking the past few months. I've been floundering around for so long, and I've been using Remus as an excuse not to do anything with my life. The truth is that Remus doesn't need my personal attention. Dobby actually takes much better care of him than I do. And I'm going to tear down the house on Grimmauld Place. We shouldn't be living there; I meant to see it made into rubble a long time ago. It was just too easy to move in with Remus already there. I've just sort of stagnated."
The Boy sat up a little taller, all business now. "Well, no more of that. The problem with the Cannons has been the management. They didn't want to pay for quality players and they didn't have to. They're damn lucky that Ron is such a fan, because they're getting him for less than half of what he's worth. Ron's actually a prime example why they did business that way. The fans of that team are a diehard lot. They love them, and buy the merchandise and tickets despite their shoddy record. I intend to change that—I intend to give them something to be proud of."
Granger smiled. "I've never seen you like this, Harry. It looks good on you." Severus had to agree, this commanding young man of business was very attractive indeed. He waved the thought away though. It was neither here nor there.
"Anyway, that's why I went to see Severus yesterday." The Boy's pleased smile faltered a bit. He lowered his voice even more. "I want Remus to work for me. He won't take any money from me, no matter that I couldn't spend all that I have if I worked very hard at it for the rest of my life. I thought if I could get him on Severus' Wolfsbane potion, he'd feel better more often, and he might agree, then, to take the job. I think he'd be brilliant anyway, helping me navigate this thing that I've got myself into."
Severus was reeling from all that he'd learned. He pushed away the crowding, tempting, wanting, needy feelings that were threatening to become his undoing. So The Boy had known. It didn't change anything. He'd done the right thing—horrendously, ineffably painful—but still the right thing. He'd had enough of this place. Where the devil was that oaf, Hagrid?
He shouted, "Hagrid, I demand that you take me back this instant. Hagrid!"
"Don' get yer knickers in a twist. I can hear yeh." Severus reached for the green and white sleeve, but Hagrid shook him off. "I'm stayin' fer a bit. Yer goin' alone."
With that, Severus found himself standing in his room. The same room that he'd paid little attention to over the years now appeared dank and dreary—unequivocally cold and unwelcoming—since the one he'd just come from had been awash in warmth and light.
He crawled into the ruin of his bed, leaving the bed curtains open in anticipation of his third intruder, and fell once again into a troubled sleep.
Severus awoke with a start. This time, the reason was apparent. In the middle of his room, a light—not the gentle burgeoning luminescence that Evans had created, but a vicious, blinding, jagged light—stabbing at the darkness around it, growing ever larger and crueler with each passing second.
Once the harsh light had reached towering proportions, a figure moved through and Severus' insides turned to cold jelly.
A Dementor, now gliding toward him, was to be his guide of the Future? Oh, if only Albus were not already dead, he'd kill him again.
Suddenly, the Dementor was staggering and shrieking, expelling an unearthly sound. Then it seemed to diminish in size to that of a man—a familiar man, the sight of whom did not relieve the cold dread that had gripped him so forcefully only moments ago. A man whose barking laughter sent a river of chills down his spine.
"Oh, oh, Sniv–Snape, if you could only have seen your face." The lunatic man continued to howl.
"I've seen enough of my own face this night to last me a millennium, Black. Now, bring back the Dementor—I wish to offer myself to it. A life of soulless dribbling is much preferable to your company."
"Oh, don't be like that, Snape. We don't have time to bicker if I'm to help your sorry arse." Black looked as smug and idiotic as he ever had, though admittedly, his appearance was a far sight better than the crazed-Azkaban-escapee look he had sported at the end of his life.
"What was Albus thinking, sending you here? I would loathe you if I thought that you were worthy of the energy I'd expend doing so."
Black barked out a laugh again and replied in kind, "Well, Snape, I'm not in love with you either, but my brother was, and he asked me to help you. He wanted me to tell you," Black cringed and looked truly pained, "that he misses you. And that you should stop being a bloody git and live your life before you shrivel up, and it's too late." He took a deep cleansing breath, having clearly detested what he'd had to say.
Severus struggled to maintain his mask. It was unbelievable that reliving the moment he'd discovered his parents had murdered one another had not drawn even the smallest bit of moisture from his eyes, but hearing a message from a man that he'd loved and lost twenty years ago was a serious threat to his control. For pity's sake. He let the warm emotions the message had created flow over him for a moment to bleed off the excess for better control, he told himself.
It galled him to have had such a message delivered by this man in particular, but to have to ask Black, of all people, to do what he was about to was, at best, humiliating, at worst, an experience he'd never quite recover from. However, there was no other way around it. "Please tell Regulus...tell Reg—that I miss him, as well."
"I will do that," Black said grudgingly, then added with a sneer, "just so we understand each other, Snape, the only reason I agreed to this, despite Reg's asking me to, is to help save Harry from the mess that you've made."
The accusation in Black's voice had Severus' temper simmering, but the statement itself begged for explanation. "What are you talking about, Black?"
"Oh, you'll see." He abruptly clapped his hands together in a startling manner. "Okay, ready to get this thing over with, then?"
He lifted his arm to give Severus access to the sleeve of his dove gray robes. "I am as ready as ever I shall be."
They were in an office of some sort. Not terribly large and somewhat non-descript. At an enormous desk in the middle of the room sat The Boy. Severus judged him to be about thirty or so, his hair was as long as he'd ever seen it, and he was without his glasses so that nothing interfered with that startling green gaze. The desktop was cluttered with ledgers and stacks of parchment as The Boy worked diligently, writing furiously with a large white quill.
A distinct pop could be heard outside of the door, indicating someone Apparating in, before a knock sounded. The Boy didn't stop his writing; however, the visitor did not wait for a response. The door opened to reveal the youngest Weasley boy.
"Yes, what is it, Ron?" The Boy did not look up from his work.
Weasley hesitated before asking, "You do know what day this is, right?"
The Boy let out an impatient sigh, and then said, "I'm well aware that it is Christmas, Ron. I don't have to be reminded."
"I'm only the messenger, mate. Mum and Hermione are having kittens 'cause you're not there yet. Everything's waiting for you, including Remus, who you forgot to pick up."
The Boy threw the quill down and gestured toward the desktop with his hand. "This is important—much more important than any ridiculous party. Unless, of course, you don't happen to consider your own financial future, and that of your family, important. Hm? You have a stake in this too. I could just close it all up and then we could all live like paupers, does that suit you?"
"Oh, no you don't, you bloody—"
Weasley, already a tall man, seemed to grow even taller. Severus recognized in him the potential for considerable temper and he instinctively braced for it. Surprisingly, though, the redhead made an impressive effort to control it. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and exhaled before continuing in a strained voice, "Harry, you know that I am grateful for everything you've done for me and my family."
The Boy seemed to deflate a bit. "Ron, don't. You don't have to say it."
"Oh, but I do, and you need to hear it. Ten years ago, you gave me a piece of my favorite Quidditch team and a salary to compete with the other league Keepers. Five years ago, you gave me a piece of your mini-empire here. And two years ago, you gave me the greatest opportunity I never dared to even imagine—you made me the coach of the Cannons." There was reverence in Weasley's voice when he'd said that last bit. "I couldn't possibly thank or repay you enough. Hell, if you hadn't done all that I'd likely still be Keeper, making half a wage and, in fact, my youngest three children owe their lives to you—Sam would surely be an only child. For all that you've done for me, you get my sincere and deepest gratitude, my love and appreciation, and loyalty that knows no bounds."
He took a deep breath before bending close to The Boy's now-sheepish face. "That being said, the only thing that's stopping me from socking you in the mouth is that I know good and well why you're acting this way. We both do. I owe you, Harry, more than I could ever repay you, but that does not buy you the right to lash out at me when you're angry with him."
The Boy leaned back in his chair and exhaled. Weasley, having vented successfully, no longer seemed to fill the room. He pushed a pile of parchment over and rested a hip on the corner of the desk. "What's got you all twisted, mate? Nothing's changed, has it?"
A sad smile appeared before The Boy offered, "I'm sorry, Ron. You're right. I shouldn't take it out on you. I'm an arse. I keep trying to see him, I've made it a fucking Christmas tradition and I still run into a wall. Did you know that Hermione told me ten years ago that he'd out-stubborn me? She's right. I can't compete with him. No more. I'm not going to even try anymore."
Severus thought that this victory, of sorts, should feel much better than it did. Perhaps now The Boy would finally find someone. He ignored the sick feeling the thought created. It had been the plan.
"Maybe now you'll let Hermione fix you up with someone? She's been dying to, mate. She's got a list she's been maintaining since you told her no the last time. She keeps track of who's available and even has them rated. It's a fucking Who's Who of gay wizards—people beg to be put on that list."
The Boy snorted, as was clearly Weasley's intention. "They do not."
"Yeah, they do, offer her bribes and favors. It's a nightmare, really. If she can't find anyone for you, they can't be found." Weasley stood and encouraged The Boy to do the same. "Come on, I'm half starved."
The Boy complied, standing and donning his cloak. "I appreciate it, Ron. I really do appreciate Hermione's efforts especially, but I think you're right, they can't be found. There's only one man for me and he's too stubborn to see it. This heart is closing up shop." He paused, and turned back to look at his friend. "Who's Who of gay wizards, eh? I might have a look at that list. What Hermione doesn't know won't hurt her. Don't want her to think she's pandering again..."
They Disapparated from the room, leaving Severus with his thoughts. He'd forgotten about Black and was startled, though he didn't show it, when the man appeared in his field of vision.
"Why have you brought me here? The Boy is no further along. Why does he insist on continuing like this—even after all this time?"
Black looked thoughtful for a moment. "The heart is a strange thing, isn't it? Who really knows what makes it work? I think the real question is—why in the world did his heart choose you?" He paused and then answered, "I thought it was obvious why I brought you here, Snape—this is the moment in which Harry abandons all hope. But perhaps this will spell it out more vividly for you." Black grabbed hold of Severus' arm, and the scenery whirled sickeningly around them. They landed roughly in a bedroom—a large elegantly decorated one. Severus found himself looking at the occupants of a beautifully crafted four-poster bed.
The sight was too painful by half; however, Severus was determined not to reveal that to Black. The Boy was pounding relentlessly into the unknown male on his knees in front of him.
"Black, this is highly inappropriate, The Boy is your godson, for Merlin's sake."
"Take a good look at him, Snape. He's no boy." Black seemed to be enjoying his discomfort. Unfortunately, he had been correct; he placed The Boy's age at that of his own—not a boy by far.
And he was machine like in his actions; although there was no beauty in the act, Severus recognized the signs of an imminent climax and he waited breathlessly for that moment, the blissful moment he'd shared with The Boy so many times. And it never came.
The Boy had been vengeful, almost brutal in his motions and that look full of wonder, pleasure, and joy that Severus had come to expect at such moments never materialized on his face.
"What's the matter, Snape? Don't like this one? How about this?" He grabbed him again and they whirled into another similar scene.
The Boy pounded into another faceless man, again, no enjoyment in evidence at the climax.
"Or how about this one, then?'
"Or this one? There are plenty to choose from, after all. Our boy Harry is on some sort of mission, it seems. This is how he spends most of his evenings."
One after the other, the only sign that each event was different was the slight variance in the haunches of the faceless receptacles. Black's grip on his arm was painfully tight and the rapid-fire changing was making Severus dizzy, to which he attributed his nausea as well.
"Stop this at once!"
"As you wish." Black released his arm and they ceased; however, the scene remained one of the same. "Oh, you'll like this one best, I think."
The Boy was at that point once again, the point that should have displayed pleasure on his still pretty face. Amazingly enough, there was a hint of it there this time, only a shadow of what it had been, but there, nonetheless. Severus watched The Boy move faster, watched him inch ever closer to that elusive peak. His breathing hitched as The Boy finally showed some emotion, and then the moment arrived with a shout of, "Severus!"
Oh. The shouted name went right through to the very center of him and caused him to stagger slightly.
Collapsing on the bed next to the stranger, The Boy panted and curled in on himself. He looked angry. The stranger moved to snuggle into him, but hesitated when The Boy said, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Just wanted a bit of a snuggle is all. Looked like you could use one, eh?" The fellow was average looking, not entirely unpleasant; however, The Boy did not look at him.
"Get out." There was cold steel in the voice that said those words. So different from any Severus had ever heard pass those lips.
"What's the matter, mate? I can be this Severus bloke for you if you've a mind for another go round in a bit."
The Boy sat up, placing his feet firmly on the floor, still without facing the stranger, and said in a deadly quiet voice, "I am reaching for my wand; I will not hesitate to use it if you are still here when it touches my hand."
"Oi, no need to be hostile! I can take a hint." The plain man gathered his clothing, muttering under his breath, "Let a man use your arse and he kicks a lad out into the snow. That's a fine thank you on Christmas Eve." With a loud pop the man was gone.
Severus felt truly sickened. What was this? Who is this person?
The Boy sagged on the bedside, then stood without warning, his face filling with rage, perhaps even hatred. Despite himself, Severus was tempted to reach out to this stranger, this beautiful, angry man, in order to coax the person he had known out of this hard shell.
The glorious nude form was in silhouette against the large fire as The Boy leaned on the marble mantelpiece. Severus could see The Boy's face reflected clearly in the large mirror on the wall as he looked up, and said with an icy sneer, "You...are a fool."
For a single heart stopping moment, Severus thought that The Boy could see him, was looking right at him and had directed the statement toward him. The words cut through him like the sharpest blade. The pain and loathing in The Boy's face reflected in the glass and radiated coldly back, reaching Severus, and he let out a hiss of pain at a brief sharing of the wretched emotions.
"Don't get it yet, Snape? Let's see how Harry spends his daylight hours then, shall we?" Black grabbed Severus' arm again and they were in a grand foyer—stark white and cold. Black moved off deeper into the hall and to the left, into what appeared to be a study, leaving Severus to follow. He was still reeling from the events he'd witnessed in their former location and he followed without argument, lost in his own thoughts.
The room they'd entered was very masculine in feel; its book-lined walls and rich wood accents made it warmly inviting—in sharp contrast to the cold impersonal entrance hall they'd just left. A small Christmas tree twinkled on a table next to a pair of chairs that were situated near the fire, one of which was occupied by an ancient man. Sparse white hair capped his sagging, wrinkled face; a ragged brown jumper covered his thin upper half while a colorful knitted blanket covered the lower. Severus noted that the old man's hands and head were shaking with tremors that suggested a neurological dysfunction.
Black walked over to the man, his face softening and filling with compassion for the first time. He reached out as if to stroke the cheek of the man, though the gesture was ineffectual, and said, "My poor Moony."
The man started. "Padfoot?"
"Yes, I'm here, Moony."
Severus was stunned, not only at the sight of Lupin, but also at the fact that the man could hear Black. "He can hear you? What is the explanation for this?"
Black didn't look at him, though he shrugged his shoulders and answered, "It happens sometimes, when someone is close to death—they can reach through, or be reached through the other planes of existence. I don't know if he heard me so much as recognized my energy."
"What's happened to him? The tremors?" However much Severus did not want to care, this could not be ignored. He could not look upon this ruined shell and feel anything other than pity.
"The transformations, of course. Well, that coupled with his back injuries. They never had a chance to heal properly, did they?"
The pity was evolving into something else. He needed to know, had to find out if this could be altered. "Surely it's not unavoidable? Why show me this if I cannot do anything about it? I've already decided to give him the potion. Black, tell me, is this condition inevitable?" He felt desperate as guilt started biting at his ankles, working its way up his legs to consume him. He grabbed Black by the front of his robes. "Tell me—I must know in order to tailor the potion—is this a result of the original injury or of the years of pain?"
"Why, Snape, I didn't know you cared." Severus dropped him as if he'd been burned, and worked to gain control of himself—something he was finding ever more difficult to achieve.
He turned away from Black. "I do not; however, there is no reason for the man to suffer when a potion is available."
"Well, how very generous of you, Snape." Black sneered and straightened his robes, brushing down the front where they'd been manhandled. "There was some damage done initially, however, it is the unrelenting pain-filled transformations that led to this." Severus took the information and did a quick mental inventory of his stores, and then began to reformulate his version of the Wolfsbane to include a preventative for this type of damage to the nervous system.
A shout came from somewhere in the distance, "Remus? Where the devil are you?"
"Harry?" Lupin perked up. "I'm in here, where else would I be? Bloody mausoleum." The last was muttered in a way that only the very old and cranky ever got away with without censure.
"Where indeed." The man walking through the door was formidable. The expensive cut and cloth of his black robes, as well as the silver-handled walking stick he carried, were reminiscent of Lucius Malfoy. However, unlike Lucius, this man carried not an air of entitlement, but rather one of power, of command and the secure knowledge of his place in the world. This man was a leader of men.
Potter (for surely this man could no longer be referred to as The Boy) looked to be about the same age as last he'd seen him and Severus wondered if that scene in the bedroom had happened only just the night before. The difference was astonishing.
He watched as Potter pulled a gold timepiece, attached to a length of gold chain, from the pocket of his waistcoat. He consulted the watch and closed it impatiently. "Remus, are you ready to go? Hermione has arranged for a Portkey that should land you in your favorite chair."
Lupin looked at Potter, eyes already narrowed by the sagging, wrinkled skin around them, narrowed further. "You're not coming, then?"
"No, I am not. I have a meeting. One that I am going to be late for if we don't get moving." Potter fiddled with the watch in his pocket and seemed to actively resist pulling it out to consult again.
"A meeting? Who has a meeting on Christmas day, Harry?" Lupin wheezed.
"I do. Other men of business and I, who know that one does not rest on one's laurels and expect to stay on top."
Lupin looked disgusted. "Harry, listen to me—sit down for a moment. I wish to speak with you about something important."
Potter pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, "Remus, honestly, can't this wait until later?"
"No, it can't. You may have all the time in the world, but I do not. I will not be here next Christmas, Harry, I may not be here tomorrow."
"Don't say things like that. Come on, do you have everything you wish to take with you?" He looked around the room. "Where is Dobby?"
"He has the day off. Christmas?" Lupin seemed to lose his patience. "For Merlin's sake, Harry, sit down this instant. It is vital that I have my say."
Potter relented with a put-upon sigh, fingering the gold watch as he lowered himself to the ottoman in front of Lupin. "What is so important, Remus?"
"I am...concerned about you, Harry. Deeply concerned." Lupin's voice warbled in time with the tremors that afflicted him. "This life you're living, this half-life I should say; it's so empty. And I hate to see what it's doing to you."
"Whatever are you talking about, Remus?"
"I'm talking about your heart, Harry, perhaps your very soul. You are so disconnected from everyone around you. You barely exist, apart from your bloody meetings. All of this grand lifestyle and no one to share it with."
"I am not disconnected, and I share this grandness with you."
"You are not hearing me, I will not be around much longer." Lupin released a frustrated sigh. "Harry, tell me something, your godson Sam, how old is he?"
Potter seemed to be fighting to remain seated in front of the old man, his patience at an end. "I don't know, Remus—twelve, thirteen, maybe. What does that have to do with this?"
"It has everything to do with it. Sam is twenty, Harry. He's to be married May next. Disconnected. You closed off your heart and ceased living. Oh, you seem to be very busy, and perhaps people looking in from afar would imagine you have a very full life. But someone inside, such as myself, knows that you barely exist. If it weren't for your damnable meetings you'd have nothing at all."
"My life is what it is, Remus. I am not unhappy with my success." Potter pulled the watch out again. Severus felt as if he'd experienced a blow to the stomach. This conversation was uncomfortably familiar. How had this bitter, cold person grown from the warm young man he'd known so well? Guilt began to claw at him once more, his complicity in this becoming clearer.
"Success is a cold thing to share a bed with, Harry. Promise me that you will at least give some thought to what I've said?" Lupin now looked incredibly tired and a bit older than the he had at the start of the conversation.
Severus was drowning in his own thoughts. He'd had such good intentions, and truly The Boy had been successful; however, his life was empty. He'd not found someone more suitable. He'd not found anyone at all. It was as Lupin had said; this man's heart was a cold, neglected thing. Where had he gone wrong in his efforts?
"Still don't quite get it, do you, Snape?" Black grabbed him roughly. "Oh, but you will. If this doesn't spell it out for you, then you truly are the evil, despicable bastard I believe you to be." Severus was unceremoniously dropped into what appeared to be a graveyard. It was a cold, clear winter morning—judging by the light and the harsh gray of the bare trees.
A distinguished white-haired old gentleman, wearing robes of an expensive cut, stood by while a young man levitated a large marble headstone into place at the head of a freshly turned grave.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Mr. Potter, sir, but didn't Mr. Snape request his grave be unmarked?" Severus started at his own name. A sense of... relief, maybe, washed over him to see his own end. He did not bother to calculate the time frame; it was of little consequence to him.
"Severus is not here to argue with me. Just plant the bloody thing and be on your way, Jarvis." The young man worked in silence, tamping down the earth around the marble monument.
"It's a big stone, sir. If yeh don't mind me askin', who's the other side fer?" Jarvis stood and brushed off the mud-caked knees of his workman's trousers.
"I do mind, however, I will tell you that it is for me. Thank you for your efforts, Mr. Jarvis. Please take your leave now. I wish to be alone with him." Potter held out his hand and filled the young man's outstretched one with Galleons.
"Thank you, sir! Happy Christmas!" The young man beamed and Apparated out of sight.
Potter leaned the walking stick against the newly planted stone and Severus noticed for the first time that the silver handle had been designed to look like a griffin and a serpent entwined. Potter went to his knees stiffly, heedless of the muck his cloak was now pressed into.
"Well, Severus, it seems you've won. You've out-stubborned me to the grave." Potter withdrew a phial from the interior pocket of his cloak. Severus recognized the seal on the top as his own. He looked more carefully at the contents and discovered the potion to be of a color and consistency that had the blood draining from his face.
Although it was impossible to tell by sight alone, that particular coloring indicated the contents to be one of three potions—all varying strengths of the same potion, and all containing monkshood as a key ingredient. The three potions in question were highly effective, but strictly topical and restricted to use by Healing personnel only, due to the extremely poisonous nature. They are deadly if ingested, and potentially so, if so much as a drop were to come into contact with even the smallest break in the skin.
Potter lifted the phial in a salute to the headstone and said, "If not in life, Severus, then perhaps in death." He watched in horror as Potter brought the phial to his lips.
"Harry! No!" Severus cried out in desperation. He tried to reach for the phial, to knock it out of Harry's grasp, but his hand went right through the man. "Black! Help me! We must stop him—" He looked around, but Black was nowhere to be found. And then it ceased to matter, Harry had already consumed the contents.
Severus watched in horrified, impotent anguish as Harry fell to the ground atop the fresh earth of his own grave. What had he done? How had this come to be? He'd only wanted something better for the boy, something better for Harry than a broken down, jaded bastard old enough to be his father.
He fell to the ground alongside Harry, and saw the moment that the light of life was extinguished from his eyes. Grief such as he'd never before experienced shredded his chest cavity. The pain was overwhelming; he felt as if his heart were being ripped from his body and a keening wail of denial issued from his lips unnoticed.
He understood, oh, how he understood now, what he'd done. He'd loved this man, however reluctantly or unexpectedly, he'd love him truly and completely, and that gift had been returned to him wholly and with the same intensity. When he'd withdrawn from Harry, who had not taken back his own heart, he'd left him with nothing but the big, gaping hole that was now at the center of his own chest.
Severus looked down into the face of the man that had been Harry Potter. Whatever his intentions had been, he had caused this end. He lay beside him, longing to caress the face of the man he loved. He covered his own face instead, in an effort to erase the image of the dead man. This was unacceptable—it could not come to this. It cannot be too late. Why would the spirits have shown him this otherwise? He had to fix this—he would fix this.
Severus woke with start—confused and in a cold sweat. Where was he, what day was it? The evening's events flooded back to him suddenly and he felt cold to his very bones. Harry had taken his own life, right before Severus' very eyes... He had been an old man, yes, but still his Harry. And he'd done it because of Severus' actions, his misguided intentions; Severus had lain in the dirt of his own grave and watched the life leave the eyes of the man he loved.
The intense anguish he had experienced lingered still and he worked desperately to wipe that image from his mind. He latched onto the knowledge that this had not, in reality, happened yet. That what he'd been shown was the end of the path he had been walking these past four years, and he would change that tack starting this very day—his determination of the night before to make things right returned to him in full force.
Even in the small microcosm of his enclosed bed, he felt it—the world had changed, or he had. It was irrelevant which had; all that mattered was that there was indeed, a difference. He felt lighter, perhaps even ...hopeful. He sat up suddenly, untangling himself from the linens, and threw the heavy bed curtains open.
As expected, it was his same room that met his eyes. Unexpected were the warm crackling fire in the hearth and the little Christmas tree, charmed to twinkle merrily, sitting on his small table; most definitely unexpected were the brightly wrapped packages underneath it.
No note or card had been left; however, he recognized Evans' handiwork in the tree's charms. If he had been the best in their year at potions, she had been unmatched in her skill at charms. There was something in the fiddly little wand motions that had always eluded Severus. He had the power to spare, but not anywhere near the precision that she had for that sort of intricate wand-work.
He felt like a child at the flutter of excitement he'd experienced upon the sight of the gifts, but felt no shame in indulging that child-within by tearing into the wrapping. Opening the box revealed a dressing gown—a quilted, black-silk dressing gown with black satin piping along the collar, down the lapels, and around the hem of the sleeves. Severus discarded his shabby one and donned the soft garment. It was warm and skillfully made, and long—falling past mid-calf—just the way he liked. A luxurious item he'd never dream of purchasing for himself.
He made short work of the wrapping on the other gift and found, not surprisingly, a pair of warm slippers, which he promptly slipped his chilled feet into. A croaky laugh escaped him at the absurdity of gifts from a spirit, and perhaps a bit in appreciation for having received them.
Oh, if Granger could see him now, laughing like a madman—the mere suggestion that he could laugh had frightened her enough—she would be truly terrified to see him at it. Thinking of Granger reminded him of the task at hand, and he had much to do. The first order of business was tea, however.
Once that was underway, he opened his wardrobe and reached deep into its interior for the dress robes that he'd owned for some time, but had only worn on two occasions. They were black of course, with a velvet waistcoat. The purchase had taken a large bite of his savings at the time, and although he'd never actively regretted the purchase, he was now enormously thankful that he had indulged himself that single time.
That settled, he pondered as he sipped his tea, making a mental list of all that he'd need. He couldn't arrive empty handed, but he had a nice bottle of red wine he could give to Molly, and however much it pained him to part with it, he also had an unopened bottle of scotch he could give to Arthur. He would need the Wolfsbane Potion for Lupin, of course.
He would not buy a fat goose.
Nor would he carry Ginny Weasley on his shoulder. (Apart from the unseemliness of it, he'd caught a glimpse of the young woman during his journey the night before and had noted that she was even further along with child than Granger had been.)
Otherwise his flip comment to Albus the night before seemed to have been somewhat prophetic after all. He lifted his teacup in a silent toast to the man who had given him the greatest gift of the day—of a lifetime, really—one that would not fit under a tree, and set about preparing to live his life fully.
Severus Apparated into the garden at the Burrow. The structure was lopsided and appeared to be on the brink of toppling; however, Severus could feel the strong magic keeping it upright and relaxed his worries on that count.
He brushed the snow off of what appeared to be a table, and placed the items he carried onto the cleared surface. His intent had been to arrive at precisely the right moment, thinking that he'd let Harry have his conversation with Granger so that at least one of his friends would understand; though, he suspected that Molly Weasley was already in that camp, and likely had been all along.
Using an old trick Albus had shown him at the start of his career as a spy, he waved a hand in a circular motion in front of the nearest wall in conjunction with the appropriate non-verbal spell. The result was a window of sorts; the portion of the wall over which his hand had passed had become transparent.
Ah, a kitchen full of Weasleys, including the youngest boy, indicating his delicate sensibilities had already sent him fleeing the other room. It was a bustle in there—dinner preparations were being made, people nibbling from plates though he couldn't see what the plates offered. The larger portion of men in the room appeared to be playing a game of some sort at the long table.
Severus felt nearly giddy, which disturbed him greatly. He took a deep breath to better collect himself. It wouldn't do to go into this acting the part of a lunatic. With a wave of his hand, the transparent portion of the wall became solid once again.
He gathered his parcels—and his wits—and knocked on the door. The sharp noise had a noticeable effect on the crowd within, the din diminished and Severus heard someone, a woman, say, "Whoever could that be?"
The door opened to reveal Molly Weasley's smiling face. She showed no sign of surprise at the man standing at her threshold. "Severus! Welcome. Come in." She opened the door further to allow him entry and closed it behind him.
The room had gone silent, though Severus ignored the suspicious looks he was receiving from the vast majority of males in the room. Molly touched his arm reassuringly and he handed her the package he'd brought for her. "Will you forgive me, Molly, for not sending my RSVP?"
Molly took the bottle of wine, and pulled him into a warm embrace with her free arm, but brushed away the apology with a wave of her hand. "Oh pish, Severus, we don't stand on formality round here; that door is always open to you."
Arthur Weasley, who had joined his wife, extended his hand in greeting with a warm smile on his face. "Severus, good to see you. Welcome to our home."
"Thank you, Arthur. This is for you." As Severus handed him the bottle of scotch, he heard a sharp intake of breath from somewhere behind the man, and he suddenly felt anxious; a sensation that he was not overly familiar with and did not particularly care for.
Arthur moved to stand next to his wife, and in doing so Severus got his first look at Harry, who stood with his mouth gaping at Severus, confusion and a hint of apprehension in his eyes. Despite that, Severus felt overwhelmed with relief at the sight of him; he was alive, vibrant and Severus wanted to scoop him up and devour him whole, but settled for a long look back at the man. It was imperative that he did this right.
The room had become quiet again, and he'd thought for a moment that perhaps he should have picked a less public venue; however, he was certain that the significance of doing this in front of Harry's family would not be lost on him.
His heart beat frantically in his chest as he took the few steps required to stand in front of Harry, who said, as if he didn't believe his own eyes, "Severus?"
When Severus responded simply, "Harry," he saw something break within him, something warm and wonderful that reached out from behind the glasses through the bright green eyes.
Severus reached up with his hand to softly caress the side of Harry's face and a sigh escaped the younger man's lips. He raised his other hand to mimic the gesture on the other side, and then cupped his face, running his thumbs over the prominent cheekbones on either side of the glasses. Severus couldn't wait another moment, so he bent his head toward the lips that he'd so longed to taste again, heedless of their silent audience.
The warm lips met his and the world seemed to right itself. It was an achingly tender re-acquainting, as the lips recognized one another and moved against each other with familiarity and remembered enthusiasm.
Severus was drowning and willing so, but his sense of decorum was urging him to have some control. He ended the kiss, moving his hands to Harry's shoulders and pulling his head back just enough to look into Harry's eyes, his heart so full it felt as if it would burst. The green eyes were alight, but there were questions there too.
Severus heard them as clearly as if they'd been spoken, and answered, "If you will insist on being miserable, despite all my best efforts to the contrary, then I must insist that we be miserable together." He paused, searching the face, basking in the warm emotions filling it. "My only wish was for something better for you."
"There isn't anything better, Severus."
"You are wrong about that—there are legions eminently more suitable than I. However, you have, for some unfathomable reason, chosen me, and I shall spend an eternity endeavoring to be worthy of it."
Molly Weasley released a soft, "Oh," and cleared her throat, and Severus noticed that all of the women in the room had tearstained cheeks. As if directing troops, she said, "All right, you lot, move out into the other room and give these boys some privacy."
Remembering the other package he had with him, Severus, without fully releasing Harry, motioned toward Granger, who had been standing closest to them, and said, "Mrs. Weasley—"
The Weasleys filed past her like the troops they had been addressed as; some muttering in disbelief, some smiling fondly at the couple, and some reveling in the chaos his appearance had created. Granger chuckled, despite her moist eyes. "There are a fair few of us here that will answer to that name, Professor. Please call me Hermione."
He wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea; she'd been Granger in his head for so many years, and it had been difficult enough to address her as he just had. However, if he'd been able to clear that hurdle with Harry, he supposed he could overcome it. "Hermione, then. If you would be so kind," he reached into the interior pocket of his cloak, pulled out a stoppered bottle, and handed it to her, "this is for Lupin. Please tell him that he is to come to my shop sometime next week, no later than that, so I may assess his specific needs in enough time to tailor the next batch to address them more effectively."
Harry pulled him close in a crushing embrace. "Thank you, Severus. I know how hard that was for you, but it will help Remus more than you could ever know."
"It was not nearly as difficult as I would have imagined." Severus inwardly shuddered at the memory of the ancient looking and shaky man. He was embraced once again, and Severus melted into it. How on earth had he denied himself this, denied Harry this? How had he lived without it for so long?
Harry had grown a bit more in the time they were apart. If he had thought they'd fit perfectly together before, there wasn't a word to describe it now; they fit together like missing pieces of one another. And that's how he felt: whole again. Harry had his chin resting on Severus' shoulder and he could feel Harry smiling against his neck. "I knew you'd come to your senses eventually, Severus."
He was entirely certain that had Albus not sent his interfering spirits, he would never have abandoned his plan, and now that he'd been enlightened, the thought was horrifying. "I very nearly did not." He pulled away a bit so he could see Harry's face. "I had been very determined that you should find someone more suitable, and I was, even just yesterday, bloody-minded about it."
"What happened, then, to change your mind?"
"Let us just say that there was interference by some interested parties." Severus' left hand found the silky hair on the back of Harry's neck while he lifted his right to run his thumb along Harry's full bottom lip. "I shall tell you about it sometime. It's quite a story." Harry's pink tongue followed the trail that his thumb had made. Severus ceased thinking altogether and caught the now moistened lips in a hungry kiss, which held a promise of more, a promise of tomorrow, a promise of forever.
Four unseen observers watched the reunion with varying degrees of pleasure. "Will they be all right now, Albus?"
The old man's bright blue eyes twinkled merrily, and then seemed to focus on something in the distance. "Indeed they shall, dear girl. More than all right, I should say. Harry is still destined be successful, however, his business pursuits will be more philanthropic in nature. It is Severus who shall be the wonder, however. The potion that he will create for Remus, along with his subsequent research funded entirely by a grant from a foundation that Harry will form, shall eventually lead to a cure for lycanthropy."
"Well, I suppose if he's going to help Remus, he can't be all that bad. I still don't like him, though." A resigned sigh was heard.
"Can we do this again, Professor? Only, it was nice ter see ev'ryone again."
"We shall see, Hagrid." The quartet started to fade away. Heard just before they'd disappeared completely was, "We shall give Remus a year with his new potion and see where it takes him."