It was dark. Deep, soul-crushing dark, in so many ways that wrapped around the two of them so much more intensely than the mere absence of light in this house.

"You'll be careful, of course."

"Do I have a choice?" His tone was infuriatingly flat as he packed his things, absolutely unchanged from his days as a student or from his first day as a professor. Just like every word that anyone but her had ever heard him say.

"You always have a choice, Severus." She leaned on the kitchen table, her hands behind her back bracing her against the aged wood. The creak it let out was louder than either of their voices. "Your choices are why you're here now. You know that as well as I do."

He let out a low sigh as he sorted through some secondhand Muggle clothing. "We're not having this argument again now." He wrinkled his nose in distaste at a pair of brown corduroy slacks, tucking them into the suitcase on the sofa. "It doesn't matter why I'm here now. Only that I am, and I do what I must with it."

She stood up, walking into the living room to watch him more closely. "Do you know how infuriating you are?"

"I've been told."

"Give yourself some credit for once, will you? Your burden is no lighter than any of ours, and your resolve no weaker. Hell, you've already been through enough to fight this war twice over, and after all this--" She wasn't going to let her voice crack. That was the most infuriating thing of all. He'd more than opened his heart to her, she'd seen his emotions in ways no one since his mother had. But not once, never had he let them control him.

"After all this I'll be killed for this cause and we both know it. Someone has to take the fall, Minerva, please don't start this..."

The silence was deafening. She spoke again. "I don't want it to be you."

He closed his eyes. "I know."

"A tired old woman should be allowed a moment of selfishness now and again."

There were tears in her eyes; he didn't have to turn around to see that. He closed the suitcase slowly. "As should a lonely old man that never..." His voice trailed off.

"Damn it, Severus--"

"Damn nothing." He turned to face her, the lines etched on his face deeper than could be attributed to his age and the hour of night. "Don't damn a thing. We both know where we'd all be if any of this changed."

The moment was frozen for longer than either of them could guess, and neither could tell which of them reached for the other first, or who held more tightly onto what was likely to be their last embrace. It was he who let go first, resting his hands on the sides of her face. "Don't try to convince me you're not strong enough for this. I know better."

"And I know better than to think I can talk you out of anything." She pressed one hand gently to his chest. "He'd... understand, you know. He's old enough to--"

"He doubts me too much already." He managed a wry smile. "Killing me in the end is likely to be one of the only bright spots in the poor child's life, don't take that away from him."

She laughed despite herself, and he took the moment she was distracted to step away, picking up the suitcase. "This should be all I require for now. I'll be in contact if I need anything else."

The logical conclusion to that sentence -- what he needed and how badly she wanted to provide it -- went unstated as he stepped outside.


He turned around.

"Tell me you'll at least try to be safe. Please."

His eyes softened as he hitched a bag over his shoulder. "You have my word." He lifted his hand to cradle her chin. "I will protect myself like I would anything else you love. With all I have."

The kiss he left on her forehead was the gentlest touch she'd ever felt from him. She closed her eyes as she let out the breath she'd been holding. When she opened them again, he was gone, and somehow the house had become that much darker.