Disclaimer: Not mine; JKR's. I mean no harm or profit!

by Rex Luscus

Relationships, Severus has learned, are ruled entirely by context.

Take his name on Minerva McGonagall's lips. He realises at some point that he cannot recall a single instance of her using his given name. When he was her student, he was always "Mr Snape"; as her colleague, in front of students and staff alike, he was never anything but "Professor Snape," and in the rare instances in which only the two of them were present, she didn't call him anything at all.

Yet, were he asked, he would have had to admit that "Professor McGonagall" (as he called her without fail) was among his closest and most intimate of friends. Never mind the fact that they had never spoken under the pretext of anything but Hogwarts business; he had never met a single member of her family, nor she his; neither had ever once put a question to the other that was of a more personal nature than which Quidditch club they happened to support. At all times, they had observed the strict etiquette of professional formality befitting members of the Hogwarts faculty. Even so, was there not room for a certain kind of intimacy in this most circumscribed of relationships? They saw one another every day for fifteen years; they were permanent fixtures in one another's lives. Surely that means more than how they addressed one another, or what (frivolous, forgotten) subjects they once conversed about.

Maybe that, then, is the cause of the overwhelming shame he feels in allowing her to see him now--it is as though he is standing in judgment before the spectre of his old life. A shabby, trivial life, perhaps, but still a life worthier of dignity than his new one, which can do nothing except grovel in the dirt and beg for forgiveness.

If he had any doubts that that old life was gone for good, she removes them by speaking a single word: "Severus." It is strange--nothing could be more familiar to him than the sound of his own name, yet it is transformed by this new context: Minerva McGonagall's lips. For some reason, that thought makes him feel so ashamed he can't bear to meet her eyes.

"Severus," she says again. "For Merlin's sake, stand up and look at me."

He stands, and looks.

"Auror!" She doesn't break their eye contact as she motions the Auror forward. "Would you remove his shackles, please? He was free as of noon today, and I'm here to take him home, if you don't mind."

Once the cold weight is removed from his wrists, the lightness that replaces it is terrifying, as though he might simply float away off into space. Her warm, papery touch on his hand stills the mounting vertigo. "Come, Severus. We're going now."

He takes a step, and falters.

The next thing he knows, they are both on the ground--he in an awkward heap, and she in a worried crouch above him. But she does not stand and leave him there. Her slender arms, taut as steel wires, are around him in an instant, holding him up, preventing him from sinking into the floor and succumbing to the madness of freedom. "Severus," she whispers into his hair, saying his name like a charm, like there is magic in it. "I know you didn't expect to live this long. But you must face the fact that you have. You must face the fact that you're forgiven."

Clinging to her small, unmovable body, he gulps down hoarse sobs like a newborn child taking its first, difficult breaths.