Standard Disclaimer applies - it's all JKR's.
Many thanks one more time to Whitehound for the help with the language - and for everything she does for Snape's sake.
This time the tale is for my daughter, who asked for one more.
"Mam, is that you?"
His voice had been hoarse, and it was another blow to hear it: that roughened speech, so different from the past, was the most painful suggestion of his suffering.
One of the most beautiful and touching tales which she had read during her years of Muggle education had been that of a soldier, a poor infantryman who, while dying, was speaking to a nurse believing that she was his mother… so the witch didn't answer, she couldn't, she had only moved her fingers to caress his forehead, slowly and tenderly.
She had hoped that all her worst worries were wrong.
After the day when she had stood astonished with her two companions as she had been enlightened about the truth regarding his latest actions, she had silently made an unspoken vow: to do all she could to bring this man back safe, and to help him finally to have all the good he deserved.
"The hexes he received shielding us weren't fatal, weren't they?"
The young woman knew that the mediwitch had cast every necessary healing spell, but she still didn't know the extent of his injuries, so she had had to ask one more time…
Faithful to her purpose, she knew only one thing, and knew it very well: that her vigil mustn't end.
His breathing was difficult, heavy. The sight of his thin body, readily flinching at every contact, brought a lump to her throat. His arm, his pale skin there, now free of the Dark Mark, reminded her that that alone, the knowledge that he bore that brand, should have been enough to make her understand, far earlier, what his life had meant up to now.
She actually couldn't believe that a man already so afflicted by guilt, regret, duties, danger… had had to endure more than these anguishes which were already so severe. What if now, after all those years lived without respite, the knowledge that he had reached the end of the struggle had taken away his will to fight for his life?
He had opened his eyes only once, without giving any sign that he was aware of his surroundings. She was waiting for that sign; she could have waited for all the time which might be needed.
"Give yourself a break – and me, as well – I don't need the sight of your vulture-like presence every time I open my eyes."
So he had been aware, even before this glorious demonstration of consciousness! It was a relief to her, finally to see the hoped-for sign.
She had been tired and scared, after all the days spent looking for this first little trace, so the release of her heaviest worry flew from her chest in one deep breath which made her whole body lighter. She didn't mind if it was coming through crisp, once-more cuttingly silky words.
They were soothing, in a sense.
And she was used to difficult people; more, she knew how to deal with strong words, temper, grudges… She understood the needing to be recognised for the things in him which mattered, for his honour and courage, without comparison with others or any obligation to prove himself… she had had her whole school life to become accustomed to behaviours and needs like these.
She had only lately perceived, however, that she had loved them in the wrong person.
"Someone has to help, to rebuild, to heal… that's why I can't go."
She had seen all her friends - those who were still alive - leaving the ruined castle one after the other, in search of a quieter life, or of new adventures or, simply, of their place in the world.
She had breathed her second sigh of relief listening to the reassuring words from surviving members of the Order, which had persuaded the wizard in her care as to his safety after the collection of all the evidence which proved his true loyalties. During the last days before the final battle, where the role assigned to her had not been on the front line, she had done her best to explain to every Order member she met the truth which she had learnt about their faithful spy.
But now she had lied to them about herself, the recovering wizard had thought, as if they hadn't known that the healing she had been helping with the whole time had been his own, only.
For once, then, as strange as it seemed to him, they hadn't argued.
"No more house points, I see." Not that this would be any concern of his any more, anyway
At least he was out of bed and was now walking towards his quarters. It seemed as if ages had passed since the last time he had been there. He had had no faith that he would see those corridors again, not after that fateful night when he had opened the door to hear the call of destiny.
His most demanding act of defence, concealed behind the worst of offences, had haunted his nightmares, his thoughts, like the last act in a series; of the sequence of his whole life, in which he had always been alone in the fight for his own salvation.
Strange how, at the end of all, it had been just after that act that someone else had bothered to protect him, and ultimately to help him to recover and be redeemed.
"And what does it matter if we lose house points, when we have lost so much more?"
The hourglasses, broken during the last combats, hadn't been replaced. Precious gems like emeralds and rubies seemed so mundane compared to the events which had taken place here and to the sight of the weighty, ancient stones, now blackened and ruined.
He was unaware that he had spoken these words out loud: perhaps he was still not fully recovered?
His pace had regained its energy, with time. His voice learnt to change the quality of its taunts, and the object.
His magic was still powerful, and he should have been content; but this was too new a sensation, to him, while the memories of the sacrifices which had been made were still the main substance of his feelings.
"Not everything is lost however, is it sir?" he had heard the quiet voice say in answer to his admission.
He had turned on his heel and stared at the young woman: then he had left the halls, but not before he had heeded, for the first time, the change which recent events had made in her.
Many days had passed from the moment when he had left the hospital wing, which luckily was one of the few sections of the castle which was still in working order. During those days he had wandered everywhere through the almost deserted castle, and often he had met the young witch who, he was now realizing, still hadn't left.
She was wearing robes the colour of burgundy, and they suited her, who was recalling to him all the charm of the old traditions. But her attire, even if such a new departure from her former tastes, wasn't the most noticeable difference in her.
He had left without a reply, and it was too early for a true answer. He wasn't sure about what she had really meant and, for his own part, to be sure of anything was as yet unthinkable.
"You will not always find the answer in a book, you know."
He had resolved to tell her this triteness after a long time spent struggling, in silence, while watching the witch.
She had been intent on the reading of a massive tome, page after page, without lifting her head from it for anything other than the chance fixing of a curl which had escaped from her loosened ponytail; as if the book could really have explained even the most inscrutable and unbearable events.
He couldn't believe he had just said those words. What, in any event, did it matter to him if she had decided to go on this way the whole time?
She had been irritating to him since the beginning, but now that so few among the survivors were still linked to the castle he had discovered himself to be quite fond of her presence and of her company. She had learnt only too well to restrain her incessant talking, and he had found himself looking forward to her words and to their shared moments.
"So, please, tell me what is it that you are doing with yourself? What is it that the brightest witch of her age is pursuing among the ruins of the past?"
He was sipping hot tea in her quarters. After putting the cup down on the table, he had taken his time before inquiring.
She, too, didn't answer immediately. Better, she didn't answer at all, instead staring at him like a challenge to go on, to ask a further question. She didn't know what she wanted; up to now she had only known that she hadn't wished to fly away.
She still loved this kind of battle, the only one that she could fight from now on. She had felt that the core of the castle was already rebuilding its magical surroundings. It seemed to her that it was nurturing, in its enchanted warmth, those who had found their place inside it.
"Give the owl its treat, if lifting your head from those pages isn't too much to ask."
She had heard, had raised an eyebrow, but she had complied, suddenly diverted from her writing
He was reading the message, for the third time. With disbelief.
She was watching him, for the umpteenth time. With fondness.
She saw all she had gained and all she had left behind: everything, just watching him. And what she was seeing was so right, so reassuring.
That had been the reason why she couldn't have left him, in those first days: she couldn't have missed witnessing his salvation, that joy without which the victory would have been forever lacking, incomplete.
She wasn't able to tell why, but just at that moment, watching him while he was reading the letter, she had known her will.
"How long have you been here? It's late."
Again, of course, she had wondered what he was really asking. She was in the garden; a book, unopened and neglected, was on her lap. Shadows were coming, through the end of the day, and the pale light of the moon was making its shy appearance after the sunset.
She seemed lost.
It was a strange fact, but this had been the first moment, after too much time, when she had found her true self again.
"Not long enough" she had said, at the end of a skirmish of piercing gazes. "And I was wondering if it will ever be enough."
The castle was no longer a school. The wizard was no longer a teacher. She was no longer a student.
But the school could be opened again, and they, both of them, could stay and live different roles in a not-so-different way. "Reparo" had been one of the spells she had always cast successfully, and it could work again, with increased power, to mend and to restore things to their correct appearance.
"So you are assuming you know the answer… and what power it is that will never let you get away, you foolish girl?"
She weighed up his words; his challenge, this time, as to her true will. It was the rare soft look he was giving her which spoke the truth and allowed her confidence.
She knew everything of Hogwarts, and its whole History, so she knew also how the castle, and its hidden charms, could keep its occupants forever linked to it, once they declared their trust. That was the power of its magic, and it was no surprise that nobody among the teachers seemed to have a life outside of it. She had felt that power since the first days after his recovery, when nothing elsewhere seemed to need her presence nor her care…
Later, however, it was a power greater than magic which had won her, so that she had finally understood the deepest, unspoken meaning of what he had asked. That was why she smiled, meeting his dark eyes brightened by a new light, and words and declarations were neither required nor necessary anymore.
A/N: this could be read as another version of my dreaming epilogue, as some events written here echo those already written in the other stories.
This, however, can also be read as a stand alone where two people, the most sensible among all the others, find in a magical place, and in the relationship which they are developing, peace, rebirth and, ultimately, love - whatever meaning one chooses to give to the word and whatever will happen to their life later.