(This is the fate you've carved on me.)

Christmas Day, 1996

Harry awakens on Christmas morning, convinced that he can smell snow in the air, even though the dormitory windows are firmly shut.

He lies there for a moment in his bed, comfortable and warm and sleepy. He feels as though he could lie there all day, really, and not be fussed, if not for the fact that their new Potions teacher, Professor Slughorn, is hosting a party that night, and he's agreed to go. He wouldn't be fussed about skipping it, either, only he's going with Luna.

Which, eventually, seems like a good a reason as any to get out of bed. Well, that, and the pillow that comes hurtling at Harry through the bed hangings.

"Oi!" shouts Ron. "Presents!"

Harry pushes against the mattress and heaves himself upright. A small mound of wrapped packages have appeared in the night on the bed by his feet. He pulls the cord to open the curtains and finds Ron already divesting his own, rather larger pile, of its wrappings.

"Merry Christmas," says Ron, pausing to reach under his bed and grab a small box, which he tosses across the room. Harry catches it one handed, and reciprocates with a slightly larger, flatter package from the drawer of his bedside table.

The room is quiet for the next few minutes, punctuated only by exclamations from Ron as he investigates the contents of his packages. Harry, on the other hand, has only one of his presents, when he finds a neatly furled roll of parchment on the mattress between his parcels from Mrs Weasley and Hermione.

He picks it up and frowns down at it a second before giving it a twist. The small drop of red sealing wax breaks beneath his fingers, and the parchment unrolls, revealing a few lines of familiar spiky black writing, which Harry, squinting, makes out with some difficulty.

Mr Potter, it reads, if you find yourself with sufficient leisure amidst the days' festivities, I would be glad of your company at four this afternoon, in my office. There is a matter that I wish to lay before you. Signed, S. Snape

Of all the letters he and Snape have exchanged over the course of the past term, Harry thinks, this is by far the most mysterious, not even leaving aside the one with the postscript he'd failed to understand which had led to his getting dosed with the Waking Dreams potion. He gazes down on it, forehead wrinkling. He has no way of guessing what Snape wants to see him for on Christmas Day, of all days, but as he mulls the possibilities he can't help but be afraid that Snape has some bad news to relate. Strange things have been happening over the last couple of months, both inside the school and out. Since Halloween, Dumbledore has been taking trips away from the school for longer and longer periods of time, and he had returned from the last one with a blackened, shriveled stump in the place of his right hand. He had resisted all Harry's attempts to discover what had happened to him, but Harry thinks he might be about to tell him soon—he's asked Harry to come and take private lessons with him starting after the new year. And Snape has been busy as well. At dinner one evening in the beginning of November, Dumbledore had announced a change in the teaching staff: Professor Slughorn, who had substituted for Snape during the two weeks he had been away for classes, caring for Harry and Luna, was taking over Potions permanently, and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, which had been taught that term by a rather boring, but at least not demonstrably evil Ministry witch called Clarissa Bodge, were to be taught from now on by Snape. Rumor had it that Professor Bodge had refused to allow Dumbledore to instate her as an official Hogwarts teacher, frightened by the popular belief that the DADA position was cursed, and had apparently been quite relieved to let Snape take over for her.

Between Harry's need to work flat-out for a month in order to catch up on all the work he had missed while recuperating from his injuries, and Snape's similarly overburdened workload, they have hardly spoken outside of class since Halloween, and Harry finds that part of him hopes Snape is calling him to his office simply to catch up. He, Harry, has missed their conversations more than he ever thought possible. And what was Christmas for, if not to catch up with friends?

What a different a couple of months makes, though, he thinks to himself, rolling the parchment back up. Time was, a letter from Snape on Christmas morning would have been enough to kill the mood for the whole day. Now all he feels is a vague irritation that Hedwig is up in the Owlery, and therefore not available to carry his reply right away.

"Can I borrow Pig?" says Harry to Ron, whose packages from Ginny the tiny owl has just delivered to the pair of them. "Need to send a note to someone."

Ron directs Pig to Harry with an insult and a flick of his wrist that sends the bird pitching through the air to land like a snowball on Harry's mattress. Harry hastily writes a single line to Snape on the plain side of a bit of torn wrapping paper--"Be there at 4, Harry"--and gives the letter to Pig, who takes it in his beak.

"That's for Professor Snape," he tells the bird.

Ron arches an eyebrow at him from across the room, but Harry just shrugs, and sets about opening his presents.

He arrives at Snape's office promptly at 4 o'clock that afternoon. It occurs to him as he is walking the last few steps down the dungeon corridor that he has not been in this exact place since his last disastrous Occlumency lesson with Snape the previous year. Somehow, owing either to the changes in their feelings towards each other, or fact that Snape is now teaching a subject that Harry isn't complete pants at, he hasn't been to Snape's office at all this term.

He feels a thrill of trepidation as he comes to stand before Snape's office door. For just a moment, time seems to turn backwards for him, and he is overcome by sharp, cutting memories of how it had felt to be that other Harry—fifteen, bitter, tired, and lonely. He feels so different now---stronger, maybe, than he has ever been in his life. He's not sure when or how that happened, but he knows Snape had something to do with it, and that's why it's silly to be nervous about knocking on his door now. After all, it's been months since Snape yelled at him last. Well---yelled at him unkindly, anyway.

He takes a deep breath, raises his hand, and knocks.

"Nerving yourself up to it, were you?" says a voice, not from behind the door, but from behind Harry. He spins, and finds himself faced with the long, narrow form of Snape, standing with his hands clasped behind his back and his eyebrows delicately arched.

Harry has no idea how to answer him, but Snape doesn't seem to require a reply. He strides past Harry and releases the wards over his office door with a lazy wave of his hand. The door creaks open to admit them, shutting automatically once they have both crossed the threshold.

"Have a seat, if you like," says Snape, threading his way between the worktable and the edge of his desk. Harry accepts the invitation, which is the first of its kind---in his previous visits to this office Harry had generally remained on his feet, the better to duck, or run, if necessary. If he ever sat, it was only because he'd been commanded to, or else been knocked off his feet.

"Thank you for coming," Snape adds, heightening the surreal quality of his entire visit so far.

It strikes Harry that Snape looks ill at ease. Not nervous, precisely, but grim, with a hint of uncertainty---even distress. Harry has rarely ever seen him betray a hint of any emotion other than anger; certainly he has never done so in their current surroundings. Harry thinks that Snape looks rather the way Harry used to feel when he visited this room.

Snape glances away from him suddenly, as though seized by inspiration. He moves to the sideboard between two cabinets against the far wall of the office, busying himself there with his back turned to Harry. When he turns back a moment later, he is carrying two small glasses of dark red wine, one of which he offers to Harry.

"The compliments of the season," he says quietly, and Harry, slightly stunned, wraps his fingers around the crystal glass stem.

Harry watches his face carefully, as they both lift their glasses and drink. And then, as Snape places his own glass back on the sideboard, Harry is reminded of the worrisome thought which had crossed his mind when got Snape's letter earlier that morning.

"Sir," he blurts, "has anything bad happened? Something to do with the war?"

Snape looks surprised for a moment, then frowns. "No. Nothing." When Harry sighs, relieved, Snape exchanges his frown for a grimace. "My apologies. I did not mean to make you anxious. The business on which I've called you here is unrelated to---larger concerns."

"Oh," says Harry.

Snape walks back behind his desk, where he leans forward slightly, bracing himself against the desk's surface with both hands. Then he lowers himself into his seat, where he remains for a moment, only to rise again and step back into the open area of the room behind Harry's chair. He begins to pace.

Harry starts to rise as well, feeling awkward, but Snape halts this movement with a hand turned palm down. Harry sinks back into his chair, but he shifts slightly in order to watch Snape make his progression from one end of the chamber to the other.

Eventually Snape pauses in his restless perambulation to pause before a tall wooden cabinet with glass doors, full of stoppered vials. He keeps his back to Harry as he begins to speak, but Harry can see his face reflected in the cabinet door, and he knows that Snape can see him there as well.

"Forgive me," says Snape. "I am uncertain how to begin."

Harry blinks, trepidation warring with curiosity. The last time he'd seen Snape anywhere near this agitated, he'd been a hair's breadth from killing Uncle Vernon. But Vernon was sorted now, and Harry so well recovered that most days he hardly thinks of him; he can't imagine what else, apart from stuff to do with the war, could cause Snape so much consternation. He tries not to fidget in his chair as he waits for Snape to get on with whatever it is he wants to say.

A moment later Snape turns in a stiff, deliberate motion and comes to stand across from Harry---not behind the desk, as before, but behind a second chair beside the one Harry is sitting in.

"I wish," says Snape, and then shuts his mouth.

Harry waits. At last, looking rather pinched, Snape unbends far enough to sit in the chair beside him.

"I believe," he says, in a marginally less stiff voice, "that you know, in essence, the nature of the work that I perform for Dumbledore, and the Order."

Harry blinks at him in surprise. "You're a spy," he says. "Dumbledore asked you, after the Tournament fourth year, and you went back to spy on Voldemort for him."

Snape stares down at his hands, which are tightly clasped in his lap. He gives a small nod.

"Sir," says Harry again, "are you sure you're quite all right?"

Something in Harry's tone seems to fetch Snape out of his thoughts. "I am perfectly well," he says, a ghost of a smile tracing his lips. "Merely out of my depth."

Harry waits.

"I have...two requests to make of you. Harry."

Harry blinks at him a second time. Snape has called him by his first name once, maybe twice in the last six years. He resists the urge to ask for a second time if Snape is quite sure that Voldemort hasn't suddenly become all powerful and conquered the wizarding world since dinner ended, but only because he likes to think he would have heard if that had happened.

"What---sort of requests, sir?" he says.

Snape nods approvingly, perhaps at the fact that he did not thoughtlessly promise to agree without hearing them first.

"Whatever the outcome," says Snape, sounding as though every word is being forced from his mouth, "it is not likely that I will not survive to see the end of this war."

Harry opens his mouth automatically, to protest. Snape holds up his hand and stops him almost as quickly.

"I do not say this to distress you," says Snape, and a flicker of a smile passes over his mouth, as though he too is reflecting how differently Harry might have reacted to this statement a year ago. "Nor because I believe that my demise is imminent. I have no reason to think myself in immediate danger. I speak merely of...inevitabilities."

"Oh," says Harry, mind racing. "Well. I guess I understand that. I feel---sort of the same way. About myself." It is more than Harry has said to any of his friends, but he feels that he can say this to Snape. Or at least, he does until he notices how pale Snape has become on hearing his words.

"I forbid you to speak that way, Potter," says Snape, his voice tight. "There is a world—nay, a galaxy of difference between my situation and yours."

"Not the way I see it," Harry retorts.

"You are endlessly impertinent," says Snape, but his voice is devoid of any real anger. "Very well. Forget all that I have said. We are both of us bound to live long and happy lives. Nonetheless," he says, speaking loudly, as though to drown out the presence of Harry's sudden grin, "I shall die one day. No doubt in bed at the age of one hundred and fifty, surrounded by a brood of reverential great-grandchildren. At the moment, however, I am without any family of my own. And should I chance to tread disastrously upon a wet flagstone in the corridor later today, I shall die without an heir."

Snape's face becomes strangely closed once more, and Harry watches him, wondering what could bring someone as reserved as Snape to talk about this sort of thing openly with anyone, much less Harry.

"It is a matter of no significance to anyone but myself. I have little enough to leave---a few books and artifacts, a house no one would wish to live in. My naming an heir is an act devoid of any meaning that is not strictly metaphorical."

Snape lifts his head, and, for the first time since they entered the office, he looks Harry square in the face. The expression in Snape's dark eyes is so intense that Harry feels for a second as though he has been slapped, or burned.

"Be that as it may," Snape continues, "I should like---with your permission---to name you in my will as my heir."

Harry sits, stunned. He is fairly certain that his mouth is hanging open; possibly drool is collecting at the corner of his mouth. Snape seems to detect his astonishment; he continues, in a tone of explanation that would not have been out of place in his classroom.

"Had my life been a different thing," he says, once again dropping his eyes to his lap, "had I not bankrupted myself twenty years ago---you might have been mine." Harry is saved having to reply to this; Snape does not pause, save to flash a brief, humorless smile at nothing. "It is as well for you that you were not, I think. You must know enough of me by now to guess what sort of father I would have made. Yet you are the closest thing I have in this world to an heir of my own body. And I---" Harry can hear the stumbling in Snape's voice well before he manages to push the words out, "feel a greater bond with you than I ever have with almost any other living soul. I...would wish what little I have to be yours. It would, I think, finish something for me. If you would allow it."

Harry feels breathless, as though he has been through some sort of trying physical ordeal. There are a hundred things he wants to say, but none of them seem right or appropriate, so he says the first thing that springs to his lips.

"You said you had two requests, sir."

Snape is silent for so long that Harry begins to be afraid he has made a terrible mistake not answering his first question immediately---that he has somehow hurt Snape's feelings. But Snape, Harry decides, does not look wounded, merely nervous, hesitant. Harry sits back in his chair and waits.

When Snape begins to speak again, he does so without looking at Harry, without lifting his head, without moving at all.

"My second request," he says, "is one that I must make of you, for my own sake. But I do not expect you to grant it. I am well aware how little I deserve such consideration. But it is among the matters that I---wish to settle."

"Before you slip on a wet spot in the hall."

"Quite." Snape acknowledges this with a tiny smile before his eyes grow distant again. Harry waits for him to speak again, tension mounting in his chest, making his heart speed up.

"I have..." Snape speaks slowly, thoughtfully, "done you many great wrongs."

"Sir." Harry leans forward in his chair automatically, but Snape holds up a hand to silence him again.

"I am partly to blame for the death of your parents," says Snape. "I am partly to blame for the misery in which you spent your childhood. I failed in my duty, my vow, to protect you. I inflicted injury upon you. I made you the object of my cruelty and scorn. I was blind to your needs---wilfully blinded, by my prejudices and resentment. You need not have suffered so much as you did. I might have prevented it. That was my job. I failed you."

Harry has not moved for the last thirty seconds, and when Snape begins again he ceases to breathe as well.

"For all this," says Snape, dark eyes boring into his, "for all that I have done and all that I have failed to do---for my weakness, my ignorance, for my folly---Harry. I beg your forgiveness." Snape inhales a long, shaky breath. "I beg it most humbly."

Harry stares back at Snape, feelings as though the room has shrunk around them to a space the size of a cupboard. He would like to look away, because the expression in Snape's eyes is so intense he thinks it might scar him. But he can't look away. Snape has asked him a question---two questions, now---and he must answer them.

"Of course," Harry breathes, now that he is again able. "Of course I forgive you, Professor. I forgave you ages ago."

Snape does not say anything, but to Harry's eye he seems to relax minutely. He eases himself back into his chair ever so slightly, and the knuckles of his hands become less white and strained as the fingers gripping each other relax.

"Thank you," says Snape.

"And—the other thing. About—being your heir." Harry licks his lips, which are strangely dry. "That's okay too. But I want something in exchange."

Snape does not say anything; he merely arches an eyebrow.

"Stop talking about your dying like it's a foregone conclusion." Harry speaks fiercely, trying his best to sound stern and adult, not like a kid making a plea. "I know that what you do is incredibly dangerous, but you're still alive, so you must be really good at it. You've just got to—make an extra effort," he finishes feebly, feeling foolish.

Snape cocks an eyebrow at him. "I should try quite especially hard not to die, in return for which you will consent to inherit all my worldly possessions when I do?" he says coolly.

"Yes," says Harry, stubbornly.

Snape appears to wrestle with this concept for a moment. "Have you ever actually heard of irony, Potter?"

Harry flushes in embarrassment, but he refuses to be put off. "It's just—don't take this the wrong way, sir, but for a moment you sounded a bit like, 'Right, I'll get all my loose ends tied up and then it won't matter too much if I get killed.'" Harry shrugs at Snape, who turns a rather sharp look on him suddenly.
"I've thought like that once or twice. Wondered who I'd leave my Firebolt to. Not often, but...anyway, you shouldn't think like that."

Snape continues to look at him, then clears his throat. "You do have the odd moment of alarming insight."

They sit and look at each other for a moment, then Snape pushes back from his desk abruptly and walks back to the sideboard, where he take a different glass from the cupboard and fills it with an amber liquid that fills the room with a sharp, bittersweet aroma. He doesn't offer one to Harry, but he does refill his wine glass and hand it back to him.

"To long life," he says, and raises his glass. Harry does the same, and they drink. The wine is sweet, and tastes of cloves and orange.

Snape does not take his seat behind the desk again, choosing instead to lean against the sideboard, looking more relaxed than he had before. He drums his fingers against the wooden surface.

"Do you ever think," he says, in a low, almost tentative voice, "about the sort of life you wish to lead, after this damnable business is over?"

Harry thinks this over for a moment. "Yeah," he says, in an equally quiet voice. "In a general sort of way, I do. I really do think I'd like to be an Auror. I mean, even if Voldemort choked to death on a plum pudding tonight, it's still the sort of thing I think I'd be best at."

Snape rolls his eyes. "Developed rather a taste for adrenaline, have we?"

"Actually, sir, I have a feeling that most dark wizards are still less dangerous than basilisks."

Snape snorts, and sets his glass down. "Perhaps so."

"But—aside from that," Harry goes on, "I want a family. And I want my friends near me. Ron and Hermione and Luna and Remus. And—" Harry's face colors, but he forces himself to say it, because he has a sudden instinct that this may be something it would do Snape good to hear, "you, sir, if you didn't mind being bothered with me sometimes after I've left school."

Snape becomes so still that for a moment Harry is afraid that he's said something terribly wrong. "So, you know, that's another reason I'd quite like it if you made up your mind you were going to live through the war. I'd like to have kids of my own some day, and I'd like them to know you. They could do with a godfather who knows a thing or two about getting on in a world that's not always fair, or easy."

Snape's face, Harry notes with some concern, is whiter than he has ever seen it. Something hard and brilliant flashes in his dark eyes, and though it is gone a moment later, the impression of it lingers in Harry's mind, as though he had looked straight into the heart of the sun.

Then Snape averts his gaze, and clears his throat delicately. Still, when he speaks again, his voice is rather hoarse.

"One thing at a time, Potter," he says, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor. "Time is not finished with us yet."

Something about the way he says it makes Harry think of Luna's strange rapture on Halloween, after he'd ended the spell on Uncle Vernon and she had turned a look of blazing joy on him and began to speak of things that he knows he will never understand entirely. "'All things new', Professor," Harry says to him. "Remember what Luna said? I always reckoned she was a bit of a Seer."

Snape's expression softens, the way Harry has noticed that it often does when Luna enters the conversation.

"Speaking of Miss Lovegood," he says, in a brisk, normal sounding voice, "don't you have an engagement with her this evening? Perhaps you should go and prepare for it."

The party is still hours away, but Harry recognizes a dismissal when he hears it. "Yes, sir," he says, getting to his feet. "I suppose I should."

A small smile touches Snape's mouth. "Do make an effort," he says. "She was by a short while ago to show me her frock. You'll want to look smart for her."

Harry grins back at him. "Do my best, sir. Will we see you there?"

Snape assumes a long-suffering expression. "Indubitably," he says. "I can hardly see how I would avoid it. "

"Right." Harry starts to turn for the door.

"One moment." Harry stops and faces him. Snape has gone back to his desk and is rummaging through a drawer for something. He straightens after a moment, and comes back bearing a small, wrapped rectangular package, which he extends to Harry. "I nearly forgot. This is for you."

Harry looks down at it, wide-eyed. He feels like a prat, suddenly, that it hadn't even occurred to him to get anything for Snape. He tears off the wrappings and opens the box. Inside it, he finds a small mirror in a golden frame.

Harry looks up at Snape. "Is this—a two-way mirror? I have one, but it's—" He leaves off, his throat dry.

"Yes, you have James', I believe?" Harry nods. "And Black had the mate. This one, however," he indicates the mirror in Harry's hand, "belonged to your mother."

Harry gazes down at it. He sees a pair of wide green eyes reflected back at him, and for a single, startled moment, he expects to see a curtain of red hair falling on either side of them. But then he shifts the mirror slightly, and realizes that it's only his own face looking back at him. His hand tightens around the frame. He realizes, with a rush of emotion that is difficult to contain, that he has never before touched anything that his mother had touched. For a moment, he fancies that it's still warm from her hand.

"And—you have the mate to this one," he guesses, tearing his gaze away from the mirror.

"I do," says Snape. "Your mother made them. All four of them. The pair that Black and your father shared were a present from her. She was...extraordinarily talented."

"Thank you." Harry wants to say more, but his throat feels tight. He looks up at Snape. "I guess this will work even better than the Portkey you made out of my toy soldier."

"You are to use it," Snape tells him, in a severe sort of voice, "if ever you have need."

Harry nods silently, and slips the mirror into his pocket.

Snape turns his back on him then, and for a moment, Harry thinks that this is his cue to leave. But then Snape moves to the sideboard again, fills Harry's glass for a third time, picks up his own, which is still mostly full, and walks back toward Harry.

"Not all magic is performed with a wand," Snape says, handing the smaller glass to Harry again. "There is power in ceremony as well. Three is an auspicious number, and midwinter an auspicious time."

Harry holds the glass, looking at Snape expectantly. But when Snape says nothing, Harry realizes that Snape is waiting for him to propose the toast.

Harry raises his glass. "To Lily," he says, surprised to hear the roughness in his own voice. "To family."

Snape's mouth tightens fractionally, and he lifts his glass.

"To love," he says.

And as Harry drinks, he realizes that, to Snape, and to him as well, they are all the same thing.

The magic of ceremony lies in the nature of time, which decrees that each moment of our lives is both transient and eternal. We speak of "stopping a moment" just long enough to acknowledge its deathlessness—and then we let it go, back into the ages. In this way stories are also ceremonies, deliberately stringing moments together like popcorn and cranberries on a Christmas garland. And stories are also magic, both endless and fleeting; stories give birth to stories, and all the stories are one.

Take, for instance, the story of Severus Snape and Harry Potter. This tale of their transformation has its ending, but other stories, which would not exist without it, come into begin almost immediately.

At the end of Harry Potter's sixth year at Hogwarts, he witnesses the killing of Albus Dumbledore. And though he sees the man who holds the wand and performs the curse, he knows in his heart (which in Harry's case is a much surer organ than the brain) that Severus Snape is no murderer. So he waits, hoping, daring to trust in the story they both belong to, even though his friends doubt him, and the world mocks him.

Much later on, while Harry is keeping a cold and lonely watch in the woods one night, he hears a voice calling his name, a voice he recognizes. He reaches into his bag and draws out the gold-framed mirror he has carried with him for a year now, and finds Snape looking back at him.

"Did you find the Sword?" Snape asks, in typical fashion, terse and without greeting.

"It was you," says Harry immediately, feeling the pieces of the story fall into place. "You left it there for Ron and me to find! Bloody hell, Snape, I nearly froze my—"

"You must come to Hogwarts," Snape interrupts him. He keeps glancing away from the mirror, as though he is afraid of being seen or heard, and Harry realizes how difficult it must be for him, perpetually surrounded by enemies. "When your search is done. I have a message for you from Dumbledore, but I cannot give it to you until the proper time."

Harry and Snape argue about this for awhile, naturally, but in the end Harry says, "Are you all right?" The older man looks tired, older, more worn than he has ever looked before.

"Never mind me," says Snape gruffly. "Watch your back. I will expect to see you in the spring." And the surface of the mirror clouds over.

When spring comes, they do meet again. Harry uses the mirror to tell Snape that they are approaching, and Snape arranges to meet them at the Shrieking Shack. Only, once they are in the tunnel leading to the house, Snape's face, pale and drawn, appears in the mirror again. "Go back!" he hisses, his voice low and terrified. "The Dark Lord is coming, he wishes to speak with me."

But Harry, following an instinct that is stronger than understanding, waits in the tunnel with Ron and Hermione, his heart pounding. He listens to Snape plead with Voldemort to be allowed to go and find Harry. And for the first time, Harry understands why Snape is so good at Occlumency.

Harry realizes the danger that Snape is in moments before Snape himself does. Harry sees the snake, gliding in her magical cage, and turns to Hermione, cold with fright.

"The snake," he whispers, so low that it's a miracle Hermione can hear him. "He's going to set the snake on Snape!"

Which is why, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione burst into the Shack seconds after Voldemort disappears, Hermione has vials in hand already—three different kinds of antivenin, dittany for closing wounds, and Blood-Replenishing Potion, which she loses no time in pouring down Snape's throat, one after the other.

Snape fights her at first—there is something he wishes to tell Harry, but Harry refuses to hear him until he is sure that Snape is out of danger. He watches Snape grasp at Hermione's robes, and his heart feels as though it is constricted by iron bands. The blood covering Snape's robes, and all the floor around him, reminds Harry horribly of Luna, a year ago, lying on the floor in the dungeons, Snape bending over her, tipping vials of the same potions down her throat. At last, when the terrible gash in Snape's throat closes, and his breathing is even, he bends near to Snape's face to hear what he is whispering.

"Must tell you," he says. "Dumbledore's message.." But it is clear to them all that Snape is too weak to talk.

"Here, Professor," says Hermione, producing one of the empty vials. "We'll find a Pensieve, don't strain yourself."

And Snape does as he is bid, drawing fine strands of silky memory from his head by the tip of his wand and depositing it in the vial that Hermione holds for him with steady hands. When the last of it is in the vial, he gives a great, shuddering sigh of relief.

"We can't move him yet," says Hermione, "he's much too weak. We'll have to cover him with an invisibility cloak, I've got Moody's spare one in my bag."

"Harry," Snape whispers, and Harry bends close again while Hermione fumbles in her bag. "When you see the memory..."

"Don't worry, Professor, I'll go straight away," Harry promises, thinking to soothe him, but Snape clutches his hand in a grip of steel.

"He expects too much," Snape whispers. "He always did. You could run, Harry. It's not too late."

"I'm not running," says Harry, fiercely. "I'm going to end this."

Snape says nothing, only watches him with eyes that seem, to Harry, filled with a terrible pain that has nothing to do with his wounds. Then his eyes close, and he falls asleep. Hermione covers him with the cloak, and they set off back for the castle.

When Harry sees the memories that Snape has given him, he understands why Snape had told him to run. He holds the knowledge close to his heart as he walks into the Forbidden Forest with the shades of his parents, and Remus and Sirius. Snape had as good as told him that he would rather Harry live than Voldemort die, and Harry knows this for what it is, proof of love as great as a father's.

"Snape tried to tell me not to do this," Harry tells Dumbledore, afterwards.

Dumbledore gives him a smile that is at once warm and sad. "I never told you," he says, "how much joy it gave me to see the two of you come to understand each other, before the end. It was a balm of healing to an old man's heart."

When Voldemort is dead, Harry leaves the crowd with Hermione and makes his way straight to the Shrieking Shack. But Snape is gone. They go back to the castle and enlist the aid of everyone who is healthy and willing, but no one finds him.

"He must have awakened and gone to hide somewhere safer," Hermione tells Harry. "I'm sure he's all right."

Harry checks the mirror every few hours, but Snape does not reply when Harry calls his name.

Days, weeks, months pass. By the middle of the next year, Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Neville are all back at Hogwarts, but Harry and Ron are already half through their first year of Auror training. The days are long and full of hard work, and he doesn't have much time to dwell on the past—which, all in all, is precisely what he wants. But from time to time he still pulls out the mirror and call Snape's name.

And then, one days, Snape appears.

"Yes, Potter?" says the familiar voice, sounding bored. "What sort of scrape have you got yourself into this time?"

Harry gapes at the mirror, heart pounding. "You!" he shouts. "Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea how worried I've been? Half of Wizarding Britain has been looking for you!"

Snape rolls his eyes, as though Harry has just made some sort of elementary mistake in Potions. "That is precisely why I have been unavailable," he says. "No doubt the thought failed to cross your mind, but recuperating from a near-death experience is a task best undertaken in quiet and solitude."

They spend the next few minutes arguing furiously. Harry tries to assure Snape that his name has been cleared, that everyone understands he is no murderer—that he is a hero, the greatest hero of the war.

"You are a child, still," Snape tells him dismissively. "I know you have been telling anyone who will listen that I am the second coming of Merlin, and I thank you for your efforts." His voice becomes gruff. "But I assure you that there are still those would choose to hold me accountable for my crimes. And no dearth of others who would have revenge upon me for my scant virtues."

"Just let them try," says Harry fiercely. "I'll be an Auror, fully qualified, by Christmas. Just let them come after you."

Snape smiles at him, and the look seems to Harry equally mocking and fond. "I do believe," he says, "that the protégé has come to fancy himself the guardian."

The conversation ends with Snape refusing to tell Harry his location, but promising to answer his mirror on a semi-regular basis in the future. They settle into a kind of routine, Harry calling once every month or so, Snape answering, but refusing to name his location or say when he will return to England. Eventually, Harry stops using the Auror office to try to find him.

Five years after the death of Voldemort, Harry calls Snape up and grins at him through the mirror. "Ginny and I are getting married," he says.

"So I have been informed," says Snape. "Well, well, Mr Potter, congratulations. All your dreams begin to be realized." The words should sound snide, but somehow they are not.

"Will you come?" says Harry, trying and failing not to hold his breath. "To the wedding."

Snape sighs long and windily. "Yes," he says. "I have been informed in no uncertain terms that we will be attending."

Before Harry can voice the immediate question of, "What do you mean, we?" another face crowds Snape's out of the mirror.

"Congratulations, Harry!" cries Luna, her face shining with excitement. "We're so happy for you!"

"Luna!" Harry exclaims, eyes bugging from his head. "You're with Snape? But how—I thought you were hunting wrackspurt colonies in South America!"

"Well, sometimes I am," she says, "but sometimes I just say that because I'm visiting Severus."

Severus? Harry thinks. But before he can process this, Snape has wrested the mirror back.

"My compliments to Ginevra," he says. "We shall see you at midsummer."

The first time Harry sees Severus Snape in the flesh in over seven years is in the moment that he and Ginny, having been pronounced man and wife, turn to walk arm in arm back down the aisle through the crowd of friends and family pressing in on either side of them. Snape is standing at the back, wearing navy blue dress robes, his hair cut very short, streaks of grey along his temples. Luna, looking strangely, radiantly beautiful, stands beside him, her arm linked through his. She grins blindingly at Harry and Ginny, and waves as they pass. Snape merely nods, but even Harry can read something like approval in his dark eyes.

Harry loses track of Snape until about an hour into the reception, when he looks up from shaking the hand of a Weasley cousin he hardly knows to find Snape gazing down on him.

"You came," says Harry simply.

"I came," says Snape.

Neither of them are oblivious to the stares and whispers of the crowd around them, but Harry blocks it out. He has pictured this moment so many times since the day he left Snape on the Shrieking Shack in a pool of his own blood, but now it has arrived he doesn't know what to say first. He reaches out and grips Snape's shoulder, and in almost the same instant Snape wraps the opposite hand around Harry's forearm tightly.

"I'm really glad you're here," Harry says.

"Likewise," says Snape.

Harry looks searchingly into the face he has only glimpsed in a mirror for so many years now. Snape is undoubtedly older, but he seems healthier; he is less thin, his face is lightly tanned, and his short. greying hair makes him look less like a Muggle caricature of a witch and more like a bird of prey.

"I never knew what to say to you," Snape says finally. "You saved my life, and I sent you to die."

"No you didn't," Harry says automatically. "You told me to run."

"You didn't honestly believe that I thought for a second you would actually do so," says Snape softly. "No more than your mother ran when Voldemort offered the same choice to her."

Harry swallows hard and clears his throat. "So," he says, "you and Luna, huh?"

Snape's expression alters—slightly, but perceptibly. He looks, Harry thinks, a little bit guilty, a little defiant, and extremely well satisfied, all at the same time.

"Yes," he says.

"How long?"

"She located me in Brazil about three years ago," he says. "We were married some six months back."

Harry chokes on his champagne. "Married?" he wheezes. "You got married? You bastard! How could you not tell me that? Where's Luna, I'm going to wring her neck!"

"I'm so sorry," says Snape, in an extremely polite and faintly amused voice. "What did you just say you were going to do to my wife, Potter?"

"Er," says Harry. "Kiss her chastely and respectfully on the cheek?"

Luna pops up then, as though she had heard her name through the crowd, and plants a kiss on Harry's cheek instead.

"Severus told you?" she says.

"How do you see me almost every day for three months and not tell me you got married?" Harry demands of her.

"Not doing something is usually much easier than doing it," says Luna serenely, slipping her arm through Snape's, who folds a hand over hers in a possessive gesture that makes Harry want to dive back into the crowd and find Ginny.

"So are you back now?" says Harry hopefully.

"Our affairs in Sao Paolo are not yet finally arranged, but...yes. I believe that we shall settle in England."

"That's great," says Harry, unable to repress a grin. "That's brilliant."

"Yes, well." Snape glances from Harry, to Luna, to the room generally. "It took a bit of time, but I discovered that there were, after all, things here that I was unwilling to do without."

Six months later, Snape and Luna take a cottage on the Sussex coast, where they begin raising bees. A year after that, just before the birth of their first child, Harry and Ginny finally divest themselves of a large chunk of Harry's parents' fortune and build a house in the same county, close enough to walk on fine days. In the handful of years that follow, Snape and Luna attend christenings at Phoenix House for both their namesakes, and on very rare and special occasions, Snape even consents to join gatherings at the Burrow.

One afternoon in late summer, Snape is walking alone in the high grasses along the coast road, when he spots a tousled head of black hair, so familiar that it makes his heart leap. A moment later the impression is dispelled; it is not Harry, made magically fifteen again, but Harry's second child, Snape's godson. Albus Severus Potter is thirteen as of last March, and he is taller than his father was at that age, but the resemblance is nonetheless striking.

He comes to stand beside the boy, who looks up at him and grins. "Hello," he says. "Aunt Luna send you packing?"

"Apparently she requires silence and solitude to make notes on the new Nargle colony in the observation hive," Snape admits. "And you?"

"Going to Wiltshire tomorrow," says Albus. "Spending a week with Scorpius, then going up to school together. Had a letter from him yesterday, his dad says hello."

"Indeed," says Snape. The boy's friendship with Draco Malfoy's haughty offspring had been the subject of considerable consternation to his parents, but Ginny had seen to it that Harry kept his reservations to himself. Snape had, somewhat uncharacteristically, withheld comment on the matter. He doesn't know the Malfoy boy personally, but he knows better than most what influences he has to contend with. "Grand plans for the last of your holidays?" he says, hoping to draw Albus out.

"There's a harvest festival in the village," says Albus, shrugging. "Scorpius is keen to go. He likes to watch the Muggles. Doesn't see much of them up there." His voice betrays the bored indifference of one to whom Muggles are in no way exotic. The Potter children had all attended Muggle primary schools, and paid occasional visits to their Muggle cousins, much to the consternation of Petunia Dursley.

How the years have changed us, Snape reflects to himself, as the boy begins to prattle enthusiastically about the old motorbike that his elder brother is mending with the help of his grandfather, whose enthusiasm for Muggle technology has proven a congenital oddity. There are days when the first forty years of his own life seem a distant nightmare, others when he wakes in his bed at night, clutching the faded scar upon his forearm, unable to breathe until the sound of Luna's snoring brings him back to himself. He had never envisioned a future like this, full of long, idle summer days and the conversation of children who are destined to outlive the memory of the conflicts that had divided their parents.

Snape takes Albus home to Orchard Cottage with him for tea, where they find Luna and Harry already seated, the table laid before them.

"What is this treachery?" Snape growls at Luna. "You told me you required solitude to complete your observations for the last chapter of your book."

"Yes, dear," says Luna placidly, and Snape notices the way the afternoon sun at the kitchen window catches the strands of silver in her hair. "But as Harry doesn't peer over my shoulder and complain that the Nargles don't move enough, I find his company more an aid to concentration than otherwise."

Snape huffs and steals a scone from her plate.

"You should get home as soon as you've eaten," Harry tells Albus. "Your mum wants you packed and ready before dinner, you've got an early start in the morning."

"Wouldn't have to leave early if you'd let James take me," Albus points out.

Harry snorts. "What, on the bike? Dream on, son. Your mum won't even let me ride it yet."

When the table is cleared, and Albus has set off for Phoenix House at a trot, Harry, Luna, and Snape move out to the garden, where they sip glasses of Luna's homemade honey wine until the sun has vanished below the horizon. Then Luna excuses herself to her laboratory, leaving Snape and Harry to sit in companionable silence.

"Dudley phoned yesterday," Harry says suddenly, as though just remembering a bit of news he'd meant to share. "My cousin, you know. Turns out, his youngest—David, he's the same age as Lils—got a Hogwarts letter two weeks ago. They kept it quiet at first, because Petunia went 'round the twist when she heard, but Dudley put his foot down, and so they're meeting us at the platform next week."

Snape lifts his head and looks at Harry square on. "Well, well, well," he breathes. "Vernon Dursley's grandson, a wizard." He gives a small smile and meets Harry's eyes. "I'm rather glad I never killed him, now."

Harry blinks in astonishment, as though this is the last thing he expected to hear Snape say. And then his laugh, louder and deeper than when he was a boy, rolls out over the downs like a wave from the ocean.

Up in her laboratory, through the open window, the sound of Harry's laughter wafts in to Luna with the sea breeze. A second later, Snape's joins it. Luna looks up, listens, and smiles.

Love has done this, she thinks. Love, the deepest and strangest magic of them all.


(27 August 2007 - 25 August 2009)