Chapter One: R. A. B.

COWARD!

The word echoed in Severus Snape's brain, and he felt more angry than he had in nearly three years – not since Sirius Black had escaped the Dementor's Kiss. And that was thanks to Potter too. Damn him! I have served Dumbledore more than anyone! I lied while taking an Unbreakable Vow! I protected his secrets! And Potter accused me of cowardice! Damn him! Damn him for being right! Snape knew he was indeed a coward, but not tonight. His failure in courage came nearly twenty years ago and cost him dearly. His spinelessness killed the woman that he loved. Yes, Severus thought adamantly, I once was a coward, but not tonight, what I did tonight took nerve.

"Professor?" Severus could hardly focus on the boy with him. He needed to concentrate. He needed to regain his composure. He needed to proceed with the plan.

"Silence, Malfoy!" Snape hissed and reached into his pocket. He was irritated by the ludicrous scheme – the not knowing and following someone else's orders yet again. He wanted desperately to feel in control of the situation. He needed some control.

"I— "the boy started to speak.

"I said: silence." Snape's demeanor gave no hint of emotion to the boy, but deep inside the inner recesses of his mind there was a storm. Nearly twenty years of feelings he had kept bottled were waiting to explode. He had, after all, just killed the most powerful, revered wizard of his time, a man who was like a father to him. The guilt was almost more than he could bear, but he had to bury it. It was the only way for the stratagem to work. He had to remain the cool, calm, Severus Snape that most of the people whom he respected utterly despised, for now the only two people who knew the real Severus were dead. He shuddered slightly as he pulled a short, wand-looking object out of his pocket and grabbed Draco's arm just before pushing the end of the item with his thumb, letting a Portkey suck them away.

Severus soon noted that he and the boy were in a horrible, dilapidated shack. There was dust everywhere and the furniture was torn to shreds. Before he could say a word, there was a bang of someone Apparating and he saw Draco's mother standing next to the wretched looking hag that Albus Dumbledore had mysteriously introduced him to earlier.

"Draco!" His mother ran to him sobbing. "I've been so worried."

"Petrificus Totalus!" The hag's curse hit the Malfoys. She then pointed her wand at Severus.

He raised his wand too. He was sick of this old woman and her cryptic orders. For nearly a year now she had sent him scanty instructions from Dumbledore, but he knew something was amiss. It was time to end this. Perhaps, he could enter her thoughts and find out her intentions.

"Don't even think it, Severus," the old woman hissed sardonically, glaring at him with a scowl of fury on her face.

"I need answers, now. I have been patient but I refuse be kept in the dark any longer." Snape kept his unemotional demeanor, but allowed his cold, black eyes to stare daggers of intimidation.

"You took an Unbreakable Vow, Severus, so don't think you can coerce me. I will not tolerate your pugnacious attitude. You pledged to obey my orders or suffer the consequences." The hag began to pull off the hooded cloak.

"I will have an explanation-"

"Of course, Severus, I am sure it will be clear to you and to young Draco momentarily." As she finished her words, the hag turned toward Draco and his mother, scrunched her face as if in deep concentration, all the while keeping her wand directed at Severus Snape.

To his surprise, the professor saw the hag's face contort and change. Soon, standing in the hag's place was a beautiful, young witch. Her honey-colored hair was chin length and Severus Snape found himself looking into the steely-grey eyes of the woman he loved so long ago, but it could not be her; she had been murdered years before. "If this is your idea of a joke, woman, I can tell you it is cruel." His voice was still cold and distant, not reflecting an ounce of the anguish that looking into those eyes brought bubbling to the surface of his conscience.

"Explain to me how this could be a joke, you fool!" Her eyes were hard and angry, nothing like he remembered. "Who would know to play a joke like this, Severus?"

The truth of her words hit him with the force of an Unforgivable Curse as Severus realized that for the first time in nearly twenty years he was face to face with his wife. There was so much that he wanted to say, but words failed him for the second time that night, and he only managed to whisper, "Richelle."

"So, you did think I was dead." Her tone was bitter, and Severus could not help but wonder where she had been for all of these years. How was it that she was standing before him?

He dropped his wand to his side and started to take a step towards her.

"No, Severus. Stay where you are." She held her wand aiming directly at his heart.

"Richelle, how can this be? Your body? I carried your body back to your uncle myself."

"You shall understand in due time." The witch turned toward Draco and smiled slightly before pointing her wand at the doorways and windows, uttering charms beneath her breath. She looked at Snape and nodded her head toward Draco and his mother. "They'll be coming out in a minute and I want to make sure we can't be heard. All noises in here will just sound like shrieks to anyone who passes."

Snape saw realization flicker across Draco's countenance.

"Yes, Draco, we're in the Shrieking Shack." Richelle turned toward him. "You need to close your mind, boy. And no, the Order won't find us. I am in hiding and my Secret Keeper cannot be contacted by anyone; in fact, everyone thinks he's dead too, but he is resting comfortably at the finest magical hospital in the Riviera."

He had forgotten her keen skills at penetrating other's minds. Like her uncle, she possessed uncanny skills as a Legilimens; she was able to acquire thoughts without even casting a spell. Severus's thoughts were racing; in fact, he nearly missed what she was telling them.

She turned her head to Snape as she continued, "I took him there just before I retrieved Narcissa."

"You mean," A sense of relief ebbed over his expression, and for a moment he nearly let his face warp into a smile.

"Yes, Severus, he's fine – well, he's alive at least." She glared at him again.

Snape's face regained its usual scowl, as if he did not dare trust what the witch was implying. "How?"

"In time, Severus."

"No," Severus refused to accept another delay in leaning the truth. "I need to know what is happening, Richelle."

"You'll just have to wait, Severus." She turned to him and Severus discerned a flicker in her eyes. He knew she was hiding something from him. "For now, if you must know, he asked me to return after the debacle at the Mininstry. Remember our Vow, Severus. In his office, he was the one who Bound us."

"I -" Snape couldn't take his eyes off of her; he felt foolish. "I cannot believe I didn't know it was you."

"You have no idea-" she paused, her eyes softening a bit before pointing her wand at the Malfoys. "Accio Wands!"

Snape noticed that Draco could move again, but she had the boy's wand now.

Richelle's eyes softened and she smiled slyly at the boy. "I can't take any chances, Draco. I told you to close your mind."

"Richelle? Chelle, darling, is it really you?" Narcissa had tears flowing from her eyes. Neither Severus nor Draco had noticed Narcissa's tears.

"Yes, Cissy. I'll tell you everything soon; we have eighteen years to relive." Richelle moved to Narcissa and embraced her sweetly. "You will know where I have been, why I had gone, and what I have done tonight. But first let me inspect our Draco. I want to see his eyes."

Severus saw the boy stiffen as Richelle approached him, and Narcissa's face grew more pale.

"He looks a lot like Lucius, but his eyes," she smiled warmly at Draco and continued, "My eyes – those are Bowen eyes. It's nice to meet you Draco. I'm, well, I guess I'm your auntie."

Severus nearly laughed at Draco's dumbfoundedness. Rarely was the boy at a loss for words. He noted too the relief that spread across Narcissa's face, and realization hit him again. Richelle suspected that Draco had not been Lucius's child. How could she have known? He tried to squash these ponderings, but one look in her eyes and he knew it was too late. She had suspected the truth all along. Is that why she did not return?

"I can see that your father never told you of his sister," she heaved a sigh, "half sister I should say. I was an indiscretion of our mother's; Abraxas, your grandfather, allowed her to keep me only if I kept her family name and she claimed I was an orphaned niece. Mother's impropriety was embarrassing enough, but Abraxas hated my father's family so desperately. Lucius is a bit older, but we were quite close growing up."

When Draco did not respond, Richelle continued. "It's a shame Lucius didn't tell you more about her. He was a devoted son and Mother, well, she loved him so much. We lost her the summer I before I left for Hogwarts."

"After I went to Hogwarts, I never returned to my childhood home. I spent all of my holidays with my uncle, my real father's brother, as he was a professor there. I also spent time with my best friend's family. Abraxas was not my biggest fan, one could say. Your father and I, well, we rarely saw each other after he finished his NEWTS. He never quite forgave me for the fact that I was not a Slytherin – yes, I am a pureblood, but I am more bold than cunning apparently. As time progressed, my relationship with my brother was quite strained – we saw things very differently. Narcissa was, however, quite good to me. She would see me in Daigon Alley and Hogsmeade on occasion. She tried to take me in and give me a sense of family."

Narcissa smiled nervously. Severus saw the women exchange a smile. Narcissa was not the only witch to be good to her and take her in, he thought to himself and felt another pang of guilt begin to brew.

"So, you're my aunt." Severus was relieved the boy finally spoke. He was anxious to move past the family history and into the situation at hand.

"Yes," she smiled and extended her hand, "Richelle Arva Bowen."

Her eyes left Draco and returned to Snape, who had regained his cold composure while the witch had been distracted with Draco. Severus knew that she was trying to access his thoughts. Could he let her in?

"Richelle," Snape was now hardening his eyes once again. He had to have answers from her, but he was not going to give her admittance to his wits. "I need - "

"Severus, I think we're all a bit too tired for this tonight." Her eyes were just as hard as his were, just as cold. For a moment, though, he understood. He and Richelle could not have a real conversation with Narcissa and Draco present. They had much to say to each other, and it needed to be said in private. He saw her conjuring beds and muttering charms while he felt himself grow very sleepy.

Severus woke early the next morning and could not remember climbing into the bed where he found himself resting. He saw that Richelle was sitting at the decrepit table sipping a cup of tea. It reminded him of their few, precious mornings together. She always rose first and enjoyed a cup of tea before waking him.

"Best not to go there, Severus," she was engaged in The Daily Prophet and did not even look at him. "This is not the time for a trip down Memory Lane."

"Richelle," he stood and walked over to the table, but she ignored his movement. "I do not understand what has happened. Why did you let me think you were dead? How could you do that to me?"

"I don't think I'm ready to talk about this, Severus." She seemed to be calm to him, too calm.

"Not ready!" Severus was infuriated but he struggled to maintain his steely poise. "I have spent the last eighteen years thinking you were dead – I don't care if you're ready. Frankly, I feel I deserve to know why."

There was a long pause. Severus waited but could feel her obstinacy. He had to coax her. "Richelle, I need to know."

"I had to save my life." She took another sip of tea and kept staring at the newspaper.

"Why did you need to save your life, Richelle? If you were in danger-" before he could finish his statement, Richelle turned to him, her silver eyes dancing with an angry fire.

"What? Was I supposed to turn to you?"

"I would have done anything to protect you." Severus remained calm.

"That's a lie." Her words slapped him.

"Richelle, you knew that I loved – "

"Oh, yes! I knew exactly what you loved: power! And you would do anything for power, wouldn't you, Severus?"

"If you are referring to my association with Lord Voldemort, then – "

"Don't try to tell me I don't know the truth about your association with him, Severus."

"You are overreacting again." His expression was neutral and he pursed his lips tightly. They only argued a few times, but he remembered the pattern – she would need to completely loose all rational thought in order to move past her anger. He needed for her to throw a tantrum; he recalled that she could be quite good at throwing fits.

"Don't you dare patronize me!" Her eyes looked wild, and Severus knew that she was on the brink of losing control. He knew that he needed to employ an irritatingly soothing tone now.

"I am not patronizing you, Richelle. I merely want to know why my wife thought it best to play dead for the last eighteen years. I want to know why she thought she had to be dead in order to save herself. That seems reasonable to me."

"You want to know why?" Her eyes narrowed at him even more and Severus could feel her defenses building. "Because I tried to save the man that I loved, Severus. But I was a little too reckless and Voldemort found out."

Her words stung him, and he felt defensive. There was nothing he hated more than someone else rescuing him from anything. "Perhaps he neither wanted nor needed your saving."

The silence was deafening and Severus immediately wished that he could swallow those words. It wasn't the first time he had reacted with a snide remark when a beautiful woman tried to protect him. It wasn't even the first time he had reacted that way to Richelle.

"I did what I had to do," she stated defiantly. Severus noted that she was calming herself down, and it angered him. How could she be so smug?

"No matter what it cost," Snape hissed. Anger was surfacing again – he wanted desperately for this to be her fault. "You did not think of the consequences, Richelle. You are too impulsive."

"I knew what I was doing. The consequences were a chance I felt that I had to take."

Severus let out a regretful sigh. She was right, of course. He had put her in that position; his cowardice eighteen years ago put her in that position. He wanted to kick himself and Harry Potter.

"So," she continued, her voice softening slightly. "I did what I had to do to destroy Voldemort. I had to destroy him to keep my love from turning into something I could not love."

Severus hated those words. He could not stand the thought that she could not love him. He was sure that she could not stop her feelings any more than he could stop his own. He gestured as if to touch her face, but she pulled away.

"How silly I was to think that I could bring Voldemort down by myself! I just wish I had turned to Albus sooner, and still, I wish I had told him everything I knew. If I had confided in him then I could have prevented so many deaths. Instead, I relied on my skills in Occlumency, so that he couldn't see who I was protecting."

Snape felt like she had punched him. "How did you leave?"

"I don't want to get into that now. Albus helped me, just leave it at that."

"I took you to him."

"You thought you did," she hesitated. "I Transfigured a rock to look like my body."

"Why didn't … " He wanted to ask her why she did not return after Voldemort's demise. His pause revealed his question to her.

"Too much happened, Severus!" Richelle's voice began shaking with anger and grief.

"I didn't know he would kill her," Snape's voice was barely audible. "I was just so lost without you. The Death Eaters were all I had. When I realized what the Dark Lord intended to do with the information I gave him, I went to Dumbledore right away. I risked my life trying to make it right. I am still risking my life trying to make it right. I have protected her son for six years now."

"That doesn't change the fact that my dearest friend is dead, does it?" Tears filled her silver eyes, and Severus could see that she was working to hold them inside. "Severus, Lily took me into her family. She helped us be together. How could you?"

"Richelle, please." Snape inched toward her. "It was a mistake, one of my biggest regrets."

"I don't know if I can ever forgive you, Severus. I can't even forgive myself." Her voice trembled. Severus recognized this as the point in which he could say something, anything that could soften her anger. The trembling voice had always been the mark that the row was nearly over.

"How did I ever get you to love me?"

At the question, Richelle chuckled just a little. "If I recall, I was amazed by your keen ability with potions, not my best subject we both know, and the tone of your voice when you spoke to some of our more daft schoolmates. Plus there was that whole dysfunctional family bond-"

Her smile was all he needed. Snape gently touched Richelle's face and attempted to draw her into a kiss, their first in nearly two decades, but she pulled away before their lips actually met.

"Severus, this isn't the time," Richelle admonished him while removing what looked like a tear from her cheek. "I need to wake Draco and Narcissa. I need you all to know what our plan is before the funeral starts this afternoon."

"Richelle," Snape hesitated briefly finding his next question a bit awkward. "Have you, well, have you found someone else?"

"I am not alone, if that is what you are asking."

"So," he expressed an angry huff, "you moved on without ever letting me know the truth."

"It's been eighteen years, Severus. I know you haven't spent each night alone. In fact, I know you didn't wait eighteen months much less eighteen years." Richelle glanced over her shoulder as Draco and Narcissa emerged from the hall. "We'll finish this later."

Patience, Severus recalled as the others joined them, was a virtue that neither he nor his wife possessed in great abundance.

"We will travel before the funeral starts," Richelle began after she finished her sausages. "The Order will be occupied with the ceremony and the Death Eaters will not be snooping around Hogsmeade then."

"Richelle, please tell us everything," Narcissa implored.

"Well," she handed Draco the latest edition of The Daily Prophet. "While you slept, I was busy making things just a little safer for the three of you."

Draco read aloud from the lead story. "Narcissa Malfoy was found dead in home just past midnight last evening. Ironically, an hour later, her son Draco and Professor Severus Snape were also found dead just outside of Hogsmeade…" He stared perplexed at his aunt.

"I Transfigured some pebbles to resemble your bodies. Both sides think you are dead, but the spells will only last seven days. That's why we must flee today. I am working on getting you new identities. You will be joining us at my home."

"Us?" Snape questioned. He did not know if he could bear meeting her new companion.

"Albus and I, of course."

"You mean Dumbledore?" Draco's tone implied that couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Oh, Draco. Albus was right to worry about you. Your skills in Occulumency match mine in Herbology – Troll! You would be dead in days."

Draco appeared to be stunned, but he wasn't the only one. Narcissa's eyes were as large as boulders and Severus found himself awestruck too.

"When Albus detected what you intended, Draco, he contacted me and set forth our plan. As I was dead to this world, it was rather easy for me to move around unnoticed. The plan is rather complicated, and we'll have more time to discuss it later, but you should know that he is alive."

Narcissa nodded her head.

There was a quiet knock at the backdoor.

"No need to worry," Richelle confidently strode to the door. While no one appeared to be there, the air filled with a smell of goats. Then suddenly a man appeared whom Draco recognized as the man who tended the bar at the Hog's Head. Richelle quickly brought him inside and gave him a hug.

"The funeral will start in an hour or so," he muttered hurriedly. "I had to use the cloak because Hogsmeade is swarming with wizards. They'll all be at the funeral, though. Everything here will be closed. You should be able to Apparate easily without being noticed."

"Thank you, Pop," she smiled, "for everything. This past year, well, it has been nice getting to know you."

"Have you settled things?" Aberforth Dumbledore looked at his daughter with deep concern.

"Not now, Pop. Too much going on. I will though; I promise. You will visit as soon as you can?" Her eyes were brimming with unshed tears.

"I cannot wait to see all of you. I'll miss you," the man nodded to the others, put on his cloak, and walked out the door.

Richelle looked sad, and Severus walked over to her putting his hand on her shoulder. She didn't pull away.

"Richelle, I am still in a quandary." He knew what he had to say to her, but he did not want to think of being away from her ever again. "I thought the plan was for me to return to the Dark Lord, so that I could help Potter."

She looked up at him -- her grey eyes were misty. "Well, Severus, part of the plan didn't work. Albus was weakened by a potion and his spell to make Harry unconscious failed. It merely froze him. So Harry, he saw you and he alerted the rest of the Order of your betrayal."

"But Albus and I knew that might happen," Severus had known the risks of the plan all along, and while he didn't like them, he had finally accepted them. Of course, at the time, he did not think he had any reason to live.

"Well, I am not taking any chances. I explained to Albus that I would bring you with Draco and Cissy. I have arranged it so that you are dead here."

"Richelle, I have obligations here." Snape's lips pursed together to reinforce his point. He hated knowing that he should return to Voldemort.

"Severus, please, do not argue with me." This time she moved in closer. "I have sacrificed a lot for this war, nearly twenty years of happiness, so I will not lose you to him or to death."

"Richelle, what are you saying?" He felt hopeful – perhaps it was not too late for them. Perhaps he had obligations to himself, not the wizarding world after all.

"Don't read too much into it, Severus. I haven't forgiven you, but I haven't stopped loving you either. You still own my heart." She turned to Draco and Narcissa, "Are you ready?"

"Richelle, I don't know. How I will ever?" Narcissa started, but her sister-in-law wouldn't let her finish.

"Cissy, you are my family – you and Draco. Don't give it another thought."

Severus noticed the relief ebb all over Draco's face. It was as if Draco finally felt like he was getting a way out, a way out of the hole his father had dug for him when Lucius sold his soul to the Dark Lord. Severus noticed that Richelle was observing her nephew closely.

"Shall we go?"

Severus walked over to them and placed his hand in Richelle's. She also grabbed Draco and Narcissa, and with a flash, Severus felt them being pulled away to a fresh, new beginning.