SECOND CHANCE – the sequel
by Lady Memory

Disclaimer: This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling, who created and, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and settings elaborated herein.

All my gratitude to my previewers Duj and Tearsofphoenix, and to my wonderful betas Angelicanight and Tambrathegreat. Many thanks to my kind readers and reviewers.

…oOo…

- Coming Back: Night -

Tomaso Bernardi was radiant.

"Ah, Professor, you scared me!" the old painter said with his strong Italian accent that became even more accentuated with joy, and eagerly added, "Now we must reconnect you with Mr. Potter, so that you can both safely switch places…"

He paused, as if a new disagreeable consideration had suddenly hit him. "I will have to decide the best procedure, though," he muttered with a grimace. "Unfortunately, it's going to be a bit more complicated than what we previously did."

At that point, Marcello Bernardi, who had looked lost in deep thoughts till that moment, addressed his grandfather with a torrent of words in Italian. The old painter raised his eyebrows in a somewhat surprised expression, but his grandson promptly dragged him into a corner. An animated, incomprehensible discussion took place sotto voce, whilst Snape waited amongst his friends, little Lily still clinging to him as if she were afraid that he could abruptly disappear.

And finally Tomaso was back again. He rubbed his hands and smiled at the children, who returned his smile with his same warmth. It was impossible to resist his grandfatherly manner. But, even more, it was impossible not to feel compelled by his quiet power, in spite of his funny pronunciation.

So, when he asked the children if they would please agree to leave the room - only for a while, of course, while he helped Professor Snape getting back to his picture – James, Al and Lily didn't see any objections; even better, they were relieved at his words and eager to comply.

On the other hand, the adults exchanged a worried glance, perceiving a danger beneath that invitation. Concealing her anxiety under a calm façade, Minerva cast a glance at Filius Flitwick, who nodded in understanding. With the ease derived from years of practice, the old man gathered the children and proposed them a promenade to the Great Hall, in order to see the Christmas decorations. With a trusting smile, little Lily hugged Snape one last time, then clasped Filius' hand and waved goodbye. Obediently, the boys followed the old wizard and their sister out of the room. Those left inside could hear Flitwick's tiny, fragile voice fade in the distance, while he told his young listeners about the many wonders that could be found in the castle.

A tense silence fell immediately after: abandoning his cheerful air, Bernardi crossed his arms and began to speak.

"Professor Snape," the old painter said gravely, "though you broke your connection in order to save your student - and we all are very grateful for that – you have put us in a problematic situation."

Snape stiffened, and Bernardi raised a hand to prevent his attempt at replying.

"No, please don't talk," he ordered, looking pointedly at him from behind his glasses. "Just let me explain, because what I need to say isn't easy."

He sighed. "You see, when a portrait chooses to be free – and I have personally witnessed this event only once in my life – the link with the performer of the Spell is completely interrupted. There is still a way to re-establish a connection, but this is only feasible for a limited length of time; then the new status becomes permanent. Therefore, we must find a new donor as soon as possible, because the magic bond can be reactivated only by channelling the energy through a third component."

Again, Bernardi raised a hand, this time to stop Minerva, Ginny and Neville, who had stepped forward in the clear intention of offering themselves.

"Let me please end my explanation," he said quietly, "Because here comes the difficult part. The reconnecting spell is… capricious. There is no way to control its effects. This means that we will need an exceptionally powerful donor… or an exceptionally generous one, because there is a high probability to get irremediably destroyed in this attempt, with no hope of coming back."

Again Snape raised his head with an impulsive gesture: but, stopped by Bernardi's stern look, he lowered his eyes powerlessly. Ginny glanced at Harry and paled, then turned to look anxiously at the painter.

Bernardi smiled sadly. "Given the premise, this time I'll be forced to make an adjustment and reverse the procedure."

He paused and looked at each one of those gathered around him, before concluding firmly, "Though not exactly canonical, using a portrait is the only possible solution."

"Well, I don't see the problem, Mr. Bernardi," Harry reacted without a blink. "As you said, it's only a matter of reversing the ritual. What I did as a man, I can do as a portrait." He smiled with a hint of his childish mischief. "After all, I have survived Voldemort's Avada Kedavra. This can't be worse."

"No!" His mother exclaimed, paling in anguish, immediately joined by his father, who resolutely added, "It's too dangerous, Harry. I will take your place."

"No, you have already given your life to save me," Harry stubbornly replied, shaking his head in refusal.

Marcello intervened. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter, but you cannot be chosen, because you are precisely the one we are trying to connect again."

He glanced at his grandfather, then jerked up his head with a bold expression. "If a portrait is not available, I'll be honoured to offer myself." His smile counteracted Harry's frown. "I surely can't claim to be as skilled as you are, but I have had many interesting experiences lately."

"I'm sorry, but I cannot accept it!" Harry vehemently protested. "I will never agree to sacrifice anybody in this room to save my life - man or picture. You know very well that I'm the only portrait here who has enough power to risk such a threat!"

"No!" A new voice interrupted him. "There is another one."

Startled, all those gathered in the room turned their heads or raised their eyes to look at that unexpected candidate. High on the wall opposite to Harry, arms folded and eyes grave, Dumbledore's portrait was watching them.

"Albus!" Bernardi exclaimed in surprise.

"Albus," Minerva repeated softly, and an intense emotion appeared on her face.

"Professor, I won't permit it!" Harry declared.

"I am sorry, Harry, but this time the last word is mine." Dumbledore's voice trembled, then steadied again. "My turn has finally come. And perhaps this will be the chance to show myself that I haven't lived in vain."

"You don't need to show anything! You gave your life for Draco!" Harry protested.

"That was strategy, not mercy, Harry, as you should know very well by now," Dumbledore replied quietly. "Strategy and a planned opportunity for me to depart painlessly from this world by the merciful hand of the man I had forced to be my murderer… and whose friendship I had never honoured as it truly deserved."

His eyes were silently begging Snape, who looked absolutely speechless.

Tomaso Bernardi inclined his head in assent.

"Sia fatto come desideri," he murmured, then he translated in a louder tone, "As you wish, Albus. Thank you for your offer. And may luck assist us all."

Visibly agitated, both Harry and Snape tried to speak; but, raising his hands in a gesture that was an order and a prayer at the same time, Dumbledore silenced them again.

"You both have still so much to do and to give," he said. "I'm only paint and fibres."

Then, opening his hands in a plea, "Don't deny me this chance," he whispered.

At that statement, Harry lowered his head in surrender, while Snape frowned and locked his gaze with his old mentor in a long, silent exchange. Then the younger wizard seemed to finally cede.

... ... ...

Everything settled, it was the painters' turn to bid goodbye. Tomaso Bernardi was brief and touching in his words, but Marcello let his impetuous speech run freely. "As I told you, Professor, friends must meet again, and I'll make sure that we will meet again and again in the future! Of course, I can only hope to be considered a friend by you but I dare say that our-"

"Thank you, Mr. Bernardi," Snape interrupted, checking his emotion with one of his ironic remarks. "If your friendship is as inexhaustible as your chatter, I shall never be left wanting."

Confused, Marcello smiled, then opened his arms in a disarming gesture. "I have always been a chatterer," he admitted with his best grin, "but my words are sincere."

"We know it, Mr. Bernardi," Minerva intervened with a pale smile. "And we are all immensely thankful to your good heart."

Touched and embarrassed, Marcello bowed.

Then Minerva went under Dumbledore's portrait and placed a hand on its canvas, as she used to do with Snape. "Thank you, Albus," she said, and a myriad of sparkles lit in her eyes.

"No, Minerva," he whispered in a sort of desperate tenderness. "You are the one who must be thanked. I never realised how precious you were to me…" His voice cracked. "And now it's too late."

She blinked a tear away and lowered her tone so that nobody else could hear. "I wish that there were a safer way," she murmured, her face altering in pain. "I told Severus that I didn't want to lose him. But… but I don't want to lose you either!"

Unaware of the powerful feelings rising up in that conversation, Ginny reached the Headmistress under the portrait. She looked evidently moved and her voice wavered when, unable to find other words, she said, "Thank you, Professor".

From his frame, Harry composedly added his thanks to hers. But Dumbledore had eyes only for Snape, who had crossed his arms and seemed to be meditating.

"I'll wait for you, Albus," Snape finally said, and paused for what seemed again a long, long moment. The message he wanted to send was too personal to be shared with others, so he took his characteristic sarcastic air. "Don't forget that we must resume our conversation as soon as we are back in our frames."

Then he watched his old mentor with a meaningful expression. Remembering the words that had concluded their last, harsh conversation, Dumbledore's face seemed to suddenly alter in a mix of emotions. Struggling to recover his composure, the wizard returned Snape a trembling smile.

"Thank you, Severus," he murmured, and lowered his head.

Perceiving that there was a different meaning from the one that their brief exchange seemed to suggest, Minerva glanced at the old Headmaster: a quiet joy invaded her heart when she saw a tear trickle down on his white beard.

... ... ...

Once more, Snape was standing alone in the middle of the room, while the painters prepared for their difficult task. The air vibrated with tension, and the wizard inhaled slowly to control his breath, acutely aware of the risks he and his two framed companions were going to face.

Repeating what he had done in the morning, the older Bernardi began to sing rhythmically, and once more, the Spell's powerful enchantment recreated itself. A ray of light made by the gathering of innumerable sparks suddenly exploded from the tip of Tomaso's wand. The luminous stream whirled in the air as if testing its power: then, with unpredictable violence, it reached and hit Dumbledore in his frame. The old wizard stiffened and closed his eyes, swaying under the intensity of that tremendous explosion of energy. Reflecting against the canvas as it would do with a mirror, the light split itself into two other rays: Harry in the frame and Snape on the floor were again connected by a forceful flux, and their bodies began to glow faintly.

Yet this time something different seemed to happen. The light vibrated unsteadily in a sequence of flashes, as if rebelling from the hand and the power of the man who was guiding it. Marcello immediately joined his grandfather and, after his stabilising intervention, the light steadied and seemed to shine more and more vividly. Slowly, Harry's body recreated in front of Snape. Smiling a radiant smile, the man extended his hand. Snape clasped it and Harry tightened his grip, his expression growing even more radiant.

"I didn't know you were such a great Quidditch player, Severus," he said, concealing under a joke his emotion for that incredible moment. Snape looked surprised at the use of his given name. A bizarre smile opened on his face, manifestation of a soul not used to expressing his most private feelings.

"And you are an even greater Auror, Harry," he replied softly, returning the shake. Then, with a blinding flash, he disappeared.

... ... ...

The flux of light disconnected with a last twinkling spark, and a low harmonious sound made the room vibrate softly. In his frame, Dumbledore opened his eyes, staggering and breathing painfully: a surprised expression appeared on his face when he discovered himself to be still safe and sound.

Tomaso Bernardi lowered his wand and swayed in exhaustion, but Marcello was ready to steady him. A supernatural silence filled the room, while everybody seemed to slowly return to reality.

Cautiously opening the eyes he had kept closed, Snape found himself in his portrait. Harry waved at him from the middle of the room and smiled, raking his hair in the typical unconscious gesture of his youth.

It took Snape a few moments to get accustomed again to the flatness of that two-dimensional world. But this time he was considering the space around him with new eyes, eyes that had learned to see beyond their limits and travel to unrestricted horizons.

And while he was savouring that thought, the door opened and let in a merry group of people – his friends, his colleagues, his "family". A sweet joy filled his heart. Whatever might happen, he was home.

... ... ...

The day had been incredibly demanding, in all senses. Little Lily had been the first to surrender and fall asleep, while James and Al were trying to resist, sitting on a sofa with their heads swaying more and more heavily.

The adults had gathered under the portraits, having something to drink and exchanging quiet comments. Nobody was effectively ready to go; everybody seemed to search every possible pretext to hang about in the room as long as possible. From the wall, Dumbledore and Snape were participating, and questions and answers crossed the air. In that joyful confusion, Ginny took the opportunity to draw Marcello Bernardi apart and whisper something to him. The man listened and nodded eagerly.

"My pleasure, Madam," he said with his boyishly mischievous smile.

... ... ...

"I think it would be better for you to go home," Minerva finally said to Ginny, looking fondly at the children who were sleeping in a bunch on the sofa. "They are exhausted."

"It has been a long day," Ginny agreed, "but there is still one little thing missing to make it complete."

She turned to Snape. "Professor," she said, "I'm glad that you decided to stay. It's an invaluable gift you've offered us. Now I think it's our turn to give you a present. I hope you will accept it."

Timidly, she raised a frame; from the satisfied smile on Marcello's face, Snape immediately understood that it was another piece from his beautiful collection of treasures, just like the one he had offered to Lily months before. Inside it, the wizard could see a magnificently painted interior of a room. It was almost a copy of his actual study, but with many nice details that made it cosy and comfortable in its sobriety. There were a desk, shelves and plenty of books, but also a rocking chair and a fireplace in which the flames were burning merrily, giving the scene a warm touch.

"If you want, Professor," Ginny continued, "this will be your new room in our home. We would be happy if you will use it to come and visit us."

Snape looked impassive, but his eyes betrayed his joy. Then, composedly, his old reserved self returning more and more powerfully after all those emotions, he replied quietly, "I'll be honoured."

... ... ...

The storm had ceased and, once more, the moon peeked out, round and soft in the velvety sky. Neville was the first to excuse himself and bid goodnight, while Ginny busied herself in waking her children and preparing them for the trip. Given the late hour, they would use the Floo to go back, and she was afraid that Lily could be too sleepy to land in the right house.

The painters went to shake hands with Minerva. Taking the opportunity, Harry joined the small group and cordially said to Tomaso, "A word before you go, Mr. Bernardi."

"Always at your orders," the old man replied warmly, but his warmth faded almost immediately, as soon as Harry asked with a knowing smile, "Very good acting, Maestro. But now, please, would you mind explaining why you lied to us?"

Bernardi's face altered with barely suppressed indignation, as he straightened his short stature. "What… what do you mean?"

"Now, now, Mr. Bernardi!" Harry replied, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "Please don't get upset. Did you forget that I have carefully studied the rite? Furthermore, my job and - I'd dare say - my past experiences, have taught me how to detect a lie."

Tomaso Bernardi frowned. "I hope this is not an official investigation, Mr. Potter," he inquired.

"No, no, no," Harry replied and his smile grew bigger. "Don't worry, Maestro, you didn't commit a crime and I'm not going to bring you before a court. I was only curious… you introduced an unnecessary variation to the rite this time, by requesting the help of a portrait. I was only wondering why."

"Well," Marcello intervened and looked worriedly at Minerva, who had thinned her lips in her characteristic stern expression. "The idea was mine. You see, I happened to hear the Headmistress speaking with Professor Dumbledore in the Potion Room."

He hesitated and cast again an apologetic glance at Minerva. "Please excuse me. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't leave the room without interrupting your conversation, and I didn't want to… so I heard that Professor Dumbledore was saddened and regretful about something of which Professor Snape had accused him. Something that had happened in their previous life."

He gulped and went on even more uneasily. "Then, when we gathered here to meet Professor Snape, Professor Dumbledore was here as well, hidden in a picture. So… so I thought that, perhaps, with a little nudge, I could help them reaching an understanding. I asked my grandpa to lend me a hand and he agreed. I'm sorry if I dared meddle…"

He straightened and concluded fiercely, "But if something wrong has been committed, I am the only one to blame."

Minerva looked at the young man waiting in contrite silence, and her eyes twinkled.

"Thank you, Mr. Bernardi!" she said with a voice vibrating with joy. "You found a great way to reconcile them." And she turned to glance at the wall behind her. Snape had entered Dumbledore's frame and they were talking quietly.

"Oh, well, I didn't do that much!" Marcello was clearly immensely relieved. "The real performer has been my grandpa. You know, a bit of lights and sounds, plus some… how would you call them? Some "special effects"."

And Marcello smiled at the old painter, who opened his arms, accepting the praise with an amused air.

"Professor Dumbledore was never in danger, my friends," Tomaso concluded, then he said to Minerva, "However, there are a couple of suggestions I would like to offer about the way in which pictures should be handled in this castle. You know, useful advice to keep their canvases in good condition for a longer time."

Interested, Minerva went away with Tomaso. As soon as they were alone, Harry watched Marcello intentionally.

"So, you didn't do that much?" he asked with a meaningful intonation.

Bernardi blushed again. "You really have keen eyes. And an even keener brain," he commented in admiration. "Very well, I admit it: I joined my grandfather at the end of the rite and reinforced the connection as strongly as possible. To prevent your question, I'll confess that I did it on purpose, in order to allow Professor Snape to… to meet you while he was still in his human form."

He became serious. "I thought it was due. You both deserved it."

Harry looked at the man with grateful eyes, then he patted Bernardi on his back.

"You really are a good fellow, Marcello," he said.

And this time, incredibly, the Italian found no words to reply.

... ... ...

TWO MONTHS LATER

The stars were beginning to twinkle in the sky when a happily tired Harry Potter arrived home. Wearing a coloured apron that made her look like her mother, Ginny came to kiss him.

"Cooking?" Harry returned her kiss and inhaled deeply. "Mmmm… Let me guess: Molly's secret recipe?" he asked with a hungry look.

"You guessed right," Ginny smiled.

"So, what do I win?" Harry took her in his arms, then suddenly stopped.

"Where is Lily?" he inquired, glancing around.

"Oh, playing chess with Severus," Ginny answered, and kissed him again, a long, longing kiss.

Few minutes later, Harry commented with a grin, "That man is a perfect baby-sitter."

"He is a great help," Ginny agreed with a mischievous smile. "Today I could prepare everything without troubles and interruptions. By the way, Ron and Hermione are coming to dinner with Hugo."

"Ah, good!"

"How was the day?" She asked going back to the kitchen. "And how did the Auror training course go? He didn't tell me a word."

"That's precisely what I want to discuss with him," Harry murmured with a frown. He knocked at the door of his daughter's room.

"Not ready yet, Mum. Still playing," Lily replied from inside.

Silently, Harry opened the door, crossed his arms and stared at the scene with amused eyes. In his frame, Snape was waiting for Lily to move: judging by the quantity of pieces piled near his side of the chessboard, Lily was evidently losing, but she kept stubbornly trying anyway. Concentrated and totally unaware of her father's presence, the girl frowned in indecision, hand shifting uncertainly from a castle to a bishop to a pawn.

"Mr. Potter!" Snape greeted Harry, and Lily startled.

"Dad!" she exclaimed, and ran to hug her father.

The portrait waited for Lily to kiss Harry, then continued with his usual irony, "A bit late, I would say. You really must have enjoyed your day at work."

"That's exactly what I was going to discuss with you," Harry said with an ominous voice.

"Indeed?" Snape commented lightly, cornering Lily's castle by levitating and placing his queen in front of it. The girl gasped in surprise and looked at him with accusing eyes.

"Now listen, Severus," Harry continued calmly. "I admit that your course is a success and my men are enthusiastic. But you must spare young Perkins your witty remarks. He is still a novice…"

"So?" Snape replied nonchalantly, while Lily moved her bishop in a vain attempt to counteract his queen. "He needs to be trained. And what better occasion? He is too young to be spoiled by your bad example."

Harry swallowed. No, he wouldn't bite the hook.

"He can't… appreciate your methods. You see, he was never one of your students," he said, trying to be as reasonable as possible.

"Then he must regain the lost time." And Snape smiled devilishly.

"But you shouldn't treat him that way!" Harry finally exploded.

"Come now, Potter!" Snape watched him with blazing eyes. "He wants to be an Auror. He must endure. What did I tell you years ago about "fools who walk with their heart on their sleeves?"

"Yes, thank you, I got the point," Harry replied with gritted teeth. Snape watched him and smiled.

"See? In spite of your limited capacities, you still remember my lessons. And next time, don't make useless comments before your men."

"You don't really mean…"

"I am simply warning you, Potter. And you will call me sir or professor, when I'm teaching!"

The two men glared at each other with the same stubborn expressions of their school days. Then-

"Earthquake! Earthquake!" Lily cried, sneakily pushing the chessboard with her knee. The pieces fell everywhere, and Snape curled again his lips in a cold smile.

"It seems that your house is built on a seismic zone, Potter," he said disdainfully, but an amused spark had lit in his eyes. "Young lady, I believe I told you to stop cheating."

"I'm not cheating," she said cheekily. "It was an earthquake! Now we will have to start a new game!"

"You think so?" Snape replied, and with a flicker of his wand, the pieces came back in the places they previously were. Lily looked at the chessboard with a comically surprised face. Then she raised two desolated eyes.

"Aw, Uncle Severus, you are mean!" she complained. "You never let me win!"

"That's because I want you to be the best player in the school," he said with the tender smile he reserved for her. "After my lessons, I'm sure you will win every contest."

The girl blushed with pleasure. Snape turned to her father, who had watched that exchange agape.

"Well, Harry, I suppose I'll have to leave now. I have a conference at St. Mungo's in… let's say, two hours."

Harry snorted, raising his brows in mocking disbelief, but Snape impassively replied, "Unlike others, I like to be punctual."

"As if I didn't know," Harry muttered. Ginny peeked in.

"Two hours, you said? Then you have time to share dinner with us," she placidly remarked, evidently used to those skirmishes. "Ron and Hermione should be arriving right now, and they are going to the conference too."

"Yes, I know. Madam Weasley is due to speak just before me and this will certainly grant me extra time."

"No problems, then." Ginny smiled knowingly. "And, incidentally, Mum's recipe."

Snape's eyes lit up. "I suppose I could afford a little break," he murmured. Then he suddenly looked worried.

"But Mr. Bernardi said that I shouldn't overindulge in the Food Exchange Spell…" he added in the evident hope to be contradicted.

"I'll ask him to check you," Ginny said patiently.

"It's not me, it's the canvas," Snape reacted, trying to sound convincing.

"Then I'll ask him to paint you a new picture," Ginny concluded firmly and went away, announcing, "Dinner in five minutes, provided that the guests are as punctual as you are. Go and wash your hands, Lily. Your cousin will spend the evening with you."

With a cry of joy, the child ran after her mother, leaving Snape and Harry in mute contemplation of each other.

"So, rowdy, clumsy Weasley is coming to dinner, uh?" Snape commented after a while. Harry nodded, a mischievous smile already dancing on his lips. But Snape was too cunning to take the bait.

"I wonder how your wife can always succeed in making me forget the unpleasant parts of her invitations…" he murmured. "But, of course, she must have a long experience in handling such situations, having married you."

And after that last statement, satisfied, Snape left his frame to triumphantly enter the one hung over the table in the living room.

... ... ...

It was very late when Snape returned to his original portrait in Hogwarts. Though a picture can't feel tiredness, he was anyway experiencing something oddly similar to a contented weariness. However, he still had a visit to pay. Somebody was waiting for him.

He entered a portrait hanging near a bed and paused. From that frame, many months before, he had told Minerva about his lost love, and she had revealed to him feelings that now he could fully understand and return. Oh, not feelings of love, of course, but the quiet stream of a caring friendship. And here again she was, the woman who had comforted him in so many desperate moments of his new odd, disconcerting, awesome existence.

"Minerva?" he called softly.

The old witch was sleeping. She had been reading a book, probably in an attempt to fight the increasing sleepiness. The book was still open on the blanket, but the hand that should have grabbed it was lying inertly. The late hour had finally induced her to lean her head against the pillow and disappear in oblivion.

Snape contemplated his old friend with a fond smile, then tried again.

"Minerva?"

This time, she blinked and her head swayed, while she slowly returned to consciousness. She blinked again and smiled drowsily, finally recovering enough voice to welcome him.

"Oh, you are back, Severus!"

He immediately apologised. "I'm sorry for the late hour, but you insisted on saying that you wanted to see me…"

"Of course I wanted to see you! I'll have plenty of time to sleep later." She smiled fully now. "How was the conference?"

He tightened his lips in his usual sardonic expression. "Not as exciting as it could be," he replied.

"Really? And why so?" she asked, waiting expectantly. He smiled, amused to see how her eyes had lit up in interest. That little trick always worked.

He cleared his throat. "Madam Weasley's speech was the only worthwhile lecture. Regrettably, I think that very few of those present understood the thorough research under her argumentation. That was frustrating."

Minerva smiled again. Trust Severus to defend his former students like a mother dragon.

"I know," she said calmly. "She practically lived here for more than two weeks, in order to consult the books you suggested to her in the Forbidden Section."

He suddenly darkened at those words. "I used to read those books when I was younger. I thought that the knowledge they offered was useful to both my jobs, the teacher and the… spy."

He lowered his head. "I was wrong. They only allowed me to sink even more in my desperation."

"Oh Severus!" Minerva immediately became concerned, and he continued bitterly, "While she was able to do what I wasn't: extract all the good and the helpful that was still there, buried under centuries of dust and dirt."

"Even the most venomous poisons can be used to prepare medicines when you know how to do it," Minerva said slowly.

"Yes," Snape replied with a sigh. "Though I should know it very well, this is what I have been taught again this evening."

Minerva watched him fondly and changed topic.

"Now, I suppose you want to know about the gift," she said with a mischievous intonation in her voice.

"Of course I do," he replied, and this time his eyes were those lighting up in interest.

She smiled, enjoying her moment. "I have personally selected the most beautiful sets of Gobstones the shop had in stock." Her smile deepened. "And I bought a red and golden one."

"Oh, I don't mind the colour," Snape said firmly. "After all, Al is a Gryffindor. I'm sure you chose him a nice set."

He hesitated. "It will be the first time I have given a birthday present to a boy his age. Well, I did it for Draco, but it was more than thirty years ago and only a matter of respect to his father. This time, it's… it's…"

"Different," the old witch concluded. "And Al will be very happy and grateful to his Uncle Severus." She smiled again.

"You know, Minerva," Snape said slowly, "the one who should be grateful is me. The gift that Albus Severus offered me is infinitely more valuable."

The Headmistress raised her brows, clearly waiting for an explanation, and Snape continued, trying to express his feelings.

"When he ran away in the Forest, I had already renounced my life. His flight forced me to come back and reconsider what I was leaving. In a way, it was him who saved me, not the contrary."

Minerva leaned back, her eyes twinkling.

"That's a wonderful thing you've said," she commented.

"But I should thank all of you," he said, still unravelling his thoughts. "Who would have thought that Longbottom would become such a fine man? And who would suspect such wisdom in Potter? Wasn't he an incredible surprise?" He sighed and lowered his head. "Not for you, I imagine, Minerva…"

The Headmistress smiled quietly, as if encouraging him to go on, so Snape continued.

"And his wife… I always considered the Weasleys a bunch of insufferably, annoying troublemakers. Yet Ginny, Ginny is…"

"Different," again Minerva completed placidly.

"Well, ah, yes, thank you," Snape said, a bit embarrassed. "Her brother is still insufferable though," he grumbled, as if regretting his previous explosion of kindness. "I wonder how the Granger girl could like him. I wouldn't have given him a chance when they were students."

"Freckles," the old woman said impassively, and Snape looked at her in surprise, then they both grinned openly.

"They were his only chance, I'll concede that," he said, checking a laugh. How wonderful it was to chat with a friend and see that she shared his own vision… though she would always deny it, of course!

A new thought hit him, and he resumed his talking a bit hesitantly.

"Now, about Al's gift: I am in debt to you, Minerva. How can I- "

"Severus!" Minerva interrupted him sternly. "Since the day Zabini left, you have been teaching potions to students of every year and every House. And you are not paid for this. Furthermore, you are a brilliant orator and a renowned potioneer, whose works bring prestige to the school. Now, who is in debt?"

"If you put it in that way…" he meekly murmured; but she saw that he was pleased at her praise, so she continued firmly.

"And let's also say that your lessons are really appreciated, which is much more important."

She watched him gravely. "You know, yesterday I received a delegation of Slytherins who wanted you as Head of the House."

He was instantly alarmed. "I hope you didn't accept."

"Then I took the wrong decision."

"Minerva! But you…How could you-"

"Relax, Severus, relax." Her eyes had an amused twinkle. "I told them that I needed to think about this. But, honestly, don't you believe that the role would fit you perfectly?"

Still baffled, he didn't answer, and she smiled again, seeing that, despite his previous panic, he was beginning to consider the idea with more and more interest. A quiet silence followed while they both savoured that perfect moment. Minerva's eyelids were slowly closing. Stifling a yawn, the witch curled against the wall and leaned her head against his picture.

"You know, Severus?" she said with a voice in which sleepiness was becoming more and more perceptible. "I'm so happy to have you here. I… I hope that you… you will… always…"

Her voice faded and a quiet snoring was heard at its place. With great tenderness, Snape contemplated the grey head of hair resting so trustfully against his canvas.

"Sleep well, Minerva," he murmured. "Tomorrow is another great day. And we will share it together."

... ... ...

In the mid-obscurity of the corridor, with impatient fingers, Al opened a little package wrapped in silvery and green paper.

"Wow!" he whispered, looking reverently at the set of Gobstones, glowing faintly under the light of the torches. "It's fantastic! Look how they shine!"

For a long moment, he lost himself in adoring contemplation. "How beautiful," he repeated in a dreamy tone. Then he raised his head at the portrait.

"Thank you, Uncle Severus!" he said with starry eyes. "How did you know I always wanted a set?"

"Oh," Snape replied noncommittally, crossing his arms. "Adults have their ways." And he smiled vaguely, careful not to mention that his favourite 'niece' was a very exhaustive source of information about her brothers. But Al had already forgotten his question, and was now vibrating with excitement.

"I need to practise as much as possible," he said.

"I didn't know you were such an inveterate player," Snape joked, enjoying the determined expression that had shaped the boy's features.

"I want to take part in the Gobstones Tournament of the Houses," Al explained timidly. "The selection is very hard to pass because there are a lot of applicants."

"I see," Snape said, and though he had always cordially disliked that pastime, he didn't hesitate.

"Perhaps you would like some private lessons?" he asked, coughing discreetly.

Al widened his eyes. "Private lesson of… Gobstones?" he asked incredulously.

"You see, my mother was a champion at Gobstones. She was captain of the Slytherin team here at Hogwarts. So…" he smiled his bizarre smile, "So, perhaps I could teach you some useful tricks."

The boy smiled an immense smile, and tightened the set against his chest.

"When can we begin?" he asked. Snape straightened himself.

"I'll wait for you this evening at six o'clock, Mr. Potter. Please be punctual," he replied with his stern timbre.

"Oh, I will," Al replied enthusiastically, and Snape smiled inwardly at his joy, but continued impassively.

"As with every strategic game, Gobstones requires quick thinking and careful preparation. Though the game may seem an easy one compared to the difficulty of chess, it still has a logical…"

At this point, Snape stopped his lecture to watch his student. The boy hadn't listened to a word, lost as he was in his happiness. The portrait crossed his arms.

"I'll see you this evening, Al," he said with a fond smile. "Now go to your lessons."

The boy smiled back. With a fluid move, Snape left the frame, while Al resumed his walking with a dreamy expression on his face.

Once more, the corridor was empty and silent. Shaking his head in disbelief, James left the corner from where, unnoticed, he had watched the whole scene. The boy raked his hair in an unconscious imitation of his father's usual gesture.

"Mental!" he muttered with an amused expression. "That man is mental!"

Then an immense grin opened up on his face. "But thank Merlin for that!"

... ... ...THE END... ... ...

THE END?

Author's goodbye…

Dear Friends, we have finally reached the last chapter. It seems so incredible, after almost three years (and my many reiterations of being finished while I was still in the middle of it). I admit that several times I had the impression that this story would never see its end… which was anyway a comforting certainty, given the many unbalancing events of life.

For three years, I have had an appointment with a group of attentive readers who were anxious to know the last developments and ready to leave me their comments. Is there anything better for the incurable chatterbox I am?

So, the first thing I would like to say is an immense Thank You!

Thank you to:

My wonderful betas and previewers (in order of arrival): DementedLeaf, who followed me since the beginning, Duj, to whom the story has been dedicated, Karelia, Xoxphoenix, Morgaine_Dulac, Tearsofphoenix, Pellegrina, Sara, Federica and finally Angelicanight and Tambrathegreat.

Isn't it incredible how many people worked for the success of this story?

Thank you to:

My kind readers. I couldn't have found more pleasant companions in this trip. With the help of other friends, I have tried to write a message in some of your languages. So, thank you in:

Deutsch:

An alle meine lieben deutschsprachigen Leser, vielen Dank für Eure Begleitung, ich bin sehr glücklich in diesen Jahren von Euch unterstützt gewesen zu sein. Ich hoffe, Euch alle bald wieder zu treffen.

Français :

à tous mes lecteurs de langue français, je vous remercie vivement d'avoir entrepris ce voyage avec moi et de m'avoir supporté si longtemps. J'espère vous rencontrer de nouveau un jour.

Español
A todos mis gentiles lectores de lengua española, gracias por haber viajado conmigo. Estoy muy feliz haber tenido vuestro apoyo durante estos años. Espero que hayamos la oportunidad de reunirsnos de nuevo.

Swedish:

Till alla mina svensktalande läsare, tack för att ni följde med mig på min resa. Ert stöd genom åren har betytt mycket för mig. Jag hoppas att vi snart kommer att mötas igen.

Català
A tots els meus gentils lectors de llengua catalana, gràcies per haver viatjat amb mi. Estic molt contenta d'haver tingut el vostre suport durant aquests anys. Espero que tinguem l'oportunitat de reunirnos de nou.

Portugués:

A todos os meus leitores de lingua portuguesa: obrigada por escolher a minha estoria; espero encontrarlhes novamente neste reino de fantasia.

Special thanks to:

Though everyone of you is dear to my heart, let me please particularly thank some very special people for the kindness, the constant suggestions and also the criticism they offered me for years since the very beginning of this story (in alphabetical order): Deeps85, Godwit, Logospilgrim, Misundersnape, Utena-Puchiko-Nyu and Visitkarte.

Thank you very much again!

Numbers:

This story has reached incredible numbers, for being the non native writer I am. But again, you are the ones who made the numbers, therefore I'm proud to share them with you.

Till today, this story has reached more than 120.000 hits, has been chosen by 21 communities and has received more than 300 favorites.

Thank you to all those who have honoured me with their preference!

Projects:

Though I don't like advertising my work, I decided to insert these lines for my unregistered readers, the ones I can't reach with a private answer. (NoName and Sevfan88, this is obviously for you).

So: I will conclude my story A Matter of Will, that I have left languishing in a corner when I started adding new chapters to Second Chances (Misundersnape, I hope you will appreciate :).

Then, I have a SS/HG fluffy story almost completed, whose chapters I wrote now and then during these past years (you won't believe it after all this angst, but I do like humour.)

And finally, a request:

I never asked for reviews and I won't begin now. But I have a meek request: I would like to receive a goodbye from all of you. Please? You don't need to write a message. Just a Hi, or a Hello, or a Hola, or a Ciao, or whatever you think best, and your name.

Thanks in advance to those who will answer.

Then: I will obviously be very grateful to those who will help me improve and therefore will add also a final comment. I am very interested to know what you liked but also what you disliked. I hope to learn from your suggestions and become a better author. I promise to reply to everybody leaving me a review.

OK, this is all. Verbose till the end, as you could see.

Lots of love to everybody and best wishes of happiness.

See you soon in this realm of fantasy.

Lady Memory

PS: Addition in date 9/16/2011 (not betaed, as always)

I would like to thank again the many other people who have left and keep leaving me messages. Some of these kind readers are unregistered or not logged-in at the moment of their reviewing, so I have missed the chance to thank them personally.

And thanks also to all those who have chosen my story: from the day the last chapter has been published, Second Chance has reached 440 favourites and 26 communities. Numbers that seem even more incredible to me, an Italian who has tried to put her ideas on paper in a language that is not hers…

So, what can I say? I am deeply honoured and moved. This story is very important to me; I am glad that so many people liked it. I'll keep answering to all those who will leave me a comment, IF they log in. To all the others, thank you very much again.