Just one more time

By tearsofphoenix

Standard disclaimer applies – it's all JKR's

Many, many thanks for the patient and caring editing by Whitehound and to my new friend and wonderful previewer Lady Memory.

This story is dedicated to all the friends that have supported me with gifts, care and healing words, and especially to Whitehound, who gave me an idea - explained and acknowledged at the end of the story to avoid spoiling it - that became the metaphorical heart of this fan-fiction.

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The stars were shining brightly in a violet sky, where the dark fog of fears and cries that had obscured their lights had finally vanished.

She saw him flying away, leaving the castle forever at the end of the night in which he had sung his most beautiful song. But she couldn't follow him: she needed the humidity of the rain to fly for long distances, and the air was still too dry for her.

She could try to Disapparate and reach his destination with the magical strength that saturated her body; but that could happen just a few times in her life and, even if her little heart was painfully longing to go, she knew that it wasn't the right time.

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He was crying. Burning tears, impossible to refrain from, were streaming down his cheeks while, kneeling on the floor, he seemed to savour the depth of his never-ending feeling of emptiness.

He hadn't needed a reminder to keep his heart faithful to her, but to find such a precious treasure had roused unexpected emotion, and the chance to take away with him both her declaration of love and her smiling picture had been irresistible. So, feeling more like the devoted owner of a precious dedication than a thief, he hid them in his robes and left, the little piece of paper feeling warm and strong like an armour on his body.

He left, completely forgetting the real reason why he had risked a visit to the Order's headquarters, now forbidden and dangerous to him. His eyes, that had so often shown a black hollowness to those looking at him, now were shining with fever.

There wasn't a truly safe place where he could be left alone: neither in the castle, where he had to watch his every step, nor in his old house that had witnessed, even so recently, all his misery.

And thus he Apparated to the playground where everything had begun, and there he walked, slowly, without knowing where his steps would lead him, from the nearly deserted place to a not so distant little wood, until he stopped and sat, abruptly, under a tree.

"If I could only see you once again," Snape whispered. "If I could at least have you here for one hour, just one more time, talking to me, listening, forgiving…"

He knew that his words were hopeless, having begged, innumerable useless times, whatever deity might hear him. So, he didn't really expect an answer. Closing his eyes, he tried to recover the strength he would need to carry on his mission and his atonement until their very end. And he did recover it, along with his mask and his devotion, thinking of the announced end of his existence as the only way to accomplish his task and, perhaps, to achieve the peace and absolution he had longed for all his life.

But the end didn't come as he had expected: the green eyes, that were the last image he contemplated before losing consciousness, weren't hers, as neither were the robes which he had grabbed with unexpected force, wishing he hadn't had to die, not there, not yet.

Who would have foreseen that death wouldn't represent freedom and a solution to him, when it got so near? Nobody, perhaps, and surely not him.

He was going to die: but somehow dying didn't seem the right thing to do now, especially in that awful place.

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She stood, heart still beating painfully at the sight of him leaving; and then she saw the man, immersed in such a despair as she had never witnessed in the still-short length of her young life. Only a few times had she seen him showing such an intense feeling, his true self being always hidden behind a mask of coldness that displayed, like her own appearance, a dreadful and so easily misleading facade.

Then she had seen him flying away as well, and though he wasn't one of her kind, she had been able to sense his feelings and his destination. And suddenly, with trepidation, she had realised that her time was coming too and that she would be asked to reach the beautiful land of new-born lives and hopes in order to help him.

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Seventeen years earlier, people had celebrated and made parties; there had been sparkling fireworks and shining stars… but then, the first triumphant demise of the Dark Lord hadn't been saddened by so many losses as in this last, horrible battle: at that time, the Potters had been the last unfortunate casualties, and their death had been compensated for by their son's amazing enterprise, in the eyes of the mass.

Now, among the survivors, only a few could fathom which priorities were waiting for them, while the corpses still stayed, set, on the battlefield.

Disposing the dead heroes in the Great Hall had then seemed the right thing to do, as well as the right way to begin the new era of peace, the day after the victory.

The three victorious friends though, after having settled the matter of the Hallows and received Dumbledore's thanks and blessing, couldn't indulge in a deserved rest yet. As soon as they joined the people mourning in the place that, until that moment, had represented for Harry the core of the castle and his real home, they realized that Snape's body wasn't there. Surely, he was still lying in the Shrieking Shack.

A sudden feeling of unease showed on Harry's face. Exchanging a look of understanding, the three friends silently agreed not to divulge where they had seen him die, but to go instead one last time to that fateful place themselves, to retrieve the body of their former Professor and honour it along with the corpses of those who had given their lives to save them all. So they went on, still dirty from the recent ordeal, sweating in their hurry and anxious, afraid to find that, in the meantime, somebody with much less benign intentions had otherwise disposed of what was left of the man.

Their concern, though, had come too late.

The Shack was deserted.

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"Nobody knew he was here, aside from us," objected Ron.

"Could he possibly have gone away?" tried Hermione, shaking her head in perplexity.

"He was dead!" Harry said firmly. "I felt his breath failing; I saw him lying motionless in his own blood."

"Perhaps we're making too much out of this, despite what it looks like. Maybe someone else took care of him," muttered Ron, who had been the least eager to undertake this last expedition, and who couldn't but feel the need to get back to his family as soon as possible.

Harry looked at the girl, hoping she would come up with one of her logical, understandable explanations. The young witch, instead, was staring intently at the dark pool that lay where Snape's body should have been.

"What's that?" she eventually asked, stepping forward to pick up a little piece of paper. "It seems incomplete, and what it's written here is…"

"A magical formula?"

"A fragment of a letter," she affirmed, contradicting her redheaded friend. "It's signed… Harry, it's from…"

"My mother" concluded the boy, who had recognized the missing part of the letter about Grindenwald and Dumbledore that his mum had sent to Sirius Black.

Harry felt an immense sense of tiredness and compassion: it was as if, through that little piece of paper, a part of the great suffering undergone by Severus Snape had reached him, and in a sorrowful whisper, he spoke again.

"I know this letter, I have the first part of it," he began. "And this is not the first time I've seen those words," he added looking at his friends, who were listening in absorption.

"I think this is the moment to tell you all I know – there's a lot more to it as well as what I already told you."

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He was going to die.

His last moments were approaching, and nothing would ever restore his life again, this time. He realised his complete loneliness and the end of his existence, but it didn't seem unwelcome, now. Tired after the long journey that had brought him there, and having completed the building of his grave, - a nest made of frankincense, cinnamon, cedar wood and myrrh – there he laid still, waiting for his very end.

It was a beautiful place to die; it resembled the wild land of his first rebirth, where nothing seemed to obscure the horizon and the hot light of the sun. But suddenly, an unexpected shadow veiled the daylight, and something appeared in front of the dying creature, who opened his half-closed eyelids in a last, supreme effort. It was the first time that he had met another being so similar to him, even though the colours didn't match his own shades and even though the voice of the approaching creature wasn't even as remotely fascinating as his own had always been.

He acknowledged the presence of a mate.

The younger phoenix glided, and addressed him in words that spoke of loyalty, of an unfair destiny, and above all, of Fawkes' last friend, who hadn't perhaps thought to leave such a mission to him, but who surely would be happy to hear of this last glorious feat, if they'd ever meet in the forthcoming future.

She carried a request that the old red bird couldn't refuse. Fawkes spread his wings, tried their strength and felt them powerful again, as if the weakness of the last hours had vanished. So, for the last time, he rose again in the air, singing with unexpected joy and leaving his new companion behind.

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Was it heaven? It certainly didn't fit with his idea of hell.

As soon as he was able to see again, he opened his eyes to a beautiful panorama; but he didn't know what it could be. Then he realized that green was the main colour around him, balanced only by the shining blue of the sky above, where another shade of green was moving, approaching him.

Green had been his last vision before his last breath, and he was beginning to think that it was a bitter trick of destiny, that he would be condemned to see that colour for his whole afterlife: being denied, even there, a chance to survive without that painful reminder.

Shaking his head mentally, he tried to sit up, and succeeded. Abruptly, his fingers went to touch his neck, shivering with an odd feeling, and expecting to be in a new incorporeal state.

His skin was intact, and clean, and soft.

Meanwhile, a creature of surprising grace had landed at his side, a bird that he knew from having read about it in his studies, but that he had never seen alive in his life. The head of the bird nuzzled Snape's shoulder as a pet would do, and the wizard couldn't resist stroking the luminous feathers, black and green like his favourite colours.

A light smile crossed his face: it seemed that he had been visited by an Irish phoenix. Knowing that wizards who thought that the bird could foretell death were wrong, he felt a new emotion growing inside.

Snape dared rise, and again succeeded. Perhaps, after all, he wasn't really dead: perhaps, in some kind of poetic justice, he had mysteriously been carried to the safe "land without snakes".

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After a night of small rest and troubled sleep, as soon as the morning light filtered through the curtains of her chamber, Hermione felt ready for the new day. Her friends were still sleeping, or so she guessed when, reaching the Common Room, she didn't see them. The castle was still in chaos, and she didn't expect to be able to eat something in the Great Hall so she left a small note to Ron to explain her absence and went out to clear her mind. After Harry's latest confidences - not only the further details about Snape's true loyalties and sacrifice, but mostly those exposing the less likeable sides of Dumbledore's plans - her thoughts were in turmoil.

She saw a few people during her walk, and luckily they seemed to share her same need for silence; a slight nod or a smile were enough to greet everyone, so she was able to continue her quiet trip. Approaching the little village, it seemed suddenly right to visit Aberforth's inn the place where they received help and advice in a time that now seemed so far distant.

The old wizard was behind the bar, ready for his job, and only his blue eyes betrayed his feelings about the recent events: as soon as he noticed the girl entering, though, his expression became watchful.

"Still not tired of adventures, missy?" he welcomed the witch.

Hermione blushed, and forced herself to answer kindly, " Very tired, of course… and consequently unable to rest and find peace".

"Where are your friends?" the bartender inquired. "Why are you going around all alone, when there is still a possibility of some Death Eaters being still at large?"

Hermione flinched, realising that, in her current state of confusion and doubt, she hadn't really thought of such a risk.

"Don't worry, Mr. Dumbledore", she replied, as if he, of all people, didn't know that she had first-hand experience of what Voldemort's followers were capable of. "I'll take care of myself. But, you see, I was unable to rest, as there were too many questions troubling me. So, trying to sort out my thoughts, I arrived at your door and thought to ask… did you ever speak again to your brother after his death? And do you know if he had some backup-plan intended to save his people? I mean: do you know if their destinies ever bothered him at all?"

"Why do you ask?" he counter-queried, cutting off her torrential speech.

"Well, I thought a lot about what you told us, and even if we couldn't pause and consider those revelations during the fight, now it's different…"

The wizard muttered something unintelligible and stared at her without really answering, so Hermione continued.

"I was trying to figure out what could have happened to Headmaster Snape's body," she said, using his title and thinking that he deserved to keep that as a sign of respect, like as it had been earlier, when she had always called him Professor without indulging in those insulting names by which her friends - especially her friends - had so often called him.

"What?" inquired Aberforth, awakened from his momentary reverie.

"We saw him die in the Shrieking Shack, but when we came back to retrieve his body, he wasn't there anymore," she explained.

"Ah, yes, Snape. Poor sod, since the time I caught him spying on the bloody prophecy, I knew he was doomed. He showed it, with his look, and his behaviour, and… and through his eyes, always so angered and feverish as if nothing good could happen to him, nothing fair. What you're saying, though, is really unpleasant; it seems that they couldn't leave him alone even as a corpse!"

"That's what's troubling me, sir!" she almost cried, happy to see that he was beginning to understand. "My friends and I also found a paper that he was carrying on himself: it must have fallen from his robes, perhaps in moving or lifting his body…"

"Well, not too many customers, today, it seems… let's go and see if we can find something more about this strange disappearance," he concluded, untying the knot of his dirty apron and taking his wand out of the sleeve.

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The bird was looking at him with a mournful look, and its beak so much resembled his own nose that he felt as if watching a sort of weird mirror. He was still unsure if what he was experiencing was real.

While he continued stroking the feathers of the greenish-black phoenix, Snape saw something falling on the grass. It was a little feather, a little plume, very thin and golden. He began to guess what could have happened, and felt a strange warmth rise in his chest, until it reached his eyes and he couldn't restrain his feelings anymore.

He knew that feather, and to whom it belonged.

Fawkes must have healed him, just as he must have taken him out of that miserable hovel, carrying him to beautiful Ireland; and this fellow bird had probably been the link that had led his old mentor's familiar to save him.

Dumbledore…

Snape didn't know other phoenixes apart from Fawkes, though he had been informed of the existence of Augureys through his readings. Could somebody have sent the two birds to him?

Yes, perhaps there was someone still caring for him and, though there was no absolute evidence that his rescue had been planned by Dumbledore, yet he was comforted by the thought that, at least for somebody in his world, death hadn't been the only possible conclusion to his destiny.

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Hermione was hurrying back towards the castle, carrying a little evidence of hope. She couldn't wait to tell Harry and Ron that there was a fair possibility that Snape was alive and safe. The girl and Aberforth had explored the floor of the Shrieking Shack much more carefully than she had done the day before with her companions. And doing so, they had found a little feather, precious as it was and even more, because it meant the passage of a phoenix and an act of rescue!

The young witch entered the Common Room, feeling for the first time since her return to Hogwarts that things could begin anew, and with the right start. She was anxious to tell Harry about her discovery, because even though her friend hadn't expressed his thoughts completely about Snape's sacrifice, she knew that, like her, he was resenting the unfairness of that end in his heart. And she was impatient to hug Ron and renew the delightful excitement experienced the day before, when they had kissed and felt so beautifully in love with each other.

But she wasn't prepared for the worried looks that welcomed her arrival, nor to the angry words with which her boyfriend commented on her absence. She didn't want to quarrel, as she understood their concern, especially after the tragic events they had experienced together. And, above all, she didn't want to spoil those precious first moments of peace by reacting in resentment; so, the young witch surprised her friends with a silent admission of agreement.

She couldn't help, though, feeling something slightly disagreeable in all that.

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Several months later, life had finally come back to normality, to the point that, on a Sunday, almost the whole Weasley family went to watch a Quidditch match, also inviting Harry and Hermione.

Molly was, understandably, the only one who hadn't chosen to go, but she had insisted that they all did, even Arthur, because Fred had loved that kind of fun so much, and he would surely have been pleased to see all of them enjoying it together. It was Kenmare Kestrels versus Puddlemere United, the last match of the season, decisive for the League Cup. Their old friend Oliver was still playing for Puddlemere, the famous team that even Dumbledore had supported, and they hoped to have a chance to meet the former Gryffindor captain there. Kenmare would host the game, so they decided to travel there together by Portkey.

Hermione had mixed feelings about that trip.

She was glad to see the Irish town, and considered with an amused smile all the gadgets and mascots, the coloured scarves, the flags and the songs… but at the same time she didn't know if she could bear all that excitement for more than an hour or two.

Ronald kept saying that he didn't support any of the teams, as the Cannons had been out of the running for first place for some time; so he continued repeating sentences like "may the best team win", or something similar.

Harry and Ginny were lost in their feelings, and the mutual passion they shared for the sport they'd practised didn't offer many occasions to switch to other topics…

Hermione sighed, but smiled quietly.

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The bird had just left. She had waited for a gentle rain to fly away, and her small cry before leaving seemed to Severus a charming way to say goodbye. Perhaps she was going to reach her much more colourful friend if he were still alive, the wizard mused, and silently wished happiness to someone that, one more time, would find it far from him.

Keeping his eyes lifted to the sky, Snape thought again of the many events which had happened after his first incredible encounter with the phoenix. He had found a suitable place to stay, after the day of his rebirth: it was not so far from the Ring of Kerry, the Ladies' View from which he had realized he had been looking at one of the most gorgeous views of Ireland. There he had met the secretive local magic community and, by offering his skills to the kind owner of an old house as a payment for food and hospitality, he had finally settled down in his new life. The presence on his shoulder of the green phoenix - a bird that the Irish wizards knew to be a friend, and that therefore wasn't misjudged there as in the rest of the Wizarding world - had played a significant role in his introduction to his landlord, who had accepted Snape's offer without problems or questions.

Time had been gracious to Severus Snape, who now wore green and black sets of robes; the wizard actually showed a healthier look to the world, thanks in part to the long walks through the fields he had been taking, in the search of what he needed for his potions…

Today, though, he wasn't going out for any such purpose. Today he felt the need to just go by the river, wandering without a destination and contemplating its surroundings, while focusing his thoughts on his past and on his future.

He was fairly acquainted with the events happening in the Wizarding World, being able to read the copies of the Daily Prophet that his landlord discarded every week.

He knew what had happened during the battle of Hogwarts: he had read about the casualties and about the fact that the newspapers were still wondering about his destiny and whereabouts. Up till now, he simply hadn't been willing to face that curiosity, though he himself was still wondering about the meaning of his fortunate survival.

He remembered very well those last moments of consciousness in the Shrieking Shack: when light and breath were fading away, he had suddenly realised that death was no longer what he wanted, and that dying wouldn't represent the end of his sorrow. He had lived from that day clinging to that feeling, with the comforting company of the greenish bird, that had become more and more to him the symbol of his own self, always mistrusted and judged only by appearances.

But green, he had realized, was also the colour of hope.

A soft smile crossed his lips, when he considered that not only his Patronus, but even his temporary pet had been a female; and then he thought for the umpteenth time of the only woman he had loved, and loved with a devotion that had annihilated his own right to love and to be enfolded in somebody else's love.

He couldn't say if giving his most treasured memories of her to Potter had been the beginning of the new feeling of peace that was still growing in his heart but, approaching An Ruachtach, the river where he loved to go when he felt in that meditative mood, he suddenly knew that the reason didn't matter anymore.

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The match ended with the victory of Puddlemere and, excited, the Weasleys and Harry left the terraces to ask for the players' autographs: the thing took so much time that Hermione began to wonder if they were going to celebrate for the whole day, despite Ron's assurance that he wouldn't betray his team and glorify another one, but only enjoy the fun.

As if it was needed, sunset was adding magic to the place, and suddenly the young witch wished she could be somewhere else, in a silent space, contemplating the landscape without noisy interferences. She murmured an excuse to Ginny, not wanting to be followed by anyone at that point, not even Ron, and, quickly, walked away.

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An unknown woman was coming dangerously close.

He had grown accustomed, by then, to meeting other people in his wanderings. He was sure that the natives had connected his sudden presence with the rumours about his disappearance that were still going on in other places and worked out who he was probably within a day of his arrival: but they respected his privacy and his desire to keep his location a secret, and didn't gossip about him where he could hear it.

That particular spot, however, he had begun to consider his, and his only. And he knew that, as with the castle he once had lived in, that special place near the flowing waters was visible and approachable by wizards or witches only.

Sharpening his senses, he tried to determine if he knew that unwelcome passer-by; then, realizing that it was too late to cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself or to Apparate away from there, Snape unconsciously drew back and, forgetting his doubts about her identity, turned his face, hoping that she wasn't interested in a chance encounter.

Thankfully, she was standing on the riverbank, totally absorbed in her thoughts, just like he had been until a few moments before. So, he dared cast her a last quick glance and, with an amazed flash of understanding, suddenly he knew who he was looking at.

She was dressed in green trousers and white shirt - how predictable of her in that country! - and he became absolutely certain of her identity as soon as she took off the ridiculous hat she was wearing, as if she had suddenly realized its weird shape.

Hoping to be lucky, he retreated quickly, and was almost sure he had succeeded in avoiding that insufferable ex-student of his, until "Sir ?..." he heard her calling. He hastened his pace with longer strides, but the sound of steps hurrying on the path behind his shoulders made him stop and turn in exasperation.

"What do you want from me?" he hissed with a dangerous tone.

Having definitely betrayed his identity through his unmistakable voice, he waited, staring at her with arms crossed and fingers close to the wand under his sleeve.

"You are alive! I knew you were!" she exclaimed, showing a joyful excitement in spite of his unfriendly reaction.

"Despite your never-ending irritating ability of stating the obvious, I fail to see how you could have known of my current state, Miss Granger, given that you and your friends didn't even care to take a pulse, last time we met," he sneered.

Then, taking advantage of her shame, so evidently revealed by her widened eyes and reddened cheeks, he concluded, "I forbid you to tell anyone else about me. As you can easily guess, I do want to be left alone for the time being. Is this clear? Or should I Obliviate this unfortunate encounter from your mind?"

With a threatening glare, lowering his voice, he ended, "If you really care for my well being, leave now, and do not search for me anymore."

"I'm sorry, Sir," she gulped. "I'll certainly comply with your will if this is what you want," she managed to answer.

He seemed to trust her promise, and nodded without adding anything else.

Then, their trip having lost its previous enchantment for each of them, and each being bothered by new, much more uncomfortable reflections, they turned and left in opposite directions.

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Time passed, but Hermione couldn't forget that meeting.

She had been worried and angry on learning from Harry what Snape's life had been, especially after Lily's death, and she couldn't bear the idea of him carrying on a bitter and unhappy existence, as she thought to have perceived in their meeting.

Sometimes, however, she wondered if perhaps his life wasn't as sad as she had imagined, now that he had settled down in that new place; perhaps his anger had been directed mainly against her, as if she had raised memories of a most horrible time in his life.

But then her self-confidence didn't allow her to follow that train of thought, and she spent a considerable part of her time trying to devise a way to let him know that someone cared. She wasn't ready to give up so easily on him like everybody else had done over the years.

The feeling of having something to atone for in her own actions, too, was gnawing her conscience, and dictated her words:

Dear Professor Snape,

I know I have promised not to contact you anymore, but just this one time, please, let me explain what I feel: I can't stop thinking of you, and of everything I've come to know about you.

Perhaps you are still living in mourning, and missing a little piece of a letter that you must have previously treasured, as Harry told us when we found it in the Shrieking Shack.

If you wish to have it, I'd let Harry know. I'm quite sure he won't mind returning it to you.

But perhaps you are feeling better now; I suppose I'll never know though, because I surely won't hear from you anymore.

Yet, if only I could see you again, if only I could speak to you just one more time…

Would you be willing to see me?

Sincerely

Hermione Granger

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He noticed the bird approaching, but it wasn't raining, so it couldn't possibly be the Augurey.

It was only a damned owl, he finally saw, and shrugged in disappointment. Then, he suddenly realized that, till that moment, nobody had thought to find him just by sending him a message, and his curiosity won against the first impulse to ignore it.

Perhaps they hadn't really wanted to find him; perhaps, to the majority, his mysterious disappearance had represented a better solution than a sudden cumbersome and embarrassing return, he considered.

So he opened and read the missive, and his eyebrow lifted unconsciously in annoyance, as soon as he identified "her" handwriting. He was going to throw it away without replying, when his eyes caught the penultimate line.

And, in a blur, he relived his sorrow, his guilt, and the moment when he had implored the deaf ears of death and life and destiny with those same words…

He certainly wasn't deaf. And he was alive.

He gave the little owl a small biscuit, then impulsively scribbled without a pause.

Miss Granger,

I don't need that token anymore. Don't bother yourself and above all, don't bother your friend Potter about it.

I don't see a reason why you should be comforted by knowing that I'm not in mourning, as you say. But, if you really must, I'll see you. You, and nobody else.

You know where to find me.

Severus Snape

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She joined her new, red and golden friend through the rain.

He was still his old self, but completely renewed, and they were friends, now, in the beautiful land of new-born lives.

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She hadn't actually expected a reply.

Hers had been a shot in the dark, as she had sent that letter to Snape without any hope, given the way he had behaved during their awkward, unexpected meeting.

Receiving such a quick answer had therefore been a shock, and now she was wondering how to reply, wishing to carry on what she had started, but not really knowing where she could possibly be going.

As he hadn't bothered either to tell her his address or to indicate the possible time of their meeting, sending a reply by owl seemed the right thing to do. She also felt the need to thank him, but she had thought to restrain herself and avoid using too many expressions of contentment… She didn't want to waste everything just before meeting him again by writing the wrong words on a parchment and thus making him regret his agreement.

Thank you!

If it's convenient to you, I'll be there, same place, same hour, on Saturday.

Sincerely

Hermione Granger

She fastened the message to the bird's leg, and let him go.

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Approaching the place chosen for their meeting, he was already regretting the impulse that had led him to accept her plea. He didn't like the idea of answering the many questions that surely the girl would ask in order to placate her curiosity and conscience. So, he left his rooms with great reluctance, albeit on time, wishing to be done with the whole matter as soon as possible.

Autumn had started, and the weather was colder than the last time they had met; the path near the river was full of colourful golden leaves that made walking softer and easier. Eager and punctual as she had always been, she was already there.

At least, this time she presented a more sober appearance, he noticed, with her riotous curls knotted in a bun and a blue cloak on her shoulders. But that impression didn't lessen his irritation.

"Was it too difficult to search for my home, or did you find the fine art of summoning people at your wish appealing?" he blurted out as soon as he reached her, not caring that he was beginning a conversation with a total lack of civility.

"Having omitted any details about your whereabouts in your message, I thought you wouldn't appreciate a further invasion of your privacy… Sir," she answered with a tone that expressed everything but the respect that the last word would imply, suddenly irritated by his words, and almost forgetful of all her wishes and offers of friendship.

Then, mustering her will, she went on, taking advantage of the fact that he hadn't replied, having perhaps expected a less incensed reaction to his sneering.

"I'm sorry, Professor," she apologised with a softer tone. "I didn't want to ask you too much, nor to impose my presence in your house." She paused. "And I also remembered that this place was so beautiful…"

He seemed to accept her offer of peace with a curt nod. Then he looked around and watched her with a meaningful expression.

"Charming as this place may be, it's getting late... I'd rather continue this conversation in a warmer location, since I assume that ours will be neither a short nor an easy talk, do you agree?" he asked, after a moment of silence.

Hermione nodded and followed him to a Muggle pub where they sat, staring at each other.

She felt a responsibility to break the ice, and decided she would start with the simplest of her questions, hoping that it could lead to more articulated answers than those an exchange of civilities would raise. After all, asking how he was faring had been her most pressing concern, since the first letter she had sent to him.

The sight of him however, still pale and thin but much more improved, in appearance, from how he had looked during their first encounter, had cleared some of her worries. So her first question wasn't "how are you", but a completely different, spontaneous speech.

"Thank you for giving me this chance, Professor. We mourned too many friends, after the Battle of Hogwarts, and the fact that sometimes we even hadn't the time to bid them good-bye still haunts my mind!

"So, I feel such a great joy at seeing you alive, you, whom I thought dead. Being able to speak to you again really is an unbelievable feeling…"

He watched her cheeks redden in animation, and sighed. She couldn't know how those words echoed what he had craved for almost his whole life, and how well he knew the feeling and what she meant.

But the imperious need to regain his usual, safe detachment, a practice that had precluded for him the comfort of friendship, but that had also spared him its petty problems and its unavoidable loss, prevented him from acknowledging her reasons openly.

"You didn't insist on this meeting just to state your reaction or your sentiments, I presume, Miss Granger… So, go on with your requests, girl," he said, avoiding at the last moment the obvious 'and let's hope we won't have to stay here any longer than strictly necessary'. However, he felt uncomfortably sure that those unspoken words were clearly understandable in his expression.

Flinching at his harshness, Hermione braced herself and went on.

"I only have one question, Sir, don't worry. I won't bother you with an unasked curiosity about the details of your rescue, even if surely that would be a fascinating tale…" She shot him a hopeful glance, but he didn't react.

"Forgive me but, from what I gather this new life doesn't seem to make you less angry or sad. So, what I'm asking is just how it's going on."

He frowned dangerously and she hurried to explain, fearing the reaction her question would surely be explosive.

"I mean, do you feel at ease here, far from all those you knew, from your friends…"

"Friends!?" he spat. "Don't be ridiculous, Miss Granger! Who would they be? Could you enumerate those interested in my destiny, or the ones who at least showed some care for me?"

He stood up, dismissive: "If this is all what you wanted to know, yes, I'm well and glad to be far from my friends. I bid you farewell, now; you have had your answer, so be happy with it".

He left with surprising speed. And when Hermione hurried out of the pub, trying to stop him and follow his steps, he had already Disapparated.

Oh well, now she had a challenge in front of her! Despite his words - no, because of his words - she was even surer that he wasn't at peace, not at all, neither with himself nor with the whole world. And a plan took form.

Walking slowly towards the centre of the wizarding community, careful not to raise suspicions, she began to ask about the stranger who had recently come to live there; after a while, her nonchalant but determined quest reached its goal, and she was able to locate his home.

She kept walking and, little by little, soothed by the beauty of the place, she began to feel again some faith in her mission, and a renewed hope in a forthcoming meeting.

Suddenly she noticed a creature flying above her head, a large bird of a kind that she had never seen before, except as a painting in her books. Almost at the same moment, clouds started to cover the sun, veiling the sky.

Hermione hastened her pace, so she didn't notice that the bird was flying in her same direction.

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Snape threw away the last copies of the Daily Prophet, fuming in irritation; thinking of all the news and rubbish he had read during recent days, he felt his feelings of disdain increase even more, as well as his determination to be alone, as he had been till that moment.

He was still reliving the damned meeting in his mind, when a shadow caught his sight.

Recognizing and welcoming his greenish friend, he sourly thought that, well, that bird was the living evidence that he had survived only thanks to the kindness and the help of a stranger, and certainly not a human one…

"Friends!" he muttered in contempt, and opened the window to let her in.

He was glad to see the phoenix again, as he hadn't had much hope of further visits from her; when she had left for what he had thought to be her new destination, he had assumed that her mission had been accomplished. He had also wondered if she had been searching for a mate… but then, perhaps she hadn't found one yet.

There was still her perch in a corner of the room, and the phoenix reached it with a soft cry. The rain was falling heavily, dimming the daylight; so, Snape closed the window, and turned on the candles with a flick of his wand. Then he looked in his jars to find some insects that the bird would appreciate for dinner.

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Hermione cast a protective Charm on herself and kept walking obstinately, until she saw a house that she recognized as perfectly matching the description she had been given in her enquiry.

It was the oldest one in the neighbourhood, and it wasn't freshly painted like the other ones around. There were two brown doors, Hermione noticed. She was trying to guess which might be the entrance to Snape's home, when a sudden flash of light coming from a window caught her attention. She went nearer, and a peculiar scene opened to her eyes.

Snape was carefully feeding a bird, the Irish phoenix that she had seen earlier: Hermione watched in astonishment, while, absorbed in this task, Snape smiled and talked to the animal, his face radiating with a strange sort of happiness.

Fascinated by the picture in front of her and totally neglectful of the heavy rain, the girl forgot to reiterate the charm against the weather, and let her amazed eyes follow his movements… until his gaze met hers, and she froze in panic.

"You'd better come in and warm yourself," Snape opened the window and advised her, with just a little hint of annoyance in his tone. A moment after, he appeared in the frame of a door, arms crossed. "Come in, before you catch a cold that will surely be added to my long list of crimes".

She entered, blushing and murmuring incoherent words.

"Don't even think to start apologising," he interrupted. "I'm even less interested in your excuses than in your presence."

He helped her taking off her wet cloak and cast a Drying Spell.

"So, at least you have found my shelter, it seems", he said, when he saw that she was again dry and comfortable.

"Professor," Hermione pleaded, "Please, let me explain what I wanted to tell you earlier, what compelled me to come to your home now. Please listen to me, just this one time," she added, worried by his glare, and continued before he could stop her.

"I believe that it isn't fair for you to live so far from the world that you contributed to saving, and so lonely. I know that you received practically nothing from our world, but I'm sure that many people now would like to make amends and ask for… for your forgiveness. And I could enumerate them, you know. Are you sure you'll be happier here, alone in a foreign country?"

She paused quite imperceptibly, just to breathe, and she suddenly looked at him with a disconcerted expression.

"And yet, now I feel confused. Till a few minutes ago, I would have said that you weren't happy at all… but perhaps I was wrong," she concluded, moving a few steps to go near to the green bird in the corner, a warm look in her eyes.

Snape didn't answer, but neither did he seem to reject her little speech as he had done before. After a pause, he asked, "So?" as if he were really interested in listening to where she was going with her reasoning.

She took her time before answering: "So, now I'll leave. I've found hope instead of misery, and seen a kindness no longer concealed by bitterness, as it was before. I can say I am glad to have witnessed and experienced it."

She watched him sadly.

"But I'm still sorry to know that nobody will share what I know, and that your courage is going to be wasted for our world," she continued. "You are a formidable wizard, a brave man, and it's a great loss not having you among us anymore".

"I'm not interested in praises, Miss Granger," he answered, but there was no hardness in his tone that time.

"I know," she whispered, picking up her cloak and turning on her heels, ready to leave. She had reached the door, her hand on the doorknob, when "Perhaps I could use…" " If you ever need some…" they blurted in unison.

"I'm still forbidding you to tell anybody about me," he gruffly affirmed, being the first to recover from their awkward, joined attempt to say more. "But I'm not averse to a further meeting, should reasons arise".

Her eyes lit up, but she succeeded in not showing her joy too openly.

"Thank you, Professor," she greeted him quietly, before opening the door.

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With a little jump, the Augurey reached the closed window, watching the raindrops eagerly.

When Snape opened the glass for her, she looked at him, wishing to be able to speak his language, yet hoping that words weren't needed. Then she launched herself into the rain, enjoying its dampness and increasing the speed of her flight.

After not too long a time, she reached her mate. He was waiting for her, and quietly listened to her tale, glad to know that she wouldn't need to fly away anymore.

So, once more, Fawkes spread his wings and rose in the sky, singing a gentle, joyful song. Like the other creature, he wasn't alone anymore, neither was he vowed to be beholden until his death to an owner.

He was free and alive again, forever and ever.

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A.N.

Whitehound suggested the Augurey, a.k.a. Irish Phoenix, to me when I told her that I felt uneasy with the "usual" rescue made by Fawkes in fandom; my feeling was due to the realization that also Albus's pet, having left Hogwarts forever, had perhaps devoted his loyalty and rescuing powers not to everyone brave and in need but only to his human owner.

And even if I've always considered the qualities of the Irish phoenix more linked to Divination that to other subjects, after that advice and thanks to Whitehound's idea, the story started to work perfectly with my intentions: I particularly appreciated it when she told me that this phoenix might be a "she", since usually duller colours, different tails and/or less appealing voices are the distinguishing marks between male and female in birds.

I've also grown fond of the section breaks created by Whitehound on her site, and this time, too, I've borrowed them, choosing of course those resembling talons…

As always, they are available at at this link: www. whitehound. co. uk/Fanfic/ffn_how-to. htm (remember to remove the spaces after the dots), although the page will need to be revised following ffn's latest upgrade.

I've taken some liberties about the abilities of an Augurey, bu if "she" too is a phoenix, she must have some of the qualities of these magical creatures. And Magic can make her do unexpected, magical deeds.

Perhaps Fawkes seems to leave too many feathers around in my tale, but please don't take it as a mere repetition, because: "When Fawkes is asked to keep watch and give warning, or deliver messages, he leaves a single golden tail feather" (quoted by the HP Lexicon).