A/N: Yes, finally, as promised - the concluding chapter! Thank you to all who have been so wonderful about waiting for this!
What he wasn't expecting, however, was the huge, magnificently dark owl that came fluttering down before him and landed in his bacon about half-way through...
At the front table...
There were times, Albus Dumbledore thought contentedly, watching the black owl wing its way towards his adopted grandson, when life took turns that were simply unexpected. Yes, he knew that owl. And, for that matter, he knew, the moment he spotted what the owl held in its talons, what a simply wonderful plan the sly Professor Snape had come up with.
Oh, there was no doubt in his mind that Severus would figure out a way to fix this – no, the look on the Potion's Master face when he came to confess his folly left no doubt about it. But this – this, was beyond even the wily Headmaster's best expectations.
Happily, blue eyes twinkling, Albus popped another sweet into his mouth and cheerfully settled in to watch the show.
The entire Gryffindor table craned their necks, whispering and pointing furiously. Not five minutes ago, the mysterious owl had landed (literally) in their Saviour's bacon. There was much debate over what happened next, but by general agreement, the facts were as follows:
(1) Harry Potter had bemusedly looked at the owl, then taken the small package tied to its leg. (Sources still differed on what the package looked like – Dennis Creevey insisted it was squishy, and rather purple, but wiser heads had it at squashy, not squishy, and rather grey-blue instead.)
(2) Open looking at the package, and looking inside, Ron Weasley had mysteriously missed his mouth with the forkful of bacon, something that had never happened to any Weasley male in the history of Hogwarts. Hermione Granger had babbled something, then frantically pulled out a book and started flipping through it. This, everyone agreed, was rather more normal and not, therefore, an important part of the story.
(3) No, the truly exciting part was when Harry Potter had looked down at the package, started violently, turned remarkably pale, and gaped soundlessly for a minute before turning an even more remarkable shade of red. As current Hogwarts gossip indicated that the Golden Boy had dispatched Voldemort with barely a grimace or a trace of sweat, this small package obviously held something awe-inspiring or fantastically terrible. Current guesses ranged from a bottle of the Elixir of Life, to Merlin's lost staff, to Voldemort's favourite purple fuzzy socks (well, only Dennis Creevey believed the last, but...)
(4) Then, the Golden Trio had, as one, turned to the Head Table, then turned to look at one another, and then had all but run from the room. Padma Patil, who'd been watching particularly closely, was the only one to notice that Draco Malfoy had caught a glimpse of the package – and had looked quite astonished by what he'd seen.
As it turned out, there were several elements of truth in the furiously raging gossip. Draco Malfoy had indeed seen the package, but was keeping his mouth unexpectedly, and firmly, shut. He, too, had recognized the owl, and, as luck would have it, would be the one other person in the hall, aside from the Golden Trio, the Headmaster, and a certain dark-haired Potion's Master, to fully understand the implications of what had just happened.
Oh, and yes, the package had held something rather extra-ordinary, something fantastical, something that was largely rumoured to be mythical – for the package, you see, that small, knobbly package (blue-grey, not purple, thank you), had contained Severus Snape's heart and soul.
In the Room of Requirement, where all good Saviours flee in times of stress:
The silence was broken by one Ron Weasley, his voice unexpectedly sober.
"I have to say, mate, that that is one he- heck, sorry, 'Mione – of an apology. He might still be a greasy git and a world-class bastard, but for all that – " and here, his voice turned rueful, " he's a bloody bastard with both class and balls!"
Still stunned into silence, Harry finally moved to pick up the letter that had come with the unexpected package.
Dear Mr. Potter, he read –
Dear Mr. Potter;
I am sorry. You know me well enough to realize, I am sure, how rarely I say those words. There are few excuses – no, no excuses – for my behaviour. I did not recognize the purpose which led you to my door, and am now, deservedly, grieving the lost of something precious, something wonderful, something incredibly dear to me, that I now have no right to claim. I speak, of course, of your trust and your friendship. I have never spoken of it, but the one thing I do not regret about the war is that it allowed me to rectify some of my earlier, unjust harshness towards you.
It was not until I came down from our meeting yesterday that I came upon your Tokens and realized what they were – and realized, therefore, what I had done. I have undergone torture and pain, and have inflicted the same – but never have I felt such regret for any single action. And yes, Mr. Potter, I am including the time my misguided teenage self foolishly took the Dark Mark .
I do not expect you to forgive me, and realize that I shall regret my folly for the rest of my days. There is no way to make this up to you, Harry, and I expect no more second chances. I do, however, wish you to know this: it would have been my pleasure, my honor, in fact, to have been able to stand as your first. Your trust, in giving your hopes and Tokens to me, might have been misplaced. I, however, in giving these tokens and trust to you, know of no safer or better place for them to be.
With regards and regret,
Later that evening
There was a knock at the door.
Severus Snape, though he would never acknowledge it, was brooding. Emotional connections, friendships, caring, all had been scarce in the course of his life. As a young man, he had driven away Lily Evans, with cruel words, and then had succumbed to his blasted pride and therefore lost, forever, the chance to make it up to her.
He'd sworn that he would never humble himself before a Potter; yesterday, however, cradling a hot mug in long, elegant fingers, he had come to the realizations that older, wiser, he would not let pride stand in his way. Perhaps, for the first time, there was something more valuable at stake than his damnable pride – and, as he had reminded himself, Harry Potter was infinitely different, and infinitely more worth the risk, than James Potter had ever been. He'd written truly, what he said in the note – somewhere, over the course of a long and bloody war, Harry Potter had become the person that he trusted and valued most.
These, and other thoughts, were winding through his mind, when the knock came at the door.
He had not been expecting anyone – he'd hoped, of course, but the likelihood of that was –
Cutting off that thought before it could form, Severus Snape opened his door, and promptly did his best not to hyperventilate.
"Hello, Professor Snape – might I come in?"
"Thank you, sir."
Five minutes later, after brewing tea and passing around biscuits, Severus Snape had managed to gather himself together – or at least give the impression of it. He took a slow, deliberate sip of tea, drawing on all his training in Occulmency and as a spy to hold himself together, before moving to truly look at his guest.
Harry Potter was perched on his sofa, hands clasped nervously around a familiar package. Feeling Severus's gaze upon him, green eyes rose slowly to meet black. Just as slowly, and infinitely more carefully, Harry gently laid the contents of the package on the low table between them.
Three small objects - such small things, Severus mused, to pin one's hopes and dreams on. Seeing the unspoken question, the need for reassurance in the bright green eyes, the Potion's Master did his best to allay some of the harm he had done.
"I meant what I said, Harry – these are gifts, and there is no one I would trust them more to."
Both men paused, for a moment, to consider the objects – three small glass spheres, the largest no bigger than a grape, each swirling with life and magic.
Harry touched a gentle finger to the first, smallest one, brilliant blue and the size of a teardrop. "Your heart," he said, tracing the rune inscribed on the side. "You gave me your heart."
"And my soul, and my magic. Yes. And I do not regret it one bit."
In the course of researching the Horcruxes, the golden trio had come across mention of these spheres, but never had they seen more than an illustration of one. The first, to represent the Heart, was tied to the heartbeat, the lifeblood of the giver. It was one of the oldest protection magics in the Wizarding world– for it represented a drop of Severus's life, freely given, that could be used to hold Harry back from the brink of death. The second, Soul, was the Light version of a Horcrux, and the reason the Golden Trio could identify the spheres on sight. Rather than being created through murder, however, Soul spheres were created as incredibly valued gifts, and were a sign of absolute trust. Symbolically, it represented the implicit promise that Harry would never be alone. The last and largest of the three, the Magic sphere, was the equivalent of the locket Harry had given Severus – imbued with the giver's magic, meant for protection and comfort, and representing a well of magic that Harry could tap into when his own great power was drained dry.
"These are – I can't, Severus, it's – "
The man in question stiffened.
"Are you rejecting them?" Are you rejecting me?
Someone less attuned to the moods of Severus Snape might have thought the words confrontational; Harry, well used to the man after eight years of acquaintance, the last two of those in close proximity, knew better. There was hurt there, and hope, too, both buried under a quiet resignation – that one more thing had gone wrong, one last chance for happiness forever lost because of a moment of stupidity. That weary resignation was something Harry knew all too well. It also hadn't escaped Harry's notice that the decanter of brandy that lay on the sideboard was now filled with water, and he suspected, that should he look, that there would not be a single drop of alcohol anywhere on the premises. Together, it was a silent testament towards just how much he meant to the man sitting across from him.
Harry was wary, and still hurt, but he knew this man, cared for this man, and knew that for him, there would be no other like Severus Snape. For all his faults, the Potions Master had been one of the rock-solid constants of Harry's life, and was the one person he trusted and wished least to see hurt.
"No. No, I'm not rejecting them. I... it'll take a while, Severus, but perhaps – could we just start with tea?"
And in the quiet of a Hogwarts night, while students and teachers both slept comfortably in their beds, the two men sat and shared a companionable cup. Not all was fixed or forgiven, but the message had been sent and received – what we share is too important to throw away because of a mistake – and at this time, wounds, carelessly inflicted, began to slowly heal.
Epilogue - Three weeks later
"Ah, Harry my boy, and Severus! You both are looking much better and a great deal more rested! Lemon drop, gentlemen?"
"No thank you, si – Albus."
"I'll thank you to stop inflicting those nauseous sweets willy-nilly, Headmaster, before they rot your brain as well as your teeth!"
"Cheerful as ever, Severus! Well, Minerva, Filius, Pomona – lemon drop? No? All right then, though how you can pass up their delectable lemony goodness, I shall never know. Anyhow – Harry, my boy, you mentioned you had something to discuss with all of us? And may I say, Severus, that was a rather wonderful gesture you made several weeks back – why, the student body is still quite a-twitter over it!"
"I have no idea what you are talking about, Albus – are you sure that your love of those ghastly sweets hasn't exacerbated your lamentable slide into senility?"
"Now, now, Severus , settle down. A drop of sugar might even sweeten your temper, dear boy! Oh, but forgive me my distraction – Harry – you had something you wished to discuss?"
"Ah – yes, sir – sorry, Albus. Actually, something to witness, should you all not mind. Well... yes, I'll just stand here, if you don't mind shifting slightly, sir. Thank you. Now... I know several of you are not aware of the full story, but I've asked you here to see the end of this. Um... so: Severus Snape. I, Harry James Potter, ask you most humbly if you would consent to stand as my First. Would you be willing to keep watch while I am weak, and to assist me in my strength? Will you act as a partner, a friend, a guide, guardian and a force for grounding in this time, the time of my magical inheritance?"
There was a shocked pause, but one man did not hesitate, dark eyes lightening and thin lips twitching up into a small, but genuine smile.
"Harry James Potter – it would be my absolute honor."