Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter and make nothing from this work of fiction.

Warnings: This story is rated M and will feature the pairing of Severus and Harry.

Notes for this chapter: This story is complete and will be updated every three days for six chapters. For those of you who are wondering about Pains and Contradictions, I'm rereading the last few chapters right now in order to get back into flow and then I'll be writing non-stop until it's done. No more fests and no more fics on the side. It's P&C here on out until it's completely over.

Author's Notes: Written for the Severus Sighs Grand Challenge!

It's done! The idea for this fic came to me around Christmas time in 2008. Since then, it's undergone numerous plot changes and word count estimations, but I couldn't shake the idea of Severus Snape mirroring George Bailey. Thanks must go to RaeWhit for her help as a 'full service' beta. Thank you so much for your patience, darling. Thanks must also go to Torina, who told me I wasn't insane two years ago when I first shared my idea, and helped me with the plot development. And of course, eternal gratitude to WhiteCotton for helping me rework the plot all those months ago, and helping with story development every step of the way. Ladies, I'm so grateful.

"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." - Epicurus

"From Severus: love of family, love of truth, love of justice...his confidence in the affection of his friends, his frankness with those who met with his censure, and open likes and dislikes so that his friends did not need to guess at his wishes." - Marcus Aurelius

Humming and chewing on a sliver of sherbet lemon, Albus Dumbledore took a leisurely walk through Paradise, nodding and smiling at friends and acquaintances as he passed them. Paradise was a very large place, after all, and it was always good to see old friends.

He paused and a thoughtful look crossed his features. When he thought about it, it had been some time since he'd checked on those he'd left behind in life. He stopped and sat on an old bench and pulled another sherbet from his self-filling bag—it had been a part of his eternal reward when he'd reached Paradise—and began to think on whom he'd like to check. He waved a hand in front of his face and the clouds parted, forming a window that showed him exactly whom he'd like to see.

Oh and what luck! Not having bothered to care for the date down on Earth, he'd lucked into checking on his friends on January the eight, the day prior to his good friend Severus' birthday. Perhaps he'd bear witness to the preparations for a surprise party. Oh, Severus would love that, he thought with a laugh. His smile grew as he took in the beauty of the castle in winter, of snow-covered trees and shoddily stacked snowmen no doubt built by lingering students. With a warmth growing in his heart, he looked in on Minerva first.

A mist lifted and he smiled down on his old friend, only to find her pacing the floor of her office, muttering to herself and wringing her hands. He frowned and listened in, hearing her mutter, "Oh Merlin, what can we do?"

Behind her was Filius, who seemed to be in the middle of casting a very strong Summoning Charm. He watched for a moment as Filius frantically cast the spell, despair overtaking his face when it didn't work.

Frowning now, Dumbledore checked in with Harry—because trouble always had a way of finding his youngest friend—and felt a chill run down his spine. If his heart had still been beating, he was sure it would have stopped at the sight of Harry's face.

Paler than he had ever seen him before, Harry appeared terrified. His eyes looked lost, his jaw clenched, and it occurred to Dumbledore that Harry hadn't seemed this fearful even before the final battle with Voldemort.

What had happened, he thought to himself when suddenly Harry's lips began to move. Dumbledore looked closer and began to listen, just catching the end of Harry's plea.

"God," he whispered softly. "If there is a God...please help us. I don't know what to do and I love him—" his voice broke off as his throat clenched and then he looked away, saying no more.

Troubled, Dumbledore sat back and realized where the trouble must be coming from. Quickly, he turned back the clock on his little window, watching the day's events unfold, shocked and horrified by what had happened.


Dumbledore turned to his left and watched as Sirius Black came to stand next to him, a worried frown twisting his features.

"Is everything all right? You look...troubled. What's the matter?"

"Severus," he responded and Sirius heard the weight of just that one word.

"What do you mean?" Sirius asked tentatively, which was only fair. After all, this was Paradise.

"Severus is in trouble, and I'm not sure I can help him."

Sirius looked at him oddly, then at the view of the world where Dumbledore's window was still open, saw Snape and grimaced.

"Merlin, he's still an ugly bastard."

"He is my friend and he needs my help." Dumbledore sighed and rubbed his temples, his shoulders slumped.

Sirius thought for a moment, then said, "You could go down, Albus. There's no rule that says you can't...especially if he's in such a bad way."

Dumbledore shook his head, his hand still covering his face. "No," he said, feeling a bit lost. "No, there is too much history between us, and there would be too much distraction if I were to go down. Besides, he's heard everything he needs to hear from me before. No, he needs someone new, someone who doesn't know him so well."

Sirius frowned and bounced on the balls of his feet, looking at Snape, and suddenly grinned. Here was an opportunity for some fun, landing right at his feet!

"Hey, I can go down! I'm sure there's nothing old Snape can get into that I can't get him out of."

Dumbledore glared at Sirius until he stopped his bouncing and sat down next to him.

Assuming the air of one properly chastised—yet not feeling so—Sirius sat in silence for another moment. He knew he should feel sympathy for Snape, but he couldn't really. After all, it was Snivellus and why should he help him? Then roguishness stirred in him and he couldn't help himself. "How about Grindelwald?" he asked, looking at Dumbledore out of the corner of his eye, aiming for nonchalance and failing.

"Gellert?" Dumbledore asked, dumbfounded.

"Yeah, well you know he's still trying to make up for all the things he did while he was alive. How he ended up here—"

"Repentance," Dumbledore interrupted before Sirius could make more of a fool of himself, "is not a thing to underestimate. And no," he said thoughtfully, "no, I don't believe Gellert will be able to help Severus. If anything, Severus would recognize him and sound an alarm. Then where would we be?"

"I didn't think of that," Sirius grumbled, then looked through Dumbledore's window to see Snape again. Merlin but he was still ugly! "Does he still not wash his hair?"

"This is nothing to laugh at, Sirius."

Frowning, Sirius ran a hand through his well-coiffed hair and asked, "Well, why don't you just look on the list of Guardians? There's got to be someone who can help Snape."

"Hmm," Dumbledore said with a sudden smile, only now realizing the obvious. He took off his hat and reached into its depths, removing a very thick scroll. He opened it and watched as the end tumbled out and onto the floor.

Sirius looked at the hat, fascinated. "I don't suppose you've got a record player in there, have you? Or my motorbike?"

Dumbledore frowned and began to read the list, adjusting his glasses and steadfastly ignoring Sirius.

Sirius took one look at the list and whistled. "Greatest do-gooders in history, I see. Of course, if you really want someone to motivate Snape, we could always see if Bellatrix is willing to leave The Void for a few hours—"

"No, I don't believe that will be necessary," Dumbledore said with a dark, yet wistful, grin. He stared at Sirius for a moment, wondering what Paradise would be like once Severus joined them, then shuddered as he imagined the prank war. Scoffing, he looked down at the list and read the first few names, encouraged to say the least.

"I have to say I'm very reassured by this. Look, there's Mother Teresa. I'm sure Severus would listen to her."

Sirius gave him one of his looks, the one that informed Dumbledore he was an absolute idiot without having to say it. "Are you mad? Mother Teresa? He'd chew her to bits and leave her a crying, shaking mess!"

Dumbledore frowned and countered with, "The lady did endure quite a bit during her life."

"She didn't endure Snape."

They were quiet for a moment before Dumbledore conceded with a nod. "Moving on. Ah, Florence Nightingale! There was never a man in need of such a kind soul."

"Nightingale, right. Wasn't she a nurse?"

"Yes, and a great one."

"Hmm, yeah," he said, again peering into Dumbledore's window. "Are we looking at the same man, Albus?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Because I'll wager she takes one look at Snape before she puts him in bed for jaundice and Merlin knows what else."

Dumbledore opened his mouth to argue, then snapped it shut. "Perhaps you're right at that."

Dumbledore began to look over the top of the list again, reading some of the oldest names in history, and his smile grew as he thought of one of them helping his friend.

Sirius watched him, thinking it really was a waste of time and effort to expend it on Snape. Maybe the bastard wasn't evil per se, but that didn't mean he was worth saving. While Dumbledore thought Snape deserved the help of the great and good of Paradise, Sirius did not. It was just too...Snape to take seriously. Suddenly, an idea for mischief occurred to him, and he eyed Dumbledore from beneath his fringe, making sure he wasn't looking. Satisfied the old coot was busy at the top, Sirius picked up the bottom end.

"Any of these people would be able to help Severus. Can you imagine it, Sirius? Imagine all the good..." he trailed off as he caught sight of Sirius' mischievous smile. He'd seen it enough times at Hogwarts to know a prankster's smile when he saw it, but it had been there one instant and gone the next, so he wasn't certain it had really been there at all.

He went back to reading from the list. "I believe he'd listen to St. Thomas Aquinas."

Sirius waved his hand dismissively. "No, too much of a stuffed shirt. Snape would run right over him."

"Socrates perhaps? Surely Severus would respect such a great thinker."

"No, they'd end up talking about philosophy and Socrates would ask Snape too many questions and then he'd kill him."

"Hmm. Mahatma Gandhi?"

Sirius considered Dumbledore with a raised eyebrow for a moment as they both realized that a peacekeeper was not exactly who they needed on this mission. Dumbledore frowned and played with his beard, lost in thought as Sirius glanced down at the bottom of the list again. If he played this right, he could sit back, guaranteed many hours of Snape-baiting by simply pointing out a name.

"Oh, here's a good one," Sirius said, tapping at the last name on the list. "What about Cedric Diggory?"

Dumbledore frowned, then looked to where he was pointing.

"Cedric is on this list? He can't be a Guardian; he hasn't been dead long enough."

"Well..." Sirius started and began pulling the list from Dumbledore's hands. "He's in training to become a Guardian. He just doesn't have his wings yet."

Dumbledore snatched his list back, again going over the names of men and women who had proven themselves throughout history.

But Sirius was determined to have his fun.

"Plus, he knows Snape and he knows Hogwarts!" Sirius said loudly, taking the list from Dumbledore again. "You're not going to just drop him on Hogwarts and say, 'Oh by the way, there's magic.' Most of the people on this list are Muggles, Albus. It'd take far too long just to acquaint them with idea that there was an entire world they didn't know about in life."

This was true, Dumbledore thought, as he began to scan the list for wizards, someone who would be better acquainted with their world.

"Also, what do you think's going to happen if you drop..." he stopped to look at a random name, "Moses on the modern world? Even the Wizarding world has running water."

With a sigh, Dumbledore rubbed his temples again. What Sirius was saying was true. It was unlikely that a Muggle Guardian would be able to help Severus as much as a wizard could, but when he scanned the list, there were too few wizards on it. Perhaps Sirius was right.

"How do you know Cedric would do it? He hardly knows Severus and, if I recall correctly, Severus had no love for Hufflepuff house."

Seeing some light on the prank horizon, Sirius sat forward. "Hey now, there's a reason why he's on that list. Cedric's a good person and I'm sure he'd love to help Snape. Plus, if he succeeds, that means he'll be the first person in the history of this place to get their wings in under fifty years. And do you have any idea what that will do for his Quidditch game?"

With a scoff, Dumbledore waved a hand and nodded, then put away his list. "Well, Cedric certainly proved his bravery in life. He's going to need every ounce of it now."

The mischievous smile was back and Sirius patted Dumbledore on the shoulder and said, "I'll be right back with him," leaving Dumbledore to wonder if he'd made a terrible mistake.

A few minutes later, Sirius was back with Cedric in tow, a brilliant smile on his face, a smile that hadn't diminished a bit since he'd arrived in Paradise, and an even more brilliant broom in his hand.

Sirius hadn't told Cedric what was so important that he had to leave the pitch immediately, but he hadn't missed the hum of excitement as they'd ridden here. Obviously, whatever it was, it was good news, so he sat down next to Dumbledore, eager and cheerful.

"Hello, Headmaster. You wanted to see me?"

"Yes, I did. It's good to see you, my boy. I've heard you're one of the best Seekers in your Quidditch league. I'm glad to hear it."

Cedric demurred at that and looked down at his shoes. "Well, I'm probably one of the best on a broom, but that hardly matters when most of the Seekers have their wings already. It's a bit difficult to maneuver when the other guy can just swoop to catch the Snitch," he said, making a downward motion with his hands that conveyed his disappointment at his situation.

Dumbledore reached out to take the broom, and Cedric handed it over for his perusal. "This is a very nice broom. Is it fast?"

Smiling despite himself, Cedric nodded. "Fastest ever made. It was part of my eternal reward. I'm grateful for it, really, but...it's nothing compared to having wings."

Dumbledore smiled, then looked at the window again. "Yes, I imagine it's difficult to keep up. I may have a solution to your problem."

"Oh?" Cedric said, immediately cheering. "Is this about my being a Guardian?"

"Yes," Dumbledore said, looking behind Cedric to Sirius, who was almost vibrating in anticipation. "Do you remember Professor Snape from Hogwarts?"

"Yeah, I do," Cedric said, his eyebrows drawing together in a glower. "Is that what this is about? Is Professor Snape in trouble?"

He said this with the kind of concern that only the truly righteous can convey and Dumbledore smiled and patted his shoulder. Sirius, however, was not so pleased. But, counting on the Hufflepuff versus Slytherin factor to ensure hijinks and fun was had by all—all except Snape—he let it go.

"Yes, he's in terrible trouble and I believe you may be the best man to help him. Will you?"

Would he? Cedric was hard pushed not to leap up and head down to Professor Snape that second. But he was far more cautious than people thought him, so he kept the feeling inside him. Then, throwing his shoulders back, he didn't hesitate to say, "Absolutely. If he needs my help, then I'll help him. But um..." He dropped his eyes to his shoes again. He was a bit ashamed as he asked, "If I help him...do you think I'll earn my wings? I hate to ask, but...well, it's hard being the only Seeker without them. And I would be earning them. It's not like I'm asking for them outright—"

"Mr. Diggory—Cedric," Dumbledore said with a genuine smile, "if you are able to help Severus, then I believe you'll have earned your wings. Now, as to the problem—"

"Oh, now he doesn't need to hear the whole story, Albus," Sirius said from his spot behind them, eager to get to the fun part. "He's a Seeker! He's used to flying by the seat of his pants—excuse the pun—and saving the day. Just let him get on with it." To say the mischievous smile was back would be an understatement, and Sirius knew it, but he just couldn't seem to take on the serious expressions the other two wore.

Sighing, Dumbledore shook his head. "If you're going to help Severus, then you need to learn quite a bit about him." Looking again at the window, he said, "Time works differently up here than it does down on Earth, but we are still limited by it. By my estimation, we have about four hours before you're going to need to intervene."

Cedric stood up and came around to look through the window, watching as Professor Snape stood in what appeared to be freezing rain by the edge of a lake.

"What's he doing? He looks like he's about to freeze to death."

"I believe that's the idea," Dumbledore said sadly. "At this moment, Severus is seriously thinking about taking his own life."

Even Sirius was silent as the gravity of the situation was stated so plainly, and Cedric again squared his shoulders as if to show his readiness.

"Now," Dumbledore said forcefully, pushing aside all worry to deal with the matter at hand. "In order to know Severus, you have to know about his childhood."

"Oh, here we go again," Sirius muttered. "Let's see how long the 'James and Sirius were bastards' stories last this time."

Clearing his throat, Dumbledore drew Cedric's attention back to himself before starting, "Now Severus didn't have the best childhood, but the most important event—the one that would foreshadow what was to come—happened during the Christmas holiday of his second year."

With a wave of his hand, the picture in the window changed and both Cedric and Sirius leaned close to watch the scene unfold.

Severus was never more comfortable than when he was stirring a cauldron. The rest of his classmates thought he was an idiot for choosing to stay at Hogwarts for the Christmas holidays when he could have gone home...but they hadn't seen his home.

No, he preferred to stay here and help Professor Slughorn restock his stores of potions for the next term. Here, with most of the students gone and half of those that had stayed sick in the infirmary. There was no one to mock him or hex him or try to trip him in the halls. He could relax for a while and work on his potions technique.

It was the best holiday ever!

Smiling, Severus lifted the cooling cauldron of flu potion and poured it into vials to be sent up to the infirmary. Once he had completed that, he began to chop more horned slugs—making sure that his knife always cut the slug diagonally—until he heard a loud crash coming from Slughorn's office.

He listened for a moment, but when no other noise was forthcoming, he brushed aside his concern and began to chop again, truly happy as he lost himself in his work.

Chop, chop, chop.

It was easy to forget when he was allowed to do what he liked best. It wasn't as though he hated all of his housemates...more that they didn't really like him much. He scowled as the familiar spite and repulsion washed over him and he hated that he'd allowed himself to remember. And he'd been having such a good time, too! He sighed, then gathered up the chopped slug and put them in a bowl for later. Wondering what was taking Professor Slughorn so long, Severus could do nothing more than wash his hands and sit down to wait for him to start the base for the next batch of potions.

Suddenly, a loud crash sounded from Slughorn's office and then a stream of obscenities that had even Severus' ears burning. He'd never heard any professor say things like that, especially not the head of Slytherin.

He looked around cautiously, but there was still no one there. He was alone and Professor Slughorn might need help, only... Only Severus wasn't entirely sure what to do.

Slowly, he stood up from his stool and walked towards Slughorn's office, his steps stopping as an occasional glass broke against a wall. Tentatively, and with no small amount of fear, he raised a hand to knock on the door.

The swearing stopped immediately and an eerie quiet settled over the classroom.

"Professor Slughorn?" Severus asked and even he thought his voice sounded too soft, too fearful. "Are you all right?"

A shuffle was heard and then a nose being blown before Slughorn came out of his office, distraught, his face red.

He took one look at Severus and then barked, "Well, what are you doing standing around, Mr. Snape? Those slugs aren't going to chop themselves!"

"Yes, sir," Severus said as he walked back to his stool, only to stand there idly. He'd already chopped all his slugs. Slughorn seemed out of sorts and Severus had no idea what to do. Should he risk being yelled at in his only sanctuary and perhaps cause the one professor who didn't hate him to turn against him?

"Mr. Snape!" Slughorn called out as he was preparing the base for the flu potion. "Come here and stop dawdling."

Not wanting to point out that he hadn't actually been dawdling, Severus quickly walked over, just in time to watch Professor Slughorn add aconite to the base...when he should have added asphodel.

"Um, Professor—"

"Be quiet, Mr. Snape," he said and rubbed his hand over his face. "Oh, please be quiet, boy," he whispered.

Not wanting to make matters worse, Severus struggled with what to do. He'd never seen Slughorn so upset and something was obviously wrong. If he told him about the aconite, he'd risk being thrown out of the Potions classroom and then where would he be? Potions was the subject he truly loved and Slughorn was his head of house.

But the aconite in that potion would be enough to kill whoever took it.

Gathering his resolve, he watched Slughorn fill vials with the tainted potion before he said, "Professor Slughorn—"

"Did I not tell you to be quiet, Mr. Snape? Now do not open your mouth again or I will be forced to ask you to leave the classroom—until the start of term!"

"Yes, sir," he said meekly and watched as the poison filled every bottle. He paced the room a bit, looking from Slughorn to the potion, wanting to open his mouth to say something, but terrified to do so.

He walked past the desk, and suddenly he saw a letter on St. Mungo's letterhead. Next to it was a spilled bottle of ink, and Severus quickly read the letter, eager to find out what had happened that had Slughorn so upset.

Professor Slughorn,

We regret to inform you that your son, Gerald, died today from pneumonia...

Severus gulped and left the letter as he'd found it, not bothering to read on, and looked on Professor Slughorn with new eyes. Of course he'd be upset; his son had just died. But that only meant Severus had to tread carefully around him, make sure he didn't harm anyone in his grief.

"Here, Snape," Slughorn said, handing over the tainted potions to Severus. "Take these up to the infirmary and don't dawdle. Those children are ill and we have to brew a few more potions for them."

"Um, Professor—"

"What did I say, boy?" he shouted and Severus hated that his first response was to flinch and back away. "Now go to the infirmary and come right back or you'll lose more than house points!"

Severus didn't want to consider what that meant, and ran up the stairs that led to the other parts of the castle, stopping on the staircase that led to the infirmary.

What should he do? He could take the potions to the mediwitch and tell her he thought they'd been made wrong, but she might not believe him. He could destroy them, but then what would Slughorn say? He wouldn't believe he'd botched a potion and then Severus would be out on his ear, his sanctuary gone.

He looked across the way, to the staircase that led to the headmaster's office, and bit his lip.

It was the best choice, he thought, and ran up the stairs, through the halls and all the way to the headmaster's office. The gargoyle that guarded the door was looking at him funny, but that didn't make the password come any easier.

"I really need to speak with the headmaster."

The gargoyle didn't move.

"I really need to speak with the headmaster, please!" It immediately moved to the side and Severus passed it and asked, "Really? 'Please' did it?"

The gargoyle said nothing, and Severus sped up the stairs, pausing to listen in the doorway when he heard voices from within.

"...a new Dark Lord. Frankly, we're too frightened to even speak his name."

"Nonsense," Dumbledore said casually. "The fear of a name increases the fear of the thing itself, gives it more power."

"That's easy for you to say, Dumbledore. You haven't met this man."

"On the contrary," he said, his voice lower, the casual tone gone, "I've not only met Tom Riddle, but I taught him for seven years. I can't say that I foresaw this, but I had my suspicions of his character long ago. That he would turn down the wrong path is not surprising, nor is his ambition."

Tom Riddle, Severus mouthed, and knew he'd heard that name before. But...Tom Riddle wasn't bad. He was just a wizard who stood for the advancement of magic and purity of blood. That last part was a difficult pill for Severus to swallow—being a half-blood and all—but he knew Muggles were less than wizards. That much was obvious to anyone, wasn't it?

"He and all his followers are from Slytherin House, Albus. Now that must mean something," said the other voice, one that Severus had never heard before.

"It means the Ministry's intelligence officers aren't doing their job correctly. There may be several members of that house in his ranks, but no more than any other."

"Now see here, Dumbledore—"

"I will not. Slytherin House builds nothing but ambitious, resourceful leaders who go on to do great things once they leave Hogwarts. Anything else is simply an unfortunate coincidence."

"I have names, Dumbledore. Dozens of names, all from Slytherin House." There was a pause and Severus thought Dumbledore winked at him through the crack in the door. He heard the other man sigh, then say, "The Board of Governors is going to hold a meeting about the future of Slytherin. As headmaster, you have a right to be there, but I warn you, it doesn't look good."

Severus held his breath as he waited for Dumbledore's response. He knew the headmaster had no great love for Slytherin, but he never acted like he hated them the way some of the other professors—and the students of every other house—did.

Shaking his head, his eyes darkening, Dumbledore said, "The minute we begin to turn on any group as a whole is the moment our world falls to pieces."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Severus smiled a bit, his trust in Dumbledore renewed.

A dark chuckle came from the man sitting across from Dumbledore and he said, "You're far too trusting, Albus, but then you've always been an old fool—"

Rage came over Severus at that, rage as he'd only ever felt when Potter and Black were being particularly cruel; he opened the door wide and screamed, "You can't say that about the headmaster!"

"Everything is all right, Severus—"

"No, it's not all right. You don't know anything about Slytherin!"

The man—whom Severus could now see was wearing robes that members of the Board of Governors wore—only smirked and waved a hand as Severus was walked to the door.

"I'll bet you were a Gryffindor, weren't you?" he shouted.

"Through and through," the man said, not bothering to turn to look at him.

"Now, Severus, why don't you go back down to the dungeons like a good lad, hmm?" Dumbledore said, putting a handful of sweets in Severus' pocket.

"But, Professor—"

"Now, don't you worry about him. I'll be sure to set him straight." He crouched down a bit so he could be eye-level with Severus, then he smiled and winked. "You belong to a very noble house, Severus. I'll be sure he knows that before he leaves here. I do thank you for your defense."

Smiling was all Severus could do as he was turned around and tapped on the shoulder, making his way down the winding staircase and back to the dungeons, batch of botched potions still in hand.

It was too late to go to the infirmary now. He'd have to talk to Slughorn and insist that the potions had been made wrong. There was nothing else he could do, but that didn't stop the fear from almost leveling him.

He was about to lose his home.

Slowly, he walked through the door to the Potions classroom, only to see Slughorn kneeling before the Floo.

"No, Madam, those potions should have been there half an hour ago. I'll be sure to find the student responsible and give the proper punishment. Goodbye."

Gulping, Severus slowly walked into the room, instinctively trying to appear as small as possible, but knowing this was one fight he couldn't get out of.

"Professor Slughorn?"

His robes swishing swiftly as he turned, Slughorn glared at Severus and stalked towards him, grabbing the collar of his shirt and dragging him to his potions counter.

"Where have you been, Snape? Do you not realize how sick those children are, how badly they need that medicine?"

"I do, but—"

"Do you realize they could die if they don't receive it, Snape, you stupid, lazy boy!"

Grimacing as the harsh words slammed into him, Severus reminded himself of what needed to be said. Still afraid, he forced himself to say, "Professor, you put the wrong ingredients into this potion."

Slughorn's face twisted in anger and his eyes closed to slits before he shouted, "You...liar! You ungrateful little liar! What are you playing at, boy? What could you possibly stand to gain by such slander?" he shouted as he tugged the collar of Severus' shirt tighter so that it was cutting into his neck.

"Professor, you're hurting me—"

"I want you out, Snape! Out of my classroom and if it were at all possible, out of my house!"

No! Severus thought, and pulled away enough for him to look Slughorn in the eyes.

"Professor, you put the wrong ingredient in the potion. You should have used asphodel but you put aconite. I—I know you were upset and you didn't mean to, but... Please, just look!"

Severus thrust the potions he'd been carrying at Slughorn and, to his great relief, he began to examine them, first noticing the odd color, then removing the stoppers from the vials.

Slowly, he lifted one to his nose and inhaled, then his face went from enraged to shocked, then contrite within moments.

"Oh, Mr. Snape—"

"Please don't kick me out, Professor!"

"Oh no, my dear boy," he said, leaning down and throwing an arm around Severus, much to his astonishment. He'd never seen Slughorn—or any professor for that matter—embrace a student. Severus patted Slughorn tentatively and then hastily concealed a sob of relief that his only sanctuary wasn't to be taken from him.

Everything was going to be all right.

"Mr. Snape—Severus, I'm so sorry. I've—" he broke off and his face became sad again as it had been earlier. "I've received some very bad news and I'm afraid it affected my judgment. I'm so grateful to you, Severus, so incredibly grateful that you caught the error."

"I won't tell anyone," Severus said instinctively, knowing that Slughorn would expect a Slytherin to hold this information over his head. "I promise. I'll never tell a soul."

Slughorn smiled sadly and nodded. "No, I didn't think you would." They held a silent communion for a moment, before Slughorn Banished the vials of tainted potions in their entirety.

"You know, not everyone would have caught that mistake, Mr. Snape," Slughorn said, his voice steadier as he began to make a new base for the flu potion. "You have the makings of a great potions master."

Sitting down on his stool, Severus couldn't help his smile. He'd love to be a potions master; spending all his time in a laboratory, thinking up new potions, finding cures to all sorts of nasty things. He looked around the Potions classroom again, this time with new eyes, and thought there was nothing he'd rather do. With a sigh of relief, he smiled again and began to chop his slugs.

"I never knew that about Snape," Sirius said, astonished and a bit out of sorts. "Or Slughorn for that matter. Merlin, to think of how many kids stayed at school that winter..."

"Yes," Dumbledore said, allowing the memories of that day to wash over him, with this new information. He felt a chill go down his spine at what might have happened if Severus hadn't been there, then of Severus' own reaction when he'd heard the name Tom Riddle. That had hardly been the beginning of what was to come, but it was as good a place as any to start.

Cedric simply look confused. "So did Professor Snape ever tell anyone?"

Dumbledore shook his head and smiled. "I only learned about it as you did. I'd intended to show you his interaction with that man from the Board, I had no idea..."

Cedric brightened at that, cheered at the thought of being asked to save such a good person. If he were being honest with himself, he thought most—if not all—people were worth saving, but to know he was rescuing someone truly good...well, that just made it all the better.

One thing bothered him, though.

"What was all that about Voldemort? It almost seemed as though Professor Snape was..."

"Sympathetic? Oh, he was. In fact..." Dumbledore looked towards the window and watched Severus as he thought exactly how he should tell this next thing to Cedric.

Sirius, however, was ready for the train wreck to take place. He was avidly watching Cedric's face, waiting for the endless supply of enthusiasm to die completely as Dumbledore told him what everyone else already knew.

Sighing, Dumbledore turned to Cedric and realized there was no perfect way to broach this topic. "Upon leaving Hogwarts, Severus joined Voldemort's ranks and became a Death Eater."

Sirius watched with glee as the light of anticipation left Cedric's eyes, only to be replaced by disappointment and—oh yes!—a bit of denial.

"That...seems unlikely." Temporarily thrown, Cedric calmed himself and tried to focus on what he knew to be true. He trusted Headmaster Dumbledore completely and if he said Professor Snape was worthy of saving, then he was.

"What happened?" he asked, knowing that was a ridiculously small question to ask of such an important matter, but asked anyway.

"That...is a long story." Wondering how much he needed to reveal for Cedric to truly understand Severus, Dumbledore decided to start at what he'd always thought of as 'the middle.'

"Did you know there was a prophecy foretelling the fall of Voldemort?"

Cedric's eyes grew a bit wider and he listening intently to every word Dumbledore said. He'd hardly cared about what exactly had happened to Voldemort once he'd arrived in Paradise, and, aside from knowing that he'd been defeated, he hadn't bothered to find out.

Feeling a bit guilty for not taking interest in obviously important matters on Earth, Cedric shook his head and said, "No, I didn't."

"Well, that prophecy alluded to Harry Potter being the only person capable of destroying Voldemort...and it would have been kept secret if Severus hadn't overheard it, then rushed to inform his master."

Cedric was silent as Sirius began to pace the area around the bench frantically.

"But he realized he'd made a mistake, right?" Cedric asked, not wanting to believe someone who had taught him—hell, someone he'd lived with—had been a follower of Voldemort. And this was the man he had to rescue.

"He did. He begged for the chance to save his friend—Harry Potter's mother—from the consequences of his actions. What he didn't realize—what neither of us realized—was that this would be the turning point in his life. In essence, he's been making up for his actions ever since."

Again, Dumbledore waved his hand, but this time Sirius didn't bother to watch.

Severus rather thought it fit that it was raining.

He didn't bother to charm his robes to ward off the rain or keep the mud from his boots. His felt chilled to the bone, and not only by the weather. The cold wet seeping into his robes allowed him to believe it was the rain that had him feeling frozen in his body, in his soul.

He trudged on, walking the all too familiar path from Hogsmeade to Hogwarts, forcing himself onward in fear.

He could be killed on sight, he realized. Or worse, the wards that surrounded the castle might not even allow him entrance. Had Dumbledore warded the castle to repel those who bore the Dark Mark?

Still, he kept on. This information had to reach Dumbledore. He had to reach Dumbledore.

He approached the outer gates and held his breath as he passed through them, breathing a sigh of relief as he was allowed entry. For a moment, he permitted himself to believe that perhaps the wards had been set to keep away Death Eaters, and they had somehow let him through anyway.

Did there exist wards that read the heart?

Scoffing at himself, his robes now soaked, he ran through the front lawn, and then up the steps that led to the Entrance Hall. Looking around to make sure he hadn't been seen, he took off to the seventh floor, not bothering to hide the sounds his boots made or his ragged breath as he raced down the halls.

He stopped for a moment at the gargoyle and his fear returned, doubled, and he prayed that he would at least be allowed to speak before he was killed. He didn't dare hope for more.

Not sure how to gain entrance—he was no longer a student, after all—he simply stood there for a moment, and his life seemed to flash before his eyes.

How had he gotten to this point? How had he fallen so low that he was now afraid to speak to a man he'd once respected above all others? When had he become a thing which good men fight against?

His body was stiff, his fists clenched, and he knew what he had to do, no matter the consequences.

"Please," he said to no one, not sure for what he was asking. "Please."

The gargoyle leapt aside, just as it had when he'd been a child, and Severus stared at the steps with trepidation.

He waited a moment too long because soon multicolored robes came into view, then a wand and a beard, then finally a face. A face that was twisted in disgust, a stance poised for attack, and Severus had no idea what to say, how to begin. How would Dumbledore ever believe him?

"Headmaster," he started and his voice sounded like a sob.

"Good evening, Severus," he replied, his voice cold and his wand aimed at Severus' heart. "What message do you bring from your master?"

"No," he said, but he was unsure which part of his question he was disagreeing with. "I'm here of my own accord. Headmaster, please—" he sobbed and looked Dumbledore in the eye, praying he would understand.

For a moment he thought he felt the brush of Legilimency, and Severus lowered his shields, allowing everything he felt to be broadcasted for Dumbledore to hear.

I was wrong.

Cold blue eyes penetrated his, and Severus stood there, waiting to be judged. Then he watched as the hard lines of Dumbledore's face slowly faded, his shoulders relaxing and his wand hand lowering ever so slightly.

Dumbledore blinked and Severus felt him withdraw from his mind, and watched as he lowered his wand. Instantly, Dumbledore's twisted grimace relaxed into a small, relieved smile and his eyes lit up with the kindness Severus had known as a child.

"Oh, my dear boy, " he said, his voice laced with affection. "I'm so very glad you've come home."

Cedric smiled as he watched Dumbledore catch an errant tear with a finger while Sirius scoffed.

"So he switched sides?" Cedric asked as the window went back to the present, Professor Snape again looking chilled to the bone.

"He did," Dumbledore said, having calmed himself. He'd known what had happened, of course, having been there. To see the event he'd often thought of from Severus' point of view stirred something within him and he was again thankful that his friend had returned.

His determination to save Severus grew impossibly stronger, and he turned to Cedric to begin again.

"Severus failed to save Lily Potter, but Lily's death saved her son's life."

"Harry," Cedric said with a smile, remembering his old classmate with fondness. "So...in a roundabout way, Professor Snape did his part in the war?"

"During the first war, yes. By informing Voldemort of the prophecy, then switching sides and warning the Potters of impending danger, he assured Voldemort centered his focus on Harry. When Lily died, she gave Harry a blood protection that saved him many times in his childhood. Without it, he would've surely—"

"You know, that really shouldn't count," Sirius said, annoyed. He'd heard this argument one too many times and he was getting plain sick of it. "He didn't help during the first war! He was a turncoat, a traitor who turned sides at the very last minute because the only person who ever gave him the time of day in school was in trouble."

"—died," Dumbledore continued as though he hadn't been rudely interrupted. "That was the first war, however. He affected the outcome of the second war in a far more direct way."

Cedric sat straighter and listened intently, eager to find out what he'd missed since he'd died.

"The Final Battle—as it's now called—took place at Hogwarts in Harry Potter's seventh year. It was a terrible battle, and Severus and myself had been separated from Harry. He had been lured to the entrance of the Forbidden Forest while Severus and I were defending the Entrance Hall."

Sirius stopped his scowling to listen. Not that he hadn't seen what had happened—that day was one of the many times he, James and Lily had decided to check in with Harry—but he'd never heard it from Dumbledore's perspective before.

"Were you aware that Draco Malfoy also switched sides that year?" Dumbledore asked Cedric with a grin.

Cedric shook his head, surprised. "No, I wasn't."

"He did," Dumbledore said, a broad smile across his face. "He was with Severus and myself, defending the castle and the students inside from the Death Eaters. His own father tried to kill him, and Severus threw himself on top of Draco, narrowly missed by the killing curse."

Cedric wanted to say he was shocked, but he wasn't. He knew better than to believe every rumor that spread around Hogwarts, but he'd never heard anything good about Lucius Malfoy.

"So he saved Draco's life?" he asked, his respect for Professor Snape growing.

"He did," Dumbledore replied. "Draco was then able to get to Harry, who was battling Voldemort, alone."

"Harry could have handled him fine, even without that little twit's help," Sirius said, hands in his pockets and a scowl across his face.

"I believe the outcome may have been the same," Dumbledore said, thinking again on all the things that could have gone wrong that day. "However, Voldemort wasn't alone; there were several other Death Eaters there. I think help arrived just in time, and Harry was able to destroy Voldemort, for good this time. We must be grateful to Draco, if only for Harry's sake."

Sirius grumbled. "I still think he could have handled him by himself."

Chuckling, Dumbledore turned again to Cedric and thought on how to say this next thing, for it was far more shocking than anything he'd told him so far. It would probably be better to ease the idea onto him, but for the life of him, Dumbledore had no idea how to do that.

No other ideas forthcoming, Dumbledore decided to just come out with it.

"Harry was in love with Severus for some time before the Final Battle."

Cedric made a gasping-cough sort of sound and Sirius pounded him on the back, strictly out of habit.

"I know exactly how you feel," Sirius said with a disappointed sigh. "That's what I said."

"Um, no," Cedric said, still bewildered. "No, it's not that. Professor Snape is a good man—"

"It's okay to hate him, Cedric, really. It's only natural after all—"

"Harry," Dumbledore interrupted before things got out of hand, "fell in love with Severus while they were training during his seventh year. Severus didn't realize it, thought Harry was just a child—"

"He was just a child! Seventeen is no age to be running around with greasy, dirty gits!"

"—but I believe he fell in love with Harry the moment he opened his eyes."

"Oh?" Cedric asked, smiling and trying not to laugh at Sirius. "And when was that?"

Dumbledore smiled and remembered the night in question. It had been an important night for him as well.

"The night of the Victory Ball," he said, with a broad smile. "That was to be Severus' last night in the castle."

"But I thought he loved teaching Potions?" Cedric asked, confused. "He certainly seemed, er, happy enough while in the Potions classroom when he'd been a student."

"Severus loved potions, yes, but not being a teacher. I don't believe he hated the students half as much as he wanted us all to believe, but he did hate teaching."

"Well, then," Cedric started, not sure how to phrase the question, "why did he teach for, what, sixteen years, if he hated it so much?"

Sitting back, his smile fading, Dumbledore thought they were finally approaching the crux of the matter. "Absolution," he said plainly, and for him it was. "For all that he tried to take it back, Severus had been a Death Eater. He was responsible for Lily's and James Potter's deaths and he had much to atone for. He stayed at Hogwarts at my insistence, because we both knew it wasn't over, that Harry would need a protector when the time finally came.

"But all his years in the classroom only served to frustrate Severus. He had large dreams, my boy, very large. That was what tempted him to the Death Eaters in the first place. He didn't only want to be a potions master, he wanted to be the greatest potions master, and the night of the Victory Ball was to be the last night he'd ever see Hogwarts."

Thinking of the professor he'd known, Cedric could easily see how ambition would become frustration for Professor Snape. However, if his desire for greatness had been compelling, what could have stopped him?

He was saved from asking the question as Dumbledore waved a hand, the clouds once again parting.

Severus snapped the lid of his trunk closed with a contented sigh. Running long-fingered hands over the old, faded leather, he allowed himself a small smile.

He was leaving Hogwarts today, and this time he was never coming back.

Walking to his wardrobe, he took out the fine black robes he'd purchased for this occasion and slipped them on, tossing his hair back and straightening his collar. For the first time in sixteen years, he was at peace with himself, and felt that ought to show. Taking a look around the room, he allowed himself a rather wistful goodbye. Yes, he'd be returning here after the Ball to collect his trunk and a few other belongings, but he knew by then he'd be too eager to shake the dust of this place off himself to say goodbye properly.

Taking one last stroll around his rooms, he quelled the urge to mutter an expletive and instead gave a slight nod of his head.

This was where he'd earned his redemption. This was where he'd made his peace with what he'd done, and now it was time to leave it all behind.

He was leaving Hogwarts today, he repeated to himself. And this time he was never coming back.

Squaring his shoulders, he left his quarters, nodding to the few Slytherin students he passed in the hallway on their way to the Ball. He'd been persuaded to attend by Dumbledore, but truth be told, it hadn't taken much to get him there. Though he'd spent most of the first six years of Harry Potter's school career hating him, Severus felt the need to say a proper goodbye. He'd seen Potter only a few times since the Final Battle, mostly while he was unconscious in the infirmary. Potter had only been released that afternoon, and Severus thought it only courtesy to wait until he was feeling his best to see him. It was only fitting after the year they'd spent together training, forging a very fragile alliance, that he see him one last time before most likely never seeing him again.

He had no idea why that thought bothered him, but he brushed it aside, assuming perhaps it had to do with the natural wistful thinking one does before one leaves a place he'd spent most of his life.

And though he hated to admit it, he had grown somewhat fond of Potter in the last year. By some miracle, the boy had managed to mature a great deal over the previous summer.

When Potter had first begun to ask Severus small, innocuous questions that had nothing to do with Potions or Defense, Severus had grown suspicious and had taken to watching his step in the hallways. Why the devil did Potter care what kind of music he listened to or what he liked to do during the summer holiday?

But Potter had persevered and grown bold in his desire to get to know Severus, who had begrudgingly admitted that it hadn't been a completely terrible experience. He'd always thought Potter was exactly like his father: boorish, cocky, rude and most probably mentally deficient. He was amazed to discover Potter was actually surprisingly humble and eager to learn. As the year progressed and their training sessions became exercises in who could knock the other off their feet first, Potter had always been quick to help Severus up, always so worried and apologetic for doing what Severus had wanted him to do.

He sighed, and thought perhaps he'd owl Potter a postcard at some point, again the idea of never seeing him again causing an unpleasant rumble in his stomach, but he pushed it aside. Obviously his stomach had no idea what was happening today. He drove the thought of Potter to a 'students to remember fondly' file he hadn't known existed in his mind, then turned his thoughts to more important subjects.

Slowly walking up the staircase to the seventh floor corridor, he let his hands drift over the stone walls of the castle, saying goodbye for good to each individual stone, their time together over.

The gargoyle leaped aside for him to enter and he rode the winding staircase to the top, opening the door when he reached it, and finding Minerva and Albus seated around a small table within.

He greeted them with a nod and took note of the bottle and three glasses at the center of the table.

"Severus!" Albus greeted him enthusiastically. "Now that we're all here..." he said, trailing off as he began to pour their drinks.

"I didn't realize I was late," Severus said with no small amount of sarcasm. "What's this in aid of?"

Albus' eyes shone as he began to speak. "A celebratory drink. The war might have ended three weeks ago, but with all your time in the infirmary... Well, we're only able to do this now."

Severus grimaced at that. He hadn't been spending so much time in the infirmary. If patients had needed potions...

"There was no need to do it at all," Severus said even as he picked up his glass with a sigh. Minerva chuckled lowly as she raised her own, and he thought Albus' face must ache from smiling so much.

"What?" Severus barked, turning away from him.

Annoyed, he looked to Minerva for commiseration. As their eyes met, she offered him a smirk, and a moment passed between them. He'd hated her once, but his venom for her had left him long ago, leaving only a feeling of respect and muted affection. That they had never spoken about it didn't matter in the least. For a moment, they acknowledged it and Severus bowed his head, realizing that there was one more person he would miss.

"Severus, Minerva," Albus began, lifting his glass, "in all my planning, in thinking through every scenario...with every step I took these last sixteen years..." his voice broke off and he looked down for a moment before lifting his glass higher. "None of this could have been accomplished without you. And I couldn't have asked for more loyal friends at my side."

She smiled while Severus was silent, relishing the words, memorizing everything about this moment so he could savor it in the years to come.

"Thank you, Albus."

"No, Severus, thank you." And with that he raised his glass again. "To true love winning out."

"To the Order of the Phoenix," Minerva countered, then, "to Harry Potter."

"To you, Albus," Severus said, taking his drink. The moment seemed to lengthen as the three of them considered each other, Minerva's severe face softening as she gave each of them a tender smile, Albus' eyes shining as Severus had never seen before, so that he too allowed himself to grin.

The silence stretched out another moment before Albus began to lightly chuckle, then a full-out laugh erupted from him, a joyful, hearty thing that filled up his office and seemed to bounce off the very walls of Hogwarts.

"Oh, Albus," Minerva said even as she took out a handkerchief to dry her eyes through her own light laughter.

Standing there amongst the only friends he'd ever had, Severus allowed himself to feel real joy, joy he hadn't felt since he'd been a child himself, and laughed.

It had been a very long time, so he completely understood the shocked look Minerva threw his way as well as Albus' clapping.

In joyful camaraderie they shared their moment, before Minerva took her leave. "Someone has to watch out for the students," she said, patting Albus, then Severus on the arm. "I'll leave you to it," she said as she left.

"If I were to be completely honest, I wasn't sure I'd live to see this day, Severus," Albus said, taking a seat and looking suddenly tired. "I was sure I'd have to sacrifice myself at some point for some reason or another."

Severus sat down across from him and took another drink. "Nonsense. You'll outlive us all, Albus." He looked down at his glass and said, "Although I do share your sentiment. I thought I'd never live to see the end of that monster."

"You did all you set out to do, Severus, and more. Lily Potter's death has been avenged, you've earned your atonement."

Severus sat staring at his glass and gave a small nod, not wanting to look at Albus just yet. The feeling of finally gaining what he'd been aching for for so long was still so new, he hardly knew how to respond to that.

"And her son has a bright future, thanks to you."

"If he doesn't forget everything I taught him, he might not fail completely, yes," Severus said, the scowl returning to his face automatically. He'd been wearing it so long, he wondered if it would ever truly leave him, now that peace was within reach.

"He's leaving here tomorrow, you know," Albus said, and Severus didn't need to look at his face to confirm his smile. "He's going to study defense privately under Kingsley and a few others, though I doubt he'll become an Auror."

"I would hope not," Severus said and this time he did look at Albus. "I didn't spend all that time training him so he could become the Ministry's poster boy."

"I'm sure he won't disappoint you," Albus said with a smile, before clearing his throat and asking, "You're leaving here tomorrow as well?"

"Tonight," Severus said, thinking of his waiting trunk and one last person he needed to see before he could be rid of this place.

"I know you're eager to go out into the world, my boy, but...you're by far the greatest Potions master Hogwarts has ever had. I don't suppose I could convince you to stay, at least a few more years?"

Slowly, Severus looked up, not sure whether it would be appropriate to laugh or shout. The idea of spending even one more night in this dreadful place filled him with disgust and horror so that he thought he might vomit on the rug. Albus knew better than anyone just how badly Severus needed to leave, needed to start his life—at the age of thirty-eight, no less. To put his life on hold, again, when there was no need...it was unspeakable.

"I thought not," Albus said sadly. "I would never ask, Severus, but...there have been whispers in the halls of the Ministry, whispers that have reached my ear." His face went from forlorn to calculating and Severus forced the resentment he'd felt a moment ago away, realizing he was about to be told something of importance.

"Lucius Malfoy might again escape a sentence in Azkaban," he said plainly, as though he weren't telling horrible news.

Putting down his drink, a feeling of dread washed over Severus. "How is that possible? Half the Aurors were present at the Final Battle; they all saw him cut down Dawlish and a half-dozen others. How could he possibly..." he cut himself off, lowering his eyes as he thought of the ramifications of Lucius out amongst the public again, and waited for Albus to speak.

"The Ministry has been wary of Slytherin House since Tom Riddle began recruiting when you were a student. The murmuring has never completely gone away; all it needed was for someone to stir it up again."

Scoffing, Severus said, "So Lucius is advocating...what exactly? That he was led astray by the evils of Slytherin?"

"Exactly that," Albus said with a sigh. "If it had not been for Slytherin, he might have been a different wizard, not so ambitious and mad for power..." He waved a hand through the air as though the argument could be made for itself.

For Severus, it could. Only Lucius would use such an incredible excuse and only the idiots of the Wizengamot would believe him.

"I can't stay, Albus," Severus said, not an ounce of regret in his tone. "This place..."

"I know, Severus. I know. It was wishful thinking on my part. And don't spare a thought for Lucius Malfoy. I've held the Ministry at bay before. I can do it again." He stood slowly and suddenly looked his age, Severus almost reaching out to help him. "You will owl? Let me know of all your success?"

Smirking, Severus nodded, then asked, "Will you be coming down?"

Albus shook his head and started to walk Severus to the door. "Perhaps later. I think I'll rest for a while." He opened the door and then turned to Severus, a bright smile on his face, and extended his hand. "Good luck, Severus. I hope you find what you've been looking for."

Grasping his hand tightly, Severus nodded and said genuinely, "Thank you, Albus," hardly able to speak the words, they were so heavy in his throat.

Another nod and then Albus was ushering him out the door with a wave. The spiral staircase led him downstairs and Severus turned back just in time to see the door to the office close.

Severus walked into the Great Hall with a sneer, scowling at the gaudy floating lights and too-loud music playing from a dais where the High Table should have been. He'd find Potter and get out of here as quickly as he could, staying at Spinner's End until he finalized his travel plans, but at least he'd be out of this place.

A glowing light floated around his head and he swatted at it until it went away.

"Having a good time, Professor?" said a laughing voice nearby.

He looked up, and brushed another light off once more before turning. "Draco," he acknowledged. "I'm somewhat surprised to find you here."

Shrugging, Draco took a sip of his drink, then said, "It's a victory ball and I'm supposedly part of the victory." His face lost its impetuous smile and for a moment he looked diminished, as though something had been taken from him just for having stepped through the door. "It's a bit bittersweet, I suppose."

Severus nodded, but said nothing. There really was nothing to say, no comfort to give. What did you say to a young man whose father had tried to murder him?

"Will you be glad to finally be rid of this place?" Draco asked a moment later when the silence had grown too thick.

Nodding, Severus picked up a glass from a passing tray and began to look around the room for the one person he needed to see before he could leave. In a crowd of older students, Aurors and members of the Order, Severus couldn't find Potter and he began to contemplate a point-me spell.

"And you? When do you depart for university?" he asked Draco, his eyes still scanning the crowd.

"August," Draco said plainly, then, "He's by the dais, being harassed by some Ministry flunky."

"Who?" Severus asked even as he turned his head in the direction Draco had mentioned.

"Potter," he said, and Severus didn't have to look at him to hear his smirk. He was just about to offer a scathing reply when suddenly the crowd seemed to part and Severus' eyes were assaulted by a man in elegant blue dress robes, his hair far less messy than it had been even weeks before, his shoulders thrown back in confidence, any last traces of boyhood cast away.

It was as though a candle had been lit in the room, and yet all the air seemed to have gone out of it. Severus stood in the middle of the Great Hall, his body stiff, his face revealing every ounce of his surprise, his mouth slightly open.

Draco closed it for him, but that did nothing to remove him from his stupor, to somehow remember the boy in the man he was seeing.

Harry seemed bored and a bit annoyed, looking at his drink for a moment before his eyes began to search for someone in the crowd. Severus wanted to look away, didn't want to be caught staring, but after a moment Harry's eyes met his and the light in room became blinding.

As if every person between them had disappeared, Harry's eyes lit up when they fell on Severus, and the smile that accompanied it a second later was equally blinding. Forgotten was the Ministry flunky, still speaking to Harry, not realizing whatever he was saying was falling on deaf ears.

Never before had anyone ever looked at Severus the way Harry was looking at him now. Not only as though he was glad to see him, but like he was happy just looking at him, like the boredom of the Ball—of life—became more bearable by Severus having been there.

And though Severus had never noticed it before, something tickled at the back of his mind and told him that this wasn't the first time Harry had looked at him in this way. And suddenly the last year began to make sense as snippets of a hundred conversations began to replay in his mind. How in Merlin's name had he missed this?

Suddenly, he was being nudged from behind and he broke eye contact, seeing but no longer actually seeing Harry, yet his heart was still beating a hundred miles an hour. He didn't have the presence of mind to ask, but he glared at Draco, as if to ask 'what?'

"I think Potter might need rescuing, Professor."

"Nonsense," Severus said, even as he turned to look at Harry again. He'd turned back to the flunky, but he occasionally glanced Severus' way, as though he was trying not to be caught watching him, even as Severus was openly staring.

Severus was nudged again and this time his legs responded, walking through the crowd—through people—in a straight line that led directly to Harry. Again, Harry paid no mind to the idiot speaking next to him. Once Severus began to move, Harry turned all attention to him, his smile growing impossibly larger.

"—in addition to this, the Auror program has in its possession some of the very best defensive texts in history," the idiot said, though it was only Severus' habits from years of spying that allowed him to filter the conversation.

His steps slowing and becoming shorter, Severus looked down slightly to meet Harry's eyes—when had he grown so much?—and felt all his powers of speech leave him.

"Potter," he greeted for want of anything else.

"Hello, Professor," Harry said, as he seemed to be nearly panting in excitement. "I'm glad to see you. I wanted to...to thank you for coming by the infirmary, giving me those potions."

Having done nothing above the call of duty, but not trusting his voice to speak—and really this was becoming ridiculous—Severus nodded and said nothing.

"Right," the flunky said, turning back to Harry. "Now, about your second year in Auror training—"

"Would you like to get a drink?" Severus asked, surprising himself and wishing he could take back the words—they both had a drink in hand—stopping them as they floated in the air before he could be made a fool of.

"Yeah...I'd love to," Harry said, his eyes sparkling and Severus hardly cared what they looked like, walking so close to each other, there could be no denying what either of them was feeling.

"Now wait just a moment!" the flunky called after them. "I was speaking to Mr. Potter—" He was silenced before another word could come out of his mouth, and Severus looked towards Draco, a dark grin on his face as he nodded for Severus to get on with it.

They reached a table where they were both served a new drink—Severus vanishing his old one, hoping Harry wouldn't notice—and again his attention was drawn towards bright green eyes that made it difficult to breathe, let alone speak.

"I was hoping I'd see you tonight," Harry said, taking a sip, trying and failing to sound nonchalant. "I know you said you'd be leaving soon and I—I wanted a chance to say goodbye properly."

Licking his lips involuntarily, Severus pulled himself together and said, "I'm leaving tonight. Now actually. There were only a few loose ends to tie up and they're...tied now." He watched as the light slowly began to fade from Harry's eyes, and Severus both lamented and rejoiced that he had been the one to do that.

"Oh," Harry said, obviously disappointed. "I don't suppose—" But he cut himself off before he could say anything else, shaking his head and looking as though he'd lost something. "Thank you again, Professor...for everything."

Severus' words became caught in his throat, as he watched Harry turn away from him. He wanted to say something, anything to make him stay, but to what end? He was leaving here, leaving Scotland for England and then even farther still. Why would he ask Harry to stay when he himself was leaving?

The air had once again been sucked from the room when Harry had turned away, the light that had shone so brightly for just a moment leaving with him, and Severus felt his throat clench.

"You idiot!" Draco said from behind him. "What are you doing?"

Severus said nothing, but thought he was doing the only thing he could do. He was letting Harry leave.

Suddenly, he heard a sigh and then a spell was muttered before four fairies were conjured and began to fly in circles around his and Harry's heads.

"What the hell?" Harry said, turning back to Severus and swatting at the damned things that were flying much too close for comfort. "What kind of joke is—whoa!" Harry said as he faltered, a dizzy spell causing his legs to fail so Severus had to catch him before he fell to the floor.

Wrapping his arms around him, Severus was once again surprised at what he found. A firm, heavy body which he could have sworn only yesterday was no more than five and a half feet tall, weighing no more than one hundred and twenty pounds. His hands gripped Harry's sides and his arms wrapped around his stomach, his nose coming to rest in Harry's hair so that he was forced to inhale, to take in everything he could.

He held him for just a moment longer than necessary, then pulled him up to stand on two feet, mourning the loss of that hard body against his.

"You idiot," he said and even he could hear the affection in his tone. "Just out of the infirmary and already attending a Ball. Merlin knows how much energy you put into taming that mop of yours. You should be resting, not strutting about the Great Hall, allowing every Ministry official with an agenda to accost you."

Harry blinked in confusion for a moment, the fairies still flying around their heads, before he smiled.

"Like my hair, huh?"

Severus let him fall to the floor with an 'oof.' The fairies scowled at him and pulled at his robes until he helped Harry up.

"Severus, what—Potter!" Minerva cried, once she spotted Harry on the floor. "Goodness, boy, are you all right?"

Picking him up by his shoulders, Severus set Harry on his feet, only to find him swaying slightly in the next moment.

"I'm fine," he said, irritated, even as he tried to wriggle from Severus' grasp. "Just a dizzy spell, that's all."

"'That's all,' he says," Minerva muttered, then turned her gaze to Severus. "The boy's still recovering. You'll help him up to the dormitory?"

"'The boy,'" Harry spit out, "is just fine and has a flat in Hogsmeade." Severus watched as Minerva raised an eyebrow towards Potter, then recalled his own youth, when that eyebrow still had power over him.

He smirked.

With a sigh, Harry said, "Really...I'm okay. Maybe I just need to sit down for a little while."

"Good idea," she said, then looked to Severus again. "You wouldn't mind escorting Potter home, would you, Severus?"

At her request, his fingers dug into Harry's shoulders of their own volition, the thought of spending a few more moments with Harry filling him with anticipation and the worst kind of agony, all at the same time. The way Harry was looking at Severus and the desire that was growing within him would serve no purpose. He was leaving, as soon as he'd said goodbye to Harry, which he'd already done. Anything more would only be prolonging the inevitable and this need, this want...

"Of course," he found himself saying, even as Harry whimpered when his nails began to press into his flesh. "Merlin knows how many adventures he'd get himself into on his own."

Minerva smiled and said good night to the both of them, then left them alone. As he turned to leave the Great Hall, he saw Draco lift a glass to salute him in a corner and he glared in return. What had he gotten himself into?

"Nice night," Harry said, once again trying and failing to sound aloof.

"Mmm," Severus replied, though he thought that had been an understatement. It appeared that even the weather was out to get him tonight. The sky was clear and the moon just shy of being full, casting an ethereal glow over the road to Hogsmeade, making the occasional glances Harry threw his way breathtaking.

Lily's eyes had never been so beautiful.

"So...you're leaving, then?" he asked Severus, his tone hesitant and his eyes on his road.


Harry nodded, then asked, "Where will you go?"

"To my home, first," Severus answered, "after that I'm not sure. Japan, most likely."

"Japan!" Harry exclaimed, though Severus had no clue why the idea upset him so much. "What's in Japan?"

Scoffing, he said, "Many things. The potions field is at a standstill in Britain at the moment, but Japanese wizards have been making medical breakthroughs with recently discovered plant life for the past few years. It's my hope..." he drifted off as he questioned whether he should confess his ambitions to Harry, knowing how ridiculous they might sound. While they'd discussed his leaving Hogwarts throughout their training together, Severus had never admitted his heart's ambition. He was still for a moment, but was encouraged by Harry's curious glance, and decided to reveal all. "I believe there might be a cure for lycanthropy there, waiting to be discovered. It's a very large goal, but I am hopeful."

Apparently Harry had no idea what to say to that, a silly grin on his face and an admiring look in his eyes. "That is a large goal, but...you're brilliant. I'm sure you'll succeed."

Harry's encouragement threw him off balance and for a moment Severus struggled with a response. "Of course, at the moment Japan's major appeal is its distance from Hogwarts."

The delightful grin left Harry's face, and a stillness settled over them for a few moments before he asked, "Why do you want to leave here so badly? What is it about this place that you hate so much?"

"Why is it so appealing to you?" Severus spat out, not appreciating his desires being judged in such a way. "How far have you traveled to know that this is all there is?"

Harry stopped and turned to Severus, looking up at him in such a way that left Severus defenseless. The light from the moon set his eyes afire and Harry said, "It's the only home I've ever known. No matter where I go...I have a feeling it'll always be home."

He was silent for a moment, his eyes scanning Severus' face before he continued, "So many things happened here... I found my place here, my destiny. This place is a part of me." He looked Severus dead in the eye and said, "It's a part of you, too."

"A part I'm more than glad to leave behind," Severus replied with a sneer and began walking again. "You say you found your destiny here?"

"Yes," Harry offered softly.

"Then consider this," Severus said, stopping again. "The only reason I returned to this place was to find my redemption. I killed your mother, Potter. It might as well have been my wand that cast the spell. This place was my way to atonement, my way to redemption, and now that I have it I'm finally free to leave."

The air between them was thick as Severus let loose the words. He'd never confessed his sins aloud to another soul, not even Albus, who had known what had happened and had never needed to hear it. And though Harry had known the truth for over a year, through all their training together, they'd never spoken of it until this moment.

Severus wasn't sure what reaction he expected from Harry, but the soft, gentle look he was giving him certainly wasn't it. Licking his lips, Harry leaned closer to him, close enough for Severus to smell the Hogwarts-issued shampoo and aftershave that clung to him, and then the scent of a young man. The flora conspired against him as well, so his senses were assaulted as Harry looked up at him with eyes that were far too beautiful for any person to possess as he asked, "Isn't there anything you'd miss?"

"This place?" Severus asked, his voice betraying him as his words came out in an impassioned groan. "Not this place. A few people...perhaps..." he trailed off as Harry began to lean upwards, making up for the little difference between their heights.

Severus' eyes were drawn to Harry's lips as he licked them again, his cock stirring within his trousers before his reason returned to him. What was he doing? He was leaving here tonight, as soon as he made sure Harry hadn't killed himself in an accident-prone attempt at walking home. This wasn't a time to be beginning anything, it was a time for saying goodbye.

"I'm leaving here," he said, his voice hoarse. "I'm leaving now, tonight."

Harry nodded, but didn't move away. "I know. I hope you're happy...wherever you end up. I—" he cut off as his voice broke, his eyes shining. "I really do hope you find what you're looking for."

This wasn't fair, Severus inwardly screamed. He'd never had anyone look at him this way before, and never had he ever wanted someone so badly.

If Severus wanted, he and Harry could have sex tonight. His cock pulsed at the thought of it, as his eyes closed, and his nose picked up Harry's scent once again. They could be having sex inside of ten minutes...but to what end? Whatever Harry wanted, it was clear a one-night stand wasn't it.

Opening his eyes again, Severus grew angry. Angry at Harry, angry at himself for agreeing to help him home when he should have closed the door on even the possibility...

"Why are you doing this?" he hissed in a whisper. "What could you possibly want that I could give you now? What, Harry?"

Harry's mouth turned up in a half-smile and he let out a small gasp. "What do I want? The impossible, I guess. But I'll settle for this."

And then Harry was closing the final distance between them, his fuller, moist lips connecting with Severus' thin, dry ones in a bittersweet kiss that was a greeting and farewell, all in one. Severus' heart began to pound as Harry kissed him sweetly, then his cock throbbed as he felt a swipe of tongue against his mouth. The kiss deepened and Severus both hated and loved Harry in that moment. Hated him for doing this to him now when he was leaving, and loving him because...

Suddenly a bright light distracted him and he cut off the kiss to open his eyes. A bright, silvery cat Patronus was running towards them, and he felt his heart sink in his chest.

"Albus has had a stroke. Come quickly," Minerva's voice said, and Severus couldn't move for the terror that was flowing through him. He watched powerlessly as Minerva's Patronus faded away, then turned his eyes to Harry.

"I'm—" But he didn't know what to say. All he could think of now was his oldest friend dying, and that he wasn't there. "How far is your flat?"

"It's just up the road, but—"

"No," Severus interrupted. "Please, Harry, go home. I'll send for you later." He was already turning, readying himself to run. "Please..."

Harry nodded and began to walk in the opposite direction, and Severus watched just long enough to make sure he wouldn't do something foolish.

And then he ran.