Title: The Heart of Everything

Author: Morgana
Author's Email: morganalebeau
Mentoring fiction; Severus Snape/ Harry Potter (no slash)

Summary: Severus Snape did have a backup plan when facing Voldemort that night.

Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended. All mistakes are mine.

The Heart of Everything

For the pain and the sorrow caused by my mistakes
Won't repent to a mortal whom is all to blame
Now I know I won't make it
There will be a time we'll get back our freedom
They can't break what's inside

I'll face it 'cause it's the heart of everything

Open up your eyes
Save yourself from fading away now, don't let it go
Open up your eyes
See what you've become, don't sacrifice
It's truly the heart of everything

Minerva McGonagall, Molly and Arthur Weasley – all three of them needed a moment to collect their thoughts and sort out their emotions after withdrawing from the pensieve. The things they had seen had greatly upset them.

"I can't believe it! I always thought…" Molly shakily walked over to a chair and collapsed on it. "I had always hoped that…" She shook her head, as if trying to rid herself of the thoughts that confused her. "All those years, Arthur, Severus was a double-agent and we never really believed Albus when he told us to…"

"To put our trust in Severus," Arthur finished for his wife. He felt equally shaken and walked over to where she sat. He rested his hands on her shoulders and drew in a deep breath. They were still trying to get to grip with the death of their son and weren't ready to deal with Severus' memories, which still occupied the pensieve. He understood why Harry had asked them to bear witness, him in particular because of his ties to the Ministry, but he still wished he didn't have to deal with this just yet.

Minerva, knowing why this was affecting the Weasleys in such a way, continued to stare at the silver liquid in the pensieve – the last thing that remained of Severus Snape, a man, who she had badly misjudged. Albus and Severus hadn't confided in her and she knew why – she might have spoiled their plans. "So that's why he fled. That's why he didn't attack."

Harry nodded. "That was one of the first things to cross my mind as well, professor. Do you remember that moment of shock when professor Snape realized he had to face us? Fight us? When he wavered, I thought it was because he thought himself outnumbered, but now I realize that he never wanted to hurt any of us. He couldn't engage in battle. He never wanted to injure you."

"So instead he fled and I called him a coward." Minerva found it hard to hold on to her normal composure, but knew it was important she appeared balanced. Harry needed her acting that way, and so did the Weasleys. Her gaze shifted from Harry to the newest painting which adorned the office. Albus appeared asleep – most conveniently, but she wasn't going to allow it. "Albus Dumbledore!" To her satisfaction, the wizard startled and looked at her in surprise. "You are responsible for this!"

"If by this you're referring to Harry's survival and Voldemort's demise then yes, I am."

"That's not what I meant and you know it!" She stalked over to the painting, placed her hands on her hips, and glared at the former Headmaster. "You manipulated all of us! Harry most of all! But you also used Severus as you saw fit!"

"It's what he wanted, Minerva. He wanted to help."

"No! He wanted to atone for something he never did! It was Wormtail who betrayed the Potters! It was Voldemort who killed them! Not Severus! But you nourished Severus' guilt, didn't you? You fed it, made sure it grew so he would never question you! Her voice failed her as she glared at Albus. "You didn't stop at anything, did you?"

"You must understand, Minerva. We faced destruction! If Voldemort had succeeded, if he had secured his reign, none of you would have survived. Severus knew this – it motivated him to give all of him. The cause…"

"The cause?" Minerva echoed the words and spat them right back at Albus. "You were dealing with people, Albus! And people have feelings!" Albus glared back at her; they had obviously reached a point where they couldn't carry on the discussion for fear of saying things they might regret later. "This is not the end of it," Minerva promised. "I will get to the bottom of this!"

"Minerva," Molly rose from her chair, walked over to the older witch and rested a hand on Minerva's arm. "You should bury the dead. You need to attend to Severus' remains, like we did with Fred." Burying her son had been the hardest thing she had ever done, but Molly knew she had had to follow through. Parents weren't supposed to outlive their children and her heart ached with loss, but she had carried out her duties. They had lain Fred to rest, and as far as Molly was concerned, Severus deserved nothing less, especially now that they knew the wizard had risked it all, just in order to keep Harry safe.

"I am so sorry for your loss," Minerva said, sensing how hard this was on Molly. She gathered Molly's hand in hers and gently squeezed it. "Fred was a brave soul – so very brave. He will never be forgotten." His name already adorned the wall of the Great Hall, sitting amidst of the names of the ones who had fallen fighting Voldemort.

"Thank you, Minerva. Now listen to me; see to Severus' remains at once. The longer you wait the harder it will get."

Minerva squeezed Molly's hand once more and felt deeply connected to the other woman. "You are right." She guided Molly's hand into Arthur's as the wizard had joined his wife. Minerva headed for the doorway, drawing upon all her strength – she needed to be strong to carry out the duty which had been placed upon her.

"I am coming along!" Harry ran up to her, and when Minerva stopped to tell him no, he shook his head. "Severus Snape spent most of his life protecting me and fighting Voldemort. I am entitled to this – I need to do this for him, don't you understand? When I left him at the Shack, I thought he was a traitor! I didn't offer him any comfort! I…" His voice failed him. "I need to make things right."

Minerva sighed and eventually nodded her consent. "We shall do this together then, Harry."

"We'll need Hagrid to help," Harry pointed out to her. "We'll need someone to carry professor Snape."

Minerva nodded again. "It will be the three of us then, Harry." She wished things had ended differently; wished defeating Voldemort hadn't demanded so many lives, so many sacrifices!

/

Minerva understood what Harry had been going through when they arrived at the Shack. Like Harry, she didn't want to face what was left of Severus Snape, but she also knew they had no choice. They owed Severus – owed him more than they could ever say.

In the end it was Hagrid who opened the door. The half-giant then stepped aside to let Harry and Minerva enter.

It was Minerva who moved first. She took a step into the Shack and then froze upon seeing the blood smeared floor. She was afraid to lower her gaze and to finally look upon the fallen form of her former friend. She stalled as long as she could. But then, sensing Harry moving forward next to her, she faced her worst fears and looked.

"Professor?"

Harry's voice barely registered with her, as she was trying to deal with shock herself. The window, although covered in blood and smashed, was just that - a window.

"Professor, where's the body? Who took him?"

The panic that echoed in Harry's voice brought her to her senses and she shook her head. "I have no idea." She stared at the bloodied floor and wondered the same thing. Where had Severus' body gone? She swayed, gripped by fear. Hopefully the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix hadn't taken the body. She could very well imagine them wanting to extract revenge on the man they held responsible for so many deaths.

Hagrid, who realized something was terribly wrong, remained quiet, but did look inside the Shack and he wondered about the same thing. Where had Snape's body gone?

"Professor," Harry's voice shook with emotion and tears dripped down his face, falling onto the darkened wood beneath his feet. "You don't think they took it, do you? They didn't burn it, did they? Please, I need to tell him that I am sorry!"

Minerva wrapped an arm around Harry, felt him shake himself to pieces and realized she was trembling as well. "I don't know what happened, Harry, but rest assured that I will find out." What if they had indeed taken the body? Had burned it? Or had done even more vile things to it? But no, they were respectable people and won't stoop that low – at least, she hoped so.

"What do we do?" Harry wiped at his tears, but couldn't bring himself to feel embarrassed for shedding them. As far as he was concerned he had an excellent reason for doing so.

"I will ask Kingsley," Minerva said, deciding on a course of action. "I need to contact him any way." She couldn't count on Arthur communicating their newest findings to the Minister. And she had to clear Severus' name. Now that she couldn't pay her last respects to Severus by looking after his burial, she would make sure his name would be cleared of all charges.

/

"Not there? How can his body be not there? That's where you left him, didn't you," Harry?" Albus seemed confused and frowned deeply.

"I watched him die, sir." Harry found it hard to speak. He had done his best NOT to remember what had happened in the Shack and now Dumbledore was making him.

"I believe Harry." Minerva said in a protective voice. "The only explanation I can come up with is that members of the Order found him and disposed of the body." There was no graceful way of saying it, and she regretting causing Harry pain. The boy's tears tore at her soul. Such a cruel way for fate to disclose the truth, without giving them a chance to set things right with Severus. This would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Albus however remained suspicious. "Let us think this through, my friends. Harry bears witness to Severus' death. He leaves the Shack and comes here in order to use the pensieve."

"We left him there, professor," Harry said, as he approached the painting. "Ron and Hermione watched him die too. When we closed that door behind us, he was still there. Something must have happened after we left. Someone must have come for him." He cringed. "Do you suppose it was a Death Eater or…?"

"No, Harry. Voldemort's supporters were busy fighting on their lord's behalf. I doubt Voldemort allowed any of them to remain behind. He wanted them up front."

"Then who took the body?" Minerva was about to add something else, when the fireplace cracked and Kingsley stepped into the office, looking grim.

"I received your message, Minerva, but I don't understand. Severus Snape was a traitor. He supported Voldemort! Do I need to remind you of how we chased him out of Hogwarts that day?"

"Kingsley," Minerva walked over to him, grabbed his arm, and pulled the wizard toward the pensieve. "Look and you'll understand." Kingsley gave her a suspicious look, but then complied and dove into the swirling memories. Minerva felt ill at ease, and guilty, recalling the scenes she had seen in the pensieve. Severus had practically sacrificed his soul in order to protect them – all of them.

After several minutes, which seemed to last for all eternity, Kingsley raised his head and straightened his back – looking thoroughly shocked. "How can this be?"

"Severus was an excellent actor." Albus' voice carried remorse. "He had to be in order to trick Voldemort, and the lot of you never trusted him to begin with – so, you only saw what you wanted to see. You never looked at his actions in detail. You don't know half of the things he did in order to secure your lives."

"Another talk is in order then, Albus," Minerva said determinedly. "For I will get to the bottom of this. Severus' name needs to be cleared of all charges. He deserves our recognition and our gratitude."

"It vexes me." Albus absentmindedly looked at the Headmasters and Headmistresses of old that occupied the other paintings. "How can his body vanish like that?"

Minerva sighed. She felt tired to the bone, and as Acting Headmistress she was also overseeing the repairs, keeping track of the wounded and the dead. She was trying to get most of the students home, and the ones who were determined to stay, like Harry and Neville, needed her attention as well.

"Minerva, I need you to tell me something."

"Can't it wait, Albus? I need to attend to the living." She hated herself for putting it that bluntly, but she had to get through to him. "Maybe Kingsley can help you figure everything out."

"No, Kingsley won't do," Albus continued, moving forward in the painting until he pressed against the edge. "Tell me, have you been in contact with Hogwarts?"

Minerva frowned and shrugged helplessly at seeing Harry's equally confused expression. "Albus, start making sense or…"

"The moment you become Headmaster, or Headmistress, Hogwarts turns into a part of you. The walls start whispering to you. The stairs shift at your bidding. The candles whisper secrets they caught while listening to the students. The walls, made of brick, mortar and magic, will move at your request. Tell me, Minerva, have you experienced any of these things?"

Minerva shifted her gaze from Harry to Albus. "I have no idea what you're talking about!"

"Ah!" Albus exclaimed and paced the confines of his painting. "But," He stopped pacing, came to a halt, shook his head, and then resumed walking. "That would mean… but that can't be… How could that be? It's not possible!"

"Professor!" Harry walked over to the painting and placed his hands on either side of the wooden frame. "I agree with professor McGonagall. What are you talking about?"

Albus' brow deepened and it took him a moment to make eye contact with Harry. "I don't want to give you hope when I shouldn't. I need a little time to make sure."

"Albus!" But Minerva was too late. Albus Dumbledore had already left his painting.

"Professor?" Harry turned around and gave Minerva a pleading look. "Do you have any idea what he's talking about?"

"I am sorry, Harry, but I don't." She moved over to him, wrapped an arm around his shoulder, and pulled him close. "I have known Albus for a very long time, and yet, I feel like I never knew him at all." She looked about the office – her office now as she was the new Headmistress. "He used us, Harry. He used us to attain his goal."

"Which was a very legitimate goal," Kingsley pointed out to her. "Had Voldemort's rise to power been permanent then - "

"I agree," Minerva said quickly. "But I don't agree with his methods! You heard Severus – he was right when he accused Albus of keeping Harry alive so he could die at the right moment! I am sorry, my dear boy," she said and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "But Severus was right about that!"

"Professor Snape really cared about me, didn't he?" Harry's eyes glazed over with tears, but he managed to fight them back. "He was always so mean. He always picked on me; he was a bully."

"It was an act." Minerva felt sorry for her former friend and collogue. "Circumstances demanded he acted that way."

"When in reality, he cared." Harry finally lost the battle and wiped away the tears which he had shed. "Why did he have to die, professor? Why did he have to die without me knowing the truth?"

"Go on, Harry," Minerva said, knowing how important it was that Harry spoke his mind. Keeping it all inside would make things worse for the boy.

"If only I'd had a chance to talk to him! One chance! I want to know so many things!" Harry raised his gaze and looked at Minerva. "I want to know his real feelings! I want to know…"

"You know he cared," Minerva pointed out to him. "You saw his memories. You know he would have done anything to keep you safe - to protect you from Voldemort. He cared about you, Harry."

"Cut yourself some slack," Kingsley said, after catching Harry's gaze. "Severus did everything he could in order to make sure you hated him. He never allowed you to look behind the mask he wore. You weren't supposed to know he cared. Remember, he was a master at his art. A true spy!"

"That doesn't make me feel better," Harry whispered and stared out of the window, which offered him a perfect view of the Shack. "He could have told me when he was dying! He could have…" Angry with himself, the world, and Severus Snape in particular, he slammed his fist against the wall. Pain shot through his hand, instantly making him regret that move. "He should have told me!"

"From what you said, Harry, I gather that Severus didn't have much time." Kingsley sighed. "He was dying and wanted to warn you about Albus' plan. He didn't want you to die."

"I know that, but I still feel angry." Harry glared at the Shack, wishing Snape had never went there. For one insane moment, he considered using the time turner to travel back in time and to confront Snape. But he would never get permission to do so.

"Minerva! Harry! Kingsley! I was right!"

The three of them turned at hearing Albus' voice, which shook with excitement. Minerva strode toward the painting and cocked her head, her hat balancing delicately on her head. "Albus – give us the truth – tell us now, and if you use riddles then I will..." But she didn't finish her threat as Albus raised his hands in surrender.

"Don't you see? Don't you understand?" Albus' eyes danced with excitement and he paced restlessly, cursing the limited space his painting presented him with.

"Professor," Harry said in a tired voice tight with emotion. "Please!"

"Oh right, sorry." Albus calmed down at seeing Harry's defeated expression. "No need to be glum, my boy! No reason indeed!"

"Professor!" Harry raised his head and glared at the former Headmaster. "My patience is growing thin." His right hand turned into a fist; he had a hard time controlling his emotions.

"Let me explain then." Albus locked gazes with Harry, wanting to make sure the boy understood what he was about to share. "The moment I was named Headmaster, Hogwarts itself reached out to me. The castle consists of magic; it is an entity on his own and the Headmaster, or Headmistress," he added, looking at Minerva, "needs to be in tune with it. So Headmaster and castle become one. That's the main reason I was able to apparate at will."

"But I never experienced anything like that." Minerva shook her head, growing exasperated. "That never happened to me."

"Exactly!" Albus exclaimed cheerfully. "And that's it!"

"I hope someone will stop me when I try to…" Harry's fist tightened further and his wand appeared in his other hand, seemingly ready to force Albus to make sense.

"Keep calm, Harry. He can't help himself, I am afraid. He has always been like this," Kingsley pointed out. "Trust me, it annoys the hell out of me too." He settled a, hopefully calming, hand on Harry's shoulder.

"When Minerva was named Headmistress, Hogwarts should have connected with her, but it didn't! Now why do you reckon that was?" Albus gave them a smile, which slowly turned into a smug grin.

"Albus, we don't know! You might have realized that!" Minerva spat at him.

"Oh, sorry, well…" Albus had the grace to look ashamed. "It's because you are not Headmistress here, Minerva."

"That's nonsense. The board appointed me. I am the new Headmistress."

"According to the board of governors, yes, but not as far as Hogwarts is concerned." Albus started to look more smug with every passing second.

"Professor, please." Harry was not beyond begging at that point. "Just tell us."

"My dear boy, Minerva can't be the new Headmistress because Hogwarts still has a Headmaster!"

Minerva drew in her breath and forgot to breathe. "What are you saying? That Severus lives? But Harry watched him die!"

Harry suddenly became animated and started shuffling his feet. "Snape's still alive? Is that what you're saying? But that can't be! I watched him die! Ron and Hermione were there too! They witnessed Snape's death as well!"

Albus moved closer to the edge of the painting and started to whisper, as if worried someone might overhear him. "Severus always was a clever man, Harry. How do you think he survived for so long? As a double-agent he had to be extremely cunning. He always had to stay several steps ahead of both of us; Voldemort and myself. I did wonder, when you told me that Severus didn't even attempt to defend himself against Voldemort. That doesn't sound like the Severus I have come to know throughout the years. He always had a backup plan in case something went wrong. Severus would never have entered that Shack without some escape in place – especially considering the fact that you were still alive. Severus might have embarked on a suicide mission had you been killed, but his main prerogative was always to keep you alive, Harry! He wouldn't go willingly go to his death knowing he would leave you behind to battle Voldemort. He would have made sure he survived in order to protect you."

Harry blinked; Dumbledore's reasoning made sense— made perfect sense, but… "I watched him die! Voldemort slashed his throat and Snape was bleeding – profusely. Nagini attacked him. She bit him, sir. The venom dripped from the wounds and there's no way he could have survived. He died!"

"That's what Severus wants you to think! He arranged his death, like I orchestrated mine."

Albus' words caused Minerva's skin to crawl. She had closely listened to Albus and thought she knew what the former Headmaster was implying. "But how can Severus be alive?"

"It is the only explanation, Minerva. Severus must be alive, otherwise Hogwarts would have reached out to you in order to form that bond. But it didn't, which can only mean its bond with Severus is still intact."

"Are you saying that he's hiding?" Kingsley had listened in disbelief. "But why would he do that? Especially since the truth about him is out. Arthur has told the Wizengamot that Severus was a double agent. No one will banish him to Azkaban!"

"Severus isn't afraid of Azkaban!" Albus instantly dismissed the suggestion. "Neither does he care about the Wizengamot's opinion of him. There's only one person's opinion that matters to him; Harry's."

"You believe he's hiding because of me?" Harry found that hard to believe. "But why would he do that?"

"You know the truth about him now, Harry. Severus never wanted anyone to know about his dedication to the cause. He made that very clear."

"I remember; I heard him say that no one could know." Harry frowned upon reliving that moment. "But that doesn't matter anymore. That's in the past! Voldemort's gone! That threat is gone!"

"Yes, Voldemort's gone, but that doesn't mean Severus stopped feeling guilty about the part he played in the beginning. Harry, he never forgave himself for trusting Voldemort – for delivering part of that prophecy, and I must admit, to my shame, that I never corrected him. I allowed him to feel guilty because I needed him. I needed him to spy on Voldemort for me."

Harry suddenly turned away from the painting, and Minerva's heart went out to him, understanding what he had to be going through. Albus had manipulated them – all of them.

"Where is he?" Harry looked at the painting from over his shoulder. "Where can I find him? Where is hiding, sir?" But that last word carried a lot of resentment and none of the normal warmth.

"I don't know, Harry. If Severus doesn't want to be found, it will be hard to contact him. Hogwarts will aid him in every way it can. After all, Severus is still Headmaster here and I must add that Hogwarts is extremely loyal to its Headmaster – it always was loyal to me, but it seems to have taken a particular liking to Severus. As a former Headmaster myself, I am still connected to the castle, but it's hiding Severus – even from me."

"I will find him!" Harry said determinedly. "No matter what it takes! I WILL find him!"

Minerva's heart twitched in sympathy – she wanted answers as well, but her battle was with Albus, as she was determined to find out about ALL the plans Albus had made – all the scheming which had involved Harry – and Severus – and maybe still did.

"I do hope Harry finds Severus," Kingsley said. "That boy deserves a happy ending."

"And so does, Severus," Minerva mused. "They both do."

/

How to find Snape? If Dumbledore was right; if Severus was set on hiding, it would be nearly impossible to locate him. Even more so if Hogwarts was truly helping Snape.

Wandering about aimlessly, Harry tried to come up with a solution. Snape had been severely injured and he doubted even Hogwarts could offer the man an instant cure. It had been three days since he had left Snape for dead, so if he was right, Severus was still weak and he might need potions in order to pull through. Potions, now where would Snape get those? Working from the assumption that the man was still too weak to brew his own potions, he had to get them from somewhere. Snape would have plundered his private stock first, but what if he had run out?

Madam Pomfrey… Yes, he was going to visit her and see what he could find out about her stock. He would subtly inquire about missing potions.

/

"Harry!" Neville raised a hand in greeting and, after finishing pouring a liquid into a vial, went over to Harry. "I didn't expect to see you here! Most of the wounded have gone back to their dormitories or home. Things have settled down at last."

Maybe Neville could help. "Neville, professor McGonagall asked me to fetch her some potions. Can you show me where to find them?" It would be best if he could avoid asking Madam Pomfrey altogether, for she might want to know why he needed those potions to begin with.

"I can help," Neville said warmly, as he guided Harry into the storage room. "What do you need?"

Harry had –regrettably – never excelled at Potions class. Only the Half-blood Prince's textbook had gotten him through the last course. "Blood replenishing potion," he said eventually. Snape must have lost a large amount of blood. "And something that would flush snake-poison from someone's body." He did wish he had paid more attention during Snape's classes!

"Did someone get bitten?" Neville frowned as he searched the shelves for their content. "I like animals, but Voldemort's snake was…" He shivered. "I still have nightmares about that monster."

Nagini… kill

Harry had heard Voldemort give that order and a moment later the monster had flung its huge body at Snape, crushing and biting him. "I reckon one of Hagrid's pets escaped and bit one of the first years…" But the moment those words left his lips, he knew them to be a mistake. "Neville…" He had to be honest; had to tell the truth. He couldn't start lying now.

Neville paused his search to look at Harry instead. "Yes?"

"Forget I ever said that. The truth is that Snape is still alive." Saying the words made him feel relieved. He had needed to say them in order to believe them. "Dumbledore thinks Snape survived and that he's hiding inside the castle." Neville's eyes widened, not in shock, but with hope. It was a good thing he had told everyone who had wanted to listen about the memories he had seen in the pensieve for it meant that Neville, and his other friends, knew that Snape had been on their side all along.

"Did you…?" Neville searched for words. "Did you already find him? Is that why you need the potions?"

"No, I have no idea where's hiding, but I reckon he needs those potions. Nagini bit him. He lost a lot of blood and he has to replenish it. I also believe he needs to flush the venom from his body so…"

Neville blinked and considered Harry's words. "That makes sense, if Snape's still alive that is."

"Professor Dumbledore thinks so."

"In that case, Snape will need all the potions he can get his hands on. Professor Slughorn and I had a quick look at that snake's venom and it's very potent." Neville spotted an empty spot on the shelf and frowned. "That's odd; we should have plenty of blood replenishing potion."

"I was right; he's getting them from the storage area then. He must have emptied his own stock."

"In that case, Snape will be needing new supplies and I don't know of another place where he can get it from. I doubt professor Slughorn keeps it in his rooms."

"Neville, can you make some? And make sure it doesn't vanish? We need to be here when Snape comes for it."

Neville's gaze however remained trained on the shelves as he discovered several more empty spots. "That's not the only thing he's taking. Three more bottles have gone. He's medicating himself. I do hope he knows what he's doing. He might be a potions master, but he isn't a healer."

"We need to find him, Neville. Can you tell the others to keep an eye out for him? If we want to find him, we need all the help we can get!"

"I will alert Luna, Seamus, Hermione," Neville said, "And the professors too?"

"We can't keep this a secret. If we do, Snape will find a way to slip through our fingers, and Neville, I am fed up with him lying to me. I need the truth."

"I will do my best, Harry. You know that you can count on me. First things first though. I will ask professor Slughorn to get started on those potions, and I will fetch you once they're ready. You want to set a trap?"

"If necessary, yes. I wish Snape would show himself out of his own accord, but I doubt that will happen." He had to make sure he got a hold of Snape – one way or the other!

/

As he walked through the corridors, Harry kept an eye out for anything unusual. If Dumbledore was right, Hogwarts itself was spying for Snape in an attempt to safeguard its Headmaster. Reaching a deserted corridor, Harry came to a halt. He watched the paintings in detail; its inhabitants were giving him equally inquisitive looks. Wait, if Hogwarts was looking after Snape then maybe…

"Professor Snape?" Harry hated the way his voice shook; he wanted it to sound steady instead. "I believe you can hear me. Dumbledore thinks you're hiding. Basically because of me. I just want you to know that you don't need to hide from me. I just want to talk to you. I want to know the truth." Was it just his imagination or was Hogwarts itself holding its breath? And the inhabitants of those paintings seemed unable to keep their eyes off of him. Did that mean he had caught Snape's attention? He hoped so.

He started to walk again, but kept a close eye on the paintings, as he felt their eyes upon him. He was being watched – followed. "I asked professor McGonagall, Molly and Arthur Weasley to use the pensieve too. They know you're no traitor. And Kingsley knows it too. They're working on getting your name cleared. At first, I thought we should add your name to those who fell fighting Voldemort, but considering you're still alive, that won't be necessary. We can say thank you in person. If you will show yourself, that is."

Harry chuckled. "I feel silly talking like this, but I am convinced you are listening. I asked Neville to get more of the potions you need and he's working on them." Gripped by fear, Harry halted, raised his head, and stared into the dark corridor in front of him. "You are doing better, aren't you? I don't understand how you survived Nagini's attack. I saw the puncture wounds she left behind and…" He rubbed his arms, as he felt cold. Had the temperature just dropped? "Professor, I want to talk to you. I need to! I am not beyond begging. Please! Can't you give me a some sign so I know you're alive? And recovering? I don't want you to die because no one's looking after you."

And then he played his trump. "You know, my mother wouldn't want that. She wouldn't want you to die after you protected me from Voldemort for so many years. Lily wouldn't want that!" Harry held his breath – hoping, maybe even praying that Snape would respond to his plea. But he had been wrong; not even mentioning Lily drew Snape from his hiding place. "I don't understand," he whispered in the end. Why was Snape hiding? What was the older man afraid of?

/

"Are you sure Severus is still alive, Albus? Absolutely sure?" Horace Slughorn found the things Minerva had told him hard to believe.

"I am sure, Horace, my old friend. Now that I have started listening to the murmurs inside these walls, I am convinced Severus is hiding somewhere inside the castle."

"No need to check on the Shack then," Kingsley, who had returned from the Ministry, commented. "But where then?"

"He could be anywhere. Hogwarts' magic can move him from one place to the other." It was obvious that Albus didn't like this one bit. "We need to set a trap."

"We're almost done brewing those potions," Neville said and Horace nodded his consent. "But we should think about how we set that trap."

Hermione, who had been listening rather than talking, nodded. "But, won't professor Snape know it's a trap before we even set it? Who's to say he isn't listening in on us right now?"

All present looked about the office; feeling watched all of a sudden.

"Yes, Albus, Miss Granger raises a valid point. Can Severus hear us?" Minerva asked the former Headmaster.

"He might. I am not sure. These rooms are warded, but the problem is Severus might have altered them to his liking. Neither Minerva nor I can cast spells here. This space belongs to the Headmaster and that's still Severus."

"So why are we even bothering with secrecy?" Neville asked. "If professor Snape can hear everything we're saying than setting a trap serves no purpose."

"But what if Severus is resting?" Madam Pomfrey looked at the painting holding Albus. "If he's still recovering from Voldemort's attack he might not be awake all the time. He could be asleep."

"We're guessing. We can't be sure what he's doing or what condition he is in." Arthur sought out Harry's eyes. "The thing that worries me the most is Severus' condition. What if he is deteriorating and no longer able to dose himself using those potions? What if he isn't responding because he's unconscious? What if he needs help and we're stuck here discussing traps?"

"Is there a way to find out what's happening with him, Albus?" questioned Minerva. "Is there?"

"I don't know." Albus however seemed to be thinking something over.

"I tried to lure him out earlier," Harry said after having listened to his friends. "I had the distinct feeling I was being watched."

"That might have been Hogwarts itself and not Severus," Horace commented. "We can't be sure!"

Fang, who had sat quietly at Hagrid's feet, suddenly got up from the floor and raised his head – as if sniffing something. "Fang!" Hagrid was about to tell the hound to lie down again, when Minerva quickly stopped him. She shook her head and focused on the dog instead.

Harry quickly caught on. Dogs had uncanny instincts and maybe Fang was sensing something they couldn't – maybe the hound sensed Snape drawing near.

Albus' voice suddenly swept through the room, doing away with the uncanny sensation that had formed. "Minerva, I do think we should try to find a new teacher. We need to teach the students some defenses against the dark arts, even with Voldemort gone. We won this battle and we can be sure Voldemort will never return, but you never know if someone else will grow power hungry. Maybe professor Lockheart has recovered enough to take up his old post?"

Harry looked at Dumbledore in surprise. What was the wizard doing?

"With Voldemort gone we can afford Gilderoy to take up his old post. After all, there is no immediate threat. Students and staff at Hogwarts are quite safe."

Harry suddenly gasped. Could it be that Dumbledore thought Snape didn't know how the battle had ended? Was he doing his best to assure Snape that it was safe now?

Minerva seemed to have caught on as well. "Are you going to allow him another chance at that dueling club of his? The last time he tried to duel Severus, Lockheart was miserably beaten."

Harry sensed a change coming over the room, and by looking at his friends, he could tell they felt it too. Fang had made himself comfortable in front of the fireplace and started to snore softly. It had to be Snape's doing! It must!

Harry looked at Dumbledore's painting again and saw the old wizard mouth words – incantations - non-verbal spells, and wondered what that was about.

No!

The word drifted into the room and since everyone else looked startled too, Harry was sure they had heard it to – and it had been Snape's voice!

No, Albus… I won't allow it…

Harry blinked, realizing Dumbledore had stopped mumbling. Fang seemed to wake again, stretched, and stared into the fire. Shivers travelled up Harry's spine and he knew they had blown it; they had missed their chance to draw Snape out. "What were you doing, sir?" Harry said, addressing Dumbledore.

"Trying to lure him out into the open! Severus might still be Headmaster, but I know some tricks of my own."

"You shouldn't have done that, Albus," Minerva said in a saddened voice. "Severus must have thought you were setting him up."

"Of course he did! After all, I was setting him up all right."

Harry sighed and wished the old wizard would stop tricking Snape. "He might have shown himself if you hadn't tried to manipulate him."

"Maybe, maybe not," Albus answered cryptically. "But I accomplished what I set out to do."

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "And what is that?"

"Prove to you – beyond any doubt – that Severus is alive."

Minerva rolled back her eyes. "You didn't have to chase him away in order to do that."

"But I learned something else as well."

"Do I want to know?" Harry muttered beneath his breath.

"You do, my boy. I know where you can find Severus."

Harry jumped to his feet and ran over to the painting. "Where, sir? Where can I find him? Tell me!"

"The room of requirement of course! I should have thought of it earlier!"

Harry however didn't hear that last part as he was already running out of the office and up the stairs, closely followed by Neville Longbottom.

/

Harry was panting and short of breath when he finally reached the room of requirement. Why hadn't he thought of it? The room of requirement was an odd place to begin with!

"Harry, wait! You might need these!" Neville had caught up with Harry. "I have the potions you asked for!"

Harry's hands trembled when Neville put the vials into them, but he quickly and resolutely closed his fingers over them, determined to hold on and to not drop them. Snape probably needed them – badly. "Thanks, Neville!"

"Do you want me to tag along? I won't get involved, promise," Neville offered.

Harry briefly considered the offer and then accepted. He might need someone to back him up in case Snape tried anything. "Keep an eye out for anything Snape does. We should be prepared for anything."

"You make it sound like we're fighting Voldemort all over again."

"Honestly? I'd rather face Voldemort than Snape. At least, with Voldemort we knew what we were up against. With Snape I have no clue what will happen."

Neville briefly rested a hand on Harry's shoulder and squeezed. "It's only Snape, Harry. Keep in mind that he isn't the bully we always thought him to be. He cares for you. Just think of everything he did in order to keep you safe."

Harry nodded and felt grateful Neville had reminded him of that. "You're right. He isn't the enemy. He is a friend." Keeping that mind, he pushed down the door handle. He had no idea what to expect, but when he stepped into the room, he stepped into Snape's familiar dungeon where the potions master had held his classes. The dungeon was empty though – no cauldrons, no tables. It was empty save for a single wooden chair standing at the other side of the room, with Snape occupying it. Harry forced himself to keep moving and he felt strengthened knowing Neville was a few steps behind him.

He walked up to the Potions Master, and while he did, noted how pale and exhausted Snape looked. The eyes, dark and hollow, burned with fever and the fingers, which clawed the armrest, were brownish red because blood had formed a crust on them. But Snape was alive, and nothing else mattered as far as Harry was concerned. Everything else could be remedied by Madam Pomfrey.

"Sir," Harry said as he came to a halt in front of the Potions Master. Snape eyed him critically, a sneer already in place on his face, but Harry saw through the pretence, knowing it was just an act Snape was putting on.

"Mister… Potter."

Although Snape was trying for his usual snarl, he utterly failed at pulling it off. Harry was shocked to hear how weak the other man sounded, and how drained Snape looked. He continued to stare at Snape, afraid the older wizard would vanish the moment he took his eyes off of him. Harry uncovered the vials and offered them to Snape. "You need them."

Snape stared at the vials, but didn't reach for them. "And why… should I… trust anything… the two of you… brewed?"

Harry realized that Snape was trying to distance himself the way the older man had used to in the past, but he was damned if he was going to allow it. "We had the best teacher, sir!"

"I didn't know… Horace… was that great… a teacher."

Harry grew alarmed when drops of fresh blood dripped onto Snape's white collar. "You shouldn't be talking, sir! It's causing the wound to reopen." He had to do something, had to stop this ridicules act! Snape needed Madam Pomfrey to attend to him! He needed to lie down in a comfortable bed and rest – not sit here, keeping himself upright with obvious effort. He looked like he would slump forward and hit the floor any moment now! That realization caused Harry to act. He moved over to Snape, sat on his heels, and steadied the older man when he swayed dangerously. "You need help!"

"I can… take care…of myself."

"Not this time!" Harry cringed; hating the fact that he had been right. Snape's throat was still tender, and speaking had caused the wound to start bleeding again. "Please, let us take care of you." Snape had allowed him to find him – that had to mean something! "Let me do this for you! You have done so much for me!"

"Much too little… much too late… I should have…done much better."

"Neville, help me. We need to get him to the hospital wing." He could only pray that Snape would allow it. "Please, sir, please let us do this. My mother would have wanted it." He knew he shouldn't be doing this, but he was afraid Snape would never agree to it otherwise. "For Lily?"

Snape's dark eyes fastened on his and Harry's heart thundered in his chest upon seeing the hurt in those hooded eyes. "I know you love her." It felt like sinking down to Dumbledore's level, but Harry didn't care. He had to make Snape comply.

"Always," Snape whispered before losing consciousness.

Harry had been afraid that Snape would disappear beneath his very hands, but thankfully, the older wizard didn't. Harry caught Snape when he slumped forward, and, aided by Neville, he moved him until he was leaning back in his chair. "Neville, get professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey. They know what to do. I'll stay with him. Go!" Harry watched Neville run out of the room and then turned his attention back to Snape. "Thank you," he prayed to whatever force that had Snape alive until now. "Thank you!" Now that he had found Snape, he wasn't going to let him slip through his fingers again!

/

"Careful now, Hagrid! Watch it! Oh my…" Madam Pomfrey looked on in worry as the half Giant lowered Severus Snape onto the hospital bed. "What was he thinking? Hiding instead of getting treatment!" She looked absolutely abhorred upon seeing the amount of damage Voldemort and Nagini had done. "Harry, help me, will you? Neville, I will need those vials in a moment. Hagrid, can you fetch me some hot water and bandages?" She was too busy attending to her patient to bother using magic in order to gather the things she needed. "We need to get him out of those robes!"

Harry's face contorted; Snape's familiar black robes were drenched in blood. It took time and effort to peel them off of him. Harry wasn't sure he could continue to help upon seeing the amount of damage Nagini had done. Arms, chest, and neck had been punctured and black drab oozed from the wounds.

"Hold him, will you, Harry?" Madam Pomfrey worked quickly, and now that Harry was supporting her patient she efficiently set to cleaning and bandaging the wounds.

"The potions!" Neville offered. "I have them."

Madam Pomfrey pried her patient's mouth open and fed him the healing potions. "Swallow, Severus!" It took her a few minutes, but she succeeded into coaxing the unconscious man to swallow the concoctions. "I should be really angry with you for not coming to see me right away," she whispered tiredly. "But then again, you always made it hard on anyone to care for you."

At Madam Pomfrey's request, Harry lowered Snape back onto the bed. "Shouldn't we clean him up?" Part of Snape's body was still covered in blood.

"I shall do so later, my dear, but he needs to rest right now. We should disturb him as little as possible." She drew the covers up to Severus' chest and then looked at Hagrid. "Burn those things, will you?"

Hagrid looked at the soaked robes and nodded before exiting the room.

"I am staying," Harry announced. "Don't tell me to leave because I won't."

"You can stay," Minerva said upon entering the room. It was obvious she was trying to act controlled, but the sight of Severus, pale and exhausted, caused her to wipe at her eyes. "Poppy, how bad is he?"

"Recovery will take time," she said after casting several spells in order to determine his condition. "We were right on time. He wouldn't have survived much longer – not on his own."

Minerva walked up to the bed and gathered Severus' hand in hers. She cringed at seeing the amount of dried blood that clung to the wrist and fingers. "You acted most foolishly, Severus Snape. If it hadn't been for young mister Potter here…"

Harry wondered why she was addressing Snape when the man was still unconscious, but then remembered he had needed to say the words aloud in order to convince himself that Snape was still alive as well. "He's going to recover, professor," he said. "I will see to that."

His determination brought a smile to Minerva's face. "Don't overdo it, Harry. I know you mean well, but keep in mind that Severus probably still thinks you hate the very sight of him. You need to do this step by step."

"I will, professor." Harry pulled a chair closer to Snape's bed and sat down, studying him. His mother had befriended Snape when she had been a child, and judging by what he had seen in the pensieve, Snape had adored Lily in turn – had loved her. He had to put his trust in his mother's judgment; Harry simply couldn't believe she would care for someone who didn't deserve to be loved. Somewhere, deeply hidden beneath the mask Snape had worn all those years, had to be the person Lily had cared for so deeply. Harry was determined to find out what Snape really was like.

No, not Snape, but Severus, Harry thought, he was going to find out what Severus was really like. Now that Voldemort was gone, it was time to start anew, and if one person deserved a second chance, it was most certainly Severus Snape!

/

Harry kept a close eye on his patient. Each time Snape tried to claw his way out of bed, Harry stopped him. Neville remained close as well, just in case Harry needed him and Harry deeply appreciated his friend's help.

"Do you think he will stay like that much longer?" Neville stood next to the bed and watched Snape fight his nightmares. "The fever is slowly going down, but he doesn't look like he's improving."

"It's too early for that." Harry had listened closely when Madam Pomfrey had discussed Snape's condition with professor McGonagall. "The venom spread through his entire body. He needs time," he said eventually as he didn't want to dwell on the amount of damage Voldemort and his pet snake had done. "You don't need to stay," he said, but it was a lie. He did hope that Neville would stay. Now that Hermione was spending most of her time with Ron, helping him deal with losing Fred, he was leaning more and more on Neville. Thankfully Neville had risen to the occasion and supported him every way he could.

"I am not leaving, Harry! Forget it." Neville sat down on the window sill and watched Snape, who was still tightly locked in a nightmare and moving about in a restless way. "The horrors he must have seen…"

Harry looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"

"Think about it. He had to make Voldemort believe he was on his side. Knowing Voldemort the way we do he must have tested Snape's loyalty on several occasions." Neville shuddered; merely the thought of having to be in Nagini's presence made him nauseous. "Can you imagine doing what professor Snape did? Heading into Voldemort's lair like that? Being a double-agent? Knowing what Voldemort would do if he ever found out the truth?"

Harry blinked. "That's why he was so ruthless when he tried to teach me Occlumency!"

"Snape did that?" Neville looked impressed. "It's a rare gift – being able to control your mind in that way, but I guess for him it was a means to ensure his survival."

"He probed my mind, Neville. He stopped at nothing and I hated him for that! I thought…" Harry suddenly realized what kind of life Snape must have had in the past. "Snape excelled at it because Voldemort would do it to him – in order to find out if he was truly loyal or maybe he did so for fun." His voice rose sharply when he added that last bit. "Voldemort did love to hurt people just because it amused him."

"I doubt Snape will ever tell us." Neville raised his legs, made himself comfortable, and continued to study their patient.

"Neville?"

"Yes?"

Harry hesitated, but then plunged on. "I'm scared. I always thought him to be one of Voldemort's agents. When he killed professor Dumbledore, I wanted to kill him in turn, I really did. If it hadn't been for the shock at seeing him kill Dumbledore I would have attacked Snape."

"Let's be grateful you didn't, for that would have put Snape in an impossible position. With Bellatrix watching his every move, he couldn't have looked the other way."

Harry nodded. He didn't know himself what would have happened had he followed through and had put them in that particular situation.

/

"Harry, you should eat! Take a shower and change into a new set of clothes!"

Harry eyed Madam Pomfrey suspiciously. During the three days he had kept watch at Snape's bed, she had managed to lure him out of the room on two occasions. Each time he had returned, Snape had looked worse. He realized it was because she had changed his dressings, and in order to do so, she had had to move him about. This time however, he wasn't going to fall for it. "I am staying!"

"Harry, I need to bath him, clean his wounds, and change his bandages! I doubt he wants you to see him like that – even when he's still asleep, yes."

Madam Pomfrey had made a valid point and Harry grudgingly agreed to go the dormitory in order to catch that shower. He could bring lunch with him though and eat it there.

/

Exactly one hour later Harry stalked back into the sick room. Snape was still asleep and this time his rest was peaceful. During the night, Neville and he had been busy trying to calm Snape, who had suffered one nightmare after the other. Neville's comment had caused him to worry; yes, what horrors had Snape witnessed while serving Voldemort?

"I should have known I would find you here!" Minerva walked over to him and pulled another chair closer to the bed. "I had expected Neville to be here too."

"I told him to get some sleep and he actually listened." Harry chuckled. "Madam Pomfrey tried to do the same thing, but he didn't listen to her."

"It's good to see you smile, Harry." Her gaze shifted to Severus. "Severus will need your support once he wakes up. I am still grateful that he allowed you to find him. Poppy told me he would have died otherwise – not even Hogwarts itself could have kept him alive."

"So Snape still is Headmaster?"

"Yes, *professor* Snape is still Headmaster or maybe we should refer to him as Severus instead?"

Harry understood why she had made that suggestion. To him, Snape was a bully who had pestered him all those years. Severus was an unknown factor, as he didn't know the man behind the mask.

"Are you sure you don't want to follow Neville's example and get some rest?"

"I want to be here when he wakes up! I need to talk to him. Ask him things."

She nodded. "I understand that, but Harry, remember what I told you. Don't overwhelm him, for if you do, I fear he might retreat back behind his mask."

"Don't worry, professor," he assured her. "I will be careful."

/

Harry was watching his patient closely and that was the very reason he noticed the minute way Snape's eyelids began to twitch. Was it another nightmare? Or was the older man finally waking up? He moved closer to the bed and carefully sat down on the side. He didn't dare make a sound – or speak for fear he might upset Snape's sleep. Neville hadn't returned yet, and Harry didn't know how he felt about that. A part of him needed his friend's support, but at the same time he was thrilled that he had some privacy.

He watched Snape closely and held his breath, hoping the older man would wake up. He wanted to look Severus Snape in the eyes and *see* the truth beneath the lies. When Snape finally did open his eyes, Harry found it hard to draw in his next breath. He had never thought this moment would come and now he found himself face to face with the man whom he had thought he knew so well – but, that had all been lies!

The expression in Snape's eyes darkened and Harry almost reacted the way he had in the past – by getting out of Snape's way and putting some distance between them. But not time, he vowed. This time he would stand his ground. "Headmaster," he said, after dismissing the first thing that had come to mind, namely calling him Snape. Things had changed and he had to go with the flow.

"Mis…ter….Pot…"

Harry grew worried upon realizing just how weak Snape really was. But wasn't that to be expected? The blood loss and Nagini's venom had nearly killed the older man. "You are at the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey is looking after you and I volunteered to sit with you." No more lies, no more pretence; if he wanted a second chance he had to start now. He couldn't allow Snape to push his buttons or to return to his old behavior. In a way, he felt like he had to grow up – right now. "Neville and I found you just in time."

He had expected Snape to avoid looking at him, but to his surprise, the older man continued to stare at him. That was when Harry realized that Snape needed the contact as much as he did. Snape was just too weak to voice it. Should he resort to Legilimency? But that was hardly appropriate considering the poor state Snape was in. No, he had to be patient instead! Snape had been patient for years, making sure he was safe! I can wait a few more days, Harry thought. He could be patient – for Snape's sake.

Snape's right hand twitched and the injured man attempted to lift it, but since it was bandaged, Harry quickly gathered it in his. "You shouldn't move about yet. Your wounds have been taken care of, but it would be best if you stayed still." But it was obvious that Snape wanted to tell him something.

"The…pen…"

Harry understood at once. "I took your tears to the pensieve as instructed; I know what happened during all those years." Snape's eyes closed and Harry grew worried that he had done something wrong. "You helped. You helped me defeat Voldemort." Snape flinched and Harry hated the fact that the mere mention of that name upset the older man. "He's gone! Voldemort won't come back and we're safe. Thanks to you." Snape started to turn his head away from him, but Harry acted faster. "Don't do that. Your throat is still tender." Snape stilled, but Harry could tell that the older man would rather avoid him at this point. "Go back to sleep if you can. I don't know if it is any consolation to you, but I promise to stay with you. Neville will probably join us shortly. You don't mind, do you?"

But Snape had lost the fight to stay awake and had gone back to sleep. Harry smiled. Snape had woken up and Harry was absolutely certain that his patient would continue to improve. The worst was behind them.

/

"It's definitely a good sign that he regained consciousness, even if it was only for a short time," Madam Pomfrey stated rather pleased. "The fever is still going down too. It seems the potions are finally working."

Harry and Neville exchanged looks. Both boys felt pleased that their efforts were paying off.

"It will take our Headmaster days, maybe even weeks, to recover. You need to be patient with him," Madam Pomfrey told them. "Don't expect him to be back on his feet by tomorrow."

"Is there anything you can do for him regarding his nightmares?" Neville inquired. "They hardly leave him alone and it is worse during the night."

"If I give him the Dreamless Draught it will weaken him. Some ingredients don't mix well with the blood replenishing potion, I am afraid." She gave them a look that spoke of sympathy. "The faster his condition improves the less likely it will be that the nightmares will continue to overwhelm him."

Harry disliked the fact that they couldn't provide Snape with a peaceful sleep, but he reckoned that Madam Pomfrey knew best.

"In the meantime, carry on what you are doing, boys. Your presence here seems to be helping." She winked at them and then returned to her office.

"We're doing too little," Harry said, uncaring he sounded impatient. "Why can't we do more?"

"And what would you like to do? Harry, you heard her. Snape needs to recover, and in order to do so he needs time. I understand that you want answers, but you must wait."

"When he woke up I actually considered using Legilimency in order to get them." Upon hearing Neville draw in his breath, he cringed. "I didn't do it! I would never do something like that to him." Voldemort would have though; Voldemort would have taken what he had needed – uncaring if in doing so he hurt Snape.

"Good morning, boys." Minerva approached and smiled warmly at them. "Poppy told me the good news. Did Severus say anything when he was awake?"

"Not much," Harry replied. "He wanted to know if I had used the pensieve and I told him I did." He recalled the shocked expression on Snape's face and suddenly wasn't looking forward to finally speaking in detail to the older wizard. That talk was going to be awkward at the very least.

"Albus wants me to take him here." Minerva shook his head. "I have told him no, but he grows irritating when his wishes aren't granted."

Harry shook his head. "Don't give in. Snape isn't ready yet for an interrogation - professor Snape," he added quickly upon seeing she was to correct him again.

"Is there anything I can do in order to help?" Minerva offered.

"Keep Dumbledore away for now," Harry said after thinking it over. He didn't want Dumbledore messing with Snape's thoughts just yet.

"I will do so," Minerva promised as she patted his shoulder. "Don't forget to take care of yourself too," she said in an urgent voice.

"I have Neville to keep an eye on me."

Neville nodded. "Rest assured, professor, that I will kick his ass should he overdo it."

Harry grinned at hearing that. He would love to see Neville try!

/

Harry pulled the blanket, which had slipped, back up and tucked the fabric around Snape's sleeping form. According to Madam Pomfrey the fever continued to decrease and she expected Snape to wake up more frequently during the next few days. Harry hoped she was right because he really needed to talk to the older wizard. He studied Snape, who was shifting on the bed, obviously in the grip of yet another developing nightmare. And so Harry sat down on the side of the bed and tried to get through to the sleeping man. "Sir, you're at the hospital wing and Neville and I are looking after you. All is well." He didn't want to mention Voldemort's name, because he had learned it usually worsened Snape's nightmare. "Professor McGonagall visited earlier and she was happy to hear that you're doing better." He looked to Neville for help, but the other boy merely nodded his head and urged him to continue talking. "Hagrid wants to visit too, but Madam Pomfrey refuses to let him bring Fang in here. Hagrid didn't like that."

Harry felt relieved when Snape calmed down at last. Maybe his reassuring way was helping the older man relax. "Madam Pomfrey made some tea and said you could have some, if you wake up, that is." Snape stirred again, and this time, the older man's eyes opened. "Looks like I should get you some. Would you like milk with it?" Snape simply stared at him and Harry found it hard to stay quiet. He had so many questions, but it was obvious that Snape was in no condition to answer them – not yet.

Snape's gaze seemed to focus at last, but it took him a few minutes in order to do so. Harry took that as a good sign and stayed quiet, giving Snape the time he obviously needed.

/

Severus moved his head ever so slightly, but then stilled as his throat was still tender, telling him to move as little as possible. It took time to gather his thoughts; at first he didn't know what to make of his surroundings. All he knew for certain was that he was still at Hogwarts. The connection was still intact and it started to –carefully - give him information about his current state and the condition the castle itself was in. Severus found it hard to take it all in, but as he was Headmaster, he had to know what was happening.

"Sir?"

He thought he was alone, still hiding inside the castle, but then realized was wrong. He was at the hospital wing and Harry Potter sat on the side of his bed. The boy was watching him and was that really the start of a smile? Now why would Potter be smiling at him?

"Maybe we should wait and save that tea for later?"

Harry's suggestion made no sense to him. What was that damned boy talking about?

"It's good to see you're doing better, sir."

That second voice seemed familiar to him too. Ah yes, Neville Longbottom, that kid was a true disaster when it came down to potion making!

All is well, Headmaster. The repairs have almost been completed and all wards are back in place. Hogwarts is a safe haven for its students once more.

Severus closed his eyes and let the words flow through his mind. Hogwarts continued to update him on the castle's condition. He had been stunned to find out about the connection which castle and Headmaster shared. Albus could have warned him about that! Severus forced his eyes open again, only to look at Harry once more. The boy really did have his mother's eyes – and maybe even more than just that. Whom was he kidding? That boy was a lot like his mother and that had been Severus' downfall in the first place. When he had accepted Albus' proposal to look after the boy, to protect him, he had tried hard not to care about Harry. After all, Harry was also James' son. But when he had taken Harry from his crib that fateful night, and the boy had grabbed his thumb, Severus had known he had already lost his heart to the baby.

"Is anything wrong?" Harry grew worried upon seeing Snape's distant expression.

Severus didn't know how to answer that. Maybe for the very first time in his disastrous life everything was right. When he had listened in on their conversation in the office, he had understood what Albus had tried to tell him, namely that Voldemort had been destroyed. Harry Potter was safe. The Dark Lord no longer provided a threat – Severus needed a moment to fully comprehend the new situation he suddenly found himself in. He had worked hard for this day to finally arrive. The problem was that he had never expected himself to live in order to see it. He had always known he was a dead man walking, and he had made his peace with that years ago. Now that he was alive, he didn't know what to do. It was the very reason why he had decided to hide.

"I could try to read your mind," Harry offered in a tiny voice. "If talking hurts too much. I won't trespass, I promise."

The last thing Severus wanted was for Harry to see certain things that should remain hidden for all eternity and so he managed to slightly shake his head.

"I didn't expect you to trust me," Harry said, his voice losing its bounce towards the end.

It wasn't that – Severus did trust Harry, but he didn't want the boy to dive into his mind like that. He had better try talking then. "Do…trust…you," he managed in the end. He wasn't prepared though for the happiness that spread across Potter's face upon hearing it.

"Thank you," Harry said, still smiling. "Is there anything I can get you?"

He knew they had to talk – probably sooner than later – but he wasn't up to that yet. He was still exhausted and wouldn't be able to stay awake for long. "No," Severus said eventually. All he needed was to know that Voldemort had been destroyed and that Harry had survived. He had already known that, of course, but the fever had had such a tight hold on him that he had never fully registered that fact.

"Don't go back to hiding, because if you do, I will find you. I found you this time, didn't I? You don't have to hide and most certainly not from me."

Harry's statement took him by surprise. He had had his reasons for hiding – being unwilling to face Harry had been one of them, but then again, he had assumed he had no valid reason to return to them, not after the damage he had done. Hogwarts itself however had decided differently. It had pulled him back from the brink; had stopped him from dying. He still wasn't sure why, but then again, he wasn't ready yet to find out.

"Severus!"

Now that Minerva had arrived, he shifted his gaze away from Harry and towards her. She looked well, and for that he felt grateful. When it had come down to that confrontation in the Great Hall, he had found he couldn't attack her. He cared too much about her and so he had fled, deeply hurt when she had called him a coward, when all he had been doing was saving her life.

"It's good to have you back with us! When Albus told us that you had survived and were still at Hogwarts we had to find you. We want you in our midst."

He believed her – to some extent. He believed that they had wanted to find him. He recalled Potter trying to reach him by addressing those paintings. He had come close to showing himself when Harry had said that Lily would want him to reveal himself, but he had stopped himself just in time. He didn't know if Harry had spoken the truth or that the boy had been acting on Albus' orders, trying to make him reveal himself, He had judged it best, even in spite of his injuries, to remain hidden.

"Maybe it would be best if you went back to sleep. You do seem exhausted, my old friend."

He had to avert his gaze and eventually closed his eyes when she called him that. He had thought he had lost her friendship and that had hurt. Maybe she was willing to give him a second chance?

"Professor McGonagall is right, sir. You should rest. As I said earlier, Neville and I will stay and sit with you."

They were quite eager for him to go back to sleep and he wondered why. But then again, he was awfully tired and getting more sleep did sound wonderful. If only his dreams would be peaceful this time around.

/

Harry hadn't realized it during his conversation with Snape, but he was shaking badly. He collapsed onto the chair closest to the bed and needed a moment to compose himself. It was really happening; Severus Snape was going to recover and Harry would get his questions answered – eventually. He would see to it that they talked – really talked!

"He's still rather weak," Madam Pomfrey commented after checking on her patient. "But he continues to improve and that is a good sign."

"What do you reckon, Poppy? How much longer before he can stay awake for longer periods of time?" Minerva wasn't asking on her own behalf; she knew Harry craved those answers.

"A few more days. His body is still weak from dealing with the poison. He needs to start eating soon if he wants to regain his former strength. Severus will need to do this step by step." Madam Pomfrey fastened her gaze on Harry and Neville. "Remember, boys, Severus needs to stay in bed. No matter what he says, you can't allow him to leave it. I don't dare to think of the amount of damage a fall would do."

Harry nodded. "You can count on me."

"And me," Neville quickly added.

"You're doing a great job," Madam Pomfrey praised them. "Both of you."

/

Although he had woken some thirty minutes ago, Severus pretended to still be at sleep. In the meantime, he watched Harry, and Neville as well, from between half-open eyelids. The boys had stayed at his side, as they had promised, and not even the prospect of a good dinner in the Great Hall had lured them out of the room. Instead, they had asked if the food could be brought to them. They were tenacious, he had to give them that.

He didn't really know what to make of the situation he found himself in. The easiest way out was also the coward's way out and he refused to go back into hiding. Potter deserved answers, but Snape wasn't looking forward to supplying them.

"Why did you bring that sword?" Harry watched Neville as the other boy's fingertips stroked the blade. In-between bites of chicken and pasta, he tried to keep their conversation going, as he dreaded the return of silence, with only Snape's still labored breathing for company.

Neville had already finished dinner. The tray, containing the empty plate, stood next to him on the floor. He had once more taken to his favorite spot on the window sill. "I don't really know. Maybe it's because I am still surprised at what I did. I never thought I had it in me."

"Snape will probably be relieved to hear you killed that damn snake with it."

Ah yes, Severus thought he had heard something like that. Imagine Neville Longbottom, the boy who had succeeded in blowing something up in each of his classes, to take out Nagini! He was grateful though that the snake was gone. He had always detested her.

"I would love to keep it," Neville admitted, "But I reckon I should return it to our Headmaster. The sword needs to be in a safe place and the Headmaster's office probably is the best place to keep it."

Maybe he should let the boy keep it, Severus thought. After all, he had no use for it, and ever since decapitating Nagini, Neville had earned the right to wield it as far as Snape was concerned.

"Harry…"

Severus realized he had given himself away. Neville must have felt his stare and now the boy was alerting Potter that their patient was awake. Which he regretted, as he would have loved to spy on them a little longer.

"Sir? Are you awake?"

There was no reason to pretend he was asleep any longer and so he opened his eyes. He looked at Godric's sword for a moment, then shifted his gaze toward Neville. "Keep it." Although most of the pain had gone, he still felt appallingly weak. Poppy had been right; it would take him weeks to regain his former strength.

"No, sir, I couldn't!" Neville exclaimed. "The fact that it allowed me to wield it doesn't mean I'm its legal owner."

"The fact that… Potter… found it… doesn't mean… he owns it either, mister Longbottom," he pointed out to the boy, trying to postpone having to deal with Harry just yet.

"I have been thinking about that, sir," Harry said, adding the last word after a moment's thought. "Your patronus is a doe, isn't it?"

So the boy had figured that one out as well. He guessed that Harry had seen that particular memory in the pensieve and it had helped him draw that conclusion. "Someone… had to make sure… you found it… Potter." Damn, speaking caused muscles and skin to contract and it painfully reminded him of the fact that his throat had been slashed open not so long ago. But it was impossible *not* to pester Potter – just a bit.

"Would you like some tea? Or maybe even soup? Madam Pomfrey told me to make sure you ate or at least drank something."

Snape closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath – as deeply as he dared without causing another part of his body to ache – and then considered the question put to him. He didn't feel like eating, or drinking anything for that matter. "Maybe… later…" he managed.

The silence which then settled onto the room made his skin crawl and Severus opened his eyes again in order to find out what caused it. The look Harry gave him could be considered comical, hadn't it been for the fact that the boy's hands had turned into fists.

"Dumbledore asked professor McGonagall to take his painting in here so he could talk to you. I told her not to do it," Harry said when the silence became too oppressive. "Or do you want to talk to him after all?"

"No, I don't." He didn't want to know what Albus had planned for him next. He needed a break; he had been on the run for too long. He deserved some rest! Hogwarts didn't reach out to him, so it was safe to assume the repairs were going accordingly to plan and no enemies had stayed behind after the Dark Lord had been defeated – good, that was good.

"Professor Snape, I trust you to keep Godric's sword safe." Neville approached the bed and placed the sword next to Severus.

The boy's antics irritated him. "I told you… Keep it!" Godric's sword wasn't something to be tucked away in a cupboard. "I don't want it." The expression in Neville's eyes spoke of disbelief and then changed into joy.

"Are you sure?"

"Did you turn deaf… during my… absence?" Severus sneered, hoping to settle the boy's nerves.

"No, I didn't, Headmaster." Neville picked up the sword and tenderly caressed the blade. "Thank you." He gave Harry a quick look and then added, "I need to share this with the others! I will be right back!"

Severus watched Neville leave and steeled himself for the next confrontation. Now that he was alone with Harry, the boy wouldn't keep back any more. Harry wanted to know the truth and Severus reckoned the boy was entitled to it. But why did he have to be the one to divulge that information? Albus also knew all pieces to the puzzle and could tell Harry all the boy needed to know. But knowing Albus the way he did, Severus was sure the older wizard would insist he told Harry himself. Damn Albus for that!

"I do think you should drink something."

Harry sounded awfully resolved all of a sudden and Severus narrowed his eyes suspiciously when the boy offered him a cup of tea. The tea would most certainly contain a potion and he had no desire to put himself to sleep now that he was finally alert.

"It is just tea, sir," Harry said, having correctly interpret Snape's expression. "Lady Grey to be exact. Professor McGonagall said it's your favorite."

Minerva had remembered that then. He shifted slightly on the bed and refrained from cursing at the last moment upon discovering that he wasn't wearing anything except underwear. He grabbed the blanket, pointedly ignoring the discomfort that still emanated from the punctured skin of his arm, and pulled the fabric up to his chest.

Harry handed him the tea and Severus realized the boy was equally nervous as Harry's hand trembled. It took him some effort, but he managed to wrap his fingers around the cup. Blowing onto the tea's surface was something he immediately stopped doing, as that particular action caused his throat to throb painfully.

"I have some questions for you," Harry said, sounding determined and oddly vulnerable at the same time. "I would appreciate it if you answered them."

Severus nodded weakly. Much depended on the questions themselves. He wasn't prepared to share everything with Potter.

"Do you hate me?"

Severus blinked, as he hadn't expected that particular question. He had assumed the boy would have others, more intrusive ones. Why did that matter so much to him? Severus considered his options carefully before reaching a decision. "I don't… hate you," he whispered, wishing he was stronger, in body and in mind. Then he would be able to handle the conversation better, even steer it in the desired direction. Harry frowned, clearly trying to determine what he would ask him next. If their subject hadn't been so serious, the boy's efforts would have amused him.

"But you bullied me all those years."

It was an observation and not a question. Yet, Severus knew he wouldn't get away with merely nodding his confirmation. "I had to."

"But why? Would it have been so awful if I had known you cared?"

At that moment, Harry reminded Severus a lot of Lily. In the past, she had given him the same look when she had been uncertain about something he had said. Harry truly was his mother's son. "No one could know… I had to protect you, remember? If Voldemort… had doubted my hatred for you… he would never have believed that I was… loyal to him." It would help if his throat would stop hurting each time he spoke. And his head was beginning to feel heavy as well. He found it increasing difficult to keep his thoughts organized and had to be careful not to let anything slip. That tea had been dosed and he had drunk without even checking it!

"I understand, sir."

Snape blinked at hearing a new dimension to Harry's voice and he looked at the boy in order to find out what had happened. Harry's expression *had* changed; his eyes were no longer hooded. They no longer hid his feelings. Lily's eyes… Harry's eyes… Lily's…

"Let me get that."

Warm fingers curled around his hand and rescued the tea cup which had been slipping from his grasp. Why couldn't he stop feeling so damn tired? Harry placed the cup on the nightstand and then the warm sensation was back. Stunned, Snape realized that Harry had returned to carefully cradling his hand. His first reaction was to pull away, but he couldn't make himself do it. The boy deserved better than that – Harry had suffered enough rejection in the past.

His eyes started to close, and even though he tried to stay awake for the boy's sake, so he could answer the rest of Harry's questions, he lost that fight. He was still too weak in order to remain awake. But I shall tell you want you need to know. I will.

/

When Madam Pomfrey had asked him for some time alone with her patient, Harry hadn't liked it, but had given in nonetheless. He reckoned she had to check on the wounds and change the bandages. Even though Snape had proclaimed he had never hated him, Harry didn't want to challenge fate and make Snape hate him after all. So he roamed the castle for a bit until he ran into Kingsley.

"Ah, Harry! It's good to see you again!" The tall wizard patted his shoulder, obviously pleased to have found him. "How are you doing? I expected to see you a lot, but you're hard to find these days!" The two of them found some comfortable chairs near a window and settled down.

Harry looked outside and cringed at seeing the graves which had been recently added to Hogwarts' cemetery. Remus, Tonks and maybe worst of all, Fred had found their last resting place there. How he wished they had lived to see this day! But at least Voldemort, who had caused their deaths, was gone.

"I miss them too," Kingsley let slip. "They were good friends – the best."

Harry drew in a deep, calming breath. "I miss them too, Kingsley. But I miss Sirius the most. He was my godfather. I don't have anyone left I can call family." And that hurt. Kingsley seemed to grow ill at ease and Harry realized the older wizard didn't know how to console him. "But at least Snape survived."

Kingsley leaned back in the chair, rested his elbows on the armrests, and stapled his fingers in front of his face. "Have you been hiding at the hospital wing? Is that the reason I couldn't find you? Have you been giving poor Severus the third degree?"

Harry couldn't help himself; he chuckled. "No, I haven't. He has barely been conscious. And when he does wake up, he's so tired he falls asleep again. But I do plan on questioning him."

"It rocked my world, finding out about Severus being on our side all along. I was convinced he was working for Voldemort and that he was manipulating Albus instead. I couldn't have been more wrong. I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it in the pensieve myself. He really is good at hiding his secrets. And he did it all for you! In order to keep you safe. Amazing!"

Harry eyed Kingsley closely. Until that moment he hadn't realized it himself, but yes, everyone in the Order had thought Snape untrustworthy. After he had killed Dumbledore, they had hunted him much as they had hunted Voldemort. It must have been a lonely, and foremost dangerous, life Snape had led. He could only hope that Snape realized that he could stop pretending. Everyone knew he had been a double-agent. Everyone in the Order, and at the Ministry, they knew the truth about Severus Snape these days.

"Even the Daily Prophet ran a cover story about Severus. It's true to say the whole wizarding world feels ashamed for not seeing through his act."

"He wouldn't have let them," Harry said. "His survival depended upon it. I asked him if he ever hated me, Kingsley."

"And what did Severus say?"

"That he never did. That he cares about me, but that he had never been able to let it show. At first, I didn't understand why he had kept it hidden, but it made sense when he told me that Voldemort would have stopped trusting him."

"Sounds like the two of you are finally talking," Kingsley mused happily.

"I am asking questions and he barely manages to answer them. He's awfully weak."

"Severus is though, Harry. That guy has been to hell and back. He won't give up that easily. Just give him some time – and breathing space," Kingsley added in an amused voice.

Kingsley was probably right; Harry knew that, but still, he wanted more answers. He wanted to know what Severus Snape was really like.

/

Snape was wearing his own clothes upon Harry's return and he could tell from the expression on the older man's face, that he wanted out of the hospital wing. That wasn't going to happen though, since Madam Pomfrey was gently pushing Snape back onto the bed. Snape, now leaning against the pillows, actually threw her a disgusted look.

"I am not releasing you, Severus, and you had better accept the fact that you will remain here for at least one, if not two weeks! You are in no condition to leave my care! You can't walk without help; you can't even dress yourself without assistance! Not to mention that you're still too weak to eat by yourself!"

Harry actually felt a little sorry for Snape, whose expression told him that the older wizard was about to lash out at Madam Pomfrey for treating him like a child. Or an invalid, Harry added, but wasn't that the truth? At the moment, Snape was unable to take care of himself due to his injuries.

"Madam Pomfrey," Snape started in an icy voice. "I am still Headmaster and if I decide to leave then –" he didn't get very far though.

"I don't care! You can be Merlin himself and I wouldn't release you!"

Harry nodded, hoping she would lecture Snape some more. It was good to see his former Potions Master being bullied in turn, even though Madam Pomfrey only had her patient's best interest in mind.

"Stop laughing at me, Potter, or…"

"Or what, sir? Will you give me detention?" Harry hadn't wanted to add to Snape's predicament, but found himself unable to remain quiet. "Come to think of it, it has been ages since you last gave me one!" It was true; Snape had always loved giving him detention – if possible whole evenings and as many as he could. Now why would Snape have done that, considering the older wizard had never hated him? Why would he have wanted him close? Of course, that was it, wasn't it? Snape had wanted him close. The look Snape gave him warned Harry that his conclusion might have been all over his face and that Snape had realized just what he had come up with. A quick look told him that Madam Pomfrey had left, and Harry used the opportunity to walk over to Snape's bed. "You had a reason for giving me detention all that time, didn't you?"

The way Snape moved on the bed, ill at ease and trying to distance himself, told Harry all he needed to know. He was right! "You wanted me close, I figured that out just now, but why? Because you wanted to keep an eye on me? So you would know I was safe?" Or was there more to it, and if there was, would Snape tell him? Snape looked cornered, but Harry wasn't going to offer him a way out. "Or was it something else?"

Snape's fingers curled around the fabric of his coat, which he pulled in front of his chest – a gesture so familiar it made Harry's eyes widen. "You wanted me close because you wanted to spend time with me! You never gave me the abysmal chores you threatened me with. Most of the time, I was copying texts." He knew he had drawn the right conclusion when Snape shut his eyes. Snape wasn't exactly fighting him, but the older wizard wasn't making it easy either. "Doing detention with you wasn't that bad," he added. "Umbridge however was a different matter."

The moment Severus heard her name, his eyes opened and he gave Harry a thoughtful look. "Had I known what she was doing to you, and to some of the other students, I would have intervened. I am not sure how much good it would have done though."

Snape sounded stronger, which made Harry feel relieved. The fact that Madam Pomfrey was now in charge of Snape's treatment seemed to speed up his recovery. "You seem better! You sound stronger," he said after a moment's thought. But then, he recalled how good an actor Snape was. "Or is it just an act?"

"I do feel better, Potter. No need to worry that tiny brain of yours about that."

In the past, he would have felt hurt, insulted even, but not this time around. He understood why Snape had said it. "You don't have to push me away any longer. Respectfully, sir, it isn't working."

"Pity, isn't it?" Severus rested his head back against the pillows and tried to attain a more comfortable position. "It always stopped you from getting too close to the truth."

"And the truth being…?" Harry didn't finish his question on purpose, hoping Snape would do it for him. Snape looked at him in confusion, and seeing his former teacher like that made him nervous. Was he pushing Snape too far? Too quickly?

"The truth being that your eyes constantly reminded me of Lily's. And since I love her, how could I care less about you, you being her son? I never got along with your father, that's no secret, but your mother…" Severus' voice grew quiet near the end. "I will never forgive myself for being unable to save your parents. I am sorry, Harry."

Harry tried to swallow the painful lump of emotions that choked up his throat. He had never heard Snape say the words – he had seen the images, he knew what had happened back then, but he had never talked to Snape about it in person. "I know you're sorry."

The two of them stared at each for a long time and Harry could have sworn Snape's eyes were glazing over with tears. It was up to him, he realized to make the first step. If he wanted them to move on, to have a second chance, he had to be the one to take the initiative for Snape wouldn't.

And so Harry gathered his courage, thought of what his mother would want him to do – and most importantly, listened to his own heart. His hand was steady when he raised it and slowly curled his fingers around Snape's icy limb. Why did the man always feel cold like that? "Maybe we can start all over again and take small steps?" After all, Voldemort was gone and Snape no longer a double – agent. They could be honest with each other now.

"I would like that," Severus whispered. "But only if you're certain you want that."

"I am sure. I want to get to know you. I want to know why my mother cared about you so deeply, and who knows, maybe we will even become friends?" Harry watched, feeling rather mesmerized, when Snape wiped at his eyes, trying to hide the fact that he was fighting back tears. It was too late though, he had seen those tears, and truth be told, he felt emotional as well. Small steps, Harry told himself. They would take small steps, get used to each other, and then they would take it from there.

/

"Minerva! Say something, will you! I can't possibly condone this! Severus Snape, if you don't return to bed this instant then…"

"Better be careful of the way you end that sentence, Poppy," Severus said. It irritated him that he had lost the ability to intimidate someone by merely looking at them, but since they knew he had stayed loyal to Albus to the end, they no longer feared or hated him. Now, he was experiencing the drawback of that. Harry chuckled and seemed to know exactly why he was acting that way. "Poppy, I am leaving this sick room. I will be in my office, where you can check on me – no, not all day long! You can check on me in the morning, and that's it. That's final."

Minerva, who stood a little aside, seemed torn between chuckling and joining Poppy in lecturing Severus. But Severus was Headmaster, and she owed him, as far as she was concerned, and so Minerva was willing to let Severus get away with it. "Don't worry, Poppy. I promise to keep an eye on him."

Severus didn't understand why they worried that much about him. Yes, he had been seriously injured, but it hadn't been the first time he had come close to death. It was just they didn't know about that and he intended to keep it like that. Setting his first step into the room and away from that blasted bed, he swayed. He was about to cuss – rather loudly – when Harry appeared at his side and supported him by wrapping an arm around him. A moment later, Neville took a step closer as well, obviously ready to catch him should he fall. Blast their worries! He could take care of himself.

With as much dignity as he could muster, Severus made his way out of the hospital wing. Hogwarts, sensing the Headmaster wished to return to his office, quickly arranged for a short cut, shifting stairs and moving walls out of the way. Neville gasped in surprise at seeing it happen – something which Severus had come to take for granted.

"I must say I am still surprised that Hogwarts managed to keep secrets from me considering all the years I have worked here," Minerva muttered, seemingly impressed by the way the castle was going out of its way to deliver its Headmaster to his office.

Severus remained quiet though. Even with Harry's and now also Neville's support he found it hard to put one foot in front of the other. Poppy was probably right and he should have stayed longer, but he had been itching to leave. He would feel much better, and hopefully therefore, recover faster when he was back in his rooms. During the last year, he had started to feel at home in the office, even with Albus always looking over his shoulder, watching every move he had made.

He felt relieved when they finally made it into the office. "To the fireplace," he told Harry and Neville, who prompted changed the direction they were walking in. Slowly, they lowered him onto the comfortable chair and Severus needed a moment to clear his mind of the pain, which was making his arm, chest, and throat throb.

"I thought you had forgotten about me, Severus!"

Severus partly opened his eyes, cocked his head, and stared at Albus, who was pressed against the painting, his head impossibly large because the old wizard was trying to get as close to him as possible. "I was resting, Albus."

"Ah yes, that's something I no longer need – rest! I do miss those lemon drops though. You did have to throw them out when you moved in, didn't you?"

Severus knew it was nerves that was making Albus talk like that. "Albus, I don't blame you. I don't like the way you set up Harry, but," Damn, he was tired. How could that short walk have exhausted him to such an extent?

"I made mistakes, I'll admit to that, but I am extremely pleased at how everything worked out!"

Severus reached for his wand, which he once more kept safely hidden within his sleeve, and placed it on the small table next to him - still in easy reach. Amused, he noticed that Neville had girded on his sword. Apparently the young man had grown extremely attached to it. Well, should he ever need someone to slay another snake for him, he might call on Neville again.

"Hogwarts is pleased to have you back in here, Severus. Do you feel it too? Oh, what am I saying! Of course you feel it!"

And he did feel it. The candles burned brighter since he had taken his rightful place at the office again. There was a soft murmur in his head, which was pleasing and reassuring, as Hogwarts started to update him. Some of the students had been mischievous, Argus Filch and Mrs. Norris were patrolling the corridors, and the Bloody Baron… It was a lot to take in, but he listened, until Severus was certain all was well at Hogwarts. Then he turned his attention to the Great Hall and made sure all the names of his dead friends, students, and members of the Order were carved into the main wall - an eternal memorial to honor the sacrifices they had made.

"Maybe you prefer the bed to that chair?" Minerva suggested when Severus remained quiet. The distant look on his face worried her.

"I am fine here." Severus shifted his gaze toward the fire and enjoyed its warmth. It was the first time since Harry had forced him out of hiding that he actually felt at home – and even more importantly, wanted at Hogwarts.

/

"Neville, he's asleep again. And although he said he's comfortable sitting there, I think we should move him to the bed, don't you?" Harry couldn't help worry.

Neville however didn't quite agree. "We might wake him if we move him, and honestly, I think getting more rest is what he needs the most."

It was just the three of them in the Headmaster's office. Snape, Neville, and he, and once more Harry was grateful that Neville had stayed close, but… "Neville, I will stay with Snape for the time being. I don't feel comfortable leaving him alone, but if you want to get some sleep, that's fine with me. It really is."

Neville looked at him for a long time and then nodded. "I can tell the two of you are doing better. Finally getting along, are you? Keep it that way, Harry!" Neville raised a hand, waved goodbye, and then closed to the door behind him, returning to the dormitory to get some well-earned sleep.

Harry pulled a chair closer to where Snape was resting and then collected two blankets from the bed. He used one to cover Snape up and then wrapped the second blanket around his own form before settling down in the second chair. He wasn't tired and so he settled for watching the other man, who looked much older than he really was. After all, his parents and Severus had started school together, so Snape couldn't be older than forty. He looked much older though and Harry guessed that was due to the dangerous life Snape had lived.

Snape. His mother hadn't called him that. When he had seen the memories in the pensieve he had heard her call him Severus, Sev even. Maybe he should start doing the same thing – in thought that was. Changing Snape into Severus was something he had to accomplish in his mind first.

/

Severus felt comfortable. He felt warm, was back in his favorite chair, and the silence surrounding him felt blissful. It had taken him a long time to clear his mind of certain disturbing thoughts, and he hadn't been sure it would work to begin with, but he had managed to gain a more serene state of mind, and damn it, he needed that.

He looked at Harry, who seemed to be serious about remaining at his side, although he wished the boy would return to his friends. Ron might have Hermione's support, but Harry's presence might help him deal with losing Fred as well. But then again, who was he make to decisions for Harry? The boy had been manipulated all his life and Severus wanted that to stop.

The office looked the way it always did, save for Fawkes and the numerous bowls of sweets, which Albus had kept all over the place. Severus had never cared for lemon drops, or other candy, but Albus had been eerily fond of them.

It was a pity that Fawkes had left, but understandable. Fawkes had taken a liking to Albus and that had been the main reason why the phoenix had chosen to stay.

Sudden movement alerted him and Severus was stunned to see Fang make his way over to him. How odd, Hagrid was nowhere in sight! The huge hound rested his – rather heavy!- head on his knee and drooled all over the blanket - thankfully not onto his clothes. "What are you doing here?" And where was Hagrid? But the half Giant didn't appear and Fang really was here on his own. "Stop drooling on me, will you?" The hound however gave him the most pleading look the animal was capable of and Severus found himself unable to push the dog away. Instead, he raised a hand and patted the huge head.

"Fang likes you."

Severus nodded. He had almost forgotten about Harry's presence. "He always did. Maybe it's because I was the one who found him as a pup. He was already huge, even back then, and I couldn't keep him in my room. Hagrid took an instant liking to him and I was happy Fang had found a good home."

"You found him?"

"Yes, I did. It was in the Forbidden Forest," Severus stopped at hearing Harry chuckle. "Yes, I went there without permission, but I had to get out. I found a nest of puppies. Unfortunately the mother had died in child birth and only Fang here was still alive. So I took him with me and made sure he survived."

"I wonder what you were like – as a child, I mean. I know you and my mum were best friends, but I don't know more than that, not really."

"My childhood wasn't pretty. Actually it was a lot like yours. My parents were bullies, especially my father. My mother lost her mind toward the end. And you know what my life was like at Hogwarts, thanks to…"

"To my father, Sirius, and Remus. I am sorry about that."

"It is in the past. It shouldn't matter anymore."

"But you never really forget – being bullied like that, I mean. Part of the pain remains."

"Unfortunately," Severus had to admit. Instead of looking at Harry, he kept his gaze trained on Fang. "I wonder if he gave Hagrid the slip."

"That might be it. Hagrid is easily distracted."

Harry chuckled again and this time, Severus joined in. "I always liked Hagrid. I am grateful for the way he looked after Fang."

"Can I ask you something personal?"

At hearing that, Severus *did* look at Harry. "I can't guarantee I will answer."

Harry chuckled again. "It's nothing like that. I was merely wondering about your original patronus. It changed into the doe when my mother died, didn't it?" Severus nodded and Harry continued, "But what animal was it originally?"

Severus felt relieved and rested his head against the wooden headrest of the chair. "Why don't you guess?"

"Was it a sna—" Harry stopped himself, horrified at what he had wanted to say. "I am sorry, but I thought that maybe, because your house is Slytherin that…"

Severus could tell that Harry regretted asking him about his patronus. Honestly, he had hadn't thought Harry would opt for a snake. "It wasn't a snake. You can say the word. It won't make me run."

"I was going to say it might have been a snake," Harry admitted.

Severus couldn't really blame the boy. Harry hadn't thought of Nagini. Harry had guessed at a snake because he was Slytherin. He decided against making him guess a second time. "It was a wolf."

"A wolf?" Now that he thought about it, a wolf would fit Severus Snape.

"Yes, a wolf. I was actually quite proud the first time I managed to cast that spell."

Harry frowned; something he had once heard – had it been Madeye telling him? – made him ask, "I always thought that Death Eaters couldn't perform a Patronus charm."

"I was the only one," Severus whispered. "I tried to keep that quiet though. I didn't want anyone to wonder why I was able to do it."

Harry studied Severus – no longer Snape – and his respect for the older man doubled. "Albus once said that you turned spy at great personal risk. Until now, I never really understood what that implied. You were never sure you would still be alive the next day, were you? I mean, you were Albus' spy, but at the same time you had to make sure Voldemort wouldn't grow suspicious." And for the first time ever, Harry started to fully grasp those implications.

"I had a good reason to put my life in danger," Severus whispered; his voice was barely more than a whisper. "You."

That was another thing that Harry hadn't fully realized until that very moment. Severus had risked his life time and time again to make sure Albus could stay one step ahead of Voldemort who had wanted to kill him. "Thank you," he said eventually, although the words seemed hardly to convey his feelings. "Thank you, sir."

Severus chuckled tiredly. "It seems we're stuck with each other, Harry."

Harry liked that – liked the fact that Severus no longer addressed him as Potter. "It certainly looks that way. Do you mind?"

"I am not sure yet," Severus replied, but the smile that accompanied the words made it very clear that he didn't mind at all. "Does that mean I no longer have to give you detention in order to know you close?"

"I think it's safe to say I will stay out of my own accord." Harry watched, amused, as Fang tried to crawl onto Severus' lap.

"Stop that!" But Severus still lacked the strength to push the hound away. "Give me a hand, will you, Harry?"

Glad to be of assistance, Harry got up from his chair, grabbed Fang's collar, and maneuvered the hound in front of the fireplace. "Stay," he told the animal, and Fang seemed comfortable enough to stay put. "I don't know about you, but I am hungry," he said, sitting down again. "Maybe some dinner?"

"I can eat." Severus was surprised to find he was actually hungry. "And after dinner, maybe a game of chess?"

"I suck at chess," Harry admitted, "but why not? Maybe you can show me how to be a better player?"

Severus nodded – slowly and deliberately. "I think we will manage."

Harry had never thought it possible, but he was actually looking forward to spending time with Severus. He was finally going to get to know the man who had risked his life just in order to keep him safe. They both deserved this second chance and Harry was determined to make it work.

Epilogue

Harry stood in front of the wall in the Great Hall and carefully read all names aloud, which had been carved into the stone. Those were the names of the brave souls who had died fighting Voldemort, and although Harry's heart ached each time he added a name to his list, he was grateful one name was missing. That of Severus Snape.

During the last six months, he had gotten to know the man a little. Harry didn't presume he knew everything about Severus, as the older wizard still remained secretive about certain matters. But Harry had grown to accept that Severus was entitled to his privacy and it had to be said that the details which Severus kept to himself were matters that concerned his actions while acting as Voldemort's servant. Back then, Neville had wondered what horrors Severus had seen and during these last six months Harry had realized some of them should remain hidden. They tormented Snape during the night and there was no reason to make things worse by forcing them into the open.

"Fred Weasley…" How he wished he had been able to take out Voldemort before the evil wizard had struck his friends. But Harry had learned to accept that he couldn't change the past – Severus had helped with that realization.

"We will set a table just for them," Severus whispered as he came to stand behind Harry. He rested his hands on the young man's shoulders. "We won't forget their sacrifices – I promise."

"I didn't think you would." Harry drew in a deep breath in order to compose himself. "Your name would have been up there too, hadn't it been for Hogwarts' interference." During these last few months, he had learned a lot about the castle, which literally breathed magic. He had spent a lot of time with Severus, and little by little, the Headmaster had let him on the castle's secrets. Hogwarts resembled a living being, something that had stunned Harry, but it had explained why it had actively intervened when Severus had been about to die. With Albus, it had been unable to act, as the wizard had instantly died, but with Severus, it had tasted the Headmaster's blood, and that had urged it to take action. The connection between castle and Headmaster had sprung alive and had enabled Severus to save himself.

"Sometimes I think I cheated death and that I should have died."

Harry already knew that. During the evenings, they had started to discuss past events, and Harry had learned that the all-consuming sense of guilt still clawed at Severus. But he was also certain that Severus wouldn't seek out death again. "You didn't cheat." He had stopped calling the older man, professor, sir, or even Snape. In formal situations he addressed him as Headmaster and in private settings, he had grown used to calling him Severus, which had felt awfully inappropriate at first.

"Molly and Arthur told me that they will join us for Christmas," Severus said.

"That's good. I would love to see them again." It might do them good to see their son's name up there – never to be forgotten. He composed himself and took in the Christmas decorations Severus and the house-elves had put up. This was going to be his first Christmas without the threat of Voldemort coming to power hanging over his head. "And I got word from Neville. He's joining us too."

Severus nodded; it would be good to have them all together. Although Christmas was a joyful time, each of them was still trying to cope with the loss they had suffered and he believed they needed to support each other – each and every one of them.

Harry stepped away from Severus and cocked his head. Something had been on his mind of late.

Severus had learned to interpret that look and realized something troubled the young man. "Say it."

"You know where to find the mirror of Erised, don't you?"

"I do." As he spoke the castle, already started moving it closer in case he desired to see it. "Why?"

"I want to look at it."

Severus frowned. "But why?" He had thought Harry relatively happy. "Do you want to see your parents?" Could it be that with Christmas drawing nearer Harry missed them more than usual? If so, he could help. "The castle moved it to my office. We can go there, if you want to." He would allow Harry to look at it, but he had no desire to look at it himself. He knew what that damned mirror would show him – Lily.

/

Harry didn't feel nervous as he approached the mirror of Erised.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Harry?" came Albus' voice from the painting. "There was a reason why I moved it back then."

"I will keep an eye on him," Severus promised. He was fairly sure the mirror would show Harry his parents, and probably the friends he had lost, but nothing truly shocking.

"Are you going to have a peek yourself, Severus?" Albus inquired curiously.

"Not if I can help it," Severus sneered; he knew about the mirror's power only very well and had no desire to be reminded of losing Lily.

Harry drew in a deep breath, gathered his courage, and moved in front of the mirror. For a few seconds, nothing happened, and then, as expected, his parents appeared. First his mother, and then his father joined them as well. Harry smiled at them, relishing their sight. Then, one by one, all the friends he had lost stepped into the mirror as well. He grinned at Remus and Tonks, who were holding each other close. He waved at Madeye, who promptly rolled his magical eye at him and Harry's features contorted with pain when Fred appeared. Fred, who even now was pulling pranks on the others. How he missed them!

"Harry..." Severus had watched closely and his heart ached as well, seeing them gathered inside the mirror. But they weren't real – he hoped Harry remembered that. Then, to his utter surprise, their images vanished and the mirror only showed one person there –Harry itself. Now that was odd. Severus quickly checked if the mirror had been tampered with, but no, it was functioning the way it had been designed to function.

"Wait! I need another moment!" Harry let go of lost friends and family and drew in another breath. "Show me…" he demanded. "Show me what I desire the most."

Severus frowned, disliking the sudden change he witnessed in Harry. The firm resolve he saw in those eyes worried him. What was the young man doing? The mirror's surface grew blurry and then cleared again. Severus shook his head, trying to make sense of what he saw. Why was he standing next to Harry?

"Will you join me in front of the mirror?" Harry looked at Severus from over his shoulder. "Don't worry, it merely confirmed what I knew all along."

Unsure of what was happening, Severus moved in front of the mirror, but the reflection didn't change – how odd. "Explain this to me. You seem to know what's happening."

"What I want the most is a family – and you have become just that. I never really knew my father – I never talked to James Potter. I only know what he was like from people's stories and your memories. I love my parents dearly, but they are dead. I love my friends and miss them every day, but you are here – with me. I reckon the mirror is telling me that I have all the family I ever need – you."

Severus wanted to avert his gaze, but found he couldn't. He didn't have a family of his own. His parents had died a long time ago and he had never had a love interest except Lily. In a way, Harry was right. Harry was the closest thing to family he would ever have. He raised his hand and rested it on Harry's shoulder. "Family then?"

"Family!" Harry exclaimed excitedly. Looking at Severus, he added, "You were afraid to look at the mirror, why?"

"I have no idea – not anymore," Severus admitted. Seeing Lily just now hadn't made his heart ache like it normally did. Maybe time was finally healing his wounds. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He still loved her – he was certain of that, but the pain had lessened. He waited, terrified the image would change after all and ruin the illusion, but it didn't. The mirror continued to show only the two of them.

"Sometimes the mirror of Erised merely confirms what we already know, doesn't it, Harry?" Albus commented in a smug voice.

"I guess it does, professor," Harry said happily. "You can put it away again, Headmaster." It felt right to address Severus in that way at that moment. After all, the mirror of Erised was a part of Hogwarts and the Headmaster was tied to the castle by its magic.

Severus nodded and requested the castle to move the mirror to a hidden place where no one would find it. Harry had already turned away from it and was addressing Dumbledore, and therefore, Harry didn't see its last image. But Severus did, and he bowed his head in respect to Lily and James, who had returned to the mirror. They stood protectively at Harry's sides, but to his surprise, his own image had remained – hadn't been removed the moment Lily and James had appeared. Thank you, Severus whispered in thought, Thank you for giving me your blessing. I will keep him safe and look after him until the day I die.

We know that, Severus. We trust you. Harry's safe with you and we thank you for that. Thank you for keeping him alive…

Severus trembled, but then composed himself, finding it hard that an illusion would touch him that deeply. Turning toward Harry, he found the young man throwing lemon drops at Albus, who did his best to catch them, but alas, the sweets never made it into the painting.

Life was good, Severus mused, and he was happy. It was more than he deserved and he was determined to make the best out of the life he had been given. He would live each day to the fullest and cherish the loved ones he had lost. He would remember them – always.

The end