Title; Stairway to the Skies

Author; Morgana

Pairing; Severus Snape/ Neville Longbottom (in later chapters, nothing explicit though, just some snogging.)

Rating; PG-13

Disclaimer; Severus Snape and Harry Potter is (c)copyright of J.K. Rowling. No copyright infringement is intended.

Homepage; .

Email address for FB; morganalebeau

Summary; Neville is determined to make Severus see his way and convince him it is okay to love him. Severus sees things differently and strongly objects to such a relationship. Who will win?

Warning: slash

Stairway to the skies

Seven seconds 'til the rise
Can't believe I'm still alive
And heaven was waiting for me
I thought this would be the end
But I know you'll understand
All that is keeping me here

My senses tell me I have changed
But one thing still remains
I'm torn and the hate's still aching
I slowly start to realize
We won't reunite
I still have to march on through

Is it a curse or a virtue?
Have I been blinded by regret?
Perdition awaits
My soul is at stake
Will I find a stairway to the skies in the end?

I dream of a stairway to the skies
My angel is coming down from heaven to take me
I reach out but then you fade away
Whenever you call for me
Know that I'm only one step behind
Know that I'm only one step behind

Step 1

"So did you already come up with ideas for celebrating Snape's birthday?" Ron looked up from the essay Hermione was making him write and gave Harry a hopeful look. Discussing those plans were a perfect reason to abandon his homework, especially as Hermione had gone to the library in order to study and couldn't lecture him.

"Not yet," Harry admitted as he looked up from his homework. "But I have been thinking about Christmas!"

"Christmas?" Neville put down his quill and pushed his essay away from him. He really wasn't in the mood to finish it.

"Yes, Christmas!" Harry chuckled. "Christmas comes first, his birthday party second." He leaned back against his chair and smiled saddened at his friends. "What do you reckon Severus' Christmases were like until now?"

"I haven't been thinking about that, mate! Honestly." Ron however was growing increasingly intrigued. "What were they like? Do you know?"

Harry nodded once. "Now that Christmas draws near, Severus is thinking about it a lot." He tapped against his temple. "And I know what he thinks, if I want to know so."

"Of course, the link," Ron said. "I had forgotten about it!"

"Most of the time Severus locks me out and I do the same with his thoughts as we don't want to infringe on each other's privacy, but during times like these, I sometimes peek at what he's thinking. Apart from attending the mandatory meals at Hogwarts, he never celebrated the way the feast should be celebrated. When he still lived at home, his parents never bothered about it, and afterwards, I guess, he never had someone to spend Christmas with."

"That's awful," Neville commented. His grandmother always went all the way during Christmas. They would start with dinner, move on to presents, sit at the fire, and sometimes they would attend a Muggle Christmas mass. In the morning, more presents would await him. "It's a good thing then that you found out. What are your plans?"

Harry exchanged a look with Ron. The Weasleys had invited him to spend Christmas with them, but so far he hadn't accepted. "Severus believes he will be alone at Christmas as students and staff are heading home to be with their loved ones. We know what Severus' family is like and that he is stuck at Hogwarts. So Ron, I will spend Christmas here too. I will make it up to you in the days after that, but Christmas Eve, I will spend with Severus."

Ron understood and nodded. "Would you mind me staying with the two of you?"

"I like that idea, but you should talk it over with Hermione first." Harry smiled at his friend; he had hoped that Ron would react like that!

"I will stay too. I already sent my grandmother an owl telling her that I will be staying at Hogwarts for the holidays. She wasn't too happy about it, but she accepted it."

"I had expected nothing less from you!" Harry smiled as his plan started to fall into place. "I want to ask Remus and Tonks too. I want Severus to realize that he has a family now. I don't want him to spend Christmas on his own, hiding in his office."

"Anyone else you want to ask?" Ron was thinking everything over and liked Harry's idea.

"I am not sure. I don't want him to run away the moment he finds out what we have been up to!"

"Maybe we should ask Madam Pomfrey?" Neville suggested. "Severus is rather fond of her."

"And it would be good to have a healer at Hogwarts just in case. Severus' reaction when he finds out will be hard to predict!" Harry agreed. "I will ask her tonight, after dinner."

"Are we going to do presents?" Ron asked hopeful. "I can get a huge discount on Fred and George's stuff!"

"No offense, Ron, but I get everything for free," Harry quipped. Having funded them at the beginning was paying off!

"I like the idea of giving gifts," Neville said thoughtfully. "But won't Severus feel awkward if we get him something and he doesn't know about it? He won't have anything to give to us. That might make him feel embarrassed."

Harry drew in a deep breath and then whispered, "In that case, I will remind him of everything he did for us in the past. I will remind him of the fact that he endangered his life in order to save me, in order to give us a chance against Voldemort. Plus, he's a great Headmaster. He makes sure everyone is treated fairly and he takes time to talk to his students."

"I doubt he will let you get away with it, but it's worth a try," Neville agreed. "How do you plan to do this? Get together for dinner? And where? How late?"

"I have been thinking about that too," Harry admitted. "And I have come up with something, but I would like your opinions first." After his friends nodded, he continued, "Severus expects us to leave during the day and plans to stay in his office. What if we turn up one by one, seek him out at the office, give him our presents and then throw a party in the Room of Requirement? That way, should he feel overwhelmed, he can always return to his rooms. If we throw the party at the office, he might feel trapped."

"That link tells you a lot," Neville whispered, and surprised himself by feeling jealous of the connection which Harry and Severus shared.

"It also tells me lots that I don't want to know, Neville. Most of the time it feels like I am intruding on his privacy, and trust me, after what Voldemort did to Severus, making him feel watched is the last thing I want. Most of the time I keep the link closed. But right now, it tells me he's struggling. Christmas Eve is in two days and this is the first year during which he finds it hard to know he will be on his own that evening." Neville still wished he shared such a link with Severus though and Harry could tell by looking at his friend's face. "Don't feel jealous, Neville. Even though it might seem great to know his thoughts, it isn't."

"You are probably right," Neville sighed. "Who's going to ask Remus then?"

"I will do that. Can you ask Madam Pomfrey if she is willing to stay for Christmas Eve?" Harry then looked at Ron. "Maybe Fred and George can help organize the party?"

"If we get them involved, mum and dad will want to be there too. And then you can count on the rest of the family to drop in – Bill, Fleur, and Ginny will want to be there too. Harry, if you don't mind, I will give him my present then." Although he knew that Severus had been on their side all along, he still felt apprehensive about being alone with the older man.

"Okay, that might still be doable for Severus. But it must end there." Harry was sure that Severus would retreat if there were too many guests.

"So that means I still have to think of another present!" Neville bit onto his bottom lip. Finding something that suited Severus would be difficult.

"Don't mention it," Harry sighed troubled. "I still need to find something for him too."

"Maybe we can floo into Diagon Alley tomorrow and do our shopping there?" Ron suggested. "We can drop in on Fred and George at the same time and tell them about the party."

Harry nodded, as he liked the idea. "We will do that." Today was their last day of school and their holidays started tomorrow. "I will ask Remus right now. I will be right back."

"I shall ask Madam Pomfrey then!" Neville got to his feet as well. He smiled as he walked into the corridor. He hoped this Christmas would be the best they ever had!

/

"Harry, come in! We weren't expecting you to drop by, but would you like some tea too?" Remus waved Harry inside and closed the door behind him. "Tonks is in there." He gestured to the right.

Harry smiled at his professor and friend, and walked into the living room where Tonks was holding Teddy, swinging back and forth in an ancient-looking rocking chair.

"Hello, Harry! Sit down, will you?" Tonks continued to rock, liking the rocking motion herself. It also made Teddy sleepy, which was an added plus. Her son had been rather active today and looking after him had exhausted her.

Harry sat down, but decided against having tea. "I want to ask you something."

"Go ahead!" Remus sat down as well and gave Harry a puzzled look. Harry hadn't sought them out at their rooms before. Had something bad happened?

"Neville, Ron and I want to organize a little Christmas party. Severus expects to be alone at Hogwarts and he's struggling with it. In the past, Christmas never was a big deal to him, but now that the war is over, things have changed. He doesn't want to be alone on Christmas Eve this year."

"And you know all that, because…?" Remus let his voice trail off questioningly.

"The link… It always grows stronger when Severus is distressed." Harry looked at the two of them. "I don't know if you already made plans, but it would mean a lot to me - and Severus— if you could stay for Christmas Eve. We plan on surprising him, visiting him at his office and giving him a small present. George and Fred will throw a party in the Room of Requirement after that. Hopefully the Room will hide the party's preparations from Severus."

"And how do you plan on making Severus believe that you left?" Tonks asked.

"We will floo into the Room of Requirement and hide there. We will prepare for the party. I really want you there with us. You mean a lot to Severus – and Teddy especially… Severus loves him."

"The link again?" Tonks inquired knowingly. Harry nodded. She wasn't surprised to hear that Severus dreaded being alone on Christmas Eve. "Remus and I planned to spend the holidays with my mother, but she will understand should we arrive later."

"You will stay then?" Harry grew excited; this was going better than he had dared to hope for!

"Of course we will! How could you doubt us?" Remus reached out and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "Anyone else staying?"

"Ron, Neville and you guys, and we will ask Madam Pomfrey as well. Neville volunteered to see her."

"Not too big a group, but not too small either. Severus will feel comfortable with that."

"I hope so," Harry nodded at Remus. "I want this Christmas to be special!" He wanted to give Severus something to remember – a fond memory that would shine and illuminate the darkness the Headmaster still regularly found himself in.

/

"Madam Pomfrey?" Neville looked around the corner in order to find out if the healer had time for him. Seeing her sip tea, Neville moved forward. "Can I talk to you?"

"Sit down, my dear," Poppy said and pointed at a chair. She poured tea into a cup and beckoned for him to drink it. "How may I help you today?" she quipped, suspecting this might involve Severus again.

"We want to throw the Headmaster a Christmas party. We would like you to be there too. We will pop into his office on Christmas Eve and present him with a gift. Afterwards, we want to party in the Room of Requirement. The Weasley twins will provide us with entertainment!"

Poppy laughed at him. "Fred and George? Do you know what you are getting yourself into?"

"Well, Harry will make sure they behave. Will you join us, Madam Pomfrey?"

Poppy considered the request and decided her family could do one day without her. She could spend the rest of the holidays with them. "You may count me in, Neville."

Neville felt pleased that she had accepted. "Let me fill you in on the details then!"

/

Christmas Eve

Severus closed the door behind him and remained motionless. He had just seen Neville off, who would be staying with his grandmother for the holidays. Saying goodbye- even for just two weeks- had been hard on him. But then again, saying goodbye to Harry, Remus, and Tonks had made his heart ache too. Even worse had been hugging Teddy goodbye. Don't overreact, he told himself, they will be back in two weeks. That meant fourteen days of loneliness for him though. He had never minded spending the holidays on his own before. In the past, he had used the holidays to catch up on his sleep – if Voldemort hadn't demanded his time – and preparing for the next trimester. This Christmas though, he had nothing but time on his hands, which worried him. Being alone with nothing to do actually scared him.

Fang was asleep in front of his desk and seemed to dream. His paws moved as if running and he was panting hard. Severus smiled; thankfully he wasn't completely alone; he still had Fang to keep him company. Looking about, he realized that even most of the former Heads had left their portraits to visit their relatives. He finally had his precious peace and quiet after all. But now that he had it, he found he no longer wanted it.

He made his way over to his favourite chair by the fireplace and sat down. Maybe he should leave as well, but then again, he doubted he could find it in his heart to leave Hogwarts. Home is where the heart is, he thought, instantly realizing the truth, namely that this was the only place he truly wanted to be.

It was Christmas Eve and he would spend it with Fang. He wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry because of that. He had seen worse Christmases though, he reckoned. His mother had never celebrated the feast, mainly because her family had disowned her just before Christmas. Tobias Snape had always been extremely drunk – and aggressive – during the holidays. Severus had spent most of his holidays at home hiding, hoping his parents wouldn't bother looking for him. But his father had always found him, and when Tobias had finally gotten his hands on him, he had used his belt to hit him. Severus shivered and pushed that memory away. Maybe he should extract the memories that pained him and put them into a flask so he forgot about them!

Fang stretched, got to his feet, and made his way over to him. Severus stroked the hound's head and grew calmer – but only somewhat. He still hated Christmas. But then again, this was much better than last Christmas, which he had spent bedridden after Voldemort had let Bellatrix curse him for most of the night. He had coughed up blood the morning after he had finally managed to get back to Hogwarts. Albus had been around during that holiday, but the older wizard had no healing skills, so Severus had simply had to ride it out. Yes, this silence was definitely better than screaming himself hoarse because of the pain he was in.

Looking outside, Severus regretted that going for a walk wasn't an option either. Ever since that blizzard had happened, snow covered Hogwarts. It was the middle of winter and he shivered, merely thinking about venturing outside. He had to stay indoors, especially since he was the only one left at Hogwarts. He might not survive if he stayed outside for too long. There would be no one to bring him back again.

"Looks like you are stuck with me, Fang." The hound however didn't seem to mind, as he curled up at his feet. He was relieved to have the beast about. Severus looked about the office and realized how silent Hogwarts was without its staff and students present. Severus rested his head against the comfort of the chair and decided he would go to bed early tonight. When he woke again in the morning, he could start to count down to the end of the holidays.

/

The Room of Requirement had outdone itself, Harry reckoned. He was the first one to arrive and smiled at seeing the large, decorated Christmas tree. There was holly everywhere and even bushels of mistletoe, which floated near the ceiling. There was Christmas punch, butterbeer, and various snacks. Christmas music played in the back, enhancing the welcoming atmosphere. He doubted the peace and quiet would last though, knowing Fred and George would provide the entertainment.

"Harry!" Ron and Neville flooed in simultaneously and stumbled out of the fireplace. Ron looked about and grinned. "It's perfect, mate."

"Very nice," Neville commented; he was relieved the Room hadn't overdone it.

"Don't tell me the party started without us!" Fred and George flooed in as well and took in their surroundings. "We can work with this," Fred announced happily.

"Remember, don't overdo it!" Harry told them. "We don't want Severus to take one look and run!"

"You can trust us!" Fred winked at Harry. "I owe Severus. I will be careful."

Harry hoped Fred kept his promise. He looked up when Remus and Tonks arrived. Teddy was wide awake and cooing happily.

"Hello!" Tonks said and smiled at them. She thought that Harry had picked all attendants well indeed.

"Coming through…" Madam Pomfrey stepped into the room and looked about. It looked like she was the last one to arrive.

"That's odd," Ron mused. Feeling Harry's curious gaze upon him, he explained. "I have never seen Madam Pomfrey out of her uniform." The healer wore a black dress tonight, which gave her quite a different look.

"Well," she said, "This is a day off, Mister Weasley!"

Harry realized he had gathered the people Severus cared about the most. Yes, this would work! His plan would work!

/

Severus sipped the twelve year old malt whiskey which he had found hidden away in the bottom drawer of the desk. The bottle had still been closed and he suspected Albus had once received it from Minerva as a Christmas gift – if he could believe the note that went with it. He had opened it and poured himself some. Sitting in front of the fireplace, he stared at the way the flames danced.

His solitude weighed heavily on him. In the past he had never cared for company, but now he found himself wanting another living, breathing person with him. Being alone was making him feel depressed.

Headmaster, you have a visitor.

Hogwarts' announcement startled him. What did that mean? How could he possibly have a visitor when the castle was empty? But he focused and grew aware of the fact that someone was standing in front of the Gargoyle. It was Harry, but what was the young man doing here? Harry was spending his holiday at the Weasleys! He told the Gargoyle to let the youngster enter and tried to make sense of what was happening. "Mister Potter," he said, rising from his chair.

"Headmaster," Harry replied equally formally, but grinning broadly at the same time. "You never told me the password, you know."

Severus enjoyed their little game, welcoming the unexpected distraction. "Are you saying you can't take it from my mind?"

"I could, but I don't want to infringe on your privacy." Harry felt relieved to see Severus smile as he had sensed the older man's growing depression.

Severus inclined his head in approval. "What are you doing at Hogwarts though? I thought you were staying with the Weasleys?" And now that he thought about it, why hadn't he sensed Harry's return to the castle? This was definitely peculiar.

"I think it is rather obvious why I am here." Harry moved his hands into the front as he had been hiding his present behind his back. "I am here to wish you a merry Christmas."

Severus stared at the young man and felt flabbergasted. "But, why?"

"Why?" Harry cringed upon realizing that Severus had truly expected to spend Christmas on his own. It had never occurred to the older wizard that someone would want his company tonight. "It's Christmas… We should celebrate it!"

Severus gestured for Harry to sit down opposite him. He had noticed the wrapped parcel, but found it hard to believe that Harry had bought him a gift. He had never received a present on Christmas Eve before!

Harry sat down and smiled at the older man. He couldn't help feeling a tad sad though. "I want you to have this. It's nothing special, but I still hope you will like it." He raised his arm and extended his hand toward Severus. It took a moment though for the older man to take hold of it. "Go ahead, it's yours." Harry flinched, realizing Severus felt hesitant to make himself vulnerable.

Severus wasn't sure what to make of the situation. Was he hallucinating? Just what exactly was in that twelve year old malt whiskey? Had Albus left it untouched for a reason? In the end, Harry got to his feet, placed the gift on his lap, and sat down again.

"Open it, please," Harry said, encouraging the older man. He really wanted to know if Severus liked his gift; he strongly suspected Severus would love it. Severus would love whatever he had gotten him, Harry realized with a sinking feeling to his stomach; simply because someone had taken the time to wrap it up and give it to him.

"I didn't get you anything," Severus said, feeling uncomfortable at receiving a gift, without being able to offer one in turn.

"You already gave me the best gift of all," Harry said and waited for Severus to look at him, as he thought the older man would. The question 'what' was easily read in those dark eyes. "You came back from the dead. That was my gift as far as I am concerned. I was so damn afraid I would never get a chance to talk to you after seeing your memories in the pensieve. I needed closure and only you could provide me with it." Harry hadn't wanted to make Severus feel even more uncomfortable, but it was the truth. "I am glad you are still alive, and even more importantly that you consider me your friend." It was more, he knew that. Severus considered him family, but he wasn't going to speak the words yet. He would let Severus chose the time and place to tell him. "Now open it."

Harry's words had stunned Severus and he needed a moment to compose himself. His hands trembled when he undid the wrapping, and that wasn't due to any tremors caused by the Cruciatus curse. They trembled because he felt emotional. Carefully, almost reverently, he removed the wrapping paper and gasped at finding he was holding a framed photograph. "When did you arrange for this?"

"I am not giving up all of my secrets." Harry watched Severus closely and realized the older man was close to tears. "Do you like it?" He'd had asked Neville to take the picture the other day. Severus had walked up to him in a corridor and they had fallen into step with each other as they had headed for the Great Hall. Severus' face looked relaxed in that picture and Harry was smiling. It had seemed like the perfect gift, and Harry realized he had been right when he saw the expression in Severus' eyes. "You can put it next to the one that has my mother and you."

A lump of emotions formed in Severus' throat and made it hard for him to breathe. "Thank you," he said from the bottom of his heart. "You have no idea how much this means to me."

"Maybe I do," Harry admitted and fully opened the link that connected them. "I know you care about me, and I care about you in turn."

Severus nodded, taken aback by the calming emotions that washed over him via the link. "I am sorry I have no present for you," he repeated.

"As I said before, you already gave me mine." Harry watched as Severus got to his feet and made his way over to a bookcase. He retrieved the picture that showed Lily and placed both frames onto his desk. Harry felt deeply touched at seeing Severus do that, for it showed just how much the older man cared about him. "I should be on my way now, but I will see you later." He stood quickly, knowing Severus would stop him if he gave the older man that chance.

"Harry!" Severus frowned. Harry was already climbing the staircase. It didn't look like the young man was fleeing the office though. And what had Harry meant when he had said they would be seeing each other later?

Severus was still looking at the two photographs when he sensed he wasn't alone anymore. "Poppy?" His eyes widened upon seeing her descend the staircase. The oddest thing about the situation was that she was wearing a plain black dress instead of her normal uniform. "What are you doing here? I thought you had gone home to celebrate Christmas with your family."

Poppy smiled mysteriously and sat down close to the fireplace. Fang raised his head and sniffed, hoping she carried treats with her. When she didn't, he quickly lost interest in her.

"I am with family." Poppy watched him closely and saw the way his eyes widened. He hadn't expected her to say that. "Severus, sit with me."

Severus walked over to her and sat down. He felt at a loss. What was going on here? He cringed at seeing the wrapped present in her hands. Why were they visiting him on Christmas Eve?

"I want to wish you a merry Christmas, Severus. I did so many years before, but this year, everything is different, isn't it?"

"I don't understand any of this," Severus admitted. "Why are you here?"

"As I said earlier, you are family, Severus. That's why I am here."

Severus' breath caught. Would it be just Harry and Poppy dropping in or would there be more visitors? Someone had planned this! He looked at Albus first, but the former Headmaster's portrait was still empty. If Albus wasn't behind this, then who was?

"I brought you a present, Severus. I do hope you will like it, even though it is Muggle ware." Poppy placed the present on his lap, realizing he was too stunned to take hold of it. "Open it! Don't make me wait!" She was rather curious regarding his reaction.

"Muggle ware?" Severus blinked. "When did you buy this?"

"Actually I asked Miss Granger to get it for me when she visited her parents some weeks ago. It is good to know that particular family has been reunited too." Poppy nodded her head, encouraging him.

Severus gave in, knowing she would pester him until he opened it. He removed the wrapping paper and blinked at the object in his hands. "What is that?"

Poppy chuckled. "The Muggles call it a sodium acetate heating pad. If pressed, it warms up. It will eventually cool down, but you can cast a reheating spell on it. Those are hand warmers." She felt rather pleased with herself for finding those!

Severus couldn't help himself; he laughed loudly. "Poppy, this is too much!"

"Well, Muggles are rather inventive, don't you think?" she asked and winked at him.

"Thank you," Severus said from the depths of his heart. "I didn't expect anyone to visit tonight, let alone come bearing gifts!" He was about to offer Poppy some whiskey when she unexpectedly got to her feet. "You don't have to leave yet."

"No, Severus, I do need to go, but don't worry, I will see you later." She moved quickly, as she didn't want to give him a chance into talking her to stay.

Severus frowned and grew worried. Poppy quickly hurried out of the office; did that mean more visitors would follow?

Poppy smiled at Remus and Tonks on her way out. "Be gentle with him," she advised, "he is quite shocked that someone came to see him."

Remus felt rather sad at hearing that. He wrapped an arm around Tonks' waist and looked at Teddy, who was asleep settled against his mother's hip. "Let's do this," he said and they made their way into the office.

Severus was still fiddling with the heating pads, but looked up at realizing he had company once more. He felt deeply touched to see Remus and Tonks make his way over to him. They had taken their leave that morning and he hadn't expected to see them for a fortnight. "What are you doing here? You were going to stay with your mother, Tonks."

"My mother knows we will run late this year." Tonks walked over to Severus and placed Teddy against his chest. "He's asleep, which means, he will probably drool on you."

"I don't mind," Severus whispered as he didn't want to wake the toddler. He wrapped his arms around him in a protective manner. "But I don't understand. You left this morning."

"We came back," Remus said and realized they had made the right decision; Severus needed them. "We want to wish you a merry Christmas, Severus. We want to thank you for accepting Teddy as your godson, for giving me my old teaching position back and for providing us with a home at Hogwarts. We consider those things very precious gifts."

Severus had the feeling he knew where this was headed. He was beginning to feel embarrassed to receive gifts when he had none to offer in turn.

"We come bringing gifts, Severus," Tonks said and placed the first present on the small table next to Severus. "You should open that one first."

It was thin, Severus noted, when he picked it up. He cautiously removed the gift wrap and swallowed hard at being presented with another photograph. When had they taken this one? He hadn't noticed anyone sneaking in camera's! "Thank you," he said, barely trusting his voice. In the picture, he sat where he sat now and Teddy was trying to undo his buttons. "I am quickly gaining an impressive collection." He transfigured a frame and decided to put it onto his desk next to Harry's, the next time he got up.

"This one is from me, rather than us," Remus said and winked at his wife.

This one was heavier. Severus removed the wrap once more and chuckled. "A book on Whomping Willows? I didn't even know one existed!" He understood the hint though; he would try to get a handle on his tantrums and depressions. "Thank you."

Remus nodded; the expression in Severus' eyes told him that the other man knew why Remus had thought the gift appropriate. Tonks got to her feet, collected Teddy, and Remus came to stand next to her.

"Let me guess," Severus said. "You have to leave now, but we will be seeing each other later!"

"You are rather intelligent." Tonks chuckled. "Good thing, considering you are Hogwarts' Headmaster." The fact that he no longer flinched, reassured Tonks that Severus had finally accepted the office he held. "See you later, Severus!"

Severus watched them go and walked over to his desk, where he placed the newest photograph next to the two he already owned. This was quickly turning into the best Christmas he had ever had – not that he'd ever had celebrated Christmas before!

Neville remained quiet. He merely studied Severus as the older man seemed lost in thought, looking at the pictures on his desk. He had suspected the visits – and gifts - would affect Severus and he wasn't surprised to see the dark eyes swimming with tears. "Merry Christmas," he said and walked up to the older man. "Am I right to assume your evening turned out better than you had hoped?"

Severus smiled and then turned to look at Neville. He should have known the young man would show up as well. "Yes, much better. I expected to spend the evening with Fang," he chuckled.

"I reckon you found yourself in better company? One you can talk to?" Neville hinted and continued to smile at Severus. He liked the fact that the dark eyes had started to clear and had lost the moist expression. Instead, Severus chuckled at him.

"Much better!" Severus beckoned Neville to follow him as he sat down on his favourite chair. "Thank you for thinking of me on this eve."

Neville sat down. "You surprised me these fast few weeks. I never thought we could be friends – considering the way you bullied me for almost seven years. But I know now why you did it and I understand. I am grateful that I got the chance to find out about the real Severus Snape – the man behind the mask, so to speak."

"I had to act the part," Severus added, feeling equally grateful that Neville had given him a chance to befriend him. "Your friendship means much to me."

Neville knew he would grow flustered if he let Severus continue like that. So he quickly said, "I got you a present too, but I am not sure you will like it." He handed Severus the cardboard case that held his present. "You might hate it – I have no idea."

"Why would I hate it?" Severus looked at Neville in surprise. "The mere fact that you got me a gift is precious to me."

"Just wait until you find out what it is." It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now, he wasn't that sure anymore.

Severus opened the case and a book slid onto his lap. A book, bound in black leather, with silver writing on its cover. There was nothing magical about it, and Severus realized Neville had gotten him a Muggle book. This intrigued him and so he turned the book around in order to read the cover. "Assorted poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson?" He had heard about the poet, but had never read anything by his hand.

"I marked a page." Neville grew increasingly restless, as he tried to gauge Severus' reaction to the book. So far, all he saw on the older man's face was surprise.

Severus opened the book, turned the pages, and started to read aloud,

"Come not, when I am dead,
To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,
To trample round my fallen head,
And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.
There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;
But thou, go by.

Child, if it were thine error or thy crime
I care no longer, being all unblest:
Wed whom thou wilt, but I am sick of Time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave to where I lie:
Go by, go by."

Severus fell quiet after reading it. Neville had picked this one for a reason.

"You don't know how happy I am that you are alive, Severus. We came close to burying you! I know that you wanted to die and that could have been you, saying those words only months ago. But I hope everything has changed and that you no longer feel like that. I want you to live instead." Neville had shifted forward on his chair and now carefully wrapped his fingers around Severus' left hand. He felt relieved to note the lack of tremors, for it told him that Severus wasn't growing worse. That was his greatest fear.

"Neville…" Severus paused and tried to find the right words in order to express his feelings. He cared deeply about Harry, but Neville – he felt way more profoundly about the young man sitting next to him. Neville had supported him these last few months—had seldom left his side, and when he had, Neville had returned shortly after. "I want to live, yes. Thank you for that." Neville had given that back to him – his will to live.

Neville gently squeezed Severus' hand. "I am glad you like it." He regretted causing the melancholy mood Severus had slipped into and felt it wise to rouse the older man from his thoughts. "This evening is not over yet. Actually it is just getting started." Neville got to his feet and used his hold on Severus' hand to pull him along.

Severus followed willingly; partly because he was curios and partly because he didn't want to lose Neville's company.

/

"Are you going to tell me where we are headed?" Severus felt Hogwarts whisper into his mind after he had asked Neville that question. They gathered in the Room of Requirement, Headmaster. The connection was still deepening, and at times, Severus found it hard to say where his mind ended and Hogwarts' magic began.

"No, I am not!" Neville grinned wickedly. "I am not telling!"

Severus shook his head in wonder. Neville still had a tight hold on his hand and continued to pull him along. In the end, they came to a halt and Severus acted his part, appearing surprised. "The Room of Requirement?"

Neville laughed and nodded. "I hope you don't mind, but we decided to throw you a Christmas party!" He opened the door and took in the scene in front of him. "I hope you will like it." He hoped Severus wouldn't retreat!

Stepping into the room, Severus found all visitors already present. Then he also noticed Molly and Arthur, Fred and George, Ginny, Hermione, Bill and Fleur. Apparently Harry had brought the Weasleys to Hogwarts. Did he mind? No, not at all. These were people he felt comfortable with. Neville tugged at his hand and he took another step into the room. Yes, this was definitely the best Christmas he had ever had!

/

Severus wondered when exactly it had become customary to gather in his office, instead of in the common room or the Great Hall. But his seventh year students had finally graduated and had every reason to make merry – even if that meant invading his rooms. Severus looked about and smiled upon seeing so many happy faces. Hermione had obtained her goal to become valedictorian, but instead of her looking smug about it, she merely appeared content. She had changed during these last two years. Hunting for and destroying Horcruxes had left its marks on her as well. It had also affected Ron, Severus mused, as the Weasley had turned surprisingly serious during the last year. Severus however hoped that Ron would never lose that certain mischievous touch that had helped him pull through in the past.

Arthur and Molly Weasley doted upon their son and Ginny had taken Harry under her wings. Harry had told him that he wanted to be an Auror and Severus understood that need. Taking that step seemed very logical.

Luna's father had also joined them and seemed spellbound as he listened to his daughter's tales. Xenophilius had always struck Severus as an odd man, but since he had posed no threat, Severus had never really bothered to figure him out.

Augusta Longbottom hovered close to Neville and her face shone with pride whenever she looked at her grandson. Severus felt equally proud of Neville, and believed the young man had made the right decision to study Herbology instead of being trained as an Auror. Severus was quite sure that Neville was too soft-hearted for that. Herbology therefore fit the young man much better.

"How do you do it, Severus?" Tonks sat down on the couch and looked at Severus holding Teddy in his arms. The boy was asleep, much to her surprise. She had tried to make him go to sleep for most of the day, but her son had resisted her charms.

"I am rather boring," Severus quipped and gently rocked Teddy in his arms. It still took him aback how quickly he had grown used to holding the toddler. It helped that Teddy liked him right back; the toddler always seemed to be searching for him when he was in the office. At times, Tonks or Remus dropped their son off because Severus was the only one who could get Teddy to go to sleep.

Severus' gaze drifted off to Neville again. Last night, the young man had confided in him that Luna and he weren't working out and that they decided to go back to being friends. He had felt sorry for Neville, but the young man hadn't seemed heartbroken, which had surprised Severus.

During the evenings when he found himself alone in his office, Severus still worked on the potion which he hoped would restore Alice and Frank's condition, but so far, he had to admit defeat. Nothing he tried seemed to work. It frustrated him to no end.

"You couldn't be boring, even if you tried, Severus." Tonks smiled at the two of them. Asking Severus to be Teddy's godfather had been the best decision of her life. She knew – with certainty- that the older wizard would do anything within his power to ensure her son's happiness. Severus was a natural with children; she hadn't realized that before, but as she watched him shift Teddy in his arms so the toddler rested more comfortably, she felt sad that he didn't have any children of his own. Severus would make a great parent, she was certain of it.

/

Severus watched his guests leave one by one during the evening. He didn't really mind the invasion of his office, not overly – but he would be glad once the normal order of things was restored. He noticed that most of the former Heads of Hogwarts had fled their portraits, trying to find peace and quiet elsewhere. In the end, only Neville remained behind. That didn't surprise Severus as he had caught the younger man staring at him frequently.

"Can I have a word with you?" Neville approached Severus, who had made himself comfortable in his favourite chair near the fireplace.

"Sit down," Severus said invitingly and gestured to the chair standing opposite his. It was obvious that Neville wanted to talk to him, but he had no idea what about.

Neville patted Fang before sitting down and making himself comfortable. The hound seemed the own the spot right in front of the fireplace! He smiled at Fang and then at Severus, thinking wizard and animal were well suited for each other.

"What do you wish to discuss?" Severus poured himself tea – right handed, as his left arm suffered from tremors today. He reckoned it was due to the stress he had found himself in. He still didn't do well with addressing crowds in the Great Hall and today had been particularly unpleasant as he'd had to address family and friends as well as the graduating students. Holding such speeches was the one thing he still truly dreaded.

"I talked to professor Boxwood today. He said that if I am as quick a study as I claim to be, that I could master everything within two years." Professor Boxwood would teach him the fine art of Herbology and Neville hoped to successfully pass his final exams in two years' time.

Severus rested his head against the comfort of the chair. "You should take your time to study your subject in detail. You do not need to rush this." But it certainly looked like Neville wanted to finish his studies as quickly as possible.

"No, I want to return to Hogwarts as quickly as I can. Professor Sprout told me that she wants to retire in two years' time and she agreed to recommend me for her position here should I finish on time."

Severus wondered about the young man in front of him. "Why are you so eager to return here, Neville?"

Neville actually grew a tad flustered. "I don't want to leave Hogwarts to begin with." The truth was that he didn't want to leave *Severus* to begin with. During these last few months they had bonded; they had become close friends and sometimes Neville wondered if it wasn't more – on his end at least. When he had been in love with Luna, his whole body had tingled and he had felt head over heels, but with Severus… There was love too, but of a different kind. He didn't feel as feverish as he had while dating Luna – this felt more serious – even profound in a way.

"Hogwarts will still be here in three years time, should you need longer to complete your studies, Neville. I am sure I can convince Pomona to remain one more year." He wanted Neville to experience what it was like to be young and carefree for a change. After the horrific events that had occurred during the last two years, Neville should give himself that chance. Something I never experienced myself. And that was exactly why he wanted Neville to be able to do it.

Letting Neville go and setting him free was hard on Severus. He would have loved to keep Neville with him for he enjoyed spending his evenings in Neville's company. They would play chess, go for walks – as long as it wasn't too cold—or they would simply talk. Occasionally they even discussed poetry as Neville had presented him with more assorted poetry for his birthday. He had been stunned to realize that Neville had remembered his birthday and had gotten him a present. He would miss having Neville's company, but he also knew he had to set Neville free.

Neville shook his head. "No, I will push myself as I want to return as quickly as possible." Neville briefly bit onto his bottom lip and then addressed Severus again. "Will you allow me to spend my summer and Christmas holidays at Hogwarts?"

He should have expected Neville's request, but Severus still felt taken aback upon hearing it. "But what about Augusta? I am sure your grandmother would like for you to stay with her." Neville's request puzzled Severus. He would love to have Neville over for the holidays, but he couldn't imagine Augusta liking the idea.

"I already discussed the matter with her." Neville revealed. "And she's fine with it. I am eighteen and it's time for me to make my own decisions. I prefer to spend my holidays at Hogwarts." He should have said – I prefer to spend my holidays with *you*, but he wasn't sure Severus would approve of that.

"You are always welcome at Hogwarts, Neville. You always have a home here." He had been tempted to say that Neville would always have a home with him, but Severus had decided against it. He didn't want Neville to misinterpret his words.

"That is settled then!" Neville felt relieved; he hadn't expected Severus to deny him, but he hadn't been completely sure his request would be granted either.

Neville shifted his chair closer to Severus' and studied the older wizard closely. It still amazed him to see how well Severus was doing these days. The continued rest worked miraculous on his overall health and appearance. Neville couldn't remember a time when Severus had looked more rested. Some facial lines, which had once been deep and etched onto Severus' brow, seemed to be fading, giving the other man a younger appearance. Severus is only thirty-nine years old, Neville reminded himself.

But Severus had easily looked like fifty when the Carrows had still resided at Hogwarts. The one thing however which refused to improve was Severus' left arm. The tremors frequently made it hard for Severus to fully control his movement and grabbing and holding objects still presented the Headmaster with problems.

Neville recalled an evening, two weeks ago, when Severus had told him that he would never teach Potions again. He would find a replacement for Slughorn, but had accepted the fact that he would never return to teaching himself. It was just too dangerous. Neville had understood Severus' decision, and his heart had ached for the regrets he had read in those dark eyes.

Severus had slipped his left hand into his pocket and that had told Neville that the tremors were still present. Severus always hid his hand from view when the tremors appeared. Neville felt the urge to take hold of the trembling hand and to offer him comfort that way, but so far, he had never tried to do so. He was rather certain that Severus wouldn't allow it. The older wizard still felt uncomfortable being touched or being reminded of the permanent nerve damage.

Neville understood why that was – to some degree- but there were also times when he wished that Severus would allow him to offer him his support that way. But he wasn't going to give up; Neville was determined to find a way to get through to Severus in that aspect.

"When will you leave?" Severus tried to sound calm and controlled, but the truth was that he didn't want Neville to leave. He had come to care for the younger man and would sorely miss him.

"In the morning." Neville had learned to read Severus' moods and realized the older wizard felt unhappy about them parting ways. But it was their only option. He couldn't stay at Hogwarts as he had graduated and the only way for him to become a permanent part of Severus' life was to obtain a teaching position. That meant studying and passing all necessary exams and he was confident he would succeed in doing that. He just wished he could do so in one year instead of two.

"Would you like me to be there when you leave or…?" Severus didn't finish his question as he was sure Neville realized the real reason behind him asking it.

"I leave that up to you." Neville understood perfectly. Actually having to say goodbye and allowing him to leave was hard on Severus and Neville didn't want to put the older wizard through that. Severus had already suffered too many losses in his life. "What do you say? Shall we play one last game of Wizard chess?" So far, he had never managed to defeat Severus, although he had always tried his best. He would never just hand over victory to Severus.

Severus nodded. "We shall play then." He would imbed tonight in his memories, so he would be able to remember their last shared evening in detail.

/

The fact that Severus had offered to walk him to the dormitory showed Neville that the older wizard didn't want to say goodbye either. Goodbye however was inevitable. As they walked down the corridor, Neville stole a look at Severus, who seemed ill at ease. Being honest, he had to admit he felt uneasy too. Needing to reach out and to make contact, he slipped his fingers around Severus' hand and instantly noticed the tremors coursing through it.

Severus' first impulse was to break the hold Neville had on his hand and to pull away, but when Neville gently squeezed his fingers, Severus found himself unable to deny the younger man. After all, this was goodbye.

Neville came to a halt and Severus stopped walking as well. He made sure that the Fat Lady couldn't see them, as he didn't wish for any witnesses. He needed privacy. "Severus," he started, but then felt lost for words, staring into those dark eyes. When had it happened? When had he fallen for the older man? When had he fallen in love with Severus Snape? But then again, did it matter? He was rather sure that Severus would never allow this and so he swallowed the words he had wanted to say. Instead, he said, "I promise to return to Hogwarts." To you, he thought.

Severus sighed; he had long realized Neville's deepening feelings for him, but was determined to ignore them. Even though he returned those feelings, he would never allow himself to express them. He was twenty years older than Neville was and had lived his life. Neville however was merely starting his and Severus would never hold the younger man back. Neville needed to live his life without ties. Neville had earned the right to be free and Severus was determined to make sure Neville lived his life to the fullest. "I wish you the best, Neville. I hope that you will do well with your studies and that love will find you. I want you to be happy, always remember that." Even if that meant losing Neville. He had no right to hold onto Neville in the first place.

Neville read between the lines and wondered how to react to those words. "Severus, I know what I want… And I will make sure I will get it." Let Severus brood over that!

Severus managed a smile. "You will do well, Neville. Go with my blessing."

Neville's emotions were getting the better of him and he used his hold on Severus' hand to bridge the distance between them. Severus froze the moment Neville wrapped his arms around him, but he had expected the older man to react like that. Neville didn't release Severus though. Instead, he rested his head on the older wizard's shoulder and savoured the moment. Severus was allowing this – for which he felt grateful. He had probably stunned the other man, but Neville didn't care why Severus allowed the contact. All Neville could think about was that Severus wasn't running.

Severus could barely believe what was happening. He wanted to move away from Neville, wanted to break the embrace and retreat so he would feel safe again. Showing emotions was something he was still getting used to, and being hugged like that, was a completely new experience; one he didn't really know how to deal with. He felt undone when Neville started to whisper into his ear.

"Take good care of yourself, Severus. I will owl Remus regularly to make sure you do. And should I find it necessary, I will come to Hogwarts to check on you. The fact that I am going away to study doesn't mean you can cut me out of your life, do you understand me?" Neville raised his head and looked Severus in the eye. "Unlike Harry, I can't read your thoughts, but the look in your eyes tells me everything I need to know. I will be back- you can count on that."

"You don't know what you are saying." Severus wished Neville would break the embrace, but the younger man's arms stayed in place and refused to let go. "You are young, Neville. You will lose yourself in your studies, and in time, you will also lose your heart to some fair witch. You will marry, settle down, and start your own family. And then, one day, when your youngest child starts attending school, you will accompany your youngest to Hogwarts. And then you will stand in the Great Hall, looking at me, and wonder why you ever thought you wanted to return to me."

Now Severus had done it! Now that the older man had broached the subject –finally - Neville quickly reacted to it. "Severus, you know that I care deeply about you. I will not forget you and I doubt anyone can make me change my mind. I will come back to you." There, he had said it. Instead of 'return to Hogwarts' he had finally voiced his real reason for wanting to come back. "I care about you – deeply." Neville knew better than to speak of love or bring up feelings at that point. They had to go slow – very slow. "I will send an owl once I am settled in. I will keep you updated on my studies and I will let you know when I plan on visiting you. For I will be back," he repeated, hoping Severus would allow himself to believe that.

Severus managed a sad smile. "We will see, young one."

"Not that young!" He was eighteen; he had come of age a year ago and he was no longer a child. He was an adult, and although it would take time, he was determined to make Severus see and accept that. Sensing the distress Severus was in, Neville decided to release him from the embrace. He then nodded once and said, "Don't give up on me, Severus," and walked down the rest of the corridor.

/

Severus apparated onto the Astronomy Tower and watched Neville make his way to Hogwarts' gates. He had debated whether or not to accompany the young man, but in the end, he had decided against it. He had to stop Neville's youthful infatuation regarding him. It was something Severus couldn't allow. He had to make sure he no longer acted in a way that might led Neville to believe that the feeling was mutual – even if that was the truth. He wouldn't allow anything to hold Neville back – and certainly not those insane feelings which the young man seemed to have developed for him. He wanted the best for Neville – and being in love with him was the worst thing that could have happened, according to Severus.

Neville had reached the gates and suddenly turned around. He felt someone's gaze upon him and he was fairly certain it was Severus who was looking at him. After a moment's search, he made out the Headmaster's form on the Astronomy Tower. He didn't need to see the older man's expression to guess what Severus was thinking; it had all been in the black eyes last night. He needs time, Neville reminded himself. I understand why he is hesitant to accept this, but I will find a way to make him accept the truth. And the truth was rather simple, as far as Neville was concerned; he was in love with Severus Snape and he had the distinct feeling that this bond wouldn't simply disappear because he was studying in Essex and Severus remained behind at Hogwarts. No, distance wouldn't make a difference.

Neville grinned and promised himself to find a way to get through to the older man. He just had to find a way to make Severus admit the truth!

/

It was already late in the evening, and Severus was on his way to bed, when an owl suddenly appeared at his window. Realizing his evening wasn't over yet, Severus opened the window and allowed the owl inside. It was a particular energetic bird. "Behave yourself!" he told the owl and managed to retrieve the letter. The owl took off immediately and he wondered whom it belonged to as he didn't remember ever having seen it before.

He unrolled the parchment and was stunned to see Neville's handwriting. The young man had said he would write to him, but Severus hadn't expected the first note arrive so quickly! He instantly grew worried, afraid something had happened to Neville.

Severus,

I said I would write, didn't I? I arrived safe and sound and must admit I like it here. Professor Boxwood made a good first impression on me and I hope I made one on him as well! He is old though— nearly ninety. But then again, that hopefully means he knows what he is talking about! We went through the courses today and I have the feeling I can easily accomplish everything within the two years I had hoped. I am considering taking some lessons in healing as well, as professor Boxwood also seems accomplished in that area! Maybe I will even come up with that cure for the Cruciatus curse we are searching for! That is, considering there is one. The fact that you have been researching it for all that time and came up with nothing isn't exactly encouraging!

The way it looks now I might be able to squeeze in the occasional trip to Hogwarts during the weekends. If you will still have me, that is?

I will write again in a few days when I truly know what to expect regarding my studies and maybe we can pick a weekend for me to visit?

I hope my letter finds you well and that you are taking care of yourself. Although it is still rather warm for September, take care when you go outside. Use Poppy's heating pads if you must (I think they are a great invention!) And sleep! I know you tend to roam the castle at night, but be sensible and go to bed instead.

Severus, write back, will you? Don't ignore me… Don't cut me out of your life. I know you… Just don't.

Neville

Severus stared at the letter for some time and then sat down behind his desk. A part of him felt thrilled that Neville had written him, but another thought it best if the young man simply forgot he existed. Should he write Neville back? Or would it be best to ignore him, much like Neville feared?

Severus placed the letter on his desk and got to his feet again. He was tempted to go for a walk in order to clear his mind, but Neville was right; he needed to sleep as well. In the end, Severus headed for bed, and although he expected to toss and turn, he quickly fell asleep.

/

"You should write back, Severus! Seriously!" Tonks shook her head at him and felt rather exasperated. Severus Snape had been cunning enough to mislead Voldemort for years, but the wizard did definitely lack intelligence in other areas. "Neville cares about you! You can't deny that. You can't ignore him!"

Severus was rather angry with himself. He had been sloppy and she had found Neville's letter while he had been feeding Fang. She had picked it up and had read it. When he had returned, he had been too late. She had already started to lecture him. "Tonks, think! You are an Auror, which means you must possess some intelligence!

Tonks smirked; she had long realized that Severus returned to sneers and snarls whenever he felt trapped. She had been surprised to find out that Neville cared to such an extent about Severus, but then again, the young man had grown close to Severus; she had seen it happen during the last few months. What she hadn't realized, until he had reacted so vehemently upon finding her with the letter in her hand, was that Neville had developed feelings for Severus. She wasn't sure how she felt about that; Neville was young and had seemed in love with Luna, but those two had quickly broken off their relationship and had gone back to being friends. She couldn't help but wonder if that had happened because Neville had realized his feelings for Severus –even back then. There was the age difference of course and the fact that both were male, but then again, she wasn't prejudiced. Love came in all different forms and shapes, also in the form of a werewolf, as far as she was concerned.

"I am intelligent," she said, trying to keep their conversation going. "For how long have you known Neville has feelings for you?" Being subtle wouldn't work with Severus, she knew that. She had to confront him head on.

"A few weeks," Severus admitted as he collapsed onto a chair. He massaged his right temple as he was developing a headache. Neville was to blame for that. Why did the young man insist they continue their friendship? For if he answered that letter, Neville would feel encouraged and think he had a chance to deepen their friendship into a relationship of a different kind.

Tonks pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. She cast a quick look at Teddy, who had fallen asleep resting against Fang. The hound was asleep too, and the two of them actually looked rather comfortable. "Severus," she said and tried to read his mood. "What are you afraid of?"

She had to ask him that, didn't she? She couldn't detour or even better, forget she had read that letter. A letter, which she shouldn't have read in the first place!

"Severus, talk to me. I am a friend." Tonks slowly rested her right hand on his shoulder and squeezed – gently. "Why are you scared to answer Neville's letter?"

"Don't you understand?" Severus turned his head toward her. The fact that she was still squeezing his shoulder made it –for some reason – easier to confide in her. "I don't want to encourage him. He should forget about me instead."

Tonks carefully considered her reply- knowing much depended on it. "Because you don't return his feelings? Because Neville's love is unrequited?"

Severus considered lying to her, but in the end, he knew she wouldn't let him get away with it. She was an Auror after all, and knew when he was lying. "That's the real problem, I am afraid."

Tonks had already thought so. "You return his feelings." Did that surprise her? In one way it did, because she had never considered the possibility of them being attracted to each other, but now that she knew about the feelings involved, she wondered why she hadn't caught it earlier. The two of them spent most of their time together. Neville always seemed to be near Severus and had even spent several nights on the couch in the office. Even Tonks had found him asleep there one morning. "Why do you want Neville to think you don't?"

"That's another problem," Severus admitted. "He knows. I can't lie to him, Tonks, much like I can't lie to you. It's different of course. You know when I am lying because you are an Auror. Neville knows because he knows me too well."

"You want Neville to fall out of love because…?" She was going to let him talk as she needed more information!

"Tonks, there is no way this can work. First there is the age difference. Neville is eighteen and I am twenty years older than him."

Tonks discarded the argument; age meant little as far as she was concerned. "What else?"

Severus blinked; had she really said that? He had been under the impression it was reason enough to stop this madness! "What else?"

"Age doesn't matter, Severus… Neither does form. I am in a love with a werewolf, in case you hadn't noticed."

Severus stared at the wall instead. "Are you asking me to name the reasons why I am denying Neville?"

"Of course! Or can't you come up with any?" Tonks smiled sweetly.

Severus was instantly on his guard. That smile often meant trouble. "I don't have anything to offer."

"Nonsense," she said and dismissed the argument with a flick of her hand. "You have a lot to offer."

"Like what?" Severus was fed up and turned the game around, asking her questions instead.

Tonks grinned; now she had him exactly where she wanted him. "You are a caring person." He snorted, but she ignored it. "You are intelligent and cunning. You are brave."

"Brave!" Severus got to his feet and paced the office. "Don't start with that. I have never been brave to begin with. I merely did what needed to be done!"

Tonks refused to be manipulated and simply continued. "You want what is best for Neville, which is something each lover wants. You have looked after him in the past, and Neville did the same thing for you. You enjoy his company and he feels the same way about you. You allow him to take care of you; that should have clued me in, but I was blind."

"What do you mean?" Severus came to a halt and eyed her closely.

"Do you remember creating the bonfires on the fifth of November? Neville worried that you were cold and he told you to go back to the castle to get warm. You complied." Tonks felt smug for remembering that, but then she came up with an even better memory. "I will never forget the look on Neville's face when Kingsley turned up at the Hospital Wing to tell you that the Wizengamot wouldn't press charges. Neville raised that sword of his and threatened Kingsley."

Severus actually remembered that. "I did wonder about it at the time. But I attributed it to the stress Neville was in."

"Maybe there was more to it?" Tonks hoped she was finally getting through to him. "I can't think of a single reason why you should deny Neville, and so far, you haven't provided me with one either!" Tonks noticed the distress to his eyes and whispered, "Or is it because of Lily?" Did he still love her after twenty years? Was he unable to let go of the dead? In that case, Neville would face defeat because there was no way he could compete with Lily.

Severus quickly shook his head and a frown appeared on his brow. "I will always love her, but… something has changed. She is a memory these days – nothing more."

Tonks felt relieved, for it meant Neville might still have a chance. "Why are you fighting this then? You are worthy of love, Severus." Was that the problem? Didn't he think himself worthy of finding love?

Severus couldn't stop the blush from forming, but he managed to quickly compose himself. "It isn't that either."

"Then what is?" And then suddenly, she thought of something, but that couldn't be! Surely, Severus had… "Are you telling me you never had a lover before?" She knew she had hit bull's eye when he turned away from her – clearly feeling embarrassed.

"When do you think I had time for that? When I was young, I was in love with Lily, but she chose to be with James. During the first war, I was too busy staying alive! Then, during my teaching years at Hogwarts, I was still carrying on missions for Albus and my workload doubled when Harry started to attend school. And then Voldemort returned, turning my life into hell once more."

"I never…" Tonks suddenly felt ashamed for making him admit that. "I always assumed there was someone who…" But Severus was right; there had never been time or opportunity for that. "Severus, you must give this a chance!" Tonks nodded fervently. "Give Neville his chance! You deserve a chance at love like everyone else does!"

"Do I? After everything I did? After the deaths and pain which I caused?"

"Severus, everything you did was in order to bring down Voldemort!" She had suspected all along that he still felt guilty. "We were at war and you fought at the front line! Cut yourself some slack. Write back, Severus. Don't deny yourself this. I want you to be happy and Neville… Neville might not take no for an answer." At least, she hoped so.

Severus stared at the letter which still lay upon his desk. Should he take Tonks' advice and write Neville? Or should he follow his instincts and stop that madness right now?

/

It was close to midnight when Severus sat down behind his desk. He picked up a quill and started writing.

Neville,

This is folly. Do you have any idea how much you are complicating both our lives by pursuing this? I beg you to reconsider and to let this infatuation die.

Severus.

/

Neville was relieved to receive any reply at all. After reading it, he realized that his cause wasn't lost – not at all. So he sat down and composed an answer.

Severus,

How can you ask me to give up before I even tried to get through to you? I have no intention of denying this infatuation as you call it. I am in love with you, and since you never actually denied it, I am fairly certain you have feelings for me in turn. If you think you can make me stop pursue you, you are mistaken. I know what I want, Severus, and I want a chance to show you that I am sincere.

I talked to Professor Boxwood and he allows me to visit you at the end of November. I will come to Hogwarts then and you had better be there! Severus, I know you are worried, but let me assure you that you have nothing to worry about. Just give me one chance.

Neville.

/

Neville,

You are mad, you do know that? And I am insane for giving in to you. Nothing but sorrow can come from this, but as you are determined to put us through that hell…

Severus

/

Severus,

I guess that is a yes?

Neville

/

You, Mister Longbottom, are a brat…

And yes…

Severus

/

Severus was nervous. Three months had passed since he had last seen Neville, and although they wrote each other almost daily, he couldn't help feeling apprehensive. He paced and watched the gates closely, waiting for any sign that would tell him that Neville had apparated. Was he doing the right thing in allowing Neville to grow that close to him? He had agreed to give them this chance, but what if it was a mistake?

Damn, it was cold, but what did he expect? It was the end of November and first snow had fallen two days ago. Although it had melted yesterday, the cold had returned with a vengeance. He continued to pace as he needed to keep warm and wished he were back in his office next to a nice hot fire. He refused to leave without Neville though.

There was a sudden crack to the air and Severus spun about. Neville stood at the opposite side of the gates and was already giving him an impatient look. Severus opened the gates and gestured for Neville to approach. He couldn't remember a time when he had felt more nervous – not even when Voldemort had summoned him and he hadn't known what to expect.

"Headmaster," Neville said smugly and inclined his head in greeting. "I am honoured that you collect me in person."

"Cheeky brat," Severus quipped. "Giving me trouble already, aren't you?"

"I am merely being respectful," Neville said and unceremoniously dropped his bag on the frozen ground. "You have no idea how much I have longed for this moment." He stepped forward and carefully wrapped his arms around Severus. "I missed you."

Neville's arms tightened around him in an embrace, causing Severus to stiffen due to the unexpected contact. He forced himself to relax; Neville cared for him and it was only natural that he wanted to embrace him. Still, the physical contact felt foreign and therefore made him uncomfortable.

Neville felt Severus freeze, but refused to let go because of it. He had longed for this moment and he was going to make it last. "Thank you for giving us this chance." He knew it was up to him to make this work and for that, he felt grateful, because it meant he still had a chance.

Severus managed to relax ever so slightly, but that changed the moment Neville began to rub his back. His eyes widened at the touch and he forced himself to accept it. It was just a damn hug!

"How are things at the school?" Neville said upon releasing Severus from the embrace. He followed Severus to the carriage that already awaited them.

"Quiet," Severus replied at long last. They took their seats and he peeked at the younger man. "Most of the students have gone to Hogsmeade and some of the staff too. Only Poppy, Minerva, and Remus stayed behind."

Neville moved closer to Severus and tenderly wrapped his fingers around the older man's right hand, as Severus kept his left tucked into a pocket. The tremors were still present then.

Severus stared at their joined hands and was beginning to realize Neville's game plan. The younger man was obviously trying to get him used to being touched. Severus wished him good luck with that.

/

"I feel at home here." Neville sighed happily. He walked next to Severus and the two of them were on route to the Headmaster's office. "Professor Sprout had better not retire before I am ready to take over!" He felt certain though that she would make sure he succeeded her.

Severus glanced at Neville again. The fact that the young man felt so at ease walking next to him amazed him. He had to admit that it felt good to have Neville back. During these last three months he had felt incomplete, but now that Neville had returned, he felt whole. Did that mean he was fighting a lost cause and that there was no way to stop this?

Neville still had a hold on his hand and Severus had to admit that he was growing used to the touch. He no longer felt the need to pull away his hand. They descended into the office and Neville chuckled at finding Fang drooling onto the rug in front of the fireplace. "Nothing ever changes, does it?"

Severus wasn't sure how to proceed. He had assigned Neville guest quarters, but he suspected the young man would spend as little time as possible there. Neville then spotted the tea and scones waiting for them. "I am hungry," he said and winked at Severus. He didn't let go of his hand though and so Severus was dragged along to the fireplace. Both men settled down and Neville was forced to let go of Severus' hand as he helped himself to scones with clotted cream and marmalade. "It's good to be back!"

Severus claimed the chair next to Neville and was content to look at the younger man as he devoured the scone. "I can ask for a decent meal," he offered.

"Later!" Neville said decisively. First, he wanted to look – truly look – at Severus. He had been worried about the state he would find Severus in, but the older wizard looked rested. And still looked like forty instead of fifty, which reminded him that Severus' birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks. Well, forty was still young in the wizarding world!

Neville grew increasingly aware of the odd tension between them and realized it was Severus' attempt to make him reconsider his former request. If the older wizard thought he would get away with it, he was in for a surprise. "How is your left arm today?" He pointedly looked at the pocket which Severus used to hide his hand in. "Are the tremors more pronounced today?"

Severus hadn't expected that question and felt taken aback. Of all the possible things that Neville might have asked, he hadn't counted on that one. "Yes, they are… and no, it is nothing to worry about."

"May I?" Neville leaned in closer and extended his arm. "Maybe I can help with that." He half expected to see suspicion on Severus' face, so when it appeared, he wasn't taken aback.

"What do you think you can do?" Severus wasn't sure what was happening.

"We can't use any spells to alleviate your discomfort, but maybe we can try some Muggle treatment I came across recently." Severus looked up curiously at that and Neville smiled knowingly. "I told you I was also looking into healing and professor Boxwood studies Muggle treatments too. He came across a particular massage technique and I would like to try it on you, if you trust me, that is. It's not invasive, nor should you be in pain because of it."

Neville wasn't fighting fair and they both knew it. "I trust you," Severus said eventually. "And I am not afraid of pain."

"I know that," Neville said soothingly. "I don't want you to be in pain to begin with – I will never willingly cause you pain, I promise."

Severus sighed; he didn't want Neville to think he didn't trust him. "Do your worst then." He extended his left arm toward Neville, who gently took it in his hands.

"I need to get the fabric out of the way. Do you need help with those buttons?" Neville smiled sweetly.

Severus wondered if Neville didn't have a hidden agenda. "Trying to get me out of my clothes already?" he half quipped, half sneered.

Neville merely wiggled an eyebrow. "Maybe?" He didn't want the atmosphere to become too seriously. He needed to handle this lightly so Severus didn't feel pressured.

"It depends on how much time you will give me to undo those buttons. If you want it done swiftly, you will have to do it. It will take me a while." Severus wasn't sure what was happening and felt at a loss.

"I will help," Neville offered quickly. He shifted on the chair and reached for the countless buttons that adorned Severus' coat. "Tell me, are your clothes still all black?" he said in order to distract the older man.

"If you don't count the white shirts, yes, they are. What colour do you expect me to wear? Bloody red?" Severus swallowed nervously the moment Neville managed to undo the last button. He slipped out of the coat and Neville draped it across the armrest. Now what?

"No, red doesn't suit you. But what about midnight blue? Or dark greys to start with?" Neville also undid the buttons to Severus' sleeve and then slid the material up past the elbow. He sucked in his breath, finally realizing it was the arm that bore the Dark Mark. Was that the reason the curse had caused permanent damage? Because the Mark possessed its own magic?

Severus allowed Neville to distract him. "Maybe I will give blue a chance." He felt nervous, seeing Neville's fingers ghost over the Mark. He had hoped it would vanish after Voldemort's demise, but although it had faded with time, it was still visible. "What are you going to do?" He had to know – had to have some semblance of control.

"Not much – just this." Neville kept a close eye on Severus as he started to massage the rigid fingers one by one. "How does that feel?" he asked, as he wanted to make sure he wasn't causing Severus more pain.

Severus wasn't sure he should admit it, but it actually felt good. The massage made his fingers a bit more flexible, plus warmth started to spread throughout his hand. "It feels…good," he whispered, unable to manipulate or lie.

Neville smiled relieved. "I had hoped it would feel good." He continued the massage and slowly worked his way up to the wrist and then up the arm itself. He kept monitoring Severus' responses and was amused to find the older wizard had closed his eyes and was actually drifting off into sleep. The fact that Severus allowed himself to relax to such an extent spoke of the trust that Severus had in him and Neville felt honoured because of it.

Ten minutes later, Severus was truly and deeply asleep. Neville kept the massage up though for another twenty minutes, until his own fingers started to cramp up. He then collected a quilt and wrapped Severus up in it, needing to keep the older man warm.

"Good evening to you, Neville."

Neville had almost forgotten about the portraits, but when he heard Dumbledore's voice, he turned toward the former Headmaster's painting. "Good evening to you too, sir." After making sure Severus was comfortable, and still asleep, he made his way over to the portrait. "It is good to be back."

Albus nodded. "It will do Severus lots of good to have you with him."

Neville smiled; there was no need to play games with Dumbledore. "I plan on permanently moving in. In eighteen months, after I pass my exams, I will take up teaching Herbology at Hogwarts."

"You planned it all, didn't you, my boy?" Albus approved of Neville's plans. "I am sure Pomona will be relieved to know that you will take over. She is awfully protective of her green house!"

"I know how to take care of those plants, that helps." Neville cast a quick look at Severus. After making sure he was still asleep, Neville asked, "How is he doing? Honestly?" If anyone knew, then Dumbledore would!

"Honestly?" Albus echoed, and a naughty twinkle appeared in his eyes. "He is doing well, Neville. He still has a tiny bit of trouble accepting that you love him, but I am sure you can work around that."

Dumbledore winked and Neville chuckled at seeing it. "Was it a shock to him? I can't really imagine that. Surely he must have realized what was happening?"

"I think he did," Albus said, opting for the truth. He might not get another chance to talk to Neville and he was going to use his time well. "Of course he realized that your friendship was deepening, but the one thing he didn't count on was falling in love himself."

Neville nodded and felt relieved to hear that. "I wasn't sure he loved me back, but I felt confident that he might."

"Severus doesn't really know what to do. The first time he fell in love, Lily chose James over him. Severus has kept his heart locked away ever since. And now that you proclaim you love him he feels at a loss. Severus knows about rejection, but nothing about acceptance."

"That's what I thought," Neville whispered. "Do you have any advice for me, sir?"

"Continue with what you are doing, Neville. I think you will manage perfectly on your own. Oh, the matters of the heart…" Albus wiggled his eyebrows. "Make the best of the time you have together, Neville. Don't let it slip away."

"I won't," Neville promised and then walked back to Severus. It was time to move the older man to the bed and he hoped he would accomplish that without waking Severus in the process.

/

The first thing Severus became aware of upon waking in the morning was the fact that he felt relaxed. Rested and relaxed. The ache coursing through his left arm was usually the thing to wake him up, but not this time. He had been in discomfort for almost a year, but right now, the pain was absent – how odd. Severus opened his eyes and wanted to check on his arm when he realized that he wasn't alone in bed. He wanted to reach for his wand, which he always kept tucked inside his sleeve, but then realized he wasn't wearing his coat, or his shirt for that matter. He turned his head slightly and promptly looked at Neville, who was asleep next to him.

They lay facing each other and somehow, Neville had managed to wrap his arms around him, holding him close. Last night's events suddenly returned to him. So that was why he was without his wand; Neville had massaged his arm and had then disposed of the shirt when he had taken him to bed. But how had Neville ended up in bed with him, and even more startling, holding him? Normally Severus would have lashed out; he had cursed people for less. How could he have continued to sleep with someone that close next to him? Because I trust him, he admitted to himself. He trusted Neville unconditionally.

Tentatively, unsure of his motives, he raised his left hand and stroked stray strands of hair away from Neville's face. Who would have thought the chubby child would turn into a handsome man one day? Puberty had been kind to Neville Longbottom and had turned him from an ugly duckling into a rather striking swan. Why did Neville want him? Why indeed? Severus still couldn't figure it out. He suddenly realized that his fingers had strayed and were caressing Neville's face. He instantly pulled away, as if burned.

"Don't stop – that feels nice…"

Severus realized to his dismay that Neville was awake and had noticed the caress – his trespassing. Severus wanted to increase the distance between them, but the fact that Neville's arms were still wrapped around him, prevented that. "I am sorry," he whispered instead. He had no idea how to deal with the intimate setting he suddenly found himself in. He had never been this close to someone – had never slept in the same bed with someone he had feelings for.

Severus' apology, and even more so the trepidation that coloured Severus' voice, made Neville open his eyes. Looking at Severus, he realized what upset the older man. "There's no need to apologize, Severus. I enjoy your touch and rather hope you will continue it." The apprehension in Severus' eyes didn't go away though. "I am serious, Severus. I like being close to you. I like it when you caress my face."

Severus knew he had to be honest with Neville if he really wanted them to have a chance. He didn't want to say the words though; didn't want to see the expression in Neville's eyes upon realizing the truth. Maybe he would get away with ignoring his unease.

"Say it… You can tell me." Neville slowly, and carefully, drew circles onto Severus' back, hoping it would calm him. "You can tell me everything," he repeated. It was strange to see Severus so skittish.

Severus felt more than just shy all of a sudden; he felt embarrassed. "Neville, I have never had… There was never time, or opportunity for me… Bloody hell, can't you figure it out yourself?" And why did Neville have to continue to caress his skin? It made him even more nervous!

Neville privately cursed himself for not seeing the obvious sooner. "I am your first lover?" Severus didn't speak then, and merely nodded. It confirmed how uncomfortable he must feel. Neville however hoped his next admission would take away most of that unease. "You are my first lover too."

Severus blinked as he had never expected to hear. "But what about Luna?" He had been under the impression that… Neville chuckled and the sound of it pulled him from his thoughts.

"We kissed – and quickly realized how odd it felt. It didn't work. We didn't feel comfortable kissing each other, so we went back to being friends. I should probably also admit that I already felt attracted to you at that point."

Severus was still trying to sort through the things Neville had just told him. "You never had a lover before then?"

"That's what I told you just now, isn't it?" But apparently Severus needed to hear him say the words. "I never had a lover before – well, if you don't count those two kisses."

Severus felt immensely relieved. Maybe that would make things easier on him. At least he wasn't the only one new at this. Neville suddenly cupped his cheek in the palm of his hand and turned his head toward him. Severus allowed it and looked at the younger man, who appeared comfortable and at ease.

"I am not going to jump you," Neville said softly. "But I do enjoy having you close and holding you. Is that agreeable to you?"

Severus smiled – and it was a genuinely caring smile. "Most agreeable." Learning that Neville had no experience in that area either reassured him. "How long can you stay?"

"I have to go back tomorrow evening, which means we have today and most of tomorrow. Did you plan anything?"

"Not really. Most students will go to Hogsmeade and tomorrow, classes start again." He didn't have many appointments though and would be able to spend most of the day with Neville. "Neville, how sure are you about this? About us?" He had to know before giving away his heart. He had done so once before and had hurt for two decades because of it.

"I am certain." Neville caressed Severus' face and tried to reassure him the best he could. "I love you," he said, and quickly shook his head when Severus wanted to speak up. "I know what I feel so don't tell me otherwise. I know that I love you."

"I hope you are sure, Neville… I sincerely hope so." Because losing his heart to Neville scared him to no end.

Neville nodded in order to show that he understood. "I won't hurt you," he whispered and then pressed closer to Severus. "It's Sunday, isn't it?"

"Yes," Severus replied, unsure why Neville wanted to know that.

"You have no appointments today? Or urgent matters you need to attend do?"

"Nothing." Severus still wasn't sure why Neville wanted to know those things.

"Good, for that means we can stay in bed and go back to sleep. I don't know about you, but I am still tired." Neville closed his eyes and rested his head against Severus' chest. The constant rise and fall made him fall asleep again and he did so with a huge grin on his face.

Severus however couldn't go back to sleep. He marvelled about the young man in his bed, who had also found a way into his heart. He didn't fully understand what was happening, or why, he merely knew he had surrendered to the feeling and that his heart answered to a new master now.

/

Severus managed to untangle himself and sneaked into the office, where he summoned tea and breakfast. He didn't want to wake Neville yet, and let the younger man sleep. Apparently Neville was tired and needed the rest.

"You look flabbergasted," Albus remarked smugly.

"Or should I say gobsmacked?" Phineas added, enjoying teasing Severus as much as Albus did.

"Give the poor man a break!" Everard said, but grinned in the same fashion his colleagues did. "After all, it's been a while since this office saw some action!"

Severus groaned and rested his head against the comfort of the chair, closing his eyes in the process and doing his best to ignore them. That would prove difficult though.

"Did you see this one coming?" Newton said and grinned his dirtiest smile.

Vindictus laughed loudly. "Not yet, but maybe soon."

"Silence, please…" Severus begged. "It is too early for that!"

"But I always heard that sex was best in the morning," Phineas continued, truly enjoying pestering Severus. It was payback for all the times Severus had beaten him at Wizard chess!

"Don't be rude," Neville quipped as he walked toward the desk behind which Severus sat. "You are merely jealous, the whole lot of you!" He noticed the dark look Black gave him and barely suppressed the urge to stick out his tongue. "Ah, breakfast," he said and grabbed a bread roll from Severus' plate. "Lady Grey?" he enquired.

Caching on, Severus summoned breakfast for Neville too. He glared at the portraits, daring them to comment again. If they did, he would deal with them and they wouldn't like it. They remained quiet though, probably realizing he was serious.

Neville transfigured himself a chair and sat down opposite Severus, who still looked stunned. "How is your arm this morning?" He had given it a quick look and had found the tremors gone – for now.

"Better. It's the first time in nearly a year that it doesn't hurt." Severus wished he could take the words back the moment he spoke them. The look Neville gave him reminded him that he had never admitted to being in actual pain because of the tremors.

"What? Say that again?" Neville gave him a challenging look. "Did you say you have been in constant pain for a year?" Why hadn't Severus told him that?

"It is of no consequence. I can assure you that the pain is minor and that I can deal with it. I have suffered worse."

"Maybe, but is it really constant?" Neville didn't like the sound of that.

Severus shrugged. "As I said before, it's minor."

Neville counted to ten as he didn't want to lose his temper. "I will show Poppy how to give you that massage so you are in less constant discomfort." He felt exasperated. Why couldn't Severus simply admit to being in pain? Why did he have to downplay it? Because he always did that in the past, Neville realized suddenly. "And I will show Remus too," he ignored Severus when the older man tried to voice his objections. "Forget about it. If I can take away your pain, I will, even if I have to work through others."

Severus felt speechless. Had anyone ever cared about him to such an extent before? Maybe Poppy, but then again, she was a healer. She had no personal reason to relieve his pain. Neville however was a different matter. All of sudden, he wondered what the hell he was doing. Why was he encouraging the young man to actually care about him? Why…?

"Stop," Neville said and took Severus' hand in his. There had been a time when he had envied Harry for being able to read Severus' mind, but Neville suddenly realized he didn't need such a link— it was all in the eyes – right there and easy to read. "Just stop it, Severus. You agreed to this. There is no way out for you."

His heart wouldn't let him anyway— but that didn't mean he couldn't panic – which he was doing right now. The thought that it was now the two of them frightened him. During the war he had never allowed himself to care – afraid of what he might lose if Voldemort found out. Voldemort was gone, but that didn't change the fact that he could still lose the person he now cared about. What if he lost Neville? What if…?

"I said, stop it, Severus." Neville disliked seeing the panic in those black eyes. He understood – to a certain degree – that Severus was still battling old fears, but he also knew he couldn't allow it. It might drive them apart otherwise. "Now why don't we finish breakfast and then go for a walk? The sun is out and you can do with a bit of fresh air." Severus still looked pale and Neville doubted that would ever change. It was cold outside, he knew that, and he promised himself to keep a close eye on Severus.

/

"Neville, is that you?" Remus was on his way out, as he planned to keep an eye on the students roaming Hogsmeade, when he caught sight of Severus and the young man at his side.

"Remus!" Neville walked up to his friend and former professor and hugged him.

Severus watched on, marvelling about the fact that some people had no apprehension about being touched – about being hugged. It looked so easy when he saw Neville and Remus sharing an embrace. Why then was it so bloody hard on him?

"I didn't know you would visit!" Remus shot Severus a glare, but then noticed the odd expression in his friend's eyes. Severus appeared unbalanced, not quite upset, but almost. "Is anything wrong?"

"No!" Neville knew exactly what conclusion Remus must have reached. "Though I would like to make a request."

"What kind of request?" Remus frowned. What had happened between Severus and Neville? Something had definitely changed between them; he noticed it more clearly now that Neville had returned to Severus' side. Neville was standing rather close to Severus and the other wizard actually seemed fine with that.

"I want to show you something. Do you have a moment?" Neville wasn't going to pass up his chance to explain the massage technique to Remus!

/

"You can't expect me to be comfortable with Remus doing that." Severus shook his head at Neville. He was definitely *not* going to allow the werewolf to massage his arm like that! Ever!

Remus still felt a bit stunned, but mostly, he was amused to see the two of them interact in such a way. The fact that Severus was actually allowing Neville to have his way, was eye-opening. Tonks had mentioned the letter she had read some months ago, but Remus hadn't expected either men to act on their feelings. Apparently he had been wrong and Neville had taken the lead.

"You will, Severus, I don't want you to be in pain when Remus can take it away."

That had been another revelation. Remus didn't even know if Poppy fully realized Severus was in constant pain. "I assure you that I will keep my touches professional," he said, playing along and teasing Severus just a little. He was surprised though when Neville addressed him and not Severus.

"You had better keep them professional." Neville knew why Remus had said that, but he couldn't help feeling protective of Severus.

It was hard to say who was the most surprised; Remus, who had expected Severus to lash out at him instead of Neville, or Severus, who blinked at hearing the defensive tone to Neville's voice. Just how much did Neville care about him? But then again, what did he know about love?

Remus realized his chance and asked. "Did I miss anything, Neville? The way you spoke just now is the same way I would address anyone posing at threat to Tonks." Now, let's see how Neville dealt with that!

Neville thought it best to look to Severus before answering that question. It would be hard to hide their relationship from their friends. They might succeed in doing so for now, but what about later? Severus sighed and then gave him a tiny nod. It was all Neville needed though. "Severus and I talked and admitted our feelings to each other. You can say we are getting to know each other better."

Severus felt relieved. For one moment he had feared Neville was going to say intimately instead of better. Thank God for small favours.

"Tonks told me about that letter," Remus admitted to Severus. "I am glad you wrote back."

Now it was Neville's turn to be surprised. "Did I miss something too?"

"Not really, Neville. Severus merely needed some encouragement, which Tonks happily supplied him with." Remus chuckled. When Tonks had told him about the attraction between Neville and Severus he had disapproved, but now that the actually saw them interact, he changed his mind. Neville would be good for Severus. The world seemed upside down, Remus mused. But it was Neville, the youngest of the two, who was definitely calling the shots and he had the feeling that Severus would benefit from that. Yes, he agreed with Tonks; Severus and Neville were good for each other!

/

Later that evening, Severus found himself in a predicament. Neville had gone to bed –his bed- and expected him to join him. Severus however wasn't sure he should. Last night, he had already been asleep when Neville had snuggled up to him, but this time, things were different. Now Neville was – probably- already asleep and he awake. Maybe he could spend the night on the sofa? But then again, he did miss Neville's company – his body heat – which had kept him comfortably warm last night.

"Stop stalling, Snape, and go to bed, will you?" Vindictus hoped that all Severus needed was a little encouragement.

"It's not that easy," Severus whispered, feeling quite lost.

"Of course it is, my boy. You walk into the bedroom, get rid of those clothes and you lie down. What's the difficulty in that?" Albus however understood why Severus was hesitant; he knew the way his mind worked.

"And then what do I do?" Should he stay perched to one side of the bed? And what if Neville moved toward him?

"Severus, this isn't complicated! You take him into your arms and you hold him!"

Severus looked up in surprise. He had become used to the sharp tone Phineas mostly used with him, but this time, the former Head actually sounded liked he cared.

"I know what it's like," Phineas admitted grudgingly. "I found myself in a similar situation once. Now stop staring at me and get moving!"

Severus automatically got to his feet at hearing that tone. Then he shook his head, realizing the way he had reacted, but then headed for the bedroom nonetheless. Neville was asleep, or merely pretended to be asleep; Severus wasn't sure about that. After inwardly debating the matter for another minute, Severus sat down on the side of the bed and started undoing the buttons to his coat; that would take several minutes, even with his left hand behaving itself. The fingers always felt rigid.

"Can I help?"

Severus looked at Neville from over his shoulder. The younger man had merely pretended being asleep then. "If you don't mind," he replied after a pause.

Neville moved onto his knees and reached for the buttons. "Maybe you should consider getting a new coat with less buttons – maybe in blue this time?" He peeked at Severus and felt relieved at seeing the older man smile. It was rather obvious that Severus was nervous, but at least the older wizard was facing his discomfort instead of running away from it. "And when you are at it, get some shirts with less buttons too." He knew why Severus had worn them in the past, and since the need to hide any marks or scars had gone, Severus should consider getting himself new clothes.

Severus slid the coat, and then his shirt, down his frame and dropped the clothes onto the floor. He wasn't sure he was comfortable losing his trousers as well, and so he quickly lay down, making sure Neville wouldn't bring up the matter.

Neville allowed it; realizing he had to let Severus set the pace. "Will you hold me?"

Severus nodded and after Neville moved closer to him, he wrapped an arm around the younger man. Holding Neville that way felt odd. The fact that Neville continued to smile at him, reassured him though. "I don't understand why you want me," he mumbled in a moment of total honesty. "You can do so much better. Why not pick someone your own age? Someone who isn't as scarred as me? I have no idea what to do, Neville."

Neville raised his hand and caressed Severus' face. "Do you really think we have a say in whom we fall in love with? I understand though why I fell in love with you – in spite of your age, or the scars you bear – you are a brave man, Severus Snape. You have your quirks, but don't we all?"

Severus sighed and took heart at hearing Neville's words. "You will have to be patient with me."

"I can do that— I will do that, knowing you love me back. I can be patient."

Severus chuckled softly. "Of all the possible situations I ever thought myself to be in, this one I never considered."

Neville traced Severus' features with his thumb. "I would have never thought it possible either, had you told me so years ago. I always thought of you as the teacher who made my life hell in Potions. It wasn't until I understood why you acted like that, that everything changed."

Severus finally began to relax. The fact that Neville seemed to enjoy being held and was even caressing his face assured him that the young man was exactly where he wanted to be.

"You do realize that it won't be long until everyone knows? Now that Remus and Tonks know, the news will spread."

Severus nodded; he had thought of the same thing. "Do you wish to tell your friends yourself? Or do you prefer to wait?"

"I will tell Hermione and Ron myself. I was thinking we could invite them –and Harry - for Boxing Day this year. If possible, I would like to spend Christmas Eve with you – just you – the two of us."

"Do you think we can keep the secret that long?" Severus seriously doubted that.

"You can tell the staff – or better, you will merely have to confirm it for them. I don't expect Hermione and Ron to be in touch with either of us before Christmas so that will work out."

"How do you think they will react?" Severus wasn't sure they would react well to the news.

"Ron and Hermione? I have no idea – they will probably be flabbergasted," Neville said and chuckled, recalling Dumbledore using the word. "Harry is a different matter though. I am sure he already knows – has known for some time."

Severus frowned at hearing that, but then caught on. "The link… but I keep my thoughts shielded most of the time." But yes, some of his emotions may have seeped through the link and that would have told Harry all the young man needed to know. "You suppose Harry is fine with this development?"

"I expect him to be happy for both of us." Neville didn't worry about that. "I also dropped some hints with my grandmother and she figured it out as well. She is fine with it."

"Your parents would never allow it," Severus said thoughtfully. "They never found out the truth about me. I am still Voldemort's spy as far as they are concerned."

"We will tell them, should we ever find the cure." Neville didn't worry about his parents. He didn't worry about anything. "I don't scare easily these days. The fact that Godric's sword picked me to slay Nagini showed me that I am not the coward I always thought I was. I have changed, Severus."

"Nagini… I always hated the snake," Severus said and shivered at the memory. "I am grateful you killed her."

Neville cocked his head and then realized something he had always suspected in the past. "I will do anything to keep you safe, Severus."

"Even threaten the Minister of Magic," Severus quipped; he was particularly fond of that memory.

Neville had the grace to blush. "Yes, even that." The mere notion of Kingsley wanting to take Severus to Azkaban had made him snap – even back then. He pressed closer to Severus, closed his eyes, and continued to smile, even after sleep had eventually claimed him.

/

Monday passed by too quickly as far as Neville was concerned. Severus had moved some of his appointments to later that week and they had played Wizard chess. Neville had mostly ignored the sneering comments coming from Phineas and Vindictus whenever he lost a game. Neville knew they had never defeated Severus either.

When evening finally came and they had to make their way to the gates, Neville's heart felt heavy. Had it been up to him, he would have preferred to stay. It's only for four weeks though, he reminded himself. He would be back for Christmas.

Severus felt equally melancholy as he didn't want Neville to leave either, but he too, knew it was necessary for Neville to finish his studies. "I will write," he promised once the time had come to say goodbye.

"And you will allow either Poppy or Remus to give you that massage when your arm starts to hurt again?" Neville needed to hear the words.

"I will," Severus said, although reluctantly. He would probably seek out Poppy first, if given a choice.

"I will write too," Neville whispered, dreading actually saying goodbye – even temporary. "Take care of yourself, Severus." He then leaned in closer and claimed Severus' lips.

Neville's action surprised Severus and he had no time to shy away from it. Neville's lips pressed against his in a surprisingly gentle kiss and he found himself leaning in closer and wanting more.

Severus' reaction thrilled Neville who promptly wrapped his arms around the older wizard. He kept the kiss light, and rather chaste, as everything more intense would have caused Severus to pull away – he was sure of that.

When Neville did release him, Severus remained in place. He felt lost looking into Neville's eyes; the expression in them was bright and inviting. Severus then lowered his gaze, feeling rather shy all of a sudden.

Neville however merely smiled and deposited a peck onto Severus' cheek, causing the other wizard to look at him again. "I am already looking forward to Christmas. I already thought of a present for you," he said and winked, leaving little to the imagination. Neville raised his hand in goodbye and disappareted.

Severus shook his head. "Cheeky brat…" But he couldn't deny falling even deeper in love with Neville.

/

Poppy finished carrying out the massage Remus had shown her and kept a close eye on her patient. Well, patient – Severus would never admit to that, but the truth was that their Headmaster still suffered the consequences of being cursed the day he had returned from the dead. She was happy that he had never blamed Neville for that. "Finished," she announced and watched him quickly slide down the sleeve and redo the buttons. "Remind me, when is Neville arriving?"

"Tomorrow." Severus was counting the hours to Neville's return, but would never admit to that. "He wants to spend Christmas Eve with me."

Poppy was happy to hear that. She hadn't been completely surprised to hear that the two men were attracted to each other – the signs had been there all along, but she had never fully picked up on them. At first, she had felt odd about them being together, but had then reminded herself that Neville had turned nineteen and that the young man was truly that – a man, an adult. And therefore, he was free to pick the lover he wanted.

"Most students and staff will be gone by that time." She had wanted to leave early in the morning as well, but now considered waiting for Neville to arrive as she did want to see the young man.

"That is the idea." Severus slipped back into his coat, which was midnight blue. He hoped Neville would like the fact that he was trying to stay clear of all black clothes. He rose from the chair and nodded at Poppy. "I will see you off in the morning." He made it a point to say goodbye to students and staff when they left for their holidays.

Poppy watched him as he made his way out of the room. Severus Snape had changed during the last two years. He seemed less depressed, socialized a whole lot more, and had truly accepted Teddy into his heart. The toddler managed to follow Severus through the office these days and Severus always caught him when he threatened to stumble. The inner change also showed outwardly, she mused. She had seldom seen Severus look happier and more at peace. His apparent happiness added a soft glow to his eyes, and as Severus smiled quite often, his face had taken on a soft expression as well. Overall, it made him look his age and approachable.

Poppy remained seated for another moment and then shook herself from her musings. Yes, she was happy for Severus and hoped the two of them would work out.

/

Severus entered his office and went over to his desk. He kept Neville's letters there and occasionally, he picked them up to read them all over again. He was about to do so once more, when an owl arrived and tapped against the window – rather impatiently, he noticed. He used a spell to open the window and watched as the owl, which was unknown to him, flew toward the desk. It landed and glared at him. "Who sent you?" he wondered. He removed the letter it carried and realized that the sender required a reply as the owl remained in place and looked at him arrogantly. He really didn't like the bird, he decided. After unfolding the letter, he realized that the handwriting was unknown to him and he started to read with some trepidation.

Mister Snape,

I write this letter in order to inform you that your mother, Eileen Prince, has passed away on the twenty second of December at eight o'clock in the evening. Your grandfather, Reginald Prince, therefore commands your presence at noon of the twenty-fifth in order to attend her funeral. Directions to Prince Manor are enclosed in this letter. Do be punctual.

William Charles Grenville –solicitor

Severus sat down heavily and stared at the letter in bewilderment. He had never – not in a million years— expected to hear from his family ever again. It puzzled him that his grandfather wanted him present at her funeral. He wondered why Reginald Prince was taking care of her funeral at all, considering he had cut her out of his life *and* his will.

He disliked the general tone of the letter. He was being summoned –commanded – to appear at Prince Manor, although his grandfather had never shown even the tiniest bit of interest in him. It was expected of him to appear though. Severus didn't like that at all.

The owl tried to bite him in order to gain his attention, but he merely hissed at her. "Get out. I will send a reply when I am ready." The bird gave him a disdainful look and then spread her wings. He actually felt relieved when she was gone.

Now… What was he going to do about the letter?

/

"Severus? You have been preoccupied all day. Tonks and I thought you would be excited instead, considering that Neville will join us tomorrow." Remus felt worried although he couldn't exactly pinpoint why. That was also the reason why he had fallen into step with Severus when the Headmaster had made his way to his office. Remus wanted a word with his friend.

Severus looked at Remus, realizing the other man had managed to pull him from his thoughts which had become increasingly gloomy. "Something happened. Something unexpected." The Gargoyle made way for them and they descended the staircase.

Remus followed Severus over to the desk. "Are you telling me that Neville cancelled his trip?"

"No, Neville will arrive in the afternoon. If you must know, I received this." Severus thought it over for a second and then handed Remus the letter.

Remus arched an eyebrow. Severus normally guarded his correspondence closely. For him to hand him a letter and allow him to read it was out of character. Remus however stopped musing about that and scanned the content instead. He instantly understood why Severus was off balance. "I am sorry to hear that your mother has passed away."

"No need for that," Severus said and dismissed Remus' condolences with a flick of his hand. "My mother hated me and I haven't seen her for the last twenty five years. I hardly knew her." Severus walked over to a window and looked out over the lake, which had frozen some nights ago. He shivered, recalling falling into the icy cold water when he had rescued Eliza Cornfoot. He pulled his black teaching robes closer around his frame; wearing them felt odd, but he had been forced to don them as he had substituted earlier that day. He had been stunned to notice that teaching had gone well. The students had actually paid attention!

"What are you going to do? Did you already reach a decision?" Remus disliked the tone of the letter too. Had it been directed at him, he would have felt equally confused.

"Not yet." Severus moved over to the fireplace and sat down on his favourite chair as he was beginning to grow cold. "I should probably attend my mother's funeral, as she is family after all, but then again, she hated me and we never had that connection which Tonks has with Teddy."

Remus sat down next to Severus. "Plus it sounds like you are being ordered to attend."

"My grandfather isn't known for subtlety." Severus rested his head against the comfort of the chair and sought out Remus' eyes. "Reginald Prince is an arrogant bastard. We both know that."

Remus nodded. The Princes were a pureblood family, and with that, often came arrogance. Reginald Prince was the prime example of that. The man had disowned his daughter because she had married a Muggle. "Have you ever met him?"

Severus shook his head. "He never showed an interest in me. If you look up our family tree you won't find my name on it."

Remus recalled going to the library and checking on that family tree with Hermione years ago. They had wondered about that too. "He never recognized you as family?"

"No, and I don't feel eager to be a part of that family to begin with… But it is my mother's funeral, and I should be there." It was his sense of duty talking, not his heart. "The one thing I don't understand is why he wants me to attend in the first place. He hates me."

Remus shrugged. "Does he have more children? Or grand children?"

"Not to my knowledge. The Princes are almost extinct; my grandfather has no other living relatives except me – how he must loathe that." Severus briefly closed his eyes.

"Very unpleasant fellow indeed. You are right about that." Ambrose could stay silent no longer. "I always detested him."

Severus opened his eyes and looked at the former Headmaster's portrait. "Did you ever deal with him?"

"A couple of times actually. He never wanted Eileen to attend Hogwarts. He wanted to enrol her at Durmstrang instead." Ambrose nodded in remembrance. "Reginald Prince was furious when Durmstrang told him no."

Severus smiled lightly. "That must have vexed him."

"Indeed, it did." Ambrose looked at the current Headmaster. "Let me give you a word of warning should you decide to attend your mother's funeral. Do not trust Reginald Prince. That man is twisted in many ways. He is foul and his heart blackened. Your grandfather never took the Dark Mark, but he supported Voldemort all the way."

Severus shuddered. "Don't you think I know that? Voldemort was thrilled when I became a Death Eater. He probably thought that my grandfather would publicly support him because of it. But Reginald Prince was too smart for that and made sure nothing truly linked him to Voldemort."

"Whatever you decide, Severus." Remus said, thinking Severus might need to hear him say it, "Tonks and I will support you."

Severus nodded. "I will talk things over with Neville when he arrives. I don't want to make a decision without having heard his opinion on the matter."

Remus smiled upon hearing that. "I am sure Neville will help you figure it out." Should Severus decide to attend his mother's funeral, having Neville at his side would make a world of difference.

/

Neville apparated close to Hogwarts' gates and instantly searched for Severus, whom he knew would meet him there. Seeing the older wizard at the other side of the gate, he smiled happily. "Are you going to allow me in?" The gates opened and Neville quickly bridged the distance between them. "Damn, I missed you!" He folded his arms around the older man and rested his head against Severus' shoulder. "But at least we will be together for the next two weeks!"

Severus tentatively rested a hand against Neville's back and rubbed the skin through the young man's coat. Most tension slipped from his shoulders and he mirrored Neville's gesture; he rested his head against the younger man's shoulder too. "It is good to have you back with me." Until that very moment he hadn't realized just how much he had missed having Neville close.

Neville noticed the remaining tension and lifted his head in order to make eye contact. "Something is wrong."

"Nothing that can't be dealt with," Severus said in an attempt to take Neville's growing concern away. "I will tell you later."

Neville however wasn't going to allow it. "Tell me now, Severus. Take us home and tell me."

Severus inclined his head, took Neville's hand in his, and apparated into the office. Neville, he noticed, quickly scanned his surroundings, as if expecting an attack. He shouldn't have worried Neville.

"Severus?" Neville moved closer again, re-established his hold on the older wizard's shoulder, and gave him a pleading look. "I won't be able to enjoy Christmas Eve until I know what troubles you." That wasn't the homecoming he had hoped for, but Severus' needs came first, and it was rather obvious that Severus was not his normal self.

"I received a letter yesterday," Severus updated him and handed him the letter. "It is from Reginald Prince, who is – unfortunately- my grandfather."

Neville read the letter, and when Severus started to turn away from him, he quickly grabbed hold of the other man's right hand. "Stay," he whispered, unwilling to allow Severus to retreat. After reading the letter, he felt angry. "That's rude. I am sorry to hear about your mother's death, but that letter is simply too rude for words!" There had been no words of sympathy, no condolences, whatsoever.

"In case you don't know it yet, Reginald Prince is an arrogant bastard." Severus remained in place, as he couldn't move much to begin with. Neville was still holding his hand and now started to rub his fingers. Severus marvelled about Neville once more and wondered why the young man loved him.

"Don't try to stop me, Severus. If you decide to attend that funeral, I will accompany you."

Severus had expected Neville to say that, and at the same time, it was the one thing he couldn't allow. "I don't want you to."

"Why?" Neville stared at Severus in shock. He knew Severus needed the support!

"Because my grandfather will not like it. He is very set in his ways. He disowned my mother for marrying a Muggle. How do you think he will react upon learning that we…" Damn, his courage eluded him! "That we are together," he finished eventually. "He would never approve of it and he would chew you up and spit you out – both of us. I don't want to expose you to his malice."

"Too bad," Neville whispered as he placed the letter back onto the desk. "For I intend to stand my ground. Let him threaten me. Let him insult me. Do you really think I care about that? All that matters to me is that you love me."

Neville's words touched him deeply and Severus averted his gaze. "Neville, Reginald Prince is evil."

"Hush," Neville said and placed a finger across Severus' lips in order to silence him. "This is my decision to make. I will stand at your side, whether you like it or not."

Severus knew it was folly to allow Neville to accompany him, but he couldn't deny the fact that he needed the younger man's support. Facing his grandfather would be hard on him and Neville's presence would be the one thing to pull him through. But he didn't want Neville to get hurt in the process.

"Send your owl and tell him that we will attend the funeral. We will leave after the formalities are done with." Neville knew Severus wouldn't want to stick around. "Then we will go home and spend the evening with our friends as planned."

Severus hoped it would be as simple as Neville made it out to be. "Are you sure about this?"

"I am…" Neville drew in a deep breath, lifted his arm, and traced the lines of worry that had appeared on Severus' brow. "I will stand at your side. You are no longer alone."

Neville had called him brave once, but Severus still didn't think he had been particularly brave in the past. What Neville however was doing was brave, as far as Severus was concerned. "Thank you," he whispered and felt lost staring into Neville's eyes.

Neville made good use of Severus' momentarily reverie and leaned in to kiss him again. This time, Severus didn't freeze against him. This time, Severus cautiously answered the kiss. Thrilled to receive that particular response, Neville deepened the kiss. He ran one hand up Severus' spine to cup the back of his head in its palm. Bringing him in closer, Neville closed his eyes and sighed into his lover's mouth- this was heaven.

Severus simply surrendered to the sensual sensation. He had missed Neville and wanted this as much as the younger man did. He couldn't remember ever feeling that way before and realized he was hungry for more.

Neville broke off the kiss because he needed to breathe, otherwise he would have eagerly indulged Severus, who obviously wanted to continue the kiss. It was good to know things had changed since the last time he had visited. Severus grew flustered, which Neville found rather endearing. "No longer adverse to kissing me?" he teased.

"I might have overcome that adversity." Severus chuckled softly. During these last few weeks he had given their changed relationship much thought and he had realized he had overreacted. Neville wanted him – for some elusive reason – and Severus had accepted that. He knew there would be more awkward moments down the road, but he could deal with that.

Neville's stomach growled, reminding him that he was hungry. "Christmas supper?"

Severus nodded. At his request, the house elves had prepared a festive meal for both of them. "Of course."

/

Neville felt lazy after stuffing himself with the food the house elves had prepared for them, but still managed to do away with the Christmas pudding that appeared in front of him. "That was good!"

Severus watched Neville and wondered if the young man would still be able to get to his feet after everything he had eaten. "Doesn't your professor Boxwood feed you properly?" he remarked bemused.

"Oh, he does, but mostly, I lack time to eat full meals. You probably remember what studying is like!" Neville felt perfectly at ease – perfectly at home.

"I do… I must admit I was much like you in that aspect." Severus wondered when the time was right to present Neville with his Christmas gift. He had to time that one.

"Why didn't you put up a Christmas tree?" Neville had wondered about that.

"We decked the Halls, Neville. There are trees everywhere. The first years went mad decorating them. This year, we even have one tree that just features pink!"

"Pink!" Neville grinned and then noticed something was different about Severus. Why hadn't he noticed it before? Probably because his eyes seldom left his lover's face. "Are you really wearing blue instead of black?"

Severus nodded smugly. "I wondered when you would notice. I took your advice. Actually, I don't mind the blue as much as I thought I would."

Happy, Neville leaned in closer and claimed Severus' left hand. He wrapped his fingers around it and noticed the slight tremors moving through the limb.

"I sought out Poppy only yesterday," Severus told Neville upon noticing the young man's questioning look.

"Are you in pain?"

Neville's tone made it very clear that he wouldn't appreciate being lied to and so Severus opted for the trouble. "Slightly." As expected, Neville prompted took to massaging his fingers. Severus smiled at Neville and nodded his thanks. "When would you like to receive your gift?" he said, trying to distract Neville in the hope that the younger man wouldn't question him on his discomfort in detail.

"My gift?" Neville instantly grew curious. He had been looking about the office, trying to find any clues, but so far, he had been unsuccessful. "After I give you mine."

Severus decided to play along. "Where is it? I don't see any gifs awaiting me."

"My, you can be impatient, can't you?" Neville lifted Severus' hand to his lips and pressed a kiss onto the back. "We will continue that later," he said, after realizing just how taut the muscles were. Neville uncovered his wand and removed a small package from his pocket. He removed the shrinking charm he had put on it earlier that day and watched Severus closely.

Severus cocked his head questioningly. "For me?"

"Of course it is for you! I hope it will fit though." Neville took hold of the cloak which he'd had made for Severus. He had been rather certain that Severus would stick to his black clothes and had therefore taken matters into his own hands. "It might not be the best quality," he said apologetically, "but it is comfortable. I put some spells on it, meaning it will keep you warm at all times."

Severus took hold of the thick cloak and felt the magic on it. What in Merlin's name had possessed Neville to do something like that for him?

"It's called Catalina blue and I thought the colour would suit you."

Severus nodded, as he liked that particular shade of blue. "What's this?" Symbols in silver had been woven into the fabric and the way it looked, by magic and not by some tailor's hand.

"I might have added several protective spells as well," Neville admitted, growing slightly flustered. "I just want you to be safe," he added in explanation.

"Neville, I lack the words to…" How was he going to express his gratitude for this token of Neville's love for him? Because that was what the cloak was. As he moved his fingertips over the fabric he encountered more spells and realized that it taken Neville lots of time, and effort, to weave his magic into the fabric. "Thank you," he said eventually, as he couldn't think of anything else to say. "I will always treasure it."

"And you shall wear it," Neville said cheekily.

"I shall," Severus admitted readily. No one had ever done anything like that for him. The spells that Neville had woven into that cloak spoke of love – of love which the young man bore him. His own present seemed insignificant compared to this. But not even in his wildest dreams had he thought Neville would come up with something precious like that!

"So, what do I get in turn?" Severus' eyes shimmered with tears and Neville didn't want his lover to weep – not because of a gift. He should have known Severus would overreact.

"It doesn't compare to this," Severus said, ill at ease.

"Let me be the judge of that, will you?" Neville watched as Severus reverently placed the cloak to the side and then got to his feet. He disapparated – which took Neville by surprise. Where had Severus gone to? And then appeared again. But this time, Severus wasn't alone – he came bearing gifts. Neville jumped to his feet and smiled broadly. "What…?"

"Fang became a father," Severus explained as he placed the puppy into Neville's arms. "I still don't know how he manages to leave my office without me, but he sneaks out all the time. He must have visited Hagrid, who took in several new pets. One of them is a female, not as big as Fang, and rather fair-coloured, but apparently she… Well, she gave birth to a litter of four puppies three weeks ago. I thought you might like having a familiar." Had he chosen the wrong gift? Maybe he should have opted for something more personal, like Neville had.

"That's great! Did you already name him?" Neville raised the puppy slightly so the animal could lick his face.

"We didn't name *her* yet," Severus explained, providing Neville with more information. "You should do that."

Neville smiled happily at the puppy and then at his lover. This was the best gift he had ever received for Christmas. "How about we call her Lady Grey?"

"I must admit to liking that name." Severus felt relieved; Neville seemed to like the pup. Maybe he had worried unnecessarily.

"Thanks, this is really great, Severus." Neville chuckled as the puppy started to lick his nose. "That's gross though."

Severus allowed himself to relax. Yes, Neville liked his present after all.

/

"So tell me, how much longer must the pup stay with her mother?"

"Another three weeks, but by then she should be able to do without her. I will bring her to you, if you'd like that." Severus did his utmost to stay relaxed, although he found that increasingly difficult. They had gone to bed an hour ago, and Neville had moved into his arms almost instantly. Both of them stared at the ceiling and Neville's head rested against his shoulder. He would be able to savour this - in time. If only his nerves would stop making him feel on edge.

"You could meet professor Boxwood," Neville mused. "He also dabbles a bit in potion-making. You might like him, you know." Neville turned onto his side and studied Severus' face. "Several nights ago, I had a nightmare," he said, bringing it up on purpose. Severus shifted slightly so they could make eye contact. "It was about you." Neville noticed the way Severus' breathing sped up and realized his lover had drawn the wrong conclusion. "No, let me explain."

Severus nodded, although he didn't like the turn their conversation had taken.

"I dreamt that you had died in that Shack. That Dumbledore had never given Harry the breath of Life. Nagini killed you that night and…" Neville grasped Severus' hand and intertwined their fingers. "We still found out that you continued to be loyal to Dumbledore, but then we had to retrieve your body from that Shack and we buried you." Neville shivered. "You had died and I never had the chance to find out that I love you. That realization upset me; the fact that we couldn't be together."

Severus wanted to comfort Neville and took to stroking the younger man's skin. He was so set on consoling Neville that he didn't have the time to worry about touching the other man in that way. "I fully expected to die that day," he admitted. "Albus and I discussed many possible outcomes of the war and it seemed that my death was inevitable. I accepted that." It had been more than that— he had craved it. Death would have released him from his personal hell on earth.

"I am so happy you didn't die, Severus. I can't imagine a life without you. You are a part of me and I don't even want to imagine what it would be like to live without you."

"We are mortal, Neville. Even though our magic enables us to live much longer than Muggles do, we shall die in the end. That is the way of things."

That wasn't something Neville wanted to hear though. "Don't speak of death to me, Severus. I won't allow it."

Severus smiled warmly. "What? Are you saying you will stop death himself should he want to claim me?" To be honest, he wouldn't put it past Neville to try.

"I will," Neville said determinedly. "But even I must admit that you are right and that we will die one day. Severus, promise me something, will you?"

"What kind of promise do you require from me?" Severus had never made promises lightly. He would only do so if he felt capable of keeping his word.

"If you die before me, will you wait for me? Harry told me about meeting Dumbledore the day he died and if you get to choose, will you wait for me?"

"I will," Severus promised, as he felt fairly certain he would be able to keep his word. "But we shouldn't talk about death."

Neville cringed, suddenly realizing what lay ahead of them tomorrow – Eileen Prince's funeral. "I shouldn't have brought it up. Bad timing," he apologized. "Sorry."

"There's no need to apologize for bringing up a nightmare that worries you." Severus didn't want Neville to feel guilty about confiding in him. "And we will manage tomorrow."

"No matter what happens tomorrow, I want you to know that you have my unconditional support. I won't let you down."

Severus nodded and sighed deeply. "Tomorrow won't be easy, Neville."

"We will get through it together, though." He claimed Severus' hand once more and reassuringly rubbed his lovers' fingers. "Now tell me, are you going to give me a goodnight kiss? Or do you want me to beg for it?" he added cheekily.

"No, no begging, not from you…" Severus however did feel shy when he claimed Neville's lips. Neville responded eagerly and it assured him that it was what the younger man wanted. Severus relaxed into the kiss and realized it was what he wanted as well.

/

Neville took Severus' hand in his and nodded once. "Let's do this." He wasn't looking forward to attending Eileen Prince's funeral either; he wanted it over with, much like Severus.

Severus' magic, combined with and guided by Hogwarts', took them through place and time and they apparated in front of Prince Manor. Severus noticed that the wards had been reset and he felt them accepting his presence. He kept his fingers intertwined with Neville's and guided his lover through the wards.

Neville stared at the manor in front of him and shivered. He instantly disliked it. The manor consisted of black stone and the windows were rather small. Black curtains kept out all inquisitive looks. Even the garden appeared dark and gloomy. It seemed like all colour had been drained from the flora. "Dreadful place," escaped him. Realizing what he had just said, he wanted to apologize, but Severus had a similar expression on his face.

"Dreadful is the understatement of the year," Severus whispered icily. He couldn't wait to leave the place. He couldn't help but wonder if coming here was a mistake.

A house elf suddenly appeared in front of them. He looked old and frail, but Severus would never make the mistake to underestimate him. "We are here to see Reginald Prince."

"Of course you are… Follow me."

Severus maintained his hold on Neville's hand. He had the frightening feeling that Neville might vanish on him the moment he let go. The whole place was giving him the shivers. He would rather attend another one of Voldemort's Death Eaters' meetings!

Neville felt similar. Goosebumps had formed all over his skin and he desperately wanted to leave. Even when Voldemort had stood only a few feet away from him he hadn't felt so intimidated! Severus must have noticed, as the older wizard squeezed his fingers encouragingly. They would get through this –together, Neville reminded himself.

The house elf opened a door and gestured for them to step inside. "Master Prince will join you shortly."

Severus stepped into the room, which appeared to be a library and carefully scanned his surroundings. Only once he felt it was safe for Neville to enter, did he pull the younger man into the room with him. He felt watched and knew they were being secretly observed. With every passing second he felt more certain that coming here had been a mistake. It was too late to back out though –they had to ride it out.

A moment later, a door to their right opened and an elderly wizard stepped inside. Neville immediately disliked him, as icy water-blue eyes glared at him. The man sported short grey hair and was dressed in rich black fabrics, but it was the eyes that worried Neville – they were bereft of emotion.

"I am Reginald Prince," the wizard said in a cold voice that matched the icy glare to his eyes.

Severus manoeuvred himself in front of Neville. His instinct, which had been dormant for the last years, sprung back to life and warned him that he was in danger. With every fibre of his being, he wandlessly and non-verbally began to weave spells that would keep them safe in case of an unexpected attack. Everything inside him rebelled against the other wizard's presence – especially from that close. "I am Severus Snape," he said, carefully matching the clinical tone which had marked Reginald's voice.

"Mister Snape," Reginald started in obvious disdain.

"That is Headmaster Snape," Severus corrected him curtly. Two could play that game and he had once excelled at it. He could only hope he hadn't grown rusty during the last years.

"Headmaster!" Reginald sneered, apparently disrespecting the title. "Had you been Highmaster of Durmstrang I might have been able to respect you, but Hogwarts means nothing to me." Each word was delivered in a cold and spiteful way.

Neville shuddered as he recognized the malevolence that ruled Reginald Prince's soul. Ambrose had been right to warn them; Reginald Prince was evil and couldn't be trusted. He reached for his wand and felt more confident once his fingers wrapped themselves around it. Reginald must have noticed, because the expression in those eyes suddenly darkened.

"You are nothing to me, Snape, remember that. The only reason why I summoned you here is that you are my sole heir now that Eileen has died without providing me without another child."

"Heir? Do you really think I want anything to do with you? The only reason why I am here is to pay my last respects to my mother." Severus hissed the words in anger. "You never cared about your daughter, let alone me."

"Her actions dishonoured the family and demanded I took action." Reginald moved about the room, but his eyes never left his guests' forms. "I buried Eileen an hour ago. The only reason you are here is so I can determine whether to change my last will or not. You are my sole heir, Snape."

Severus tensed and Neville tried to squeeze his lover's fingers supportively, wanting the older wizard to know that he wasn't alone.

Severus noticed the gesture on Neville's part, but refused to let it distract him. He couldn't afford to take his eyes off of Reginald Prince. The wizard might be his grandfather, but Severus recognized a predator when he saw one. "I suggest you find yourself another heir then, as I don't want anything to do with you. Coming here was a mistake and I shall take my leave now."

"Yes, I made a mistake when I summoned you." Reginald glared at Neville, who was increasingly hiding behind Severus' back. "You were a disappointment to my daughter and you shame my family further by bringing your lover here. You go against the natural order of things by allowing another male to touch you in that manner. I suggest you leave right now."

Neville had to keep Severus back when his lover moved forward in order to attack. There was no wand in Severus' hand, but something told Neville that his lover was ready to curse his grandfather into oblivion – wandlessly, if necessary. "Don't! He's not worth it!" he said, trying to reach Severus. Neville felt the way Severus' magic gathered in and around his lover and knew it was only a matter of seconds before Severus would lash out at his grandfather.

"You will pay for insulting my lover!" Severus wanted to stalk closer, but realized someone was pulling him back. He spun around, ready to hex whoever dared getting involved, but then realized it was Neville.

"Don't, Severus. Don't give him that satisfaction." Neville just wanted out of here. The whole place breathed evil.

"He insulted you!" Severus was bend on extracting some measure of revenge.

"Let him. It doesn't matter to me. What does matter to me, is leaving this place. Take me back to Hogwarts, Severus. Take me home." Neville was about to add 'please' when Severus finally seemed to register his request. The mad rage that had consumed his lover a moment ago, seemed to fade – for which he felt immensely grateful. "Let's go home, Severus," he repeated in an urgent tone.

Severus never took his eyes off Reginald Prince though. He knew Neville was right and that they should leave, but it irked him that Reginald would get away with insulting Neville in such a way.

"Severus, we need to go – now!"

Hearing the urgency to Neville's voice, Severus reacted at once and disapparated, taking them back to Hogwarts. During the moment of apparation, he heard Reginald curse them. Luckily they were out of the curses' reach.

/

"You know I hated Voldemort, but I would rather deal with the Dark Lord than with your grandfather." Neville collapsed onto a chair and shook his head in disbelief. "Come to think of it, I would rather wrestle Nagini than ever meet Reginald Prince again!"

"Trust me, I feel the same way." Severus was fighting for calm, but found it hard to let go of his anger. He wished he could have stayed and cursed Reginald Prince into unconsciousness, but there was always the risk of his grandfather managing to curse him as well. And Severus didn't want to know how much that would weaken him and maybe even cause the tremors to extend to other parts of his body. At least, he had gotten some closure—he could finally close that chapter. There was no way he ever wanted anything to do with his grandfather again!

Neville cocked his head and shivered at seeing the way Severus' magic swirled around his lover. He could actually see tiny tendrils of silver energy that spun around his form.

"He buried her before we even got there. All he wanted was to find out if I was a worthy heir, the bastard," Severus cussed. "I should never have allowed you to accompany me!"

"That was my decision, Severus, and you wouldn't have been able to change my mind – you know it." Neville hoped Severus would calm down eventually. He had always suspected that Severus was a powerful wizard, but he might have underestimated him. He had never seen such a concentration of magic inside one person – and that was without Severus' wand channelling that power. He reached for Severus' hand and sought out his lover's gaze. "Calm down – please."

Severus heard the plea and responded to it. He focused on Neville's eyes and managed to calm down to some extent. "I am sorry for dragging you along."

"Nonsense, I wanted to go, remember?" Neville didn't wait for Severus to nod though. He looked up at Ambrose' portrait and addressed the former Headmaster. "Thanks for warning us. You were right; Reginald Prince is evil."

Ambrose nodded in relief. "I am glad you escaped unharmed. Did you tear down the manor, Severus?"

"No, but I might go back and do so after all."

"No," Neville said firmly. "Don't put yourself in danger like that."

Severus understood and nodded. "I won't." He didn't want Neville to worry about him, or even worse, have to nurse him back to health because he had underestimated Reginald Prince when challenging the wizard.

"This is your home, Severus. Our home, to be exact. Let it go, will you?"

"I can try." Severus drew in a series of deep breaths. "What a way to get through Christmas!"

"We should go back to celebrating it instead," Neville commented. "Do you feel up to joining the others in the Great Hall? I reckon most of them have arrived by now."

"Give me another moment, will you?" He still felt angry— no, he felt more than angry – he was livid. How dare Reginald Prince say those things? How dare he lash out at Neville?

Neville waited until Severus seemed calmer and then managed a smile. "You don't have to defend my honour, you know. I am no damsel in distress."

Severus couldn't help it; he burst out laughing at the image Neville had just painted. "No, you are not, You are certainly no damsel."

Neville felt relieved that he distraction had worked. "We will never go back there, promise? Let me state that more clearly - *you* won't go back there to extract revenge. I know you, Severus. Let it go."

Severus had finally composed himself and nodded once. "I promise. As you said, he isn't worth it." How he hated Reginald Prince though. He would keep his promise and not seek out the man himself, but he couldn't vow for what would happen should their paths cross accidentally ever again!

/

Severus felt a bit more like himself when he entered the Great Hall and found most of their guests drinking spiked punch and exchanging bad jokes. He was grateful that Neville had pulled him from his gloomy temper, but still felt entitled to extract some manner of revenge, should the opportunity present itself in future.

"Severus!" Remus walked up to his friend and squeezed his shoulder. He instantly noticed the tension and wondered what had caused it. A quick look at Neville told him that the younger man was fine though. He was joking with Ron and Hermione. "Do you want to talk?" he offered, recalling he had offered a listening ear before.

Severus realized he had to tell Remus something if he wanted the other man to back down. "I had a run in with Reginald Prince, which wasn't pleasant. He insulted Neville and I am still sorely tempted to go back there and curse him."

"Your mother's funeral," Remus remembered suddenly. He winced at realizing that everyone around was making merry.

"She had already been buried," Severus told Remus. "Apparently Reginald didn't want me present at the funeral at all. He merely wanted to see what kind of person I am. I am happy to report that he detests the very sight of me."

Remus sighed deeply. He had been worried that something like that would happen once Severus talked to his grandfather.

"Reginald Prince had better make certain our paths never cross again for I can't vouch for the curses I will throw at him should I ever lay eyes on him."

In that moment, Remus was immensely grateful to have Severus as a friend instead of an enemy. "And how is Neville coping with that?"

"Better than I am," Severus revealed. "If it hadn't been for him keeping me back, I might be last Prince walking this earth." Severus' gaze followed Neville through the Hall as the young man moved from Ron and Hermione over to Arthur and Molly. Watching Neville closely, he realized what the young man was doing. "Fabulous," he commented in a deadpan voice. "He's telling them."

"Telling them what?" Remus noticed the way Ron and Hermione were staring at Severus.

"About us being together. I had hoped for a bit more subtlety."

Remus chuckled. "I doubt many of them will be surprised to hear that you are a couple. It is rather obvious that something has changed between the two of you."

Severus however was staring Harry. "Remus, I will be right back, but I need to talk to Harry."

"Sure, go ahead!" Remus squeezed Severus' shoulder a last time and then joined Tonks and Teddy.

"Mister Potter," Severus said, enjoying teasing the younger man a bit. "How are your studies progressing? Do they still think you are Auror material or have they reconsidered?"

Years ago, Severus' tone would have made him tremble with fear, anger, or both. These days, Harry merely chuckled at Severus' humour. "They haven't thrown me out yet, professor. I am sorry to disappoint you."

Severus smiled at hearing that. "It's good to have you with us this Christmas."

"You didn't think I was going to pass up this opportunity to meet up with my friends and catch up on rumours, did you?" Harry watched Severus closely. "I am sorry for what happened at the manor. You didn't deserve being treated like that – neither did Neville."

"Did you snoop around?" Severus pointed at his temple. "Reading thoughts again, Mister Potter?"

"At times it's hard not to. You keep your thoughts shielded most of the time, but Reginald Prince really pissed you off and you stopped paying attention to your shields. I witnessed what happened. You came damn close to cursing him. And no," he added quickly upon seeing Severus growing angry again. "I don't blame you. I would have reacted in the same way had someone said that about Ginny."

"Do try to keep the snooping to a minimum, Mister Potter."

"I will, if you stop throwing tantrums, professor." Harry smiled, realizing Severus felt safest when verbally bantering with him.

"I will do my best," Severus whispered with a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "I shall greet the rest now. I will talk to you later, Harry."

Harry nodded at him and watched Severus walk over to Poppy. He had felt taken aback when he had noticed the momentum building in Severus earlier that day. He wondered if any of them knew just how deep Severus' magic ran. Albus Dumbledore had once been called the most powerful wizard alive; Harry had the feeling that title now belonged to Severus.

/

"Notice anything odd?" Neville wrapped an arm around Severus' waist and moved closer to him. "Anything at all?"

"Care to give me a hint, mister Longbottom?" Severus' anger had left him during the evening upon realizing friends and family surrounded them.

"Look up." Neville grinned wickedly.

Severus complied and wondered where the hell that mistletoe came from. He didn't remember adding any to the decoration! "Albus," he whispered in realization.

"I don't care who put it up there! I am going to take full advantage of the fact that it's there and don't you dare unmake it!" During the last two hours, he had told family and friends – those who hadn't known for sure – that yes, Severus and he were together. Ron and Hermione had given him stunned looks, but in the end, they had been happy for him. So far only Reginald Prince seemed to have an issue with them being together, and the older Prince could gladly join Voldemort in hell as far as Neville was concerned. "I am going to kiss you," he announced. Just as he had thought, Severus cringed.

"Must you? In front of everyone? They will stare at us." Severus would have preferred to keep such expressions of their love private – behind locked doors if possible. Neville seemed to differ though.

"I have nothing to feel ashamed of, do you?" He already knew Severus' answer though.

"Of course not!"

And so Neville leaned in closer to kiss his lover beneath the mistletoe and savoured every second of doing so.

/

The next morning, Neville woke up in bed on his own. He first reached for Severus, but upon finding the bed empty, he opened his eyes and looked about. Where had Severus gone? Hopefully not back to Prince Manor in order to avenge him? He did have to talk to Severus about this crazed idea that his lover had about defending him. He had slain Nagini! He could take care of himself!

"Are you sure about this, Vindictus? Wouldn't adding this particular component reverse the effect we just achieved?"

Neville got to his feet and made his way over the doorway. He was surprised to find Severus bent over their experiment – actually brewing. Severus seemed lost in concentration and that fact kept Neville from addressing him.

"Snape, we won't know what the effect is until we try. We have been trying to find a solution to this particular problem for one year now. We need to make some progress!"

Neville looked at Vindictus' portrait; the former Headmaster also focused on Severus' brewing. That was when Neville recalled that Vindictus had been a potioneer. Were the two of them actually collaborating? He had been under the impression that Vindictus disliked Severus.

Severus added a few drops from a vial to his cauldron and sucked in his breath in anticipation. "It might work, Vindictus."

"Let's hope it does!" Vindictus joined Severus in staring at the cauldron. "Looks like we finally passed the volatile stage and we can move on to the next. Don't forget to write that down, Snape."

Neville expected Severus to sneer at the former Head, but instead, the older wizard merely wrote down notes in a journal which looked awfully familiar to Neville. Apparently they were working on the potion that should restore his parents in body and mind! Severus had never given up then!

Severus took a step away from the cauldron. He hadn't thought it would work, but Vindictus had been right after all. Growing aware of being watched, Severus turned around and found Neville staring at him. "I didn't want to wake you when I left the bed." Neville had looked peaceful asleep.

"I don't mind. You are still working on that potion, aren't you?" Neville walked over to Severus and wrapped his arms around his lover from behind. The skin-on-skin contact felt good, but it also told him Severus felt cold to the touch. Severus must have been in a hurry that morning as he hadn't even dressed properly. All he had on were his trousers. "You are cold."

Severus hadn't realized that until now. He had been focused on brewing the potion. "I am fine."

"Still, you need to be careful." Neville briefly released his lover and picked up the cloak he had given him for Christmas. "You haven't tried it on yet."

Severus slipped into it and realized Neville had been right; the material did feel comfortable and wrapped him up in warmth. "I like it very much, thank you, Neville." He pressed a quick kiss onto Neville's lips and smiled, rather pleased with himself for doing that.

/

"I will visit with you in four weeks' time," Severus promised Neville. "And I will bring Lady Grey along. Ask your professor if he is fine with having her stay with you. If not, I will look after her instead." These last two weeks had passed by too quickly and he didn't want to say goodbye to Neville, but it was time that the younger man returned to his studies. "I will write as often as I can."

"I know you will." Neville tried to memorize Severus' face. His lover looked relaxed and at peace and he wanted to take that particular expression with him – in his heart. He hadn't thought it possible, but Severus had truly opened his heart to him. So far, they had limited themselves to kisses and touches, but Neville didn't mind. He knew they would progress to more intimate ways of expressing their love in time. All he needed was patience. "Remember what you promised me, Severus. Keep away from Prince Manor, no matter what happens." That was the only thing he still worried about. During these last two weeks Severus had continued to hint at ways he could make Reginald suffer for the way he had insulted him.

"I gave you my word and I shall keep it," Severus said, repeating the promise he had made earlier. "But it is hard."

"Your safety comes first." Neville had even asked Remus and Poppy to keep an eye on Severus, just to make sure that the older wizard wouldn't go looking for revenge. "I love you," he whispered into Severus' ear. "And I will see you in four weeks."

Severus nodded and then released Neville's hand so the younger man could disapparate. I love you too, he thought the moment Neville vanished from view. More than you will ever know.

/

"What are you brewing, Severus?" Minerva cast a look at the cauldron's content, but quickly stepped away from it. She had never excelled at potions and it had been decades since she had last brewed a potion herself.

Not for the first time did Severus wonder why everyone kept visiting him in his office. Back in the days when Albus had resided here there had hardly been any visitors! "I have been working on a potion to restore Frank and Alice Longbottom – in mind and body. I have made some progress during this last week."

"A large number of people will benefit from such a potion should you succeed in brewing it. There are still about twenty victims of the Cruciatus curse alive and struggling, much like Neville's parents." Minerva sat down and studied Severus. At times, it was hard to reconcile some of her memories with the man sitting in front of her. At one time, she had hated him for hurting their students. Little had she known about the truth back then. "Why did you never confide in me?" she wondered all of a sudden.

"I beg your pardon?" Severus looked up in surprise. He had been going through some rosters and had no idea what Minerva meant by that.

"Back then, when Voldemort sent the Carrows to Hogwarts. Why did you never confide in me?"

"The Carrows were accomplished in Occlumency. They scanned the minds of students and staff alike. Had they caught you unaware you would have given my secret away."

"Why did you never dispose of them, Severus? Why did you let them carry on?" She had never felt comfortable asking those questions –until now. He seemed so at ease that she had decided to broach the matter.

Severus rested his head against the chair and gazed at her. "Suppose I had disposed of them, what would have happened?"

Minerva considered his question. "I don't know."

"Voldemort would have questioned my loyalty. Either he would have removed me from Hogwarts or he would have send more Death Eaters. Allowing the Carrows to stay was the lesser of two evils."

She had never considered that. "I am glad that Voldemort is gone. And that we can live in peace."

Severus snorted. "There will be someone new in time… Power hungry and driven, wanting immortality. Tyrants fall, but new are born every day. There will be another Tom Riddle, but hopefully we will sort him out before he will gain a following."

Minerva startled at his tone. "Do you really think we might face another threat like that?"

"Of course… Albus could have known that Riddle was trouble, had he paid more attention."

Albus remained quiet, knowing Severus had made a valid point.

"That is why I monitor our students as closely as I can," Severus admitted. "To make sure nothing like that happens on my watch."

Minerva had never thought of it that way; but yes, being Headmaster came with many responsibilities. "Any news from Neville?" she inquired, eager to change their subject.

"Professor Boxwood allowed him to keep the pup. Neville seems to be growing increasingly fond of her. Each letter is full of new tricks she pulled on him."

Minerva noticed the way his voice changed now that he spoke of the young man. She had been rather stunned to find out about them, but after having seen them interact, she had made her peace with it. They seemed well suited to each other. "Any chance of Neville coming to visit shortly?"

"His birthday marks the start of the summer holidays. He will join us for a week and then return to his studies. He is determined to finish them as quickly as possible. He seems set to take over teaching before Christmas and Pomona is agreeable to that." Severus was looking forward to the time when Neville would move to Hogwarts. The younger wizard would take up teaching and move into his rooms. He had offered Neville private quarters, but the younger man had refused, making it very clear that he would move into his rooms instead. Severus hadn't put up much of a fight as he had hoped Neville wanted to share quarters with him in the first place.

/

It was the twenty-eight of July and Severus was preparing for Neville's birthday. The younger man would arrive in the evening, and Severus wanted to be done organising the surprise birthday party by then. He had invited Neville's friends to attend and all had accepted the initiation.

"You look rather smug," Remus remarked as he sunk into the chair next to Severus. In the past, he had never realized how much he liked spending time in the Headmaster's office. When Albus had occupied it, it had possessed a different feel to it. Somehow, Severus had made the office more inviting, although Remus hadn't thought that possible. Albus had always been good-humoured, but for some reason Remus had often felt on his guard when dealing with the former Headmaster.

"Neville will join us in a few hours," Severus replied happily. "I hope he will like his surprise."

"I am sure he will," Remus said reassuringly and fondly remembered the surprise party Neville and Harry had thrown Severus that first year. Remus knew Severus had never expected something like that, especially after they had also thrown him a Christmas party. But Severus deserved being pampered like that after all the wizard had gone through. As Remus was looking at his friend, he noticed the twinkle to the dark eyes. Albus' eyes had once twinkled like that, but Severus' black ones seldom did. "What puts you in such a good mood?"

"I finished the potion," Severus announced. "With Vindictus' help I managed to create a potion that takes away the long lasting effects of the Cruciatus curse. I feel confident that Alice and Frank Longbottom, along with other victims, will fully recover during the next few weeks."

Remus' eyes widened. "That would be…" It was beyond words. The healers at St. Mungo tried their best, but even they had had to admit defeat! "How sure are you that potion of yours works?"

"Very sure." Severus lifted his left arm. "I took the potion three days ago and the tremors left yesterday morning. The pain's gone too."

"You tested it on yourself?" Remus cringed. "What if things had gone wrong?"

"Then I would have searched for an antidote, but I was fairly sure it would work." Severus lifted his gaze to Vindictus' portrait. "Thank you for that."

Vindictus inclined his head. During the last few months, Severus and he had worked closely while creating the potion and the current Headmaster had gained his respect. "Those victims deserve to be helped," he commented. "Had we failed to develop that potion, Voldemort would still have won in a way."

"Still," Remus commented. "It was rather foolish to try the potion on yourself." He wasn't sure what he would have done had he known of Severus' intentions. Maybe he had tried to stop the other wizard.

"Testing is the only way to find out if something is effective or not." Severus shrugged. "At least you can now hex me if you still want that."

"No thanks! I shudder to think of the repercussions you would take!" Remus chuckled. "Does that mean you are healed?"

"Yes." Severus nodded calmly. "So watch your step; I might be up to my old tricks."

Remus however very much doubted that, and he was about to say so when an owl appeared at the top window. Remus pointed out the visitor to Severus, who non-verbally opened the window with a spell.

Severus recognized the owl at once. "Watch your fingers and eyes, Remus. That bird can't be trusted."

"Whose is it?" Severus seemed to know whom it belonged to.

"Reginald Prince," Severus replied, spitting the words in disgust. "It tried to bite me the first time it delivered a letter." Why would his dear grandfather contact him again? He had hoped he would never hear from the wizard again! Cautiously, he removed the letter and avoided getting bitten. "Be on your way," he said in a venomous tone at which the bird scowled at him and then flew away. Severus unfolded the letter and started to read;

Mister Snape,

I hereby inform you that Reginald Tiberius Prince passed away on the twenty-seventh of July. As you are sole heir to the family's estate and Prince fortune, I strongly advise you to contact me as quickly as possible.

Sincerely,

William Charles Grenville

Severus flung the letter onto his desk. The patriarch had probably known he would die shortly when he had summoned him to Prince Manor. That was why he had wanted to find out what kind of man his grandson was. Severus however wanted nothing to do with it.

"Severus? What happened?" Remus wondered about the play of emotions on his friend's face, which ranged from surprise, anger, to pure hatred. He got to his feet and made his way over to Severus. The other man didn't speak, so Remus prodded. "What happened?"

Severus picked up the letter and quickly pushed it into Remus' hands, wanting to let go of it as if the parchment had burned him. "Read it for yourself."

Remus did and then stared at Severus in surprise. "He's dead?"

"Apparently… Fortunately," he added after a moment's thought. "Reading that should reassure Neville, as he still worries that I plan on extracting some measure of revenge on my charming grandfather!"

"What are you going to do? What I am saying is, your grandfather's vault at Gringotts must be bursting, considering you belong to one of the wealthiest families out there!"

"I don't want his money… Neither do I want his estate. Prince Manor makes my skin crawl and I have no intention of ever setting foot in it again." He would donate the money to some worthy cause – Neville could help him decide on one. "As far as I am concerned it is blood money. He disowned my mother – he never recognized me to begin with!"

It made sense, Remus supposed. He wasn't sure he should offer his condolences, considering Severus didn't grieve at all. Maybe it was best to keep quiet.

/

Severus impatiently paced along Hogwarts' gates. He wasn't sure if he was early or Neville late as he had forgotten what time the young man would arrive at. The delay did give him a moment to think everything over though. He still didn't want anything to do with the inheritance and was determined to put the money to good use. He had been relieved that no invitation to attend the funeral had arrived, so that meant he would be spared declining attending it. A crack in the air alerted him that someone had apparated. That someone could be only one person – Neville.

"Severus!" Neville placed Lady Grey onto the ground and started toward the gates, which instantly opened.

Severus smiled as the pup, who no longer looked that tiny, reached him. She jumped, barked, and then started to run in circles. The next moment, Neville jumped him, and Severus managed to catch the young man only just in time. Soft lips descended onto his, claimed them possessively, and robbed him of his breath – the thief. "You are happy to see me!"

"Well, it has been months since I last kissed you," Neville sighed and smiled at his lover. How he had missed Severus! "But I am yours for the next week!" He could have stayed three, but wanted to return to his studies so he could take his exams before Christmas, as he really wanted to permanently move to Hogwarts before the next winter. "Did you miss me too?"

"That is definitely a stupid question!" Severus lost himself as he stared into Neville's glittering eyes and leaned in closer for another kiss. He still felt shy around Neville at times, but not where kissing was concerned. During the kiss, he disapparated and took them to his office.

Neville looked about and realized he had come home. This was his home; this was where his heart longed to be. He kept his arms wrapped around his lover and studied Severus. "You look well," he said pleased. "You look rested."

Severus chuckled. "I look healthy," he teased, looking forward to telling Neville the good news.

Neville narrowed his eyes; knowing there was a reason why Severus had phrased it in that way. "Explain yourself."

Severus didn't use words. Instead, he twined their fingers and lifted his left arm. "Do you notice anything?"

Yes, he did – the tremors were gone. "The massage really works then."

"Not just the massage." Severus wrapped his other arm around Neville's waist and slowly turned his lover around. "What do you see?"

Neville frowned upon finding the cauldron empty and thoroughly cleaned. During the last year, Severus had used it to brew the potion that would restore his parents and now… It took him a moment to make the connection, but when he did, he turned around and gave Severus an inquisitive look. His lover flexed his fingers against his, and Neville's frown deepened. "Are you seriously telling me that…?" He was scared to finish his question. For what if Severus had given up instead of finding the solution?

"I succeeded in creating the potion," Severus whispered and brushed his lips against Neville's brow. "Consider it my birthday present to you."

Overcome, and overwhelmed, Neville thrust himself at Severus and pressed close against his lover. He had hoped – had prayed – had allowed himself to dream that this day would come, but in his heart he had been too afraid to actually believe in it. "And it works?" He needed to hear Severus confirm it.

"It works… I drank it three days ago and the tremors vanished within twenty-four hours. I actually feel the change." He smiled, placed a finger beneath Neville's chin, and raised it. Looking into his lover's eyes, he whispered, "I already flooed two vials to St. Mungo's. Your parents drank them yesterday and I expect them to wake up from their vegetative state tonight. The healers at St. Mungo's are expecting us to join them. I take it you want to be there when they wake up?"

Neville nodded repeatedly; yes, he did – desperately. "Thank you for never giving up, Severus."

"I am sorry it took me so long to create that potion." Hadn't it been for Voldemort, the war, the Carrows, and the aftermath, he might have succeeded in brewing it sooner.

"When will we leave?" All Neville could think about was finally being able to talk to his parents. To have them look at him and *know* they were coherent. He would finally learn what their voices sounded like! He wanted to tell him them how much he loved them and how badly he had missed them!

"In a minute." Severus brushed some stray hair back behind Neville's ear. "Though I expect it will be much to ask for to make you calm down first."

Neville cringed; there was no way he would be able to calm down. "Please, Severus."

Severus nodded at once as he didn't want Neville having to beg for anything. "As you wish."

/

Neville trembled as he approached his parents. Contrary to former visits, they weren't confined to bed and sat on comfortable armchairs near the fireplace in their sick room. Both looked too small, too weak, too thin, but when Neville took another step toward them, he thought he saw a hint of awareness in his father's eyes. "Severus…" He looked at Severus and wondered why his lover kept his distance.

"I don't know how much they remember concerning my involvement in the first war. It is better to startle them." So Severus kept back and made sure he wasn't in their view. He thought it best if the first thing that Alice and Frank saw was their son. He didn't want to take that moment away from them.

Neville understood, but would prefer Severus to be at side. Still, he moved closer and sat on his heels in front of his father, who actually seemed to be staring at him. Neville desperately hoped he wasn't deluding himself. He wasn't sure he would be able to deal with the disappointment if the potion wouldn't work after all. "Dad?" he said and swallowed hard, placing his hand on his father's left arm. The limb twitched, but it wasn't the twitching Neville had become used to. It wasn't the first sign of another assault. The twitch had happened because Frank actually registered his presence.

"Mum?" Neville felt torn; whom should he look to first? Whom to talk to? Neville reached out for his mother's hand and wrapped his fingers around hers, connecting the three of them in that way.

Severus watched from the back, hoping and praying that Frank and Alice were still of sound mind. They had been gone from the world for a long time.

Neville held his breath upon seeing his father turn his head toward him. His father had never noticed him before and now Frank Longbottom was looking at him! Neville was certain his father knew he was here! "It's me," Neville said. "It's Neville – your son. Dad, can you hear me?" Neville was surprised when his mother suddenly shifted on her chair and cocked her head at him. "Mum? I am here… Can you hear me?" Neville couldn't stop the tears from falling. He saw awareness in their eyes. They were actually aware of his presence! "Mum? Dad?"

"Ne…ville?"

Neville found it hard to breathe upon hearing his mother's voice. She seemed to have recognized him – knew he was here with her! "Yes, it's me… Mum, can you see me? Do you know…" His voice failed him in the end. All he could do was stare was at her when she started to smile. "Mum?"

"Son…"

Neville jerked to the right and stared at his father who had unexpectedly uttered that word. "Dad!" Unable to keep back any longer, he moved forward and pulled him into an awkward embrace. "I was afraid I would never get a chance to talk to you!"

Frank Longbottom blinked and felt like he had just woken from a very long and disturbing dream. The young man kneeling in front of him looked awfully familiar – those facial features – he saw Alice's eyes in that face. "Neville?"

"Dad!" Neville's tears dripped from his face. He had never been happier before.

Frank looked to the side and saw his wife, Alice, blinking her eyes, much like he was. She looked as drowsy as he felt, but when they made eye contact, Frank felt relieved. Alice was fine – as fine as she could be after being asleep for so long.

Neville moved closer still until he had a tight hold on both of them. He couldn't believe they were awake – that the curse had been lifted. He looked at Severus from over his shoulder and mouthed 'thank you'.

Severus nodded and patiently observed the family reunion. It would take Frank and Alice time to fully recover from the ordeal they had been through, but with some tender loving care, they should bounce back. He had already despatched several more potions to other healing facilities and knew more victims of the Cruciatus curse were waking up. He felt grateful that he had been able to undo some of the terrible damage Bellatrix and Voldemort had done. In the end, he realized, Voldemort's evil had been eradicated and the light had won one more time.

The end!