Title: Surrendering the Mark
Author: I Got Tired of Waiting
Team: Postwar
Genres: Romance, Angst
Prompt: Surrender
Rating: 14+
Warnings: Major Character Deaths, some language
Summary: Severus and Harry push the boundaries of love for freedom. A story about hope, survival, and the price of 'happily ever after'.
Word Count: 16,700 and change.
A/N: Many thanks to Empathic Siren and Lydia Lovestruck for their invaluable suggestions and Iulia Linnea for 'piddle-picking'. *G*  Sansa, Aseneth, and Diagonalist deserve mounds of chocolate and more for their bravery and kick-ass beta. And finally, my undying gratitude to Sansa and Aseneth for their incredible friendship and encouragement when I wasn't certain I could do this. I am so blessed.
Disclaimer: The world of Harry Potter, its characters and settings are the copyrighted works of J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., her publishing companies and affiliates. No profit was made from the writing of this story.


Surrendering the Mark
by I Got Tired of Waiting

"I remember that day like it was yesterday."

Minerva McGonagall shifted in her chair and tucked the rug across her knees more firmly around her. She was pleased to note her visitor remained silent, as she'd requested. Assured he would respect her wishes, she resumed her tale.

"You want to know when our freedom began? I assure you, it was very mundane: I was preparing my afternoon tea. I'm afraid I spilt the milk a bit as I was still shaky from injuries sustained during the war, but I managed.

"Before drinking my tea, I took the potion to hide my magic; every witch and wizard with any significant ability did so, and I'd known of more than a few. It tasted awful, but considering what would happen if I did not?" She shuddered. "Well, almost anything was worth avoiding that. I had to make it myself in those days, so even though the potion did its work, it wasn't as excellent as the ones I'd enjoyed while at Hogwarts.  Whenever I took it, I always thought of Severus Snape and what happened to him and Harry Potter at the Ministry and I wondered...

"I knew it was silly, but right after the war, I'd hoped Severus was still alive. After all, given that he'd been last reported with Harry and given how honourable the Ministry's reputation, there'd always been a niggle of doubt about their reported deaths. But as time went by with no word from either of them? Well, I gave up that hope soon enough.

"However, that all changed when the letter arrived."

She stared off into space a moment, the picture of the snowy owl arriving on her windowsill a vivid image in her mind. But that was then and today it was time to remember for a new generation. Cautiously sipping her tea--Dobby still made it too hot sometimes--she reached for a wooden box on the table beside her. Opening it, she studied its remaining contents: two rings, two wands, and a letter worn soft by use and time. The box had once held different things than it did today, but after the trials, they allowed her to keep it and the letter. As she'd earned it, she never questioned the right and used it to hold those items she considered the most important.

How she obtained these items was a long story, its telling mainly in the rolled letter she carefully lifted out of the box. She eyed her guest and he nodded, his Quick Quotes Quill poised above a piece of parchment.

"I'd barely taken the first sip of my second cup of tea when Hedwig arrived, this scroll strapped to her back. Just the sight of his snowy owl lifted my spirits, for I took it as a sign that perhaps, against all odds, Harry was still alive; by all reports he'd been dead for years. I admit I was intrigued. What would cause him to break his obviously self-imposed silence, one so much like my own? So I read the sheet wrapping the scroll, only to find it was from both Severus and Harry.

"I was elated. They were such an odd pair, but I never forgot the fire in their eyes, the fierce protectiveness they showed each other, both before and during the final battle--the last time I'd seen them with my own eyes. As I said before, they were supposedly dead, so I was a bit suspicious to be receiving mail from them, but Severus was my secret keeper; he would know where to send the owl. To be safe, I cast a spell and confirmed the letter was indeed from him. I was happy to be proven wrong, and so I broke the seal."

She unrolled the scroll. "This is where it all began."

Greetings from beyond the pale.

Stop grinning at the parchment, Minerva, for I cannot believe you naïve enough to think us dead. However, naïve or not, you have most certainly earned our trust, hence this missive you are currently holding.

As commanded by the brat (and my own sense of irony) I find myself charged with the duty to impart a certain knowledge as to 'what really happened' in the last few months of the war and the six years following the happy demise of the self-named Dark Lord. While this letter, for the most part, is in one hand, it speaks with two voices, the onerous task given to me because Harry seems to think I am the more eloquent one of our two. Which I find amusing as I've never had any difficulty understanding him whatsoever. However, the reality is that, these days, I am merely the most consistently coherent.

"Of course, his letter eventually explained his implications, but at the time, his words filled me with foreboding, and I wondered exactly what he meant."

tick, tick

It is merely habit that makes Severus Snape glance into the churning cauldron, his practiced eye instantly measuring its progress by the opacity and colour of the steam rising above the cast iron rim. That he's not brewed this particular formula before is of no consequence; he can easily judge any potion's reactions as they all follow a measured set of rules and orders and exceptions. Stirring the thick mud-coloured liquid around the edges, he cannot help but smile; it's the exceptions that make this an interesting art.

Satisfied with its progress, he finds he can no longer postpone the completion of the letter he finished writing three weeks ago, but endlessly continues to edit. It's not that his words require further polishing, nor is there anything more to say; rather he procrastinates because he is loath to send it.

His eyes swiftly scan the pages, eagerly seeking errors which don't exist or already-articulate words needing more clarity. When he gets to the page with Harry's contribution, he thinks of removing it, for he knows its message is no longer relevant. However, the part of him which finds some small pleasure in Harry's words cannot discard it, and since he's recounted the true sequence of events, he decides to leave it be. The gods know he doesn't care if the record is set straight for his own sake, but, as with everything else in recent memory, he does it solely for Harry.

His restless fingers smooth the parchment. His hands, usually such cooperative instruments, argue with his will about taking the pen, dipping it into the ink, and signing his name. He taps a black smear on the foolscap, left days ago by his little finger as it ran through a spot of still-wet ink, and wonders if he'd made such a mark on some thoughtless level to have the excuse to scribe it all over again.  Though he knows this to be a ridiculous notion, his forefinger helplessly follows the flowing script, ending abruptly at, 'Your most humble, most obedient servants,'.

He snorts, thinking how context changes the meaning of even the simplest of phrases. Will finally overriding desire, he takes the pen and signs, wishing he could close his eyes as he often did as a child when avoiding a back-handed blow, even knowing he has to watch, if only to know when to duck.

Blotting the ink dry, he rolls up the document and seals it against all but one recipient. Carrying it over to the old snowy owl patiently awaiting his pleasure, he secures it to a carrier crossing her back. "Fair winds, my friend," he whispers, brushing his fingers lightly over her feathers. "Stay with her after you've made your delivery." With a nip to his finger, a brush of her head against his hand, she flies off. He watches until her speck in the sky disappears.

After seeing again to the potion, he removes a thick roll of parchment from an upper shelf and places it, an old book, and a battered wand in a plain wooden box and spells the contents to look like a graduated series of empty potion bottles, should it be casually opened. He leaves the closed box in plain sight on his workbench, hoping their work of the last three years won't be lost. He sighs, knowing the contents to be true, but the world thinks them gone and with Scrimgeour's lies, their credibility isn't worth a brass Knut. However, she still has enough clout to see it's not wasted. That is, if their evidence can convince her to come out of her self-imposed hiding.

"Idiots!" Severus exclaimed, slamming the paper into the table.

"Reading the article about the newest restrictions?" Harry asked, flipping, with practiced ease, several eggs frying in a pan.

Severus glanced at his lover, looking slightly scruffy as he made breakfast in sleep pants riding loosely on his hips. The Italian sun slanting through the kitchen window painted his pale skin a healthy gold, and Severus had to shake off a heated rush of lust before he replied, "Hardly. That would be redundant." When Harry chuckled darkly, Severus added, "No, the one about Minerva."

Harry turned and stared, the pants slipping a bit. "Our Minerva? What's happened?"

"The Ministry has removed her as headmistress of Hogwarts." He tore his eyes away from the pert navel facing him, looking over the article, a finger tracing the text. "Seems she is a 'poor moral influence on the students of Hogwarts and has recklessly endangered countless young lives in her illegal pursuit of unnecessary magic'."

Harry snorted. "Ha! In other words, she's refused to restructure the curriculum to remove all the 'dangerous' subjects, like Charms and Potions and Defence Against the Dark Arts..."

Severus nodded. "Precisely. If the Ministry had their way the children would only study Divination and Care of Magical Puffskeins." He threw the paper aside and forked into the eggs Harry set before him. Swallowing, he continued, "It says they're searching for her, though the reward's not large enough to catch anyone's attention."

"Yet. They tend to increase it as time goes by." Sighing, Harry joined him at the table. "So she got away. Good for her, although... Another fugitive?" His brow puckered with worry.

"They'll never find her," Severus said with smug assurance. "Her property was purchased directly through Gringotts and is unplottable. I personally set the wards on her cottage; I'm also her secret keeper. And since I'm dead..."

Harry smiled, then sobered, running his hands over the dark shadow of his morning beard. "But how will she cope?"

"Much the same way we have, I suppose. She's not entirely alone; she always said she'd take Dobby with her and we all know how loyal he is."

"And there's always Shacklebolt and Moody.  I remember they holed up at 'Minerva's cottage' once during the war.  Must be the same place." Harry may have stated it, but his head tilted in inquiry.

"True. They may not have been willing to forgive me, but they've always been fiercely loyal to her." And you, he didn't add. "She'll be fine." Or so he hoped.

His reverie broken by the sharp ping of his hourglass, he returns to his potion. The soft popping of the elixir as it rises to the surface is not enough to cover the steady thud-thud-thud of Harry's pacing from the floor above, the boards creaking under his restless feet. Repressing his trepidation, he passes his hand over the scrying glass he keeps near, wondering which Harry will greet his visage. Will it be his lover? Or his enemy? Both were facets of the same man he willingly married.

The glass clears and all it takes is one glance to know which Harry is present at the moment, and he hopes the wards hold long enough to let him finish his work.

tick, tick

Eight, nine, ten, turn. One, two, three... The sun shines brightly through the window, making his way pleasant if not for the dark tangle miring his thoughts...  So he paces.  And he counts.

Four, five, six, seven... Why he's so nervous, he doesn't want to examine. He knows it has to be done, knows this is the only course, knows he is scared. He is 'himself' right now, although the edges of his personal boundaries have been blurring for years. However, such knowledge doesn't fill the gaping hole in his stomach, or the pounding in his head, or the dread coming with...

Eight, turn... Nearing the end. He hates change of any kind. Change in direction, change in plans, change in circumstance...

One, two, three...

He couldn't say who held whom. Ron held Hermione fast, but somehow they held him as well, a tangle of exhaustion in one corner of a small tent in the middle of nowhere. The ground was soft beneath them, but that was only because of the mud caused by the torrential rains Voldemort had brought upon them as they'd destroyed the fourth Horcrux.

Listening to Ron snore and Hermione's sleepy sniffling, he grinned in the dark. "That's right, you bastard," he whispered as sleep began to overtake him. "We're coming... for you."

Four, five, six, seven... Change in himself. The counting helps. Helps him stop thinking about why they're here. Why they have to be here. He looks at the partially healed slices on his inner arm, his own personal dark mark, the bloodletting making him dizzy only for the moment it had taken Severus to pour his offering into the cauldron.

Eight... Healing them all the way would have only made it less real.

Nine, ten, turn...

He'd only wanted to give Ron and Hermione a moment's privacy, a rare time for them to triumph and celebrate as only lovers can. The cold mound of earth mocked him. He hadn't gone far.

'Far enough,' his inner voiced chided.

He stood over their bodies, Rowena's now-empty wand in his hand. An empty wand for an empty victory, as empty as their eyes. Voldemort had not let them bask in it for long.

'Long enough,' his mind taunted.

The spell to dissipate their remains took all the strength he had left. With so many Inferi involved, even dead wasn't enough anymore.

'Dead enough,' his heart cried.

The crows circling overhead dispersed as the last spark faded, a fire of magic rather than flame, carrying them beyond on blackened wings.

One... He's rarely alone now. Severus sees to that, among other things. Severus knows how the silence bothers him, how it shreds his hard-earned peace. How silence alone means failure.

Two, three, four, five, six... Severus keeps him company. Unless, of course, Severus needs to work. Lately he's taken to locking the door. Locking him out. Like today. He can't reach Severus. Can't talk to him. Can't count on him to make it better. Keep counting...

Seven, eight, turn... Severus knows how important these last few days are to him. How fraught with uncertainty they are. Will he leave him here? Alone?

Severus caught him; he didn't care.

"You idiotic fool," Snape hissed. Harry tasted dirt and sweat and something bitter on the hand covering his mouth. "You failed to report. Have you any clue how many people are risking their necks right now looking for you?"

Snape removed his hand and moved to face him. Harry glared at him, but what could he say? He hung his head. It had all been for nothing anyway. Cold fingers harshly gripped his chin and raised it until he had no choice but to focus on eyes blazing black.

"Pay attention, Potter," Snape snarled. "You may do whatever you want when this is over--fall apart, die for all I care, but do not think for an instant that I and the others will allow it now."

"What others? The Order?" What a joke. The 'others' wanted him to stay inside, wanted him protected. And for what? So more 'others' died while he stayed safe? Only Ron and Hermione had seen the urgency. Only Minerva understood the risks he had to take. "It's over. They're gone. I can't do it without them. I can't do it alone."

"Finally! Something sensible," Snape snapped. "Do you even know why I'm here?"

Harry shook his head.

"You tripped one of the Dark Lord's traps. He sent us, his most trusted servants, to fetch you. I've slipped the others, but there's not much time." He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a Galleon and a second wand. With two flicks of it, the coin flashed blue. He put the Galleon and the wand in Harry's hand, folding his fingers over them securely. "Say nothing of me, but tell Minerva--alone mind you--that it's where we thought," he said cryptically as the Portkey activated, taking Harry away.

Harry landed on his arse at Grimmauld Place in the middle of a heated meeting. He said nothing of how he'd got there, even when pressed. Afterwards, he'd wordlessly downed the potions Pomfrey insisted he needed.

As sleep eluded him, he reviewed in his mind the changes he'd seen in Snape. Thinner, with new scars on his face and hands, the shadows under his eyes spoke of exhaustion and worry, the new lines around his mouth and nose told of bitterness and strife; he'd almost seemed human. From McGonagall's mumblings, he gathered Snape was still sending them information. Well, maybe she trusted him... Unready to take such a leap of faith, he'd fallen into a restless slumber.

And Snape's tortured screams haunted his visions.

One, two, three... They've all abandoned him. Severus to his experiment, Minerva to her hiding, Ron and Hermione to... He shakes his head. No. No! No, they'd not betrayed him.

Four, five... Severus has, though. The bile rises as he think of how his husband... his mind balks. Yes, husband. Foolish Harry. Trusting such a man who has already proven he cannot be trusted.

Six... Yet he had. Even when he'd not. Harry closes his hands in fists, the pain in the stretched tendons bringing a respite flash of himself. Severus loves him. Severus married him despite the abysmal odds. Severus is his...

The kiss was sweet, a promise of all his tomorrows. "Together, then, love?" he whispered before the emotional maelstrom overtook them inside to bond again and again... His husband. His bondmate. His...

Seven, eight... Bane. His most hated enemy. His greatest failure, a traitor. He must find him before it's too late. Must stop him. Must not let him escape unpunished. Must not...

Nine, ten, and turn...

tick, tick

Minerva smiled. "Back then, when I received this letter, I didn't know what to expect, certainly not everything that followed his opening salute, but I suppose even the beginning had to have its roots in the mundane and familiar, else it would never appear as fantastic as it proved. I admit, though, I was very curious as to what he meant by coherency, but he didn't explain that until much later. It really was quite vexing."

Settling her spectacles on her nose, she continued reading:

It's difficult to know where to begin or what order to keep; perhaps the initial creation of heaven and hell might be a bit premature, although in hindsight it only seems irrelevant. In the interests of brevity, I believe it will be simpler to recount history's view of things up to the time of our demise, followed by our subsequent resurrection, and ending with the aforementioned 'What Really Happened'. I do this in part because it gives us a basis for comparison, but mainly because it's been far too long since I've had the pleasure of trying you and your infamous patience.

Assuming you remember my flight with Draco after Dumbledore's death, I suppose the best starting point would be what transpired in the ensuing months before our lives briefly converged again at the final battle; if I repeat myself, I beg your indulgence.

My time with the Death Eaters after my 'return to the fold' is not worth mentioning beyond noting I was the one sending the information the Order used to find those thrice-damned Horcruxes. Your difficulties controlling our young hero and his friends served as rich fodder for Death Eater gossip, but as his methods were far more effective than anything Moody or the others were able to devise, we all learned to dodge the curses as 'our Lord' let us know quite plainly his displeasure as to the results.

Voldemort was pleased with Bellatrix and McNair when they murdered Mr Weasley and Miss Granger, but expressed profound displeasure that they missed Harry. When Harry foolishly sprang his trap a week later, it was all I could do to send him on his way to you, while convincing Bellatrix and Greyback it had only been a stray dog. Given Harry's demeanour during that encounter, I never expected to see him again, so when he sought (and found) me for help, you can imagine my surprise.

Perhaps his appearance at the time was something to which you'd become accustomed, but I admit to a deep shock when I'd first beheld his desperation and exhaustion. Not that his physical condition stopped the brat from hexing me within an inch of my life, but he says my 'refusal to defend myself' was the primary reason he decided the information I subsequently gave him wasn't a clever hoax to divert him from his true purpose. Personally, I think it was more from his less-than-subtle invasion of my memories (which he still denies) than any persuasion on my part.

She lowered the scroll. "I distinctly recall when Harry returned to the Order after Ron and Hermione's deaths; the message he relayed to me confirmed that Severus rescued him, but for Harry to seek Severus later? No, I never knew until I received Severus' letter, although it went far to explain why Harry eventually changed his mind about Severus and his loyalties, even in the face of strong opposition from other Order members, Moody being the most vocal."

Regardless, our confrontation that day allowed us to eventually become allies and, I dare say in hindsight, cautious friends. And I do not use those terms lightly, for it wasn't until we stood back-to-back at the final battle that Harry finally acknowledged I really was on his side. Of course, blasting Nagini, the last Horcrux, into tiny roasted snake cutlets probably didn't hurt my credibility, either.

Ah, yes, the final battle. History at least got most of that right. "Harry and Voldemort's Duel To The Death". How many hopes rested on a hunch, a 'feeling' that the Dark Lord's spirit would be sufficiently weakened by the destruction of his last Horcrux, that a relatively green wizard with more power than sense could best him? Prophecy aside, I still think it's a bloody miracle he succeeded, however...

As in any battle, there are thousands of delirious impressions one only vaguely remembers afterwards, the only clear imprints in one's mind those of heart-breaking moments overlaid with an overall sense that one does not ever wish to do it again. For all of us, I think, the one clear memory of that time was the instant the brilliant light surrounded Harry and the Dark Lord, the sheer force of Voldemort's implosion blinding us as he folded in on himself like a miasmic origami, only to disappear in an anti-climatic puff of ether. Not even ashes remained to mark his presence on earth; it was as if he'd never existed.

Beyond noting the results of a spell of which we had no previous knowledge, I didn't attach any long-lasting importance to that bright flash of light. We all knew its success was a long-shot at best and none of us really knew what to expect, assuming we survived; the books we garnered it from were too old and sketchy for any surety. Nor did I pay the least conscious attention to the countless skirmishes following in its wake. My only concern was for Harry, who'd fainted dead away when the last glimmer faded.

It is an oversight I have come to deeply regret.

As reported in the papers, I'd no sooner Apparated Harry to Hogwarts (obviously intending him grievous harm by taking him to the infirmary) than I was seized by Aurors and 'incarcerated in Azkaban' for my crimes. What I find supremely irritating, even today, is that no one ever questioned, not even you, Minerva, how I escaped from the Dementors (supposedly wandless, I might add) to stand with Harry at the infamous 'Battle of the Fountain'. The facts are this: I was never sent to Azkaban. I was taken to a holding cell at the Ministry and left to rot.

As the common man knows, while Harry recovered at Hogwarts, he was visited by our esteemed Minister. While only Scrimgeour and his lackeys know what was said between them, Harry's 'continuing ill health' earned him a visit to St Mungo's.  After his 'miraculous' recovery under their tender mercies, Harry was summoned to the Ministry, 'regretfully' arrested by Scrimgeour and taken before the Wizengamot for his alleged plot to become the next Dark Lord, the evidence purportedly obtained from me, his loyal minion, under Veritaserum. Which was pure rubbish on both counts. Until the day Harry opened my cell, I had no contact with anyone; the water and meagre fare they deigned give me arrived sporadically via a slot in the windowless door. And while I'd freely follow Harry to the ends of the earth, I would never subject myself to another master.

History's account of what followed is purposefully confusing, but I believe the popular version is that Harry, with his overwhelming magic and hidden cunning, overpowered his captors, somehow summoned me, and in our escape from justice, we waged a heated battle against those who would stop us and lost, our diabolical plot thwarted by the good men and women of the Ministry. We hear Harry's funeral was quite magnificent, but we were rather content to miss it.

Does all of this sound familiar, or did the foreign press get it wrong again? Regardless, this is the account we received much later when we cared about such things.

She smiled at the sarcasm all but dripping from the foolscap. "I never really believed the newspaper articles of their defection from the light, but could not deny there had been a ferocious duel waged by Harry and Severus which destroyed half the Ministry complex; I'd seen the devastation with my own eyes. For a time, I--and the other Order members--scoffed at the notion of their deaths; we'd seen them fight Voldemort and knew there wasn't a Wizard alive who could stand against them both. But with the entire Auror's division against two wizards trapped in a confined space and later, no word from either of them? Yes, I eventually believed them dead."

And she'd mourned in private.

tick, tick

Severus hears the footsteps on the stairs and closes his eyes briefly as if this will give him more strength.  It's an illusion, much like the control he rigidly holds over his emotions as it will not serve either of them well if Harry truly knows just how hard this is for him.

He briefly debates setting the wards around his work area, but decides to wait and see how the wind blows in Harry's mind since he last looked.  They have so little time remaining he cannot bear to exclude him unnecessarily. So he waits.

Harry's head peeks around the wall framing the stairs before the rest of him follows. Severus lets loose a silent sigh; Harry is himself for the moment, the struggle he witnessed upstairs through the scrying glass obviously resolved. Not that it will remain so; the closer to resolution they come, the more frequent the 'incidences' occur. Harry's 'demon' is trying desperately to stop them, and this is perhaps the only human thing remaining: the quest for continuing life.

"So this is the only way?" Harry asked, his thin face paler than normal.

Severus didn't know how to answer him. "This is the only method I've been able to find, but is it the 'only' way? I don't know. Perhaps if we had some help..."

"An army of scholars wouldn't make a difference, would it?"

"No, probably not."

Harry ran his hand down Severus' cheek. "I'll do it."

"Harry, I could..."

"No, love. There is no other way. We have to destroy him first so he can't hurt anyone else." Harry shifted in his seat and took his face in both his hands. "But I'll understand if you don't want to stay and watch."

He chuckled grimly, trying for levity. "With your cack-handed potion skills?" And he almost reached it, until his voice cracked for the first time since his teens. "You'd cock it up before it was done."

He could see Harry wasn't buying it as he asked seriously, "Together, then?"

Severus kissed him in reply. Together, always.

The irony is almost overwhelming. If wanting to live means one is human, does that mean that needing to die makes one less than human?

The potion will live without him for a few moments, so without hesitation he opens his arms, enfolding within them his redemption. Scrawny arms wrapping tight around Severus' waist, Harry burrows in, his murmured, "Missed you," is swallowed by the yards of soft fabric enveloping him. He feels like a child against him, but Severus knows him as a man. Harry has always been slender, but this borders on emaciation; the nervous tics randomly twitching his flesh are almost as painful to feel as the corrugation of his ribs.

How long they stand there he couldn't say; time is a fluid thing and, lost in his thoughts, Severus startles when Harry pulls away to ask quietly, "Do you think there's really a Hinterland and a Hell? Or do you think someone made it up just so we'd behave in life?"

"Well, Albus?"

"Well, what, my dear boy? You ask something that men have been trying to discover since the beginning of thought. I suspect we'll never know until we get there."

Severus snorted. "I may not know about heaven, but I am certain there is a hell." The 'and I'm going to it,' hung in the air as if he'd said it aloud.

"Maybe, maybe not. I rather think that most of us have already done our time in hell long before we die. I believe we will be judged on what we accomplished, not necessarily how we got there."

"So my road to perdition is paved with your good intentions?"

"Well, yes, I suppose one could look at it that way, but the means often justify the ends."

Severus took a long sip of his brandy, the fire's crackling mocking him with its dancing merriment, and said nothing.

"Albus thought there was," Severus replies quietly.

"But what do you think?" he presses.

"I don't know. I suppose I can only hope that Albus is right, that the means justifies the ends, or else I'm forever damned."

Harry's brow furrows for some moments. "What is, is. We've done nothing to apologise for," he finally replies, punctuating his belief with a kiss.

Severus sighs, and again says nothing.

tick, tick

Just the feel of Severus helps and, as Harry's emotions turn again, Severus' arms surrounding him ground his effort even as he fights the urge to kill him. It's not a serious effort, just a small push against his resolve, but it serves as a warning that more is coming.

"So you think this will help?" Harry asked, his hands fiddling with a napkin on the table.

Bill looked between them, concern puckering his brow. "If what you say is true, and after the debacle last night, I'm quickly losing any doubts, then, yes, a bonding between you might give Severus at least a little warning of the next attempt, and perhaps a modicum of control over what you try to do."

"But I don't understand..." Harry exclaimed.

Severus had remained silent during this exchange, the almost-rhythmic pressing of his lips the only indicator of his opinion. "Those who are bound cannot harm each other," he quietly commented. "As long as you remain mostly in control, the bond itself should prevent another incident like last night."

"All right, I get that, but what about the warning bit?"

His eyes trained on the table, Severus replied, "I think what Bill is saying is that because a bond allows partners to... experience their respective emotions when together, I should be able to determine if yours changes out of the ordinary."

Eyes widening, Harry stared at him, dipping his head until their eyes met under Severus' hanging hair. "You would let me... see you?" he whispered.

Severus' eyes darted to Bill. "You always have," he murmured, "this just makes it official."

He doesn't regret their marriage, regardless the reasons. It completed them and brought a peace both were sorely lacking. They are happy even at those times of struggle when they're not.

But the roiling inside brings him no rest. He will fly apart if he stays still. Harry pulls away regretfully, their held hands the last to part. "I need to move."

Severus nods his understanding and returns to his potion. A part of Harry thinks he ought to resent Severus releasing him so easily, but another part chides him because it knows how difficult it is for Severus to let go.

Harry paces, but has gone no more than a few steps when he falters mid-stride. It's an effort to keep walking when ebony eyes pull at his heart as strongly as a lodestone might to a lost bit of iron. He focuses on the floor but, as his will is elsewhere occupied, he's helpless to stop his eyes from rising.

"So he's won after all," Harry murmurs hopelessly.

Severus shifts towards him as if to take him in his arms to comfort him, and as much as Harry wants it, he cannot for, at this moment, Severus' touch could prove his undoing. He takes his consolation when Severus nods, turning his apparent attention back to the potion; Harry can feel Severus watching him from under the fall of hair obscuring his face as he says quietly, "No, for we've not surrendered."

Harry gestures to the potion softly popping into the silence. "But we've lost."

His gusty snort makes Harry smile. "Have we? Or are we merely paying the belated price of winning? We neither one thought we would survive the first encounter, yet here we are."

A frown mars Harry's forehead as he thinks this over, the puckered skin smoothing as he says, "Together, then."

It was done. Bill stepped aside to give them the illusion of privacy while they adjusted to their new intimacy.

"I'll never be alone," Harry said with wonder.

Their words, their magic danced between them, joining their hearts as surely as the cords had bound their hands just moments before. "We'll never be alone," Severus countered.

"Together, then?"

The present meets the past when Severus whispers, "Unto the gates of death and beyond."

Green meets black in panicked desperation. Severus' resigned sigh tells him nothing he wants to hear. Fighting what has become a losing battle, he clenches his jaw tight against the inevitable question, the one he has been asking for what only seems like half his life, but his childish urgency loosens the taut muscles enough to hoarsely whisper, "How much longer?"

Another protracted sigh his only answer, Harry cringes within, knowing his endless impatience sometimes makes Severus' insides seethe as hot as the steaming cauldron he stirs so calmly, but as has become his custom, he says nothing.

 Harry can feel the change coming on again, this time relentless, and he says as steadily as he can, "Severus! The wards!" He breathes his own sigh as Severus' wand raises them as quickly as Harry could wish.

More than magic separates them now.

tick, tick

Minerva waved her hand in the direction of her visitor. "I suppose, to you, his account differs from what you know, but that's because you know the truth."

Her guest raised his brows in enquiry.

"Oh, Severus' account was as close to never mind insofar as History's Version was concerned--as we knew it then, but I admit: their subsequent 'travels' sounded far more interesting than my own exile." She turned the page. "Here, I'll let you judge for yourself."

The journey into this exile did not come easy for us. I would like to say I escaped unscathed, but I collapsed soon after we reached safety. If not for Harry's efforts, I would have died. It was a strange time. Harry says he grew to love me then, but I'd already reached that conclusion long before while languishing in my solitary cell. Regardless of how we reached our mutual accommodations, or how long we 'negotiated', Harry and I eventually became lovers.

We travelled, mostly in Italy, where we spent almost as much time dodging other fugitives as we did seeing the sights. After reading of your 'problems' with the Ministry, Harry half-expected to see you here as well, but I assured him you would be bravely tucked away in that pile of rock you bought years ago, 'just in case'. I was right, wasn't I? You silly Gryffindors are so predictable.

She set the scroll down, rather forcibly. "Perhaps it was silly, but at least I'd been prepared. People started disappearing, good people who were later accused of collusion with Voldemort. They either escaped or were sentenced to Azkaban. Like everyone else, I believed the tales until certain knowledge was brought to me by Order members. Afterwards, I was willing to concede that sometimes a net catches the good with the bad. I rallied in defence of those I knew innocent but was pushed aside by the Wizengamot.

"Then came the 'Spell of Peace'. It was a horrid compromise, a means to equalise the more powerful folk by suppressing their magic, thereby making them no more powerful than the lesser witches and wizards. Those who tried it found that, once cast, it could never be broken. Who would voluntarily do such a thing? So within months of Voldemort's defeat, it became law. Once a student passed their NEWT's, they were tested and if deemed a risk, they were placed under the spell for everyone's 'protection'." She snorted. "Of course, they exempted the staff at Hogwarts, for how could we hope to do our jobs without our full powers? As Britain gradually slid into a police state (and the Aurors were first amongst those not bound, I might add), I found myself deemed 'uncooperative' and eventually they asked me to step down. When they tried to bind me, I fled to this cottage, where I could be safe as long as I kept taking that cursed potion."

She sniffed in remembered outrage. "I do go on, don't I?  My apologies. Shall we continue?" When he nodded, she resumed reading.

We had fourteen good months together before Harry began experiencing some difficulties. At first it was almost unnoticeable. Small bouts of ill-temper interspersed with profound depression soon gave way to outright tantrums and violent behaviour. When he tried to use an Unforgivable on a sales clerk in Florence for giving him the wrong change, I finally had no choice but acknowledge we had a serious problem.

Convincing Harry, though, was another matter altogether as his lucid moments grew ever shorter. Eventually I prevailed and persuaded him to allow an examination using Legilimency. What I discovered was appalling. Somehow Harry's link to Voldemort (which had, at one time, allowed Harry to 'see' Voldemort's activities) had taken a life of its own. Inside Harry. It was as if they shared the same body and, over time, Voldemort was winning.

Once Harry could see this duality for himself, he took his own measures (not always successfully, I might add) to keep the two persona separate while we searched a cure. Not surprisingly, in the end, it was a potion we used. Harry was sick for weeks, but 'Voldemort' died, and Harry recovered.

Or so we thought.

She set the letter down at her side a moment to refresh her tea. Sipping thoughtfully, she mused, "I often wonder how their lives would have gone had that been the end of it." She sighed, placing the cup to the side. "But when had anything to do with Harry or Severus ever been simple?" Not expecting a reply, Minerva resumed reading the letter.

The two years after our 'second' defeat of Voldemort, Harry jokingly calls "The Idyll", although, with our continuing exile, I prefer naming it "The Less Than Idyll". However, despite the challenges associated with dodging wizarding authorities, I believe I finally experienced what others call contentment, so perhaps Harry knows more on the matter than I.

When Europe filled with wizarding refugees from that foolish Muggle war in the Middle East, we made our way to America, thinking it vast enough, even we could get lost in it. Though it is a huge country, it's also a small world, so we couldn't escape the rumours about the 'tyrannical' conditions in England. The Yanks have an opinion about everything (not always wise ones, either) so they were unabashedly vocal about how we were such sheep and they would never allow 'their' Ministry to victimise them, etc., etc, ad naseum. It entertained us for a while.

Yet I'll never understand how the Americans can pay such ardent lip service to their so-called freedoms when they aren't the least bit free of their own prejudices. Our 'kind' proved to be a burden we couldn't shed in the face of Popular Opinion. Once Harry realised a 'fag' wasn't a cigarette and 'gay' didn't necessarily mean happy, he grew increasingly melancholic with the way both Muggles and wizards regarded our relationship. We didn't stay there but a few months before departing for the more-tolerant Canada, where we wandered for over a year--beautiful place if you ever have the mind to go. A bit chilly, though.

While in Montreal, we were approached by a goblin bearing a letter, which rather surprised us as no one had ever penetrated the disguises we used, but I suspect the goblins 'see' things a bit differently than us. The short missive, from Bill Weasley and signed with his cipher, invited us to join him in Egypt. Although Bill is one of the most honourable men I know, save Harry, I hesitated accepting his admittedly tempting offer for obvious reasons. Harry and I were wanted 'posthumously' by the Ministry; I didn't want Bill and his family inadvertently dragged into our predicament. However, the matter was taken out of my hands; Harry's persuasive enthusiasm for a reunion with 'family' overrode my good sense. So, purely in the interests of determining how Bill knew we were alive, we worked our way to his home in Cairo.

We soon found the only thing 'hot' about Egypt's wizarding climate was the weather. The security Bill provided allowed us the first real relaxation we'd had since leaving. He took a sabbatical from Gringotts and played guide as we went from site to site, sailing lazily down the Nile in a private dahabeeyah. And did I mention it was hot? I can still see Bill now, his skin sunburnt almost as dark as the dried dates Harry consumed by the pound, his hair bleached a rich strawberry blond from the fierce sun. It was a rare time of freedom.

We weren't back from our boat trip a week when Harry came down with a fever after a fascinating trip to Gizah. He recovered physically, but the illness spelled the beginning of the end for us as he gradually slid into bouts of ill-temper and depression, the personality swings eerily familiar. At first Bill thought Harry had contracted one of the various curses still rampant in the tombs, but between my explanation of what had happened before and his curse skills, Bill quickly revised his initial opinion.

As it slowly progressed, Harry claimed it felt 'different' this round, more virulent and feared he would be unable to control it as well as before. We tried the potion again to no avail. After much discussion during his more lucid moments, Bill convinced us to bond as a means to control the magic, if not the madness. Bill bound us in secret and I admit it isn't anything like I thought it would be, but it's been tolerable.

After one too many encounters with Harry's wild magic, Bill conceded defeat and helped us relocate to where we currently reside. It's unplottable and under the Fidelius Charm; I am our secret keeper. Harry has no idea where it is as he's never left the grounds since I placed the charm three years ago. We're not attached to the Floo Network (and never will be) and there is a complicated series of anti-Apparation wards surrounding the grounds making it a serious, albeit pleasant prison.

It's an almost daily struggle as Harry repeatedly tries to circumvent the wards. Or kill me. Bit of a strain on our relationship, that, but the bond helps in that regard as well. Regardless, I'm not certain I'd have survived had we not received a mysterious package from Bill, again delivered by goblin, eleven months after our arrival. Two weeks later, the same goblin delivered the devastating news that Bill had died in a tunnel collapse. He said it was an accident, but given the contents of the box, I have to wonder...

Minerva paused, her eyes straying to her visitor lounging in the chair opposite her, his quill scribbling away. "Of course, we know now it was not an accident. How they discovered Bill's involvement is anyone's guess, but even the goblins had to agree when presented with all the evidence. I miss Bill, he was such a promising student, as were most of the Weasleys, even the twins. I haven't heard from Molly in years..." She laughed lightly. "And you probably couldn't care less." Her guest smiled. "Yes, well, where were we?"

Nevertheless, the box contained a letter and a wand tucked inside an old text. His letter didn't tell me how he acquired the wand other than saying it came from the goblins, it had been last used during the final battle, and it wasn't Voldemort's. Bill had no idea why they gave it to him except they repeatedly told him he would know what to do with it. Bill cast the Prior Incantato, which revealed the Victum Spolio Curse. After he researched it (hence the book he sent), he found its desired effects were identical to what happened to Harry--twice. So he sent it to us, asking if we found it as interesting as he did. Always a bit understated, our Bill.

After confirming Bill's speculation, we next needed to know who had owned the wand, for the 'why' of the matter was as important to us as the 'how'. After securing Harry in our bedchamber, I used a polyjuice potion and snuck into Diagon Alley to visit Ollivander. Of course he knew who I was immediately, but Ollivander is an odd duck and said nothing. When the shop cleared, he examined the wand and proclaimed it belonged to Scrimgeour. He also suggested I Obliviate him, to which I readily agreed and, once assured the old man would recover, I returned home to Harry and to think.

Minerva stopped reading. Setting the letter in her lap, she stretched her neck and shoulders of the kinks caused by sitting too long in one place. She poured herself another cup and, as an afterthought, glanced over her spectacles at her guest, who expertly stifled a yawn. "More tea?" she asked, thinking it a pity that freedom brewed its own peculiar blend of apathy.

And she wondered if Harry and Severus had ever found freedom in this life.

tick, tick

Harry stands on the other side of the wards.  It's his Harry facing him, for he doesn't ask him to remove them, both knowing it to be necessary. The other Harry begs and pleads for him to trust him, to lower the shields protecting the work they've spent their lives making.

His Harry never begs.

The Cruciatus had been held so long, Severus could almost see it as a tightening band of agony over Harry's chest. He tried to break it physically with a sweep of his wand but aborted the movement to block a curse McNair sent their way. 'Focus. Focus, you fool,' he told himself sternly, dodging a hex from Bellatrix. 'Harry will have to prove his own mettle.'

A gasp, the most sound out of Harry in the last few minutes, almost broke his concentration. Damn it! Where was Miner... Oh, with Flitwick against Greyback. Lucky them. Suddenly, his foes seemed almost ordinary, the curses and hexes shouted hoarsely roaring out of his wand in rapid succession.

He hazarded a glance. Harry and Voldemort were circling one another, but at least Harry was on his feet. Good. He whirled away from the fire hex searing his side. Damn, that hurt. He shot a Killing curse off the end of his wand held under his other arm. Bellatrix fell. Better. Now he only had to wait for Harry to finish the bastard off.

But it doesn't make the waiting any easier, knowing Harry is less than a step away in space, but a galaxy away mentally. Adding the last ingredient, he absently stirs, watching the changes come over his husband, feeling him fade within himself as the bond loses half the essence making it whole. Now it is merely a connection between them, a means to an end, for Harry's demon has never learned, can never understand: it is their love for one another that truly binds them, not some bit of ancient magic.

The other Harry gathers his powers and throws them at the wards; Severus halts the magic before it even leaves the body casting it, while preventing it from harming the shell of the person he protects.

"I'll win, you know."

"Hardly. Go away. You've already lost."

"I'm still here."

He stops his own chuckle. "Not for long."

"You'll never get to him. You have to risk yourself to cross the wards to give it to him. You'll have to touch him."

"True, but you underestimate him. You always did."

"Not this time, Se-ver-us. This time, I am him."

"Only in body. What defeated you the first time, will defeat you this time as well."

"That's what you said the last time."

"I was mistaken only in execution, not the basic premise. You should have studied logic more."

He awaits a reply that never comes. He taps the rim of the cauldron with his spoon and sets it aside before looking up at Harry; he usually avoids eye-contact with the other one as much as possible, but he is curious at the silence.

Harry is not disappointing him. With his eyes scrunched tight, he is fighting the presence within. He pants and gasps and Severus can feel Harry's pain rolling through him. It is only when Harry is winning that Severus can feel the full struggle, so he can only assume Harry will prevail. He leans against the counter to see the outcome, his arms crossed casually over his chest, but he holds his wand ever-ready in his fist.

tick, tick

The horrors Voldemort plays in his brain like a penny cinema are not always real. However, the visions he relays of Severus' horrors usually are; he shows them to Harry to parade his husband's weaknesses. Or at least as he sees weakness. And yet they are merely a superimposition of events, for Voldemort either forgets, or doesn't know: Harry has already seen most of them before. There are subtle differences, more a product of perception than actual memory, but as long as Harry can see them, can measure them, he will always prevail.

So for every tale Voldemort shows him, he has one of his own to counter it. It is an effort, but eventually he can coax his own memory over that of his foe until all he sees is what he wants, not what he is given. And when the visions become his own, he hears and sees nothing but himself.

Perhaps he has discovered Harry's secret to sanity for today the memories are not of Snape the Death Eater, but of Snape the Potions master. Every insult, every epithet, every denigration Snape has ever uttered to him passes before his mind's eye and he is scared. Voldemort has no personal knowledge of these things, so Harry can only conclude he is raiding his own memories. This is new and Harry has no time remaining for new.

Desperate, he tries to grab a random memory, but misses. The penalty is that Voldemort is now stronger within him, his own magic hurled against Severus' wards. He must succeed soon; if Voldemort gets full control, there is nothing Severus can do to stop him.  Ah, he grabs another.

"I'm quit of you," Harry shouted, stalking out of the room.

"Potter, where the fuck do you think you're going?"

"Anywhere but here... with you," he retorted.

"Idiot. Is it worth your life?"

"What?" he asked, whirling about to face him.

Severus took a deep breath, probably to yell at him some more. "If you'd just listen..." At the harsh tone, Harry turned to leave. Severus sighed, saying urgently, "Never mind the recriminations. There are Aurors out there. You're already dead in theory; don't let them turn it into fact."

Harry was so tired of their posturing, their games. He just wanted... Well, it didn't much matter now; he'd burned his bridges. "Why not? This is what you want, isn't it? Me gone? Why would you care how it's accomplished?" The words leaving his mouth punched him in the gut, making it ache as much as his heart.

"No!" Severus roared. "Not..." His voice softened. "Not at all what I want."

Harry closed his eyes briefly against that part of him wanting to leap in the air with joy. No, he was not doing this to himself again. Severus was not the problem, he was, with all his fruitless dreams. Severus had always been Severus. He strengthened his resolve, but struggled to harden his heart. Was the underlying tenderness in Severus' voice real, or the phantom product of his desires? Damn him, he needed to see. He took a step closer. He stared. And took another. "What do you want, then?"

Severus' mouth barely moved as he uttered. "You. Alive." Severus clamped his mouth shut, but when Harry crossed his arms over his chest, still staring, Severus looked to the side, saying, "In my life." Oh. Harry took a step towards his lover. Severus' eyes returned to him and again Harry witnessed the rare softening in his face, the one that made his insides melt, the one that had always brought him back. But it was only one step, and this time he couldn't be the one to take the last one. Severus' sighed and whispered, "In my... heart."

"Oh," and the obvious effort Severus made let Harry take the last steps anyway, standing so close he could see the different shades of black in his eyes. "You'll tire of me, you know."

"No! No, never," he said, his hands framing Harry's face.

And for the first time, Harry embraced his heart's leap of faith.

Voldemort is gone, for the moment, because they confuse and confound him, which robs his visions of any conviction. He's never understood that what he sees as their greatest weakness is actually their strengths' foundation. Severus never said he liked him at first, but his desire to help was no less sincere for all his dislike. And from that was borne a true empathy--not sympathy or pity--for even he'd known then: Severus deserved more. But the recognition that the man's pain was no less, perhaps even more than his own was all he'd needed to see beyond their differences.

And the first step always leads to more.

tick, tick

Severus loosens his grip on his wand and slips it into his sleeve. The crisis is averted for now, but he can see the clouds gathering in his husband's eyes. He half-expects Harry's, "Damn it, Severus, how can you remain so calm about all this?"

He knows this is his Harry's irritation, and he smiles. "If not calm, then with what am I left? Derision? Hate? Mockery? Helpless anger? Surely not laughter?"

"Oh gods, Severus," Harry groans, his arms wrapping around his stomach. "I'm so sorry. I've even stolen your emotions."

"No, never that. No one can 'take' them but myself."


"This is merely my control over their expression." He moves his hand and arm over the bubbling potion. "When this is done..."

"What happens when we're done?" Harry asked eagerly.

"The dough rises, we knead it, place it in the pan, and voila!  After some time in the oven, we have bread.

Harry eyed him speculatively; he'd know that gleam anywhere. "How long does it need to... rise?" he asked with waggling brows.

"About an hour."

"Then we... knead it?"

"Mmm--hmm," he replied easily, his hands already seeking Harry.

Harry's lips are as warm as the oven, the body pressing against him just as hot. "Then we have an hour for needing?" he whispered.

"No," he chuckled, his hands leaving two floury prints on Harry's arse. "An hour for rising..."

When this is done...

"We'll be...?"

"We'll be free."

tick, tick

Minerva adjusted her spectacles.  "That the goblins became involved was extraordinary; except for finances, they usually steer clear of humans. Releasing the wand was unheard of. I've always wondered if their assistance meant they knew what was really happening. Surely they knew where Harry and Severus were; they had to have funds and jobs would have been difficult, or at least Severus never mentioned employment. Gringotts is rather like a Muggle Swiss bank; once in, they'll never tell. Not even the Ministry can make them. However, goblins have their own strange sense of honour..."

She let the thought die when she saw her visitor's attention straying. Clearing her throat, she resumed reading.

Knowing whose wand cast the Victum Spolio didn't tell us who or why or when. Going forward from Bill's correspondence and adding a few clues we tricked out of the growing presence within Harry, we determined it was cast in the last half of the final battle.  Once we had a time frame, we thoroughly examined our memories. From there, it all fell into place, and while we have no concrete answers and little proof beyond an old battered wand, we have much solid conjecture.

Remember the bright flash surrounding Harry and Voldemort at the end? The one we thought came from Harry's spell? Well, it did not. The flash was instead the result of a second curse cast at the precise moment Harry released the spell against Voldemort and originated from someone standing slightly behind Harry and to his right. The memories don't lie; we could hear it as well as see its path.

I want you to think back to the famous painting of Scrimgeour wading through the foray, "To defend our saviour from one of Voldemort's Death Eater henchman!" (and we all know he meant me). He maintained his wand was destroyed by Voldemort in the heat of battle before Harry's famous curse, yet the painting shows him with it in his hand after Harry fell. If I recall, the explanation at the time was 'artistic license', but I tell you now: Harry and I have searched my memories from every angle; Scrimgeour had his wand after Voldemort was gone and he came in from behind Harry's right.

"Scrimgeour! Now there was a scoundrel! I never liked him, myself. His 'valiant' actions in the final battle secured his position after the war. While we'd all thought it a political ploy, no one had ever thought to investigate his involvement as a criminal act. However, given what he'd done afterwards with his 'New Order' and the 'Spell of Peace' to enforce it, it wasn't too much of a stretch to think it might be so."

As to why Scrimgeour would risk a 'third-coming' of Voldemort by binding him to Harry? We believe it's tied to the so-called 'Spell of Peace' Scrimgeour is using to control wizarding Britain. We think Scrimgeour made a deal with Voldemort; he would cast the Victum Spolio to bind his master to Harry, and in return Voldemort would keep him as Minister and give him the means to control the population in preparation for Voldemort's return. It's the kind of trade Voldemort delighted in making, although he rarely made good on them.

Whatever its name now, the 'Spell of Peace' is identical to a complex Geas custom-made for Voldemort by one of his supporters, Thomlin Gurnsey. (He hails from Yorkshire and never received the Dark Mark; he's particularly susceptible to the Cruciatus.) Voldemort specified he wanted something to suppress magic and modify the mind by suggesting obedience to authority. And it worked; I saw him use it on several wizards when Thomlin first delivered it. At the time I couldn't help but admire such a brilliant piece of charm craft even as I abhorred its purpose, which should seem awfully familiar to you. Yes?

But Scrimgeour needed to see if the geas worked. Evidently, I was his first test. I'd known they'd bound me with a control charm (and there are several they use for prisoners) so I never questioned it. They left me my wand, but I couldn't use it for more than the simplest things, like emptying the slops and cleaning my cell.

Based on Harry's account, Scrimgeour tried it next on him when they moved him to St Mungo's. Harry eventually threw off its effects, much like he does the Imperius, but pretended he was still under its influence. Scrimgeour suspected and invited him to a meeting at the Ministry. When one of Scrimgeour's lackeys inadvertently revealed my true state and location, Harry evidently 'lost it' (his words, not mine). They clapped him in magical irons, trumped up charges against him in the Wizengamot, and took him down to the holding cells, probably intending to kill him while they thought him weak. A comment to the press later, 'So sorry, but the boy was accidentally killed while trying to escape,' and Scrimgeour would be free to do as he willed.

However, Harry had a much different idea of how events should proceed. En route, he broke their bonds and searched the dungeons until he found me. He removed their geas (and no, he doesn't remember his methods--you know how Harry is in one of his rages) and we left the area. However, we were spotted on the level by the fountain. A lengthy battle ensued, the two of us (and a few loyal bystanders) against the Aurors. I'd like to say I carried my own weight, but I was weak from my incarceration; my best merely kept the Aurors at bay while Harry blasted a path to an emergency exit where we made good our escape.

Which takes us back to the first part of Scrimgeour's 'trade' with Voldemort. According to our research, the Victum Spolio spell is intended to bind one person inside another, in this case Voldemort within Harry. There are two parts to it; the initial binding of one soul to another, followed by an activation spell to start the usurpation of the victim's personality. However, as it's obviously not in Scrimgeour's best interests to activate it for the 'third-coming' of Voldemort, he did not--or at least not with the wand we have. I never said he was entirely stupid.

So, over the years Scrimgeour has been hunting for us, but we always knew that, just not the full reasons. Since he never activated the Victum Spolio spell, to his mind, Harry is a loose cannon. He probably thinks killing Harry will solve his 'Voldemort' problem, and here's the true irony: we think Voldemort double-crossed Scrimgeour with their 'trade', because someone obviously activated the damned spell. And if Scrimgeour didn't....

Harry recalls Voldemort screaming as he died. Our review of the memories shows his lips moving, but we can't make out what he might be saying, for if Harry heard a scream, I and the rest of the world heard nothing but silence. Harry thinks Voldemort spoke the activation spell and, frankly, I can think of no other alternative. Scrimgeour should be thanking us, for had he not forced Harry's hand, he would have found himself with a live and deadly foe who knew he'd, at best, disobeyed him, at worst, betrayed him. Voldemort always did like 'testing' his minions.

However, knowing all this did nothing to alleviate our problem. After nearly a year searching through the book Bill sent us, along with other reference documents the goblins willingly supplied, I finally found the solution. Again it was a potion, terribly complicated, with a year's brewing time.

And it comes with a horrible price, for like the Prophecy implied, neither one will survive the other.

Harry has decided to take it, and while it's been with heavy heart I've brewed it this past year, I've also been seeking alternatives... but we've run out of time as it will be ready by week's end, and Harry will brook no more delays.

Minerva put the finished page behind the sheaf in her hands. Her visitor's eyes were finally shining. It's the same every year,  she thought with regretful anger.  Vultures, all of them.   Some young fledgling, sent by a hassled editor, would interview her about this special day, but all they ever really wanted to hear were the final minutes, not the events leading to them.  Yet her conscience demanded she make certain someone remembered.   So each year she let them come to her--only to listen, never to speak.  No probing or leading personal questions resulting in comments she couldn't control.  She'd learned her lesson the first anniversary; she would give them all the facts, but only that part of herself she was willing to share. 

"Severus claimed his heart grew heavy as he brewed the potion, but my heart was equally burdened when I reached the end of this page.  You see, I received his letter on a Saturday afternoon."

tick, tick

It is finally done.

With a wave of his wand, the fire beneath the cauldron dies, not even a puff of smoke to mark its existence. The potion within is as perfect as it will ever be, and yet Severus takes his time to gather the instruments he needs to give it to Harry. A large glass syringe is the simplest method of measuring the proper dose; after dipping the metal capped end into the now-thin liquid, he pulls the plunger, filling the syringe easily. Setting it aside on a piece of blotter paper, he takes his time selecting the proper vessel from an array of phials set in a metal stand.

Harry's eyes bore a hole in his back as he fills a cut-crystal phial; he ignores the glare as the amount must be perfect. For the first time this morning, he is relaxed and confident. He sets the seal and turns to gauge Harry's mood.

Harry stares back at him, but he knows this is only a façade just as he knows this isn't Harry. He's dead inside, so it can't be Harry. This one watches him calmly, too calmly. This is 'the other', for he refuses to name him; if he does so, he surrenders his advantage.

"Se-ver-us," Voldemort hissed, the sibilance sending fearful shivers down his back. "On your knees, Se-ver-us"

"Yes, Master," he said softly, eyes downcast, the stone floor jarring his joints as he sank to the ground. Would it be praise or punishment? Some days he couldn't tell the difference.

So he turns back and dumps the extra dose, just in case, from the syringe into a plain bottle, sealing it tightly. The rest of the potion in the cauldron is by now ruined. He waits, but not for long. Within moments the form on the other side of the wards throws itself physically against the invisible walls he's so carefully constructed, trying to break through.



"I'll be merciful."

"Really? You never were."

"I'll keep some of Harry for you."

Severus snorts. "Of course you will, but never for me and not the part I truly want. His power seduces you, but it's never interested me. And the rest? No, it would destroy you the first time you let it out."

He seems to consider this. "Nonsense. I've known you longer than he has. I know what you want. What you've always wanted. You can have it all, Sev-er-us. Power, fame, fortune. Together we could rule them all."

Severus shakes his head, not even tempted. "No..." He closes his eyes. ...Master

There is silence, and yet he senses the titanic struggle. He can feel life stirring in the bond, small, but growing stronger and he throws his will into it, helping it, guiding it, feeding the spark with his own emotions, his own determination until it blossoms into a kindling fire, then a dancing flame warming his insides, consuming the fuel of his needs, his wants until they are blazing, one fire, one life, one love.

Without hesitation he crosses the ward, searching Harry's eyes as he hands him the phial. He holds his wand to the slender throat as Harry downs it in one gulp. But Harry doesn't need his help right now. He swallows easily, the smile on his lips reaching his eyes, eyes clear of what had clouded them mere minutes before. There is no fight in him anymore; Harry has won.

tick, tick

"What's wrong with it?" Harry asks, puzzled.

Severus feigns nonchalance. "Wrong with what?"

"The potion," he replies, pointing at the empty phial. "That almost tasted good."

"Almost?" The brow rises as he expects.

"Too sweet, though," he says, licking his lips to hide the smile. "Hmmm. Honey? To hide the bitterness?"

Severus sniffs. "Perhaps."

The grin can't be contained any longer. "No matter, you're still the best Potions master in England."


"Are," he retorts, barely holding his tongue in his mouth. On second thought, he sticks it out. Severus' mouth twitches at the corners even as he shrugs and Harry feels he's won more with this victory than the one prior.

tick, tick

Harry's eyes close in painful concentration, his body swaying and shimmering, as if caught in a mirage. Severus stands by helplessly, knowing he mustn't touch him.

Monitoring Harry closely, he can't hide his supreme satisfaction when he feels the other die, his last essence carried away like so much dark steam through an open window. He watches his Harry slowly return and thinks that giving Harry back fully to himself is the ultimate gift he can give him, even if it means losing him. And for himself?  After the last three years, having Harry one last time as only himself, even if only for few minutes, will make it all worthwhile.

He almost misses the falter in Harry's step as he reaches for him, the eyelids closing as if too heavy to bear, but Severus catches him easily as he sags. There is no weight to him it seems, but perhaps that is because there is only him to carry now. He carries Harry through the brightly sunlit cottage to their bedchamber and lays him down tenderly on the downy softness of the huge four-poster they've shared since the beginning of their relationship.  Sitting on the edge of the bed while he waits, for what he knows not, his long fingers delicately card through the silk of Harry's wild hair, and he sighs with a relief he's not experienced for decades.

It is finally done.

tick, tick

"As many times as I read the letter, I always seem to forget about this page, but more from wanting to forget than any fault in my memory. See," she showed him the page, "there was no mistaking this new hand; even as a student it had always been messy and scrawling, but with a merry abandon that was uniquely Harry. I'd recognize his handwriting anywhere."

Shivering as if a ghost had passed through her, Minerva read:

I'll leave the hard-core explanations to Severus for he is the better man with words, but I decided to add this page because I very much want you to believe and understand that the decision to follow our current course is entirely mine, freely made. Severus simply loves me enough to carry it through, just as he did with Albus.

While it would be nice to think that Severus' continuing research into our problem means he thinks there's another way, I know in my heart he's merely stalling. I know this because, were our places reversed, I would do the same thing.

Before I go further, I want you to know I'm all right--with everything. We've had a good life together. I've found a happiness and contentment with Severus I never thought I would ever find. He loves me, just for me, and I think that's the most amazing thing. I'd like to think I've given him the same in return, but with the way things have gone the last few years... Well, at least I tried.

This decision will--or I should say has--hurt Severus deeply, but I can't wait any longer for 'something else' to happen; there is no 'other' solution. Everyday 'he' grows stronger, and I grow weaker; I don't know why I ever thought one could survive the other. You'd think by now I should know better than to fight destiny, that only by surrendering the mark can we truly triumph. And yes, I meant 'we', for Severus has fought this battle longer than most of us.

Minerva sat back in her chair, stunned as always with the implications and the unexpected maturity she'd found in Harry's message. But what else could she have expected? No one stands still, and Harry was no exception, especially considering his exposure to Severus' raspy personality...

"When I first received the letter, there was a blank spot in the middle, but when I reached this point, more text flowed across the emptiness. Harry had added more." And even though she now knew what it said, the temptation to skip it was as strong as the need to read it.

Sorry, I hope I didn't startle you, but if Severus sees this last part, I know he'll just erase it. You probably know as well as I how keen he is to accept help of any kind, even from those he calls friends.

However, help he will need in the months to come. For obvious reasons, I do not trust the Minister at all (and few others) concerning Severus' welfare should he be captured. Please, Minerva, I beg you to protect him from the Ministry's reprisal should this happen, even if it means ending his life. Given your history with him, I believe you would do it solely for his sake, but if I'm wrong, I am asking you to do it for mine.

When she'd read it the first time, she'd wept for a future that would never be. And while no tears marred her vision today, she put the letter down and closed her eyes against a familiar pain last felt when Severus had carried out Albus' final wishes so long ago. But who had suffered more then, and this time as well, had never been a question in her own mind.

"I would have done it for either of them."

She turned to the next page.

He thinks I didn't see his fancy charm work at the bottom of the previous page. Typical Gryffindor. He's ever so much more optimistic than I about my chances of escaping anyone's retribution, let alone the Ministry's.

And given the blood on my hands, I daresay I would deserve it.

Have you ever noticed how wizards and Muggles alike seem to delight in labelling the infamous: Fingal the Fearless, Lachlan the Lanky, Ethelred the Unready? In Harry's mind I should be known as 'Snape the Houdini', master of disguise, and spy extraordinaire. I am almost grateful there is even one being who thinks so. However, I have no such illusions. Given my erstwhile duties with the Death Eaters, what I did for Dumbledore, and now for Harry, I fear I shall instead be remembered, if at all, as 'Snape the Hero Killer' by the uncharitable, or perhaps, 'Snape the Mercy Killer' by those who understand.

And I have to ask, can I be any less merciful for myself?

The last page remained loose in her hands. "Originally, this last page was magically stuck to the one before." She glanced down the page at the remaining text. "I tried to pry it off, but I'd felt the magic flare with each attempt, so I stopped and waited; there was no sense trying to force it; it would reveal itself when Severus was good and ready for it to do so.   I admit I wondered why it was unavailable, why he'd bothered to write me in the first place. From his perspective, it would have been so much easier to just have done the deed and slipped away, no one the wiser, unless...

"Of course, it seems so obvious now that I know his purpose," and felt anew the same pinch in her gut when she'd realised what he'd planned and why the magic had made her wait to read his ending. Finally understanding what he would ask of her, she'd shakily risen from her chair and poured herself a scotch and, the rug across her legs to chase away the chill both outside and in, she'd sat a lonely vigil.

tick, tick

Harry has never felt so powerful. Voldemort is dead. Really dead. He felt him die. He knows freedom and knows the price is worth it.

He opens his eyes; the first sight greeting them is Severus, and he knows regret. While a small part of him fruitlessly yearns for the life they should be free to enjoy, the larger part only wishes he could take away the weariness he sees clouding his lover's eyes, a suffering he has caused. No, not that. Rather a burden forced upon them both by relentless circumstance. He would never have willingly hurt Severus so much. Or maybe he did, and he's just trying to spare himself.

He starts to reach out for him, but stops with an unexpected change in Severus' eyes, a welcome cunning gleaming in them as Severus takes a phial out of his pocket. A familiar phial, one from his most recent memory. It can't be, but...


His shining eyes belying the grim line of his mouth, Severus shrugs. "I've followed you most of your life. Why should I stop now?"

Heart pounding, he asks faintly, "Are you certain? You've done nothing to..."

"I've done everything," Severus replies quietly, his practiced thumb flipping the top off. There is no hesitation, no visible regret as Severus downs the potion in one swallow, his throat and mouth working to keep it down.

He should feel guilty, but from the half-smile Severus gives him, a long finger tracing the scar on his forehead, he knows his face shows only his giddy relief. He won't be alone.

"You know I wouldn't survive this anyway," Severus says, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Besides, someone needs to make certain you don't muck things up in the next life."

The mirth bubbles out of him; he really does need a keeper. Even the afterlife seems better knowing Severus will walk by his side through whatever may. "Care to start in this one?"

The brow raises so eloquently as he sits on the bed beside him. Despite the levity, despite the seeming assurance, Severus looks so lost, so vulnerable he can't help but reach for him, pulling him down to lay at his side. Harry smiles at his eagerness to join him. As Severus hides his face in the crook of Harry's neck, an arm gathering them close, possessively together, he whispers, "Love me, Severus?" as if that will make it better, make the inevitable go away.

And as Severus tenderly takes his mouth, his body, his heart, he wonders if this will be the last time or if a kinder god will allow them such earthly pleasures tomorrow. And then he thinks on it no more, for he may know nothing about the afterlife, but he believes in the purity and sanctity of their actions. For if Severus is damned for eternity, then so is he.

tick, tick

Of all the ways to love Harry, this is the best, with Harry all warm and pliant beneath him, his gasping breaths evening and slowing, the heated flush fading from the skin surrounding his sated eyes, their bond singing softly between them. He would have surrendered himself to Harry one last time, a final show of his trust in him, but Harry knows him all too well, knows that his cries of passion, the arching of his back to meet him halfway, the clutching of his hands pulling him deeper all serve to make Severus feel alive, wanted, cherished, trusted. All the things Harry has always given him. All the things he tries so hard to reciprocate.

A contented sigh is his warning that Harry is coming back from wherever it is Harry goes whenever they make love. He thinks he knows the way back from heaven, having been there himself, but his speculation is cut short with Harry's, "I suppose we should get dressed sometime soon."

He has to admit that was probably the last thing he expected to hear but also understands Harry's modesty, even if he doesn't share it. "And this is necessary, why?" he asks, raising a brow for emphasis.

"Severus! There'll be... you know... Minerva?"

His laughter is barely contained as he rejoins, "After more than forty years as head of your house, do you honestly think she's never seen a naked man before?"

"Well, she may have seen a naked you before," Harry stammers, "but she's never seen a naked you and me before and... and... that's just wrong."

Admiring Harry's full body blush, he can't hold in the laughter. It rolls out of him as easily as Harry rolls out from under him, his hand searching along the floor for his clothes. Watching Harry hop off the bed and defiantly pull on his smalls, he summons all the pillows scattered by their earlier ardour, arranging them into a jumbled pile against the head of the bed.

Harry loudly clears his throat, the waistband of his boxers balanced on the end of his index finger.

"Oh, very well," he huffs, taking the undergarment from him. As he steps into them, Harry adds more pillows, wiggling back into the downy pile with a critical sniff. As he cinches the boxer's soft cotton tie loosely around his waist, Harry shifts a few pillows and fluffs them with a satisfied smile.

How he loves that particular grin.

"There now, a comfy-cosy nest, just for us. Come here, Severus."

Has he ever resisted? He settles back against the pillows, lounging into the contours cradling his body like a feather glove. He startles as Harry, with the ease of long practice, makes him his pillow; all that plumping show was only for his comfort. Wrapping Harry in his arms is as simple as bestowing a long kiss to the upturned face, as easy as their breaths mingling as they pull slightly apart.

"Don't let me fall asleep, love."

"I won't."

"I want every second with you."

"I know."

"Please, stay. Don't leave me alone. I'm afraid." And it didn't matter who had said it, for they'd both thought it.

With a wistful sigh, he breathes, "I wish we could make love again." Harry snuggles deeper as if he could burrow inside him.

Wistful thinking makes him tighten his arms, a sleepy snog and cuddle the most this body has left in it. "So do I," he whispers, settling him closer.

Harry is quiet for a time, his head resting over Severus' heart. Harry's pulse flutters his skin wherever they're touching. It's soothing, this beat of life between them.

"I wish I'd known you when we were boys," Harry says abruptly, startling him out of a pleasant half-somnolence.

He shudders. "I, for one, am glad you did not."

Harry's head comes off his chest, his eyes round with surprise as he asks, "Really?"

"I would not have been permitted to associate with you and as a Gryffindor..." He half-expects the slow roll of Harry's eyes. "Assuming we would have even deigned look at each other, and I don't believe we would, any relationship--" his voice's sneer makes him wince "--we might have forged would have meant nothing more than mindless sex."

"Hmmm. You have a point, but I still wish it."

It is his turn for confusion. "Why on earth?"

"I think we could have been friends. Had our circumstances been different..."

He'd been concentrating so hard on the notes he was adding to his potion's text he didn't sense them approaching. The Diffindo hit him full on, his robes shredding along the back, exposing his pale skin.

Whipping around in his chair to confront them, harsh sneering laughter greeted his impotent glare. With Madame Pince staring at them all, retaliation was impossible. "Snivellus," Sirius began, but never finished, for the irate librarian had already grabbed his ear and was marching away, the body attached to it inevitably following her at an awkward angle.

"Ten points from Gryffindor, Mr Black," she hissed showing him the door, the wide-eyed Marauders trailing behind. "And one week of no library privileges! For all of you."

The protests rose immediately. "But it's near the end of..." and "But, we didn't..." and "But what about finals!"

"No buts, gentlemen. You should all know better by now. Failure to stop an infraction is as serious as actually causing one," she replied primly, shutting the door firmly in their faces. She dusted her hands on her skirt, muttering, "Hooligans." She turned to Severus, her visage stern. "And five points from Slytherin for not paying attention!"

Resigned, he nodded once and turned back to his text, a wave of his wand repairing his robes.

"Hardly," he retorts, the words harsher than his intentions. He winces at Harry's sigh; there's no time left for explanations, but given all that has passed between them over the years, he knows he must at least try. Running his fingertips along Harry's arm to his hand, he settles his own on top, entwining their fingers. As Harry's curl around his, grasping them firmly, he offers, "Without our disparate pasts, we would not be here now. Our youthful trials tempered our adult needs, Harry. It is our flaws as much as our similarities that attract us, the voids we fill in one another that bind us together, not moonlit nights of insipid boyish lust."

"Insipid boyish lust? Wherever do you come up with such nonsense, Severus?" Harry asks with a light laugh, but his lips caress the knuckles of their joined hands.

Despite the answering chuckle he can feel rumbling through his chest, there is a bit of bite in his voice as he replies, "It is not 'nonsense', and I would like to think we've found more."

"Mmm-hmm," Harry murmurs, although Severus doesn't quite know if Harry is agreeing with him or is merely humming his approval of the kiss he can't help but give him.

"Without our adversity and enmity? Without the need and the want?" Harry shivers as his lips ghost over the soft skin beneath them. "It would have died before it even kindled." He pulls Harry closer. "No, we had to go it alone, we had to scour our souls to the barest bones, we had to lose everything to know the other, to earn us. And that is forever."

It's the longest speech he's made in months, but by the small contented noises Harry makes in reply, he knows Harry probably wasn't listening to anything more than the sound of his voice.

tick, tick

The silence hangs between them. Not a bad silence by any means, more the kind he has come to expect from Severus when he's telling him everything important without any words.

They were hiding under his invisibility cloak waiting for Lucius to leave Malfoy Manor long enough for them to search for the seventh Horcrux. Sitting close together on the floor with their knees drawn up to their chests, he felt Severus telling him their lives depended on their silence. "Do not say a word, do not sneeze, do not even breathe," it seemed to say. And even when they moved, when they hunted, when they destroyed it, there were only gestures and significant glances and lips pressed closed in harsh lines. But no words, nothing that would or could define their presence. It was as if they didn't exist in that time and space.

Just like now, in a way. Dead. They are all dead now.

"Who will remember us?" he wonders, not really knowing he's said it aloud until a kiss is pressed against his forehead as soft as Severus' smoky rumble, "Who will forget us?"

And again, Harry hears what he doesn't say.

tick, tick

"I'm tired."

So was he, the pull of life fading within him, leaving only a hazy pleasance in which he floated. "You should be by now; the potion--" He stops as Harry nestles into his side so sweetly, the sleepy movement as familiar as the slurred request, "Tell me again why we went to Madagascar?"

Men are such creatures of habit and this is no exception. Harry wakes from a nightmare and Severus tells him a ridiculous tale to help him go back to sleep. They've never even been to Madagascar. He stalls by kissing the worn scar on Harry's forehead, the words pouring out before he can really think on them. "If I recall, we were in San Diego at the zoo when you got a bug up your arse to 'see a real lemur in its natural habitat', or words to that effect."

Harry chuckles, his softly whispered, "Severus," a mild admonishment for the obvious embellishment. They've never been to San Diego, either. A small snort as his answer, Severus shifts as Harry's weight softens against him.

It is over, just like that. A small shaky exhale on a few syllables in less time than for him to snap his fingers, a sigh, and Harry is no more.

He tightens his arms about his love, a kiss to his tousled hair almost convinces him that he is only sleeping, but he feels no breath wafting across his chest, he hears none of the hundreds of soft noises he's come to associate with Harry's contentment, he touches no pulse of life within his arms. The final surrender of his lover's life robs him of all the courage he's ever possessed, steals his breath until he's gasping against a pain he never expected. He is so stupid. Why did he ever think he could weather even an instant without him, let alone a few minutes, never mind a lifetime.

Harry is still warm in his arms.

"Harry?" He felt the first stirrings of panic as the limp form draped unmoving over his arms. "Harry!" he called, swallowing against the sudden bile in his throat. There was no response, not even a flicker. "If you die on me now, brat," he choked, "so help me..." He couldn't decide on whether to shake him or kiss him, so he did nothing but pull him closer into his arms.

Harry stirred, then groaned, his eyes squeezing tight with pain. "That's right, Sev'rus. Threaten the injured," he wheezed.

Alive! Harry was alive! "Well, it worked, didn't it?"

Harry grimaced, then grinned. "'m too stubborn to die."

"I'll remember that the next time you annoy me."

"Ach, you love me, and you know it." Harry's hand rose and stroked his cheek. "You're stuck with me, you know." If anything, his grin got wider and Severus felt his insides turn over in a most unusual manner.

"That's so comforting," he said with all the sarcasm in his arsenal.

"Yeah, it is, isn't it?"

He doesn't know why he thought Harry's death would be different, slower somehow, with more time to prepare. Perhaps it is just a spot of wishful thinking on his part. It was supposed to have crept up on him slowly, obviously, like a fog revealed with the dawn's rising, not like a madly flickering candle suddenly snuf...

tick, tick

"As the last page came loose, I grabbed it before it could slide to the floor." She remembered well how the once-crisp parchment had crackled in a fist she couldn't quite open. "And once it was revealed, I found I didn't want to know, so I stalled and poured a scotch, and drank some before I was finally ready to read."

I've found myself brooding much these days on the many aspects of survival and the things that truly bind one to life. I have concluded all mine are now undone, and there is nothing remaining to tie me here. While I suppose many would consider this the last selfish act of a selfish man, it is my last hope you will see it for what it really is. I find myself grossly unwilling to save the wizarding world again, Minerva; all I want to save anymore is myself.

And now, if you would be so kind to indulge an old friend one final time, there are but two tasks remaining. You see, The Idyll is now ended. We've embarked on the next great adventure, as Albus was wont to say; perhaps he will have the opportunity to prove it to us in person. I suppose this could, on the surface, appear to be an act of ridiculous sentimentality on my part, but as I said earlier, more than mere survival has been much on my mind lately.

But I digress. Please make certain Hedwig has a good life. She is far more to Harry than a postal owl, and I daresay she will mourn him.

I'm certain by now you know, at least in part, what it is I ask of you; you may damn me later, after it's done. If it were only my own shell involved, I wouldn't bother, however, for the sake of a propriety I find myself unable to care about for myself, you will need to report Harry's death to the authorities. How you explain your knowledge of our whereabouts, I leave to your Gryffindor sensibilities. Just pretend you're a Slytherin; they'll never suspect a thing. Please keep it simple, but let the world know the truth, let them fully see the sacrifice Harry has made for them. Restore his reputation, the one the Ministry stole from him.

To this end, there is a large wooden box in plain view on my lab's workbench (which is in the north corner of this cottage). Should you 'nicely' ask it to 'Reveal Thyself' in the language of thy youth, the contents--including a certain 'lost wand' with its own tale to tell to those who know how to listen--should prove interesting for anyone tired of simply surviving.

There is still the Fidelius Charm to circumvent. I pass to you the position of our secret keeper. However, to keep you safe should you decide to continue suppressing your inner Gryffindor and remain hidden in that draughty old mausoleum, the location will not reveal itself until you ask for it with a full and binding commitment.

"I remember staring at the parchment, Severus and Harry's words whirling through my mind. Could I do it? Dared I do it? But what choice was there, really?"

Minerva's indomitable will had returned to her in a rush, the almost constant fear of the previous years receding in the face of their courage. "How odd that a Slytherin had shamed a Gryffindor into action. 'Show me,' I said, 'I'm ready,' and, like magic, the remainder of the letter flowed across the page."

Harry and Severus Snape can be found in Devonshire at the cul-de-sac of Charter's Lane, most likely in the bedchamber of the cottage named 'Hope's End'.

I cannot guarantee we'll be clothed, although I'm fairly certain Harry will eventually insist on it.

Thank you for everything, my old friend. When we meet again, I'll tell you why. How odd. I find that I shall miss you.

Your most humble, most obedient servants,

Severus and Harry Snape

The tears stung her eyes and she hastily wiped them. Her visitor's avid face angered her; he should be crying, damn it! What did they teach these youngsters these days?  "I believe that is all. I've answered all the standard questions; they are on file if you need them. Should you have any more, have your editor send them to me."

He hesitated, then stood.  "Thank you, Professor McGonagall. I appreciate your time."

"You are most welcome, Mr Weasley. Give your grandparents my regards."

He nodded and bowed and soon left her house, Dobby escorting him.

Beyond the obvious, it had never been a question of whether she should act or not, it was always a question of how. How could one old woman, a woman wanted herself, stand alone before the entire Ministry--hell, most of the wizarding world--and hope to win against such impossible odds?

We did. Severus' voice mocked her for months after she'd done what he'd asked; their bodies were safe, but so was she. That is, until the Ministry found her. It was then she learned that true acts of heroism are born more of sheer desperation than any act of courage. Four cautious, heart-stopping years it had taken her, Shacklebolt, Moody, and other Order members to track down the clues Severus had left in that box. Four years of dodging friend and foe alike, never knowing whom to trust.

And as she remembered those years now, the village bells began to solemnly toll, the resonating cadence of the deeper one stirring a memory from her childhood of the times when someone from the village had passed beyond. And yet, unlike the funereal tones of her youth, a second tone, brighter and saucier than its companion, sounded forth, happily weaving its way through and around the deeper one, making such a joyful noise, she could almost see them dancing in the air like Maypole ribbons fluttering gaily in a spring breeze.

The last notes fading with the setting sun, Minerva set the letter down in her lap and began to laugh. Not hysterically, nor in grief-stricken chortles, although she knew the tears would eventually come; they always did. No, she laughed in genuine mirth, overflowing with an almost giddy joy that they were truly free now, all of them, for twenty years ago today ended the Spell of Peace holding the wizarding world in its thrall, Scrimgeour met his end with the Dementors, and Harry and Severus were fully exonerated, their reputations restored.

Four years... She chuckled, clearly hearing Severus' roughened honey admonishment in her head: "Why, Minerva, exactly how long is four years--or forty--in the life of any witch or wizard?"

Indeed. How long could forever really be? Standing by the open window, she raised her glass to the night sky and drained her scotch in honour of her two departed friends, wishing them the grandest adventures... together.

tick, tick



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