When they came for him at last, when they unlocked his cell to escort him through the halls of the Ministry, Severus Snape was almost glad that it was over. Again - for despite precautionary dosing with anti-venin, he really had not expected to survive Nagini's savage attack. Now there would be an undoubtedly brief trial, a Kiss, and he would know no more.
He drew in a deep breath as he followed the guard on unsteady feet, willing his body to not betray any weakness before the Wizengamot. If these were his last hours, he intended to maintain as much of his dignity as possible.
So when the guard paused and opened a door to an interview room, Snape was taken off-guard. He entered, then stopped dead when he saw a familiar young man sitting at the table. "Potter? What in Merlin's name...?"
"Hello, Professor." Harry Potter gestured towards the chair on the other side of the table. "Won't you take a seat? The Wizengamot is still processing your papers but I'm afraid that I rather jumped to the head of the queue. I couldn't bear to think of you in those blasted cells for a moment longer."
Unexpected relief made him dizzy. Snape grasped the back of the chair. "Am I to understand that you have procured my release?" he asked, scowling at the way his words seemed to catch in his throat. Reflexively, he reached up to touch the bandage covering the still-healing wound.
Potter poured a glass of water and pushed it toward him, nodding as he did. "Of course. After all that you did for me- "
Snape picked up the glass and scowled as he saw how his hand shook. "I didn't do it for you, Potter," he said harshly.
Potter didn't seem put out by that; he nodded and said, "For my mother, then. Speaking of which..." He pulled a vial out of his pocket and set it down on the table between them. "Your memories. I thought you'd like them back. I hope you don't mind - I had to share a few of them with the Wizengamot, but I promise they were just the ones pertinent to Professor Dumbledore’s death.”
"There isn't going to be one. I spoke to the Wizengamot privately, told them everything you did for our side, and Professor McGonagall told them how you protected the students, although she didn't realize you were at the time. They have agreed to pardon you. It'll take a little bit longer to get the official pardon written out and registered, of course."
"You went to a lot of trouble for me, Potter."
Potter flushed, hunching his shoulders in an awkward shrug. "It was the right thing to do," he said lamely. "And, well, I've come to understand...to feel..." He made an impatient, awkward noise and shook his head. "What I mean to say is that I love you.”
Snape blinked. "You - what?"
Potter's blush deepened, but he met Snape's eyes with his customarily arrogant impetuousness. "I love you. And I want to marry you, if you can put up with me."
Snape's lip curled. "Oh, you’re another one of those." At Potter's blank look he added, "I've had fifteen proposals so far. I suppose there are a lot of imbeciles who want to marry anyone notorious."
Anger flared in Potter's eyes, Snape noted with relief. For a few moments, he had thought that the boy was under an Imperius curse. "I'm notorious enough on my own, thanks." Oddly enough, Potter didn't sound like he liked his fame and notoriety; maybe he'd already found out that it was a two-edged sword.
Potter shrugged. "I thought you'd be a rather interesting person to marry. And two months of sharing your memories helped me know you a bit better, of course."
"Perhaps I am being somewhat dense on the matter: residing in the Ministry cells for weeks has not been conducive to clear thinking," Snape said, his rasping voice biting. "However, you appear to have forgotten a few things, Potter. First, I had thought you rather attached to the Weasley girl."
"Ginny and I decided that we didn't suit after all," Potter began.
"Was this before or after you discovered that you apparently prefer wizards to witches?"
Potter's blush seemed to have become permanent. "Um, about the same time, actually."
"Be that as it may, you and I have never had what anyone might consider a cordial relationship.” He stilled as a thought occurred to him. "Unless that is the price for your assistance in regaining my freedom?"
"What?" Potter looked aghast at the idea. "I would never!"
Snape rolled his eyes. Of course the idiotic Gryffindor would see that kind of manipulation as wrong and dirty. "Of course not."
"Look, I know this is a bit sudden," Potter began, then he faltered, his eyes darting away from Snape to glance around the room, as if taking in his surroundings for the first time. "Take all the time you need to think about it, once you've got over all this, of course. There's no rush."
"How considerate of you," Snape said drily.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead as the pain in his temples nudged him for attention. Now that he wasn't threatened with imminent death, or worse, the aches and pains in his body made themselves known. He longed for a hot meal and a hotter bath; he had been without a proper wash for weeks, subjected to rough-and-ready cleaning spells.
"Look, Harry," he said wearily. "I am...grateful...for your aid, but I can't. I can't think. I can't see beyond this - " he gestured around at the room, " - and further than the next few days. I only want to get out of here and be left alone."
"Of course," Potter said, nodding, as a smile blossomed on his face. He stood and walked briskly to the door, rapping on it. Then he strode back to the table and leaned over, speaking so that only Snape could hear him. "But I won't give up. You said 'can't', not 'won't'. And you called me 'Harry'."
Potter pulled a copy of the Daily Prophet out of his robe pocket and set it down on the table in front of Snape, then left the room, whistling a little off-tune. Snape stared down at the paper, at the pictures of Harry Potter and himself, and at the headlines that blazed, "'The Bravest Man I Know!' says The Boy Who Lived" and swore silently.
It was just possible that Potter was going to be as stubborn about this as he'd been about everything else in his life, and refuse to take 'no' for an answer.
* * * * *
Severus Snape stepped out of the Ministry building, into the Atrium, drew in a deep breath, and smiled.
Today, a year after he had nearly died, ten months after his release from the Ministry cells, and six months after he had received his Order of Merlin First Class, he had a job again. He was once more headmaster of Hogwarts, this time by his own choice and with the whole-hearted approval of the Board of Governors.
"You do realize that our work has just begun, Severus?" asked McGonagall from beside him. It still astounded him that she had forgiven for the things he had done in order to stand between the students and the Dark Lord, and had been one of his staunchest supporters before the Board. "The castle was badly damaged during the battle and Filius's charms have barely kept the weather out."
The castle had been another supporter, as it refused to allow anyone else into the headmaster's office.
McGonagall added, "And there are the children."
War created orphans, and the most recent struggle against the Dark Lord had been no exception. There had been children without parents, or with parents in prison, with no family to take them in. Since Hogwarts had been empty of students while it awaited word of its fate, it had become a refuge for the orphans. Molly Weasley, now with an empty nest, had swooped in to take care of the little ones, and McGonagall had organized the school-age children who couldn't be placed in schools elsewhere.
"No need for them to leave," Snape said. "It will take years to finish repairs. In the meantime - perhaps we can reopen Hogwarts as a day school."
He would need to look over the school, assess how bad the damage truly was, what classrooms could be used, which dorms were habitable --
"I can't do this anymore."
Snape looked over at the third member of their group in surprise, then frowned. Potter looked drawn and thinner than ever. How had he not noticed that?
"Potter, you look like hell. Too much burning the candle at both ends?" he asked caustically.
Potter shook his head, as if refusing to rise to Snape's bait. "I'm sorry, Severus; I just can't - I need to leave."
"Leave? And go where?"
"I don't know. Europe, America, the Himalayas - I don't care." Potter raked his hand through his hair. "I just can't do this anymore," he said, gesturing around him. "The Ministry, chasing Dark Wizards, England…. I thought I wanted to be an Auror but - "
"Fine, then. Leave," Snape snapped, turning and stalking towards the Floo system.
He had no idea why he was feeling as if the bottom had fallen out of his world. He should be delighted. He had been demanding that the annoying brat leave him alone for months. Not that Potter listened. He had shown up at Spinner's End to carry Snape, sulky and silent, off for food or drinks or rides in the country on his blasted motorbike. Snape had been too listless at first to refuse these outings, which had at least kept him from brooding, even though Potter's cheerfulness had often been repaid with bitter, hurtful words. Each outing had ended with Harry repeating his proposal, to which Snape had responded at first with sharp jeers and later with a simple, short negation. Potter hadn't seemed to mind his constant refusal and, looking back, he was as much amazed by Potter's patience as annoyed by his persistence.
"Would you wait a bloody moment, you berk?" Potter grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. "I'm not leaving you, idiot, not forever - although I suppose I should be thrilled that you seem pissed off by that thought. I just need to get away from all of this for a bit, find out what I want to do with my life. I'll be back, I swear I will."
"It doesn't matter to me in the least if you come back or become a Tibetan monk," Snape said coldly.
Now that he had made up his mind, Potter seemed to regain his customary exuberance because he went so far as to give Snape a hug - in public - before bounding off towards the Floo system. "I'll owl you from Paris!"
"I'd rather you drowned yourself in the Seine!" Snape retorted, but if Potter heard him, his reply was lost in the Floo.
Snape turned back to McGonagall and, seeing the speculative look in her eyes, snapped, "Not. One. Word."
"He will be back, you know," she said. "Although if you want him to come to Hogwarts, you'll have to send for him."
"I won't do that," he said firmly.
"Oh yes you will," she replied with a twinkle in her eyes. "I was right about Mr Potter eight years ago, and I'm going to be right about this." She tucked her hand in his arm, ignoring his scowl. "Come on, you surly grouch. I'll buy you a drink at the Three Broomsticks to celebrate."