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A Summer of Flotsam and Jetsam

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Chapter 1: In which Harry wonders why he never gets a break, Ron grows up and baby Teddy gets an earful

"I'm fine, Severus." Harry was standing on the bottom step of the staircase, stopped in his tracks by Severus' voice from the parlor. "I'm just going upstairs to lie down for a while."

"Would you mind coming in here for a moment?" Severus' voice was steady but rough. It started out hoarse in the mornings after a night of disuse, became clearer and stronger during the morning and early afternoon, but when he got up from his afternoon nap was rough and weak again. Harry closed his eyes tight for a moment and pressed his hands to his head, sweeping back the shaggy hair he hadn't yet had cut.

"Sure, Severus." He opened his eyes and reversed direction, taking the few steps necessary to put him within sight of Severus. He stopped in the doorway, right hand against the open archway. His eyes drifted down to Severus' feet. House slippers. He had learned to gauge—in that last week at Hogwarts and this first week here at Shell Cottage—how Severus was feeling from the footwear he chose each day. Boots for the best days, when Severus had the energy and the flexibility to bend down and lace them. He'd had boots on for the second time yesterday. Leather loafers when he was too tired to lace the boots but could still entertain the thought of going outside to sit in the sun, a book in his lap. House shoes for days like today, days when he barely made it downstairs and, once he did, spent most of his time on the sofa, making a trek to the kitchen or the loo every hour or two.

Severus looked up from the sofa at Harry. The low table in front of him was littered with parchments—documents from the Ministry, paperwork from Hogwarts, pieces of parchment filled with Severus' scratchy handwriting. A tea tray, pot still steaming, shared space with the other clutter on the table. He smiled at Harry and nodded at the plush armchair across from the sofa.

"Sit down, Harry." He put down the owl feather quill he was holding and settled back against the cushions behind him and watched as Harry walked reluctantly into the room and sat down. He regarded Harry with dark, worried eyes but managed a careful smile and kept his voice steady.

"Poppy will be here soon for my check-up. I've asked her to take a look at you, too."

Harry's protest was immediate. He got quickly to his feet.

"I said I was fine." He bit his bottom lip—one of his old nervous gestures with which Severus had become reacquainted the past few weeks. "We've only been here a week, Severus."

"And I've had a week to observe you," answered Severus. He gestured at the chair and waited patiently for Harry to sit again, watching him bristle then slowly relax. "You are unused to having anyone around to care for you…"

"That's not true! I had Ron and Hermione—we took care of each other." Harry stared at Severus with a look that was somewhere between defiant and panicked.

"I am not denying that, nor in any way trying to belittle what you were to each other—what you in fact still are to each other." Severus sighed and pushed himself forward on the sofa, then rose slowly to his feet. He had been sitting for quite some time and wavered a bit, trying to get his balance.

But Harry was beside him in half a second, steadying him with a hand on his arm and an arm around his shoulders.

Severus sighed and gave that curious half-smile he'd taken to using at times like this, when Harry's behavior seemed to both surprise and exasperate him. He had to admit that he was as unused to someone caring for him as Harry was. He let the boy ease him back down onto the sofa. Harry sat down too, dropping his head back and closing his eyes.

"Allow me to speak without interruption. I will not rattle on too long," said Severus. He looked at Harry, who nodded, his eyes still closed.

"You are not fine. You have lost a significant amount of weight this past year, while at the same time growing several inches taller. You seem to be eating well now, but you are not gaining weight. Nor are you sleeping well. Poppy had already scheduled a visit to check on me, so we are not putting her out in any way. She can check you over—if for no other reason than to reassure me that there is nothing wrong with you that a summer of rest, fresh air and a shocking lack of stress cannot cure."

"It's just going to take more time," said Harry, turning his head on the cushions and opening his eyes to look at Severus. He looked weary, but somehow peaceful.

"It has been a month," said Severus. He raised a hand as Harry opened his mouth, anticipating his protest. "Yes, we've only been here at Shell Cottage for a week, but a full month has passed since the battle. While that is virtually no time in the grand scheme of things, I had hoped you would at least have gained back some weight…"

His voice trailed off. He was worried—extremely worried—certainly much more worried than he let on to Harry. Harry did eat. But he appeared to have no appetite: certainly no enjoyment of food. And while Severus had judged that Harry was eating enough calories to maintain his weight and put on at least a pound a week, he seemed to be lacking in energy. He spent a good deal of his time watching Severus, making him tea, sitting in the same room with him reading the seventh-year Transfiguration and Charms textbooks that Minerva had given him before they left Hogwarts. He slept fitfully at night and catnapped during the day. At night Severus, who slept in the upstairs bedroom beside Harry now and generally turned in an hour or two after Harry, heard him toss and turn on his bed, use the loo, sometimes go up and down the creaky stairs. Twice he had found him in the porch hammock when he woke in the morning and made his way downstairs to put on the teakettle.

"I'm trying, Severus," said Harry. "I feel like I'm eating a lot. More than you for sure." He sat up on the sofa and stared at Severus critically. "Have you been losing weight?"

Severus shook his head against Harry's sudden worry. "No, I haven't. Poppy's rather obsessive about tracking that. She can show you my chart when she gets here, Mother."

Harry cuffed Severus on the shoulder and settled back into the couch.

When Poppy Pomfrey Flooed into the parlor at Shell Cottage thirty minutes later, she found Harry napping upright on the sofa and Severus sitting beside him, reading a scroll with an official-looking seal on the outside. She dusted herself off and held up two thick folders.

"I brought along his file," she said quietly as she sat down across from the sofa. She placed her very large flat-bottomed medical bag on the floor and eyed Harry critically. "The last time I got his weight and height was at the end of last year, when he and Draco…"

Her voice tapered off and Severus nodded. "Did you do blood work then?" he asked.

"The basics," she said. "But I didn't check specific organ functionality.” She pulled her wand out of her robe pocket and used it to send the tea tray back to the kitchen and the scattered parchment, ink and quill to a neat pile on top of the bookshelf beside the fireplace. She put the files on the cleared table and slid one of them across to Severus. He placed the document he was reading to the side with a sigh and opened Harry's file.

"He was 5'7" and just over eleven stone." Severus scanned the top piece of parchment in Harry's file. "He's easily two or three inches taller now."

"And by the looks of him lost at least a stone in the process," said Poppy. She stood and knelt to Severus' side, reaching up to feel the lymph nodes on his neck. "Relax, Severus," she implored softly. "Let's get you out of the way and then we can focus on Harry." She glanced over at the sleeping young man again and continued in her low voice, "If it is what you suspect, he's going to need to spend a couple of days in St. Mungo's. How will he take that?"

"Not well," answered Severus, wincing as Poppy removed the bandage that still covered the deepest part of the snake bite. "I expect he'll refuse to go. He could be treated here, Poppy."

"He could," she agreed. "A stay in St. Mungo's is purely precautionary, in case there are side effects from the potion regimen." She sighed. "I agree that keeping him out of the spotlight he'd be under at St. Mungo's would be preferable."

She took a blood sample from Severus, ran the standard tests on it using a kit she set up on the table and pulled out the Muggle scale from under the sofa to weigh him.

"You're up half a pound," she said. "And your white count is down significantly. I'd say being here with Harry has definitely moved you further down the road of recovery. Have you felt more energetic this week?"

Severus shrugged. "I have good days and bad."

"Bad days following the good, I'd guess," said Poppy as she sat back on her heels and looked up at Severus critically. "You likely feel good, do too much, then pay for it the next day."

Severus smiled slightly. "We've already had visitors. I expect we'll have more in the coming weeks. Andromeda Tonks and the Lupin baby are scheduled to come next week—if Harry is feeling up to it, of course."

"I'm feeling up to it," said Harry. His voice had an unused, sleepy quality to it. He had not been awake long. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Hello, Madam Pomfrey. How's Severus doing?"

"Surprisingly well," she answered. "I think being here with you agrees with him." She pushed the scale to the left so that it rested on the floor just in front of Harry's feet and checked the calibration. "Why don't we start with your weight, Harry."

Harry frowned but stood up and stepped on the scale.

"Ten stone four pounds," she read. Severus mirrored Harry's frown as Poppy cross-referenced Harry's chart. "That's down nearly a stone, Harry, from just a little over a year ago." He stepped off the scale and shrugged. "Stay still a moment—let me get your height."

A magical tape measure appeared in her hands. She held it in front of Harry and it stiffened at the floor beside his feet and unrolled itself until it was level with the top of his head.

"Five foot nine and a half," she read as she stood up to get a better look at the top. She held out her hand and the tape measure rolled itself up and dropped neatly into her fingers. "You might grow another inch or so but my guess is you've nearly topped out."

She proceeded to ask him a variety of screening questions, most of them routine, some of them excruciatingly embarrassing. Finally, she reached into her bag for a syringe. Harry eyed it suspiciously but held out his arm when instructed and, after she procured a blood sample with very little fuss from him, sat back on the couch with his arm bent against the cotton ball she'd placed against it to stop the bleeding. He and Severus together watched her set up seven glass vials in a neat row on the table.

"One for each major system in the body," she explained. Harry glanced over at Severus. While biology was taught at Muggle schools, it was unfortunately not on the scholarly regimen for students like Harry who were not planning on entering the medical profession.

"Circulatory, digestive, reproductive, nervous," explained Severus. "Some further break some of these down, but for our purposes, seven will do."

Harry shrugged, not asking about the systems Severus hadn't mentioned, and watched as Poppy poured a bit of blood into each flask. Harry seemed curious, Severus nervous, as she studied the results, comparing the color of each vial to a chart. She picked up one of the vials and held it above her head, looking at it from the bottom and swishing it around in a slow circle, then checking the color against the chart once more.

"Definitely the digestive system," she said. She glanced up at Severus. "Everything else reads normal." She used her wand to banish the six normal vials.

"Do you have the testing set for organ-specific problems?" asked Severus, adjusting his position on the sofa so that he was turned slightly toward Harry.

Poppy was already setting up another set of flasks. "Other arm, Harry. We'll need another blood sample." Harry rolled his eyes but complied and watched as she appeared to repeat the test exactly as she had before, but with fewer vials this time.

"Pancreas," she said at last, nodding at Severus.

Severus took the chart from her hand and lifted the vial in question, staring at it and referring to the color on the card. "Poison," he sighed.

"Most likely. Disease is a possibility, but isn't likely given his age."

"Poison? What are you talking about?" asked Harry, looking from Severus to Poppy then back at Severus again.

Poppy turned to face Harry. "Your pancreas isn't providing the digestive enzymes you need. Food is passing through you largely without being digested." She glanced back at Severus. "Severus put the pieces together yesterday and diagnosed pancreatic damage as a result of poison…"

Severus put a steadying hand on Harry's shoulder. "This winter—at Christmastime—you were bitten by Nagini? I only recalled yesterday, when I was mulling over the possibilities for your weight loss and failure to regain the weight now that you are eating properly again."

Harry rubbed his arm, turned it over and looked at the scar from Nagini's attack at Godric's Hollow. His eyes widened.

"But Hermione healed it. It didn't bother me after the first day—she said it wasn't very deep."

Severus nearly yanked the arm toward him to examine it. Poppy leaned in as well to see the small scar left by a single puncture wound.

Harry was staring at Poppy, suddenly understanding the embarrassing questions he'd been asked.

"Is there a cure?" he asked, tensing up significantly.

"There is a treatment, yes. We can add the enzymes you need via potions each time you have a meal. As for a cure, we need to understand the extent of the damage. We'll test for the poison and then begin to reverse the damage to your pancreas with the appropriate potions."

"I will brew the digestive potion," said Severus. "I will need some supplies from Hogwarts, of course…"

"No." Poppy's voice was firm. "I'll order what he needs from St. Mungo's. They will have the enzymes in stock. And the organ regenerative potion is time-consuming and tedious, as you well know. We should put Harry in St. Mungo's for the treatment." She glanced up and smiled as Harry began to protest exactly as she thought he would.

"No. I'm not going to St. Mungo's. I'm staying here. They can send whatever potion I need but I'm not leaving Shell Cottage." Severus eyed him speculatively. Instead of sounding like a petulant child, Harry very much sounded like a determined adult, his mind made up.

"I will brew the organ restorative potion," said Severus firmly, nodding at Harry to show his acceptance of Harry's decision. "And administer it here."

Poppy shook her head. "St. Mungo's will have the base that needs to be adapted for the organ in question. I'm sorry, Severus, but you don't yet have the stamina. I will ask Horace to do it."

"Slughorn! He's…"

"A very competent Potions master," stated Poppy firmly. "I believe it was he who taught you?" She looked at him challengingly.

Severus raised an eyebrow. He settled back into the sofa. "You would make a very good headmistress, Poppy," he said, suppressing a smile.

As Poppy cast a preservation charm on the remaining blood from the second sample and on the two test vials that had shown positive results, Harry once again closed his eyes.

"I never get a break, do I?" he asked, sighing resignedly.

Severus shook his head, understanding Harry's feelings on the matter, but Poppy scoffed as she healed the two small wounds on his arms from where she had taken the blood samples.

"You're both here, and against all odds, you're both alive. I'd consider that a break, Mr. Potter."

"As would I," agreed Severus, slipping his arm around Harry's shoulders and drawing him up against his side in an awkward one-armed hug. Harry gave in and relaxed against him.

"I'll put the order in with St. Mungo's right away," said Poppy, standing up and starting to gather her supplies together.

"Poppy, use my name on the order," said Severus. He glanced over at Harry. "I'd prefer that Harry's medical issues remain within these walls."

"You want people to think you were poisoned?" protested Harry.

Severus leveled an even stare at him. "I was poisoned, Harry. I've already been treated to prevent organ damage such as you sustained. It could easily be a recurrence."

Harry balked. How could he have forgotten that?

/

Hermione and Ron sat comfortably on the plush chairs in the cottage parlor, facing Harry as he lay stretched out on his side on the sofa.

"You never get a break, mate," said Ron as he eyed the chessboard on the table between them.

"I'm really sorry, Harry," said Hermione—again. She put a finger in the seventh year Arithmancy text she was reading and closed the book around her finger to mark her page.

Harry shook his head at her. "Not your fault. We've been through this three times already today, Hermione."

"But I should have known! I suppose I was just so glad we got out of that place alive that I didn't consider that her bite might be venomous…"

Ron shuddered. He'd been shuddering a lot lately. As guilty as they knew he felt for leaving them before Christmas, they knew that he didn't regret in the least not being in Bathilda Bagshot's house in Godric's Hollow on Christmas Eve.

"Hermione, I'm fine."

"You don't look fine. You look pale and weak, Harry."

"This is my last day of potions," responded Harry. "Severus said I'd feel a lot worse before I began to feel better. Teddy and Andromeda are coming next week and he thinks I'll be fine by then."

"That's rather soon," said Hermione. "Are you sure you're strong enough to hold a baby?"

Both Harry and Ron, whose limited experience with babies easily surpassed Hermione's, shook their heads. Harry even managed a tired grin.

"Have you decided about Hogwarts yet?" he asked Hermione, deliberately changing the subject. He continued to study the chessboard, trying to decipher what Ron's strategy was this time. He's already lost one game to his friend that afternoon.

Hermione exchanged a look with Ron. He frowned.

"I'm going to go back part-time," she said. Ron looked back at the board and resolutely did not look at Hermione. "I'll sit N.E.W.T.s with you, but I'm just going to attend the classes I'll need to pass them. Kingsley has work for me at the Ministry on Saturdays."

"She's not going to board at Hogwarts," said Ron. Harry glanced at him, understanding Ron's frustration. They'd all lived together for so long. Even being apart these past few weeks had felt oddly disconcerting, no matter how good it was to be back with their respective families. Plus, Ron and Hermione had the added closeness now of officially—finally—being a couple.

"My parents need me at home," said Hermione. It was obvious that she and Ron had had this argument before. She directed her attention to Harry instead. "They've got to rebuild their practice from the ground up," she said with a deep sigh. "Helping them is the least I can do. I'm not sure that they're quite ready to forgive me…"

"Don't second guess yourself, Hermione," said Harry. He tried to sit up on the couch but clutched his stomach at the movement and settled back down.

"Professor Snape said to stay on your side," admonished Hermione gently. She reached over and arranged the pillows under his head to give him more support.

"I suppose I could stay home to help my family, too," mused Ron. He didn't sound as though he was challenging Hermione anymore. Instead, he sounded almost thoughtful.

Harry looked up at Ron. His best friend had his hand on a knight and his eyes were contemplative as he studied the board. "Mate, your mum and dad both want you back at Hogwarts. They've got Percy at home now, and Charlie's on leave from the preserve until October. And Bill and Fleur have moved so much closer. And what with the baby coming…"

"I know all that!" snapped Ron. He moved his knight rather aggressively. "And me and Ginny will be there until the end of August. I know!" He covered his face with his hands in such a helpless gesture that Harry instinctively sat up, wincing as he did so at the pain in his abdomen. As Hermione slid out of her chair to kneel down next to him, Ron heard Harry's grunt of pain and looked up. "Would you lie back down, Harry? You're going to undo all the good those potions are doing!"

Harry fell back down onto his side as Hermione began to laugh. Ron joined in a moment later and even Harry had to grin.

"You sounded just like Hermione," said Harry after Hermione had stopped laughing and the pain in his gut had settled to a dull throb.

Ron gave him a small grin in return, the amused look contrasting oddly with his pained and frustrated expression from moments before.

"I know. Sorry." He looked truly apologetic as he pulled Hermione up to sit crammed in next to him in the wide chair. She arranged her legs to drape over his. Ron positioned his arm behind her and Harry observed them quietly from the sofa. After seeing them dance around their attraction for each other since fourth year, seeing them draped over each other like this was both refreshing and oddly disconcerting.

"I invited George to come visit," said Harry after a moment. He looked through the chess set on the table before him, roughly at eye level, meeting Ron's eyes.

"He's reopening the store, you know," said Ron after a long pause in which he seemed to study the board for his next move.

"I know," said Harry. "Your dad told us when he came by a couple days ago with our meds from St. Mungo's." Harry didn't need to tell Ron that Arthur had offered to pick them up, since he was going by to get Molly's sleeping potion. "But he doesn't plan to have it open until August. I thought he might like a few days here…"

"This place is so different in the summertime," said Ron approvingly, undoubtedly remembering the biting winter winds and chilly spring evenings. He paused, considering his next statement, and finally shrugged his shoulders and forged ahead. "I'm thinking of partnering with George, after I leave Hogwarts."

"It might help you to go to Uni then, to study business management or marketing," suggested Hermione casually while Harry stared in surprise at his best friend.

"Wow. That's…that's great, Ron," said Harry. He gave him the best smile he could muster considering the pain in his gut and the realization that this meant they wouldn't be going through the Aurors’ program together.

"Lee's agreed to help him out this year," said Ron by way of further explanation. "But he wants to be a professional commentator—for Quidditch, or on the WWN. He's going to wait to start his voice training classes until I'm done at Hogwarts."

"I think you'd be great as part of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes," said Harry, mustering up encouraging words for his friend from some deep, hidden reserve he didn't know he had. Hermione's grateful smile let him know that he'd said exactly the right thing.

They sat there quietly for a few more moments. Harry closed his eyes, breathing through the dull ache where the potion was apparently working to repair his pancreas so that he could digest his food without the help of the disgusting potion. The quiet tick tock of the new clock on the mantel, a gift from Minerva, was like a metronome, keeping their thoughts on the same pace. This clock had two hands—the Harry hand from Severus' old clock and a new one for Severus.

"It's been a month since he died," said Ron sadly. "I'd only just seen him again that day, you know, after nearly a whole year."

Harry looked at his friend through the chessmen again, soulful eyes showing his understanding, his regret, his own pain. Hermione snuggled closer. Neither of them said anything. There were no adequate words, no platitudes, no benign assurances worth voicing. Fred was simply…gone.

"I'm glad I had that day, anyway," said Ron, a smile, both sad and wistful, on his face. "At least I got to see him that one last time." Harry returned his sad smile, swallowing that lump in his throat that rose up whenever he thought of Fred, or Remus, or Tonks, while Hermione rested her head against Ron's shoulder and laced her fingers through his.

Severus, standing at the bottom of the stairs, leather shoes on his feet, thought that Ron Weasley had done a lot of growing up this past year.

/

Severus considered purchasing a guest book so that the visitors to Shell Cottage could sign in and out. He didn't for one moment begrudge Harry the visitors, and by and large they were pleasant to him, as well, and respectful of his recovery, never overstaying their welcome. Harry and his friends hadn't done much more these first two weeks than talk quietly and walk on the beach. It was still too cool to swim but Severus expected that would turn around in a week or so and they'd be in the ocean, swimming and splashing and laughing. He realized he was actually looking forward to that. Harry had spent nearly three days on the sofa suffering through the organ restorative potion three times a day. He was barely able to keep any food down during that time and only now, with Andromeda and the baby set to arrive at any moment, was he looking and feeling more like himself again.

Harry was almost pacing. Kreacher, who split his time between Hogwarts and Shell Cottage now, had put together a very nice tea tray, and Harry had wrapped two baby gifts for Teddy. He'd had Hermione purchase one for him in London, and she'd seen something else she knew Harry would like and had bought that, as well.

Andromeda had arrived right on time, squalling baby in tow.

"He doesn't seem to like Apparition much," she'd explained. Severus took the accessory bag from her and peered down at the baby. He didn't look like he quite knew what to say about him so he said, "Quite the little man, isn't he?"

But Andromeda, looking just as tired as she had the last time Harry had seen her, smiled at Harry. He no longer was reminded of her late sister Bellatrix when he saw her heavily lidded eyes. "Would you mind changing him, Harry?" She placed the crying baby in Harry's arms and Severus draped the stuffed necessities bag over his shoulder. Harry stood in the parlor staring at the crying baby held awkwardly in his arms, mouth slightly agape, looking nothing if not shell-shocked, until Severus spoke.

"Use the spare bedroom upstairs, Harry. Just lay him on the bed. He'll probably stop crying once he's settled and has a clean nappy."

"But I don't know how to change a nappy," admitted Harry, looking at Andromeda guiltily, as if, perhaps, Remus and Tonks should have chosen someone as godfather who had more experience with nappy changing.

"Nonsense. You'll figure it out. Everyone has to do it for the first time sometime."

Harry glanced over at Severus, who looked vaguely alarmed, and grinned.

Andromeda reached out and brushed Harry's arm, as if to give him confidence. "Look at the one you take off to see how it's positioned and fastened. The clean nappies and wipes are in the bag. The closures are on the front of the nappy, toward the sides."

"Wipes?" Harry wrinkled his nose.

"Go, Harry," said Severus with a smirk. He invited Andromeda to sit and she did so gratefully. The two adults may have seemed to pay no attention to Harry as he carefully carried his crying godson upstairs, but they exchanged a significant look as he disappeared from their sight.

The baby kept squalling, even when Harry laid him in the middle of the bed and unwrapped him from his soft white blanket. As Harry regarded him, the tiniest of beings, miniscule on the big four-poster bed, Teddy sniffed a few times, taking in his new surroundings, then wrinkled up his face again as Harry hovered above him.

"You look just like your daddy," said Harry as he studied the baby's face, then tilted his head and frowned at the footed blue thing the baby wore. It snapped up the middle then down one leg and covered the baby's feet, legs, torso and arms. A dragon's body wrapped around the entire piece, with its head on Teddy's little belly. It was a very friendly-looking dragon indeed, with a happy gleam in its eyes and a bowtie around its neck. It looked nothing at all like the dragons Harry had encountered in his life. Harry shrugged and unsnapped the buttons from top to bottom and freed the baby's legs, exposing the nappy. He located the closures on the nappy, pulled them apart then carefully turned the nappy down. A quick glance inside left him unaccountably relieved that the thing was only wet, not dirty. He pulled it out from under the baby, dropped it unceremoniously on the floor, then rummaged in the bag for a clean nappy and the wipes. He wiped the baby, cringing a bit and hoping that baby bits didn't hurt as much as adult bits when they were pushed around, then opened the new nappy and examined it, eventually figuring out which way it went. He began talking to the now quiet baby as he worked.

"I bet your daddy used to do this for you, when you were tiny." He looked at Teddy's big brown eyes to find the infant staring at him, quiet now, one tiny finger hooked into his mouth. "Not that you're not tiny now—because you are. I only meant that he didn't get to have you for very long, did he? I bet you're doing all kinds of things now that he never got to see you do." The baby responded to that by kicking his legs up and flailing his arms a bit. "Listen, I don't really know anything about babies. I've only ever held you, and that was just a couple times—like during your mummy and dad's funeral—and you were sleeping those other times so you didn't even know it was me holding you. But I'm glad I got to hold you then. It reminded me that they'd never be gone, not really, not while you're here." Harry swallowed. "We're a special club, you know. The Sons of the Marauders. Just you and me, kid."

The nappy was on now, a bit lopsided perhaps, but serviceable, and Harry struggled to get Teddy's legs back inside the outfit. He held one tiny foot, intent on forcing it somehow back inside the leg of the outfit, but paused mid-step, staring at the small foot with its miniature toes. He ran his finger along the bottom from heel to toes and the baby's foot arched. "Ticklish, are you? I bet your mum tickled you like that, didn't she?" He sighed. "I know about as much about mums as you do. You're not going to remember yours and I don't remember mine. But don't worry. I'll be here to tell you stories about your mum and dad. No one told me stories about mine until I was eleven years old. But you won't have to wait until you go to Hogwarts. I'll tell you stories every time I see you—about how your da taught me the Patronus charm, and gave me chocolate on the Hogwarts Express, and how your mum saved me once on that same train, and how she used to entertain us at Grimmauld Place changing her nose. How she was always tripping over things, too, and how much she loved your daddy, how she loved him even when he thought he wasn't right for her, wasn't good enough." He paused, took a deep breath. "How your da saved my life, how he held me back when I wanted to go through the veil after Sir…"

He faltered, then sat down on the bed and resumed dressing the baby, finally succeeding in snapping him up from toes to neck again. The baby seemed to be watching him still, and he held out one of his fingers toward him until Teddy grasped it in a small fist and squealed, pulling the finger immediately up to his mouth.

Harry smiled. He reached down and picked up the baby, holding him awkwardly under his arms at first but then resting him against his shoulder, hand across his back, patting him softly.

"I'm going to have a couple kids someday, Teddy," he said as he stood and walked softly around the room, stopping in front of a high mirror hung over the chest of drawers. "Maybe a little boy like you, and maybe a little girl, too." He turned so that he could see the baby's face in the mirror and Teddy exclaimed, an excited syllable that sounded like "Ga!" His little hand flailed again, reaching toward the baby in the mirror.

"But I'm going to make sure it's safe, first, Teddy. I'm going to be an Auror, just like your mum was. She didn't want to leave you here without her and without your dad but you've got your gran, don't you? And you've got me." He swayed a bit, bounced the baby on his shoulder, growing accustomed to the solid, warm weight of the small body. He knew he was babbling, working through his inner dilemma as he voiced his feelings to no one but this little baby boy. "But sometimes, sometimes I guess you just have to go on with your life and hope for the best. That's what my mum and dad did, didn't they? They gave me a chance, even though the world wasn't safe. And they may not be here, but I am. And if they hadn't given me that chance, if they'd been afraid to have a baby back then, I wouldn't be here for you now."

Teddy was staring at Harry's reflection in the mirror, his brown eyes wide and bright. His hair, which Harry suspected was really the same sandy brown as his father's, and which had been a pale turquoise when he'd arrived at Shell Cottage with his grandmother, started changing color, from roots to tips, as though the baby was thinking out the color. As Harry stared into the mirror, Teddy's little mop of hair became emerald green, perfectly matching the color of Harry's eyes.

"Ga!" he exclaimed, turning his face away from the mirror then and grabbing for his godfather's glasses, behind which, inexplicably, two tears glistened at the corners of Harry Potter's eyes.

/

Two hours later, Andromeda Tonks stood up. She looked more relaxed, more at ease, than she had when she arrived at Shell Cottage with her grandson. Severus had the baby now, holding him on his lap facing outward, and Harry was kneeling on the floor in front of the baby, playing peek-a-boo with his new toys—a turquoise-haired plushie doll and a small, soft plushie wolf.

The baby's hair was still green.

"I'm sorry about that," said Harry as he took the baby from Severus, confidently this time, and brushed the green locks down on the small head. He gave Teddy a parting kiss on the forehead, then handed him back to his grandmother. He tucked the new toys in the baby bag and handed that over, too.

When they were gone, with promises from Harry to visit them in London and promises from Andromeda to come back to Shell Cottage soon, Harry sank down on the couch beside Severus.

"I'm going to have a whole bunch of kids one day," he said. "So you'd better get used to changing nappies."

"That reminds me—when is Miss Weasley coming for a visit?"

Harry cuffed Severus and turned an intriguing shade of pink at the same time. Severus smiled. He'd consent any day to changing nappies if it put that kind of smile on Harry's face—that looking forward to the future kind of smile that came from restored health, loyal friends, green-haired godsons and a certain red-headed girl.

"I'm naming one of them after you, Dad," said Harry, laying his own hand on top of Severus' as they sat together on the couch.

And family.

Severus squeezed Harry's hand. He knew he didn't deserve this—this peace, this happiness, this taste of a normal life.

But Harry did.

Harry did.

 

(Chapter 2 )

 

Chapter 2:

When Ron and Hermione visited, they sat together with Harry, and sometimes with Harry and Severus, chatting in the old front parlor, sitting on the porch while one of them swung in the hammock, walking along the shore, wading in the shallows, picking up shells and rocks. Sometimes Harry and Ron played chess while Hermione found yet another fascinating volume from the bookshelves full of tomes that had once belonged to Albus Dumbledore. With Harry, Ron and Hermione, togetherness was about being together, not about doing things together. It was quiet and comfortable and, in Severus' opinion, healthy. It promoted recovery.

The first time they took their shoes off and waded in the ocean, Severus was sitting in a lounge chair on the porch, lap and legs covered with one of the large towels they used on the beach. He'd been reviewing qualifications and credentials for the applicants for the three positions open at Hogwarts—Defense Against the Dark Arts, Muggle Studies and Potions. The Board of Governors had accepted Horace Slughorn's resignation but, miraculously, every other professor and staff member had signed new contracts. Well, everyone who had lived, anyway, and the Carrows were not among those. He looked outside every now and again, watching Harry and his friends, keeping an eye out just in case. He knew it wasn't rational, knew that these three had been independent for a year now, and had faced dangers far worse than a rising tide. But when he saw them sitting in the sand removing their shoes, he set aside the stack of parchment in its crisp green file folder, folded the over-sized towel and stood up and leaned against the window.

Ron, it seemed, was the instigator. He was wearing blue jeans and had them rolled up past his knobby knees. He stood a few feet out in the water, facing the shore, laughing and beckoning to Hermione. Harry was already standing in the water, but just in it, facing the horizon. Severus watched until Hermione braved the cold and of course, of course, Ron tried to chase her and ended up on his bum, sitting in the ocean. And Harry was laughing, laughing so much he was holding his side.

And when he straightened up he must have caught sight of Severus standing there watching him because he stilled and then, seemingly oblivious of the splashing chaos around him, lifted a hand, smiled and waved.

Severus returned the smile, and the wave, then turned from the window. He wondered if all parents felt like this, like voyeurs, when they watched their children at play.

/

When Ginny Weasley visited, the atmosphere in the cottage was entirely different.

Ginny and Severus had a history that was unlike the one he shared with Ron and Hermione. And Ginny was a different creature than either of them. When Ginny visited, there were two people lying side by side in the hammock, and there wasn't as much talking, or as much laughter. The visits were not uncomfortable, though it was clear that Ginny Weasley had a lot of healing to do, but her scars were different to Harry's, and different to Ron and Hermione's, too. While Harry and Ron and Hermione seemed to flourish by carrying on with all the normal parts of life they had missed this past year—by eating a quiet lunch together, wading in the ocean, chatting in the parlor, playing chess, even studying for the coming year—Ginny's healing came from touching. She would lean into Harry on the sofa, or she would sit on the sofa and he would sit on the floor between her knees. Her hand would idly comb through his hair as she sat and read, trying to catch up on what she had missed of her sixth year before the seventh began. Harry would always greet her with a kiss, not seeming to care that most of the time Severus was in the same room, and he would cup her head in his hands and look at her before he'd fold her into his arms in a hug. He seemed to understand what she needed, and she, Severus could tell, was something that Harry needed, too.

Not that Harry didn't touch Ron and Hermione, and Merlin knew Ron and Hermione did plenty of touching on their own. They hugged each other when they arrived and when they left. Ron and Harry even hugged. Hermione, in fact, had taken to bending down to greet Severus—he was nearly always sitting in the easy chair in the parlor or on one of the lounges on the porch—and pressing a light kiss to his cheek. He wasn't sure how the tradition had started, or why he hadn't stopped it before it became a tradition, but he accepted it now and always nodded in return. "Good day to you too, Miss Granger." He was the headmaster, after all. Some level of formality was still required.

Ginny didn't kiss Severus on the cheek the first time she arrived at Shell Cottage to visit Harry. Nor did she hug him, nor shake his hand, nor get near enough to him to touch him. She wasn't quite seventeen yet, so George Apparated with her. Strangely, while Harry kissed her, then hugged her tightly, he hugged George even longer and harder. As George shook in Harry's arms, Harry's hand rubbing his back in small circles, Ginny looked across the room at Severus.

She didn't smile. She looked weary, stretched thin, older than she was. But then, it had only been a month since she'd lost her brother, and she'd been residing at the Burrow in a home engulfed in grief. Severus nodded to her in greeting and she gave him an appraising look, glanced around the parlor, through the landing into the kitchen, back at him. And nodded in return. He wondered who she saw when she looked at him, through him, like that.

She had accepted what he had had to do and had believed in him when the situation was much worse than it was now. When the Carrows had terrorized the school. When the Ministry seemed to have abandoned the children of Hogwarts. When the children had fled into the walls. But while Severus and Ginny had had an unspoken agreement, a quiet trust, they now had to fall into a different relationship, and it would prove to be awkward: Severus as parent, protecting Harry; Ginny trying to reconcile the professor, the headmaster, with this adult in Harry's life, this caregiver, this father.

Severus and Harry had prepared a picnic lunch the morning of Ginny and George's first visit, but in the end Harry couldn't convince Severus to come down to the beach to share it with them. Severus sent them out of the cottage with the lunch, a six-pack of butterbeer and the big beach blanket, then stood at the porch window watching them make their way down to the ocean. He was a bit worried by the level of emotion the boys had already shown. Severus sighed. He was ready for a nap. He turned and looked warily at the hammock, then walked over to it and tentatively sat on its edge. An instant later he had tipped backward and was struggling in the clutches of the monster. Struggling, however, got him nowhere, so after a futile attempt to scoot up so that his feet and head were approximately at the same level, he gave up, relaxed, closed his eyes and within five minutes was enjoying one of the best midmorning naps he'd ever had.

/

By unspoken agreement, they didn't talk about the Battle of Hogwarts. They talked about Molly, though, and how she was faring coping with Fred's death. About Percy—back home and working at the Ministry, but now in a position in his father's department instead of with the Minister.

"He's still a right git," said George as he picked up a white stone and tossed it side-arm out into the water.

"He's not trying to be a git," said Ginny. "It's just how he is. At least he's home." She smiled tightly and Harry wondered what she was thinking.

"He's damn lucky everyone is so depressed," said George. "He's been gone all this time and then he comes home and slides right in…like there was an empty slot just waiting….just waiting for him."

"It's not like that," Ginny reassured him . "He would have come home…even if Fred hadn't died. He didn't want him gone."

"Well, Mum likes him there, anyway," replied George, picking up a shell now and tossing it out in the water.

"Mum likes us all there," said Ginny with a sigh. "I'm surprised she hasn't shown up here to make sure we haven't drowned.

Harry laughed. "Come on," he said. "She wouldn't do that!"

Ginny rolled her eyes while George snorted.

"No? She tracked me down in Diagon Alley last week because I wasn't home by ten and she was worried about me. I was in a pub, Harry! A not-very-nice pub, either. She barged right in the door and came at me, claiming the family clock said I was in mortal peril. The nice young lady sharing my bar stool ran away in terror. Mum's adjusted the sensitivity sensors on that damn clock. She needs to just ditch that thing. I can't stand looking at it anymore…" His voice trailed off and he kicked the sand with his bare foot.

"Fred's hand has been stuck on 'traveling' for weeks," said Ginny, glancing at Harry with a worried expression.

"Oh," breathed out Harry. He looked sideways at George, who was staring out to sea now, a far-off look on his face. "I'd forgotten about the clock." He swallowed and shut his eyes against the tears that welled up behind them—again.

"It's OK," said Ginny with a small smile and a shrug. "It's just that we all thought it wouldn't take him so long to get there…wherever that is…"

Harry remembered again—how could he not?—the brief trip he had made after he sacrificed himself. King's Cross Station. Arrivals and departures. He imagined Fred there now, sitting on the bench alone, or perhaps with some of the other dead, waiting for the next train, or perhaps haunting the platform—unwilling, yet, to move on. Did 'traveling' mean that Fred would be a ghost?

He hoped not. He hoped that Fred would move on—to that place his mum and dad had come from, and Sirius, and Remus. And Dumbledore. The afterlife was too great and his mind too small to understand it, but he knew they had seemed content, and well, and at peace. He could not help but remember how he had felt in that great bright place. Free of pain. Completely calm despite not knowing where he was, what was happening, whether he was alive—or dead.

"I think it must take some souls longer than others," said Harry at last, reminding himself to stay positive, to not discuss the battle, the deaths, and especially that unfathomable time he had spent with Albus Dumbledore on Platform 9 ¾. "What's new in Diagon Alley?"

George shrugged. "I hear more stores are beginning to open back up," he said. "Lee says one of the Fortescue girls is back from France and cleaning the place up. And Ollivander is planning on reopening, too."

Harry exchanged a quick glance with Ginny. "You've not been back, then?" he asked quietly.

George shrugged again. "Angelina is helping Lee. I've given her our…" he shook his head as if trying to clear it. "…my flat over the shop for the time being. I figure I'd better stay at the Burrow with…" he trailed off and resumed looking at the ocean, hugging his knees.

"With your mum?" asked Harry quietly. "I imagine she does need you there."

"Yeah," said George, but Harry knew that wasn't what was keeping him at the Burrow. He'd been to Fred's funeral, had seen him buried in the little family plot, understood what George hadn't said.

"Fred loved it here," said George suddenly. "We came out here a few times when Bill and Fleur were living here, you know." A raw, guttural sound escaped him. Harry thought he meant it to be a laugh, but it came out a half sob. "He charmed the hammock to sink lower and lower the longer you lay in it. Bill kept waking up on the floor and couldn't figure out what was wrong with the bally thing. You'd think he could have fixed it—curse breaker, and all. He never did work it out."

Harry smiled. "It's fine now. It must have worn off…"

He realized why it had worn off as he spoke. George sighed.

"Fred had charmed the toilet seat at home to make a fart noise whenever you opened or closed it," said Ginny. The taboo on talking about Fred appeared to have been lifted. "I miss it," she added, her voice beginning to break.

"And the shower losing pressure as soon as you're ready to wash the shampoo out of your hair," added George.

"That was Fred?" asked Harry. "I always wondered what that was all about..." He looked skyward and said, "Fred, wherever you are, thanks for all the times the toilet squirted water back up at me when I flushed it."

"Uh—that wasn't Fred," said George, a smile reminiscent of the old George a distant light in his eyes.

"You!" exclaimed Harry. "That's disgusting, you know!" He pushed George's shoulder and George pushed him back. Harry retaliated by tousling George's hair, then George shoved a handful of sand down Harry's shirt. What started as a friendly, teasing scuffle quickly evolved into something altogether different, however, with both friends suddenly rolling on the beach, pummeling each other, George quickly getting the upper hand with his larger frame and deeper anger. Ginny scrambled out of the way, shouting at them, her wand quickly drawn, trying to get clear aim to break them up, but Harry grunted out, "No! Get Severus!" as he struggled to break free of George's hold, bucking up and kicking out as Ginny ran toward the cottage.

This is for George, he thought with the small part of his mind that could still think rationally, or that thought it could. He needs this. He needs to get it out. The anger. The hurt. But he could not help but struggle and fight back during those interminable minutes, landing an occasional blow, actually managing to roll himself on top once and hold George's arms down, but only for an instant before George broke his hold with a sudden surge of energy and rolled on top of him again.

"Enough, boys." Severus' voice was loud and commanding but not angry.

Harry stopped struggling and George froze.

Seconds later, Severus, wearing his house shoes, had pulled George off of Harry and was forcing a Calming Draught down his throat.

Harry rolled over onto his side and cradled his head.

He hurt everywhere.

His glasses were gone. He remembered hearing them break. One eye was closed, his nose was bleeding profusely. His shoulder hurt whenever he moved. There was blood in his mouth. He spat it out.

"Merlin, Harry." Severus' voice was low, disbelieving.

"I'll go for help, Headmaster." Ginny. Her voice was hoarse. Harry imagined she had been screaming. It seemed odd to hear her call Severus 'Headmaster.'

"Thank you, but no. Not now. Sit with your brother. Keep him calm. Talk to him. Do not let him go anywhere."

His voice sounded again near Harry's ear.

"Move your hands, Harry. I need to see your face."

Harry sobbed. The beach had disappeared. The ocean. The cottage. His friends. Suddenly he was on the floor of Moaning Myrtle's bathroom again, fighting with Draco. Disappointing Severus. In this state, his turbulent mind could only connect Severus' disappointment with his fighting, forgetting that it really revolved around his pursuit of Draco and not trusting that Severus would handle the situation.

"I'm sorry…"

"Harry. It's alright. I'm not angry. Move your hands."

He obeyed reluctantly, moving his hands and allowing Severus to roll him gently onto his back. He winced. Severus pushed his hair back out of his eyes. "Merlin, you're a mess. Definitely lost this one, didn't you?" Severus' voice, with the distinct breathy quality he'd had since Nagini nearly killed him, was nonetheless soft and soothing to Harry's ears. He felt the gentle tingle of a healing spell. Magic. A tear dropped down his cheek. Severus wiped it away with his thumb.

"Broken nose." Severus sighed and Harry moaned. Another spell, a spike of pain.

"Augh." He grabbed his face.

"Put your hands down, Harry. This is going to get worse before it gets better. It looks like your shoulder is dislocated." Severus continued to work, talking softly. "I hope you both got this all out of your systems. You might not survive another altercation like this. If any more of your friends need a human punching bag to work out their anger and grief, don't volunteer."

Harry winced again as Severus pushed up his t-shirt and pressed against his abdomen with the heel of his hand.

Harry hissed at the pressure. "You're not mad?" he managed to breathe out.

Severus seemed to ignore his question. "You're going to have a rough couple of days. I should probably have Poppy out to run some scans." He pulled Harry's shirt down. "I'm going to go check on Mr. Weasley. Do not get up yet."

Harry closed his blurry eyes, vaguely wondering again about his glasses. A moment later, Ginny knelt down next to him, smoothing back his hair. "You're a mess, Harry," she said, her voice a good deal lighter than it had been ten minutes ago.

"How is he?" asked Harry, eyes still closed.

"George?" She laughed in apparent disbelief. "Better, I'd say. Better than you, for sure. What was that all about anyway? I thought he was going to kill you…" Her voice trailed off.

"Don't really know. Just seemed like he needed to beat someone up. And I was there. Felt good to hit him back."

Ginny settled on the sand beside him and squeezed his hand gently. "I know what you mean. I wouldn't mind hitting something myself."

/

"Harry?"

Harry groaned and buried his head in the pillow on the sofa where he'd been since Severus had helped him inside several hours ago. Severus had given him a pain potion but he still felt sore and achy. Despite his attempt to cover his ears and appear to be unconscious, he heard Severus settle into one of the chairs.

"Are you ready to talk about it yet?"

Harry mumbled something into the pillow.

"Was that a yes or a no?"

Harry turned his head to face Severus, staring at him with one eye open and the other a mere slit. "Do we have to?"

"Eventually, yes. And now is as good a time as any. You are awake, I am awake. You've just allowed someone to beat you up with their fists when a third person was standing there with a wand. You sent her to find me instead of letting her use that wand to break up your fight. Explain."

Harry rolled his head back into the pillow.

"Harry."

He turned his head again to face Severus. "We were talking about Fred," he said with a sigh.

"Of course you were. How did that conversation engender a pub brawl?"

Harry shrugged—a difficult gesture considering he was lying down. "He admitted he'd hexed the toilet at the Burrow to spit water up when you flush it. I’d thought it was Fred. I gave him one of those friendly little punches in the shoulder. He shoved me back and the next thing I knew we were fighting. Only it wasn't friendly anymore—he was mad. I don't know—it was like he needed someone to punch."

"And you let him punch you."

"Well, I couldn't really stop him. He's stronger than me."

"Miss Weasley could have stopped him. She could have stopped you both." Severus was leaning forward, hands steepled. Voice calm. Too calm. Why was he taking this so well?

"I don't get why you're not mad," said Harry, exasperated. "We beat each other up. You had to have Poppy come out and she lectured you on overexerting yourself and made you go to bed." He moved his shoulder experimentally. Still sore.

"Why didn't you let Miss Weasley stop him?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"And you didn't answer mine."

"Fine. I wanted him to punch me. I did punch back, you know. It wasn't like I just lay there on the ground and let him pummel me."

Severus stared at Harry a long moment. Harry stared right back. Severus gave in first.

"Why did you want him to punch you, Harry?"

Harry wished he could adequately vocalize what he intrinsically knew, what he felt. Then Severus would stop talking, and go lie down, and he could close his eyes again and sleep. "It felt right," he said at last, staring at Severus with his good eye as he spoke. "He was angry. He needed to get it out. It felt like the right time."

"He wasn't angry at you, Harry."

Harry shrugged and closed his eyes. He wasn't completely sure that was true.

He heard furniture scooting. Severus had pushed the sofa table to the side and had pulled his own chair closer to the sofa. His hand came down to rest on Harry's head and he pushed the long, scraggly hair back away from his face, a gesture of comfort, a gesture of love.

"George is not angry at you, Harry. And you are in no way responsible for his brother's death. Deep down you already know this. I agree with you on many points—George was angry and he needed an outlet. I expect he's feeling better now." His hand continued to card through Harry's hair. He sighed. "I'm going to have Poppy send over a stronger bruise paste. Your eye is a mess."

They were both silent for several moments. Finally, Harry spoke, his voice low, broken. "I know it's not my fault. My brain knows it. But I can't help but feel responsible. At least in part." He let out a painful laugh. "So I guess you could say I did my part today. With George anyway."

"Grief is a process, Harry." Harry heard the rustle of Severus' robes as he fumbled in his pocket, heard him unscrew a lid. As cool fingers touched his face, smoothing on a soothing cream under his eyes, on his bruised cheek, around his mouth, he listened to Severus' calm, measured voice. "And anger is a part of that process. I've been a bit worried about you, actually. I expected this to happen before now. So there's the answer to your question. I'm not angry because I'm actually relieved."

Another bark of pained laughter from Harry. "Relieved? You're relieved George beat the crap out of me?"

A long silence as Severus continued to rub on the salve. "You know that's not what I meant. Be fair, Harry. I'm relieved that you're beginning to show some emotion other than gratitude and relief."

"But I am grateful…and relieved." Harry reached up and grabbed Severus' wrist, stopping the soothing, circular motion.

"I know you are. I am not challenging that or trying to belittle those feelings. Harry—look at me."

Harry opened his eyes slowly and stared, once again, at Severus' tired face. He blinked his eyes.

"We're going to have to go get you new glasses soon," said Severus with a sigh.

"I don't think that's why you asked me to open my eyes," said Harry.

"No. It's not. As grateful and relieved as you are that we both survived and are here together today, the reality is that you have lost friends. And you deserve to grieve them. You don't have to be upbeat and happy all the time for me. Harry—I'm here for you just as you are here for me. I do not expect you to be my rock, and I am sure your friends do not expect that, either. Trust me in this, Harry. When have you gone wrong trusting me before?"

Harry blinked his eyes again and looked at Severus' pale, tired face.

"Alright, Severus," he said. He turned on his side and bunched his pillow up under his head. "I'm really tired. Do you mind if I take another nap?"

"No. Go on. You've had a hard day. We'll talk later." He stood and moments later Harry heard him slowly climbing the stairs up to the bedrooms. Good. He needed the rest. Harry turned on his side. Fifteen minutes later, he was still facing the back of the sofa, eyes closed, wide awake. Thinking that no matter what he said, Severus still looked like he needed a rock. Thinking that he did need to deal with all those feelings welling up inside him but that, more important , he still had to be strong for Severus.

/

Harry had woken up that morning with his face still swollen and bruised, but looking infinitely better than he had the day before. Severus had checked him over, making him raise his arm and rotate his shoulder. He seemed to be pleased that Harry could raise his arm without screaming.

Harry was quiet all morning, sitting with Severus at the table on the porch with a pile of textbooks in front of him while Severus reviewed staff contracts. Kreacher arrived at noon with lunch from Hogwarts. They ate lunch quietly on the porch, corned beef sandwiches, apple and walnut salad, crisps. After lunch, while Severus reviewed the incoming student list that Minerva had owled that morning, Harry lay quietly in the hammock, staring out toward the ocean.

Severus let him be.

Late in the afternoon, Harry went down to the water with beach chair, towel and seventh year N.E.W.T Potions textbook in hand. Severus looked up from his work from time to time to find Harry in the same position, head bent, book open, wind blowing his hair around his face. At five o'clock, Severus went into the kitchen to start dinner. Thirty minutes later, he came back to the porch to check on Harry.

Harry was no longer in the chair. He was standing near the water, a long stick in this hand, writing in the sand. Severus had stopped in the middle of the room but walked now to the window, watching Harry. The boy was making long and broad slashes in the sand, left to right, letters as tall as he was, right at the very edge of the water.

Severus squinted to read them.

Opened his eyes wide in understanding.

Watched as the waves slowly washed the letters away. Watched Harry stand back, straight and tall, until the sand was once again perfectly smooth.

Then pick up the stick and start over again.

Fred.

Remus.

Tonks.

Dobby.

Dumbledore.

Sirius.

Mum.

James.

Severus swallowed a lump in his throat so big it pressed on his heart and settled like a weight in his gut. Harry was mourning his losses. Acknowledging his grief and letting the waves wash those losses gently away.

James. Not Dad.

Severus placed his hand on the window, leaned his forehead against the cool pane of glass and watched Harry hurl the stick far out into the ocean, then sink down onto the sand, bury his face in his hands and weep.

Staying there on the porch and letting Harry cry out his grief alone on the beach was one of the hardest things Severus Snape had ever done.

 

 

(Chapter 3)

 

Chapter 3

Harry looked up from the cozy armchair in the parlor, where he'd been sitting most of the morning reading the stack of Daily Prophets Ron had left there the day before. They were all back issues, some of them months old, saved by Molly Weasley because of one article or another.

"This one claims that Voldemort was the rightful heir to the British throne," said Harry. "Did he abandon Malfoy Manor for Buckingham Palace or did I miss something?"

Minerva McGonagall, seated on an armchair across from Severus, shook her head.

"I do not know why you allow him to read that rubbish, Severus," she said, loud enough for Harry to hear her, too.

"Hey! It's entertaining," protested Harry. "Listen to this one…'Undesirable Number One Spotted Mugging Elderly Lady in Cornwall.' Funny, I don't remember that. I mugged a few elderly ladies in Bath…"

"You've obviously blocked it out," muttered Severus sarcastically.

"It's stopped raining," announced Harry a few moments later. He had stood up and walked over to the front window to look out. "I'm going out to walk on the beach for a while."

"Really, Severus," began Minerva when the porch door banged shut a few moments later. "He's bound to find something in those papers that sets him back again. He is finally looking less like a scarecrow and more like a boy trying to catch up after a rapid growth spurt."

"I cannot and will not shield him from the reality of what went on this past year," said Severus. He was scrutinizing a series of diagrams on the table in front of the sofa. "Really, Minerva. Where are we going to put everyone? We have eighteen of last year's seventh years returning, along with the ten seventh-year Muggle-borns who were banned from Hogwarts altogether. Twenty-eight students beyond our normal load."

Minerva sighed and turned a piece of parchment around so she could decipher it more easily. "We also have most of the children from the other years returning—including the Muggle-borns and many of those whose families fled the country when the Ministry fell."

"With the number of first years so high this year, by my calculations we'll need to house thirty-three more students than we did two years ago, and approximately one hundred and twenty more than last year."

"Well, then thank goodness the castle is magical. The house dormitories can be expanded to accommodate the students, Severus." Minerva put down the diagram of Gryffindor Tower she had been holding and picked up her steaming teacup.

Severus stacked up the remaining parchment on the table and reached for his own cup. He held it in his hands, warming his fingers. His hands were nearly always cold these days, though Poppy assured him his circulation was improving and the nerve damage he's suffered was reversing itself slowly. He was quiet for a long moment, obviously lost in thought.

"What is it Severus?" asked Minerva at last. "You see this as more than just a problem of logistics, don't you?"

"I do," he answered. "I have been considering something rather…radical."

"Oh?" Minerva raised an eyebrow and waited patiently for Severus to continue.

"I have considered an eighth year dormitory," he said. He took a slow drink from his teacup and looked over it at Minerva, waiting for her reaction.

"All the eighth years, from all the houses, in one dormitory." She seemed to mull over the idea. "Beside the issue of putting Harry and Draco Malfoy in the same living quarters, I have a few other concerns. How would house points be awarded?"

"I suppose to the house to which they were first sorted," answered Severus with a small shrug.

"Quidditch?"

"They would play with their original house teams, if they still wished to play and were chosen for their house team." He smiled over at Minerva. "You would think of that, wouldn't you?"

"As long as we can find space for them, I don't see why we shouldn't try it out, Severus. I am curious, however, about your motivations. Does it have anything to do with Harry?"

"It has everything to do with Harry," admitted Severus. "Though I would not be proposing the plan if I did not think it would be good for the rest of the students as well."

"Go on, Severus. I'm listening." Minerva leaned back and peered intently at her friend.

"First and foremost, our seventh years need a chance to be seventh years. Mixing the eighth years in with them will dilute their position, their ability to find closure this year and return to normalcy. The Head Boy and Head Girl will be chosen from the seventh years and they will be the oldest students in each of the house dorms."

"That seems reasonable," said Minerva with a small nod. "Go on."

Severus fidgeted with the cup in his hands, turning it around and around and finally stating rather loudly, loudly enough to make Minerva startle. "They have all had such a year, Minerva. From the Gryffindors to the Slytherins." He lowered his voice. "They have lost family members, friends, even some of their own. They have had to grow up quickly—too quickly. By separating the eighth years, we will acknowledge that they are in a class apart and recognize that they have already paid their dues, so to speak. That they are adults, returning to Hogwarts to study for and sit their N.E.W.T.s so they can further their careers or education."

"It will be difficult for Harry, after this last year," added Minerva, sagely. "Everything will feel anticlimactic to him."

"I worry that he will feel that he does not belong at Hogwarts," sighed Severus. "And I do feel that he should move on, but he still insists on entering the Aurors’ program, and he will need his N.E.W.T.s to do so."

"You are opposed to his joining the Aurors, Severus?" Minerva's level gaze was focused on Severus as she took another sip of her tea.

"It is a dangerous profession," stated Severus simply.

"Says the man who spied on the Dark Lord for years," said Minerva, looking downward at her teacup.

"Harry's life is just beginning," stated Severus firmly. "And unlike myself at that age, he has already paid his dues. He owes the Wizarding world nothing. He owes no one anything, in fact."

Minerva smiled her enigmatic smile. "Well, perhaps you can dissuade him, Severus." Her look made it clear that she did not actually think he could. "And your idea has a great deal of merit. Since most of the returning eighth years will be attending only the classes for which they intend to sit a N.E.W.T., they will have more time to study and prepare for the exams. A shared space—a common room per se—will be more quiet without the other years present. More conducive to study opportunities. Do you have a location in mind, Severus?"

"I was considering the old faculty family wing."

Minerva considered. "Well, it has been quite a while since it was needed. It will need some renovation, of course."

"Of course. But you agree it will give our eighth years a different atmosphere? More of an introduction to life after Hogwarts?"

"Well, Severus, it won't exactly pass for a flat in London…"

Severus smirked. "I admit that extra supervision may be needed to keep our students focused on their studies."

"And who will provide that supervision, Severus? You?"

He grimaced. "Yes. The headmaster will be the de facto Head of House for the eighth year students."

"Do you have any idea what you're getting yourself…?"

She broke off mid-thought when the porch door banged open, then slammed shut. They heard Harry make his way through the porch and kitchen—seemingly at a run—and then pound up the stairs. By the time his bedroom door slammed shut, Severus was struggling to his feet.

"Severus?" Minerva quickly stood and gave him a steadying arm.

'That has never happened before. Something has upset him. Will you excuse me a minute, Minerva? Perhaps you could review the final three candidates for the Potions position?" He nodded at a separate stack of parchment on the table.

"Of course, Severus. Go on."

She sat down on the sofa in the spot he had vacated and drew the indicated parchments toward her while Severus made his way to the stairway, but her eyes were on him, not on the applications before her.

/

"Harry?"

He had knocked on the door, and repeated the knock when Harry didn't respond. Finally he simply opened the door and called the boy's name.

Harry was lying face up in the middle of the bed, left arm over the upper part of his face, glasses clasped in his right hand, breathing rapidly. Severus walked quietly over to the bed and stood at its side.

"Harry?"

"Go away."

"You don't want me to go away," said Severus. "You wouldn't have slammed the door and stomped up the stairs if you didn't want me here." He watched as a tear trickled down Harry's cheek from his eye. Looking at Harry now, stretched out on the bed, he was acutely aware of how much the boy had grown, how much time had passed since those summer weeks two years ago when he'd come here with Harry, to Shell Cottage, at Albus' request.

"Really, I'm just being stupid. It's no big deal. I just need some time," said Harry. He wiped his cheek with his arm, not quite removing it from his eyes.

"What happened out there?" asked Severus, not relenting. "What has made you so upset?" He could tell Harry was trying to calm himself down, taking deep breaths and releasing them slowly. He waited.

"I…I was walking back to the cottage—up the path from the beach," he said at last, his voice tight. "I nearly stepped on a grass snake—it was warming itself in the sun on the path."

Severus frowned. He knew Harry's emotions were frayed and close to the surface, but to let a near miss with a snake shake him up this badly…

Harry laughed, a harsh sound, more self-deprecatory than amused. "I apologized to it. I tried to, anyway. Severus, I couldn't. I couldn't speak to it. I couldn't understand it." His voice nearly cracked and he pressed his arm down over his eyes more forcefully.

Oh. Severus swallowed. Of course. He should have guessed it. Guessed that the Horcrux was responsible for Harry's ability to speak Parseltongue.

"Harry…" he began, voice reassuring.

"I get it, alright? I was only a Parselmouth because he was one and it was all connected to that stupid Horcrux. I get it!" Harry wiped at his face with his forearm again, smearing tears into his cheeks.

Severus stood next to the bed, a jumble of thoughts in his mind, unable to voice any of them. What could he say? Why are you so upset? Speaking parseltongue is considered akin to a dark art.

"I don't know why I'm so upset."

His voice was so raw, so defeated. Severus sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. As his weight settled on the mattress, Harry finally moved his arm and looked at Severus.

"You've lost a part of yourself—it is natural to mourn it."

"But it wasn't a part of me. I thought it was—but it wasn't. It was him. Voldemort." Harry turned over on his side, facing the window, away from Severus, and added, in a small voice, "I can't let myself do this. I can't mourn him. It's wrong."

Severus reached out and rubbed Harry's back, the only thing he could think to do to offer comfort. He had no words for Harry. What would he say? That it was alright to mourn the loss of a fragment of a soul you didn't know you were carrying with you? The fragment and whatever else it carried with it? That in this summer of mourning, of learning to accept your losses and move on with your life, it was only natural to miss what you had once had, even if you had only had it because of that parasitic soul fragment clinging to you like a lifeline?

"You can go out and get drunk now, you know," said Harry as Severus continued to rub gentle circles on his back. "I can't feel you, either."

"That's hardly a reason for me to go out and get drunk," said Severus. His hand continued its circular motion on Harry's back. "It's been a month now, Harry. You've only now just realized that?"

"Stupid, isn't it? All those days you were in the hospital wing?"

"You had other things on your mind at the time," Severus responded.

Harry sighed and his shoulders fell marginally. "I guess I knew. I just didn't let myself think about it."

"I think, after a time, you will be happy to not have this connection, Harry. It may take some time for your emotions to even out…"

"Right." He wiped away another tear and they stayed their together for five minutes more. Harry's breathing evened out and Severus thought he might be sleeping, but was surprised when he spoke up.

"I don't know what's mine and what's not anymore," he said.

And Severus understood.

"What are you afraid you've lost?" he asked. He stood and walked around the bed, to the other side, forcing the boy to look at him.

"What about the other things I'm good at? My Patronus? My Animagus form?" He inhaled. "Flying?"

"I wouldn't worry about your Patronus," said Severus with a smile. "Patronuses are only produced by positive emotions and the Dark…Voldemort…didn't have a single one of those."

Harry shrugged, the barest hint of a smile on his tear-stained face.

"As for your Animagus form and flying—well, those were natural talents of your father. I doubt they'll be adversely influenced by the destruction of the Horcrux."

"You're my father." Harry's eyes were closed, the hardly-there smile still present.

Severus ruffled his hair. "Be that as it may, you must still acknowledge the gifts you received from your biological father—and be grateful for them."

"I'm grateful for them," answered Harry. "And I'm grateful for him, too."

Severus stood. "Why don't you try to sleep a while before lunch? I'll finish up with Minerva, then perhaps we can go to the beach together this afternoon."

"Alright."

Severus was at the door before Harry spoke again.

"I'm glad you were here when it mattered, since James couldn't be."

Severus paused. "Thank you, Harry," he said. "But never forget this—he was there when it mattered, for as long as he could be."

"Yeah," said Harry. "But it just wasn't long enough."

/

Minerva stayed for lunch and lifted Harry's spirits quite a bit with her tales of the repair work ongoing at Hogwarts.

"There is a Ministry official charged with overseeing the details of the project, a Mr. Angus Cowpoke…"

Harry nearly spat out his milk when he heard the name. "You can't be serious? Angus Cowpoke?"

Minerva nodded. Her eyes were bright but she swallowed her smile.

"Peeves, unfortunately, has taken a great liking—or perhaps a dislike, it's hard to tell with Peeves—for Angus. He accompanies him everywhere and has created some very interesting rhymes to point out Cowpoke's rather…hmm…effeminate qualities."

"Come now, Minerva, you can't leave it at that," said Severus. He put down the sandwich he was eating and looked at Minerva.

"Yeah, come on Minerva. Give us a sample." Harry had awoken in much better spirits and was on his second sandwich already.

"Well, I might recall one or two of them. Let's see… "Angus Cowpoke raves and rants, wearing ladies' underpants."

Harry laughed and spat out sandwich fragments. Severus used his napkin to wipe his sleeve off with exaggerated movements.

"Surely he can do better than that?"

Minerva grinned and looked sideways at Harry. "Well, I suppose there are one or two more that I could repeat." She paused, thought a bit, then smiled. "Hogwarts Castle falling down, Angus Cowpoke comes to town, Fixing stones, removing curses, Hiding lipstick in his purses."

"That's rather lame," said Severus, smiling nonetheless.

"Hey, it's Peeves," said Harry. "Is this bloke a real nutter or what?"

"Oh, Angus is fine. He's really quite capable," answered Minerva. "He just—well—he's not fond of getting dirty. He's always cleaning his fingernails and using spot-removing charms on his robes. Which are the most interesting shade of periwinkle blue…"

"Are they going to have all the repairs done on time?" asked Harry. He had helped himself to more grapes and was frowning as he spat out a seed.

"There will be some cosmetic reconstruction after classes resume," said Minerva. "Mainly to the exterior of the castle, where battlements and some of the decorative gargoyles were damaged."

"They are concentrating on the classroom and common areas first," stated Severus. "Both Ravenclaw and Gryffindor Towers were heavily damaged, as was the Great Hall."

Harry paused, a grape midway to his mouth. "I'm not sure I can eat in there again," he said, frowning. "I suppose there isn't some other place…?"

"For that many people? I'm afraid not," answered Severus, who understood all too well Harry's feelings on the matter. "However, we are doing what we can to remodel the hall. A new marble floor is being laid, in a different pattern, and the tables may be rearranged. We understand that for many the place has many…negative…memories now."

Harry dropped the grape back on his plate. Up to this point, the feeling he'd had when he'd finally killed Voldemort—when Ron and Hermione had been the first to run to him and they had nearly collapsed in a group hug right there beside Voldemort's body—that feeling, that memory had overpowered the others. The bodies, laid out together, side by side, on the floor, on the tables. The Weasleys gathered around Fred's body, Molly keening. Remus and Tonks, side by side, nearly holding hands. Lavender Brown, ravaged by the werewolf Greyback.

"I wish they hadn't used the Great Hall for the morgue," he said finally.

Severus and Minerva exchanged a glance. Obviously, they were of the same opinion on the matter.

"You'll hardly recognize the place, Harry," Minerva assured him. She scooted a plate over toward him. "Here, have a cauldron cake."

/

"Where is your broom, Harry?" asked Severus several hours later. He had walked down to the beach with Harry an hour before, Harry holding his arm to help steady him while at the same time toting two beach chairs and a blanket in his other hand.

"At the Burrow ," Harry answered. He was lying on his stomach on the blanket, reading a book on runes that he'd pulled from the shelf before they came outside. "My trunk's there, too." He sighed. "I missed my broom last year—meant to take it with me, but we had to leave in a hurry."

"Why don't you ask one of the Weasleys to bring your trunk and broom back here next time they visit? Or you could go there to pick them up."

By the look on Harry's face, Severus knew that Harry would prefer not to visit the Burrow anytime soon.

"Alright. I understand why you do not want to visit the Burrow quite yet. But you cannot avoid it forever. You need to get out. You will need to do school shopping this summer, and you need new clothing, as well. Your jeans are far too short."

Harry looked up. "Don't you think I should wait until I gain some more weight?"

Severus shook his head. "Fine. I'll tolerate your short trousers for a few more weeks." He considered, studying Harry as he thought. "I have noticed that, with the exception of the funerals you attended, you have not left me since I awoke in the hospital wing. I wonder—are you reluctant to leave me or reluctant to make an appearance in the Wizarding world?"

Harry closed his book and sat up on the towel, squinting against the sun.

"Both?" he answered, a question implied in his voice.

"While I appreciate the honesty," replied Severus, "I have already told you on more than one occasion that I am fine; I am getting stronger daily and am under the care of a professional healer." He looked out to sea, watching a pair of seagulls skim the water. "It is only early June. Had you been in school this year—well, you'd still be in school. We will revisit this in July. Understood?"

He could not help but be warmed by the grateful smile on Harry's face.

/

Several days later, Harry spent the better part of the afternoon swimming in the ocean with Ron, Hermione and Ginny, then topped off the evening with a fire on the beach. It had been a particularly good day. The sun had warmed the sand and the shallow water and the four friends spent hours outdoors, with frequent forays into the kitchen for snacks. Severus looked at Ron critically several times, wondering where all the food went on his still lanky frame.

Ron and Hermione Flooed out first at nine thirty, leaving Harry and Ginny to say their goodbyes and Ginny to follow. Severus could not help but check on them when nearly ten minutes had passed and Harry had not come back to the porch. He interrupted the long and quite intense goodbye between them by walking into the parlor and practically barking, "Harry!" The two pulled apart quickly and guiltily as he stood glaring at them.

"You are going to see each other again in two days’ time; you do not need to treat her as if you are going off to sea for three months. Miss Weasley, your mother will likely not want to see that." He pointed to a ring-shaped bruise at the base of her neck.

"Sorry," muttered Harry, turning an intriguing shade of crimson.

Severus pulled Harry backward by the collar of his t-shirt and humiliated him even further by taking out his wand and healing the hickey on Ginny's neck.

"I could have done that," Harry hissed.

"You did do that," answered Severus.

"Night Harry, thanks Headmaster," mumbled Ginny as she hastily tossed a handful of Floo powder in the fireplace and disappeared.

"I'm almost eighteen!" exclaimed Harry when she was gone. "You don't need to monitor everything I do. Nothing would have happened!"

"Miss Weasley is only sixteen," answered Severus evenly. "And I am not monitoring your every move and you know it. Be smart, Harry. You can have some degree of intimacy without leaving visual evidence of your ardor."

"I think I deserve some ardor after the year I've had, don't you?" snapped Harry.

Severus leveled a gaze at him that clearly showed that he didn't, indeed, think so.

"Fine. I'm going upstairs to take a cold shower."

"Good—get used to them!" called Severus after him, listening to Harry pound up the stairs with a good deal more noise than was strictly necessary.

Harry did not come back downstairs and, an hour later, when Severus was tired of waiting for him to calm down, he went upstairs to check on him and found him in bed, sound asleep, hair damp, threat of a cold shower apparently realized. Severus shook his head and went back downstairs to clean up the paperwork he had left scattered on the sofa table and was surprised when Arthur Weasley's head appeared in the Floo, asking if he might visit for a while.

Arthur came through a short while later and sat on one of the armchairs across from the sofa, accepting a generous portion of firewhisky from Severus.

"How is Harry doing, Severus?" asked Arthur. The usual jovial easygoing man had been replaced with a look-alike impostor, thought Severus, a serious man whose movements were tense and whose eyes lacked their usual warmth. He held the glass of firewhisky in both hands, taking a long drink from it and then studying it as he waited for Severus to answer.

Severus answered carefully. "Better, I think. But I am afraid we have a long way to go before he can claim to be over this." He studied his own glass, then grimaced. "He did defy me today, and I take that as a good sign."

Arthur smiled, the gesture bringing a shade of his old self to his face. "He has been keeping close to you, I take it? We haven't seen him at the Burrow since Fred's funeral."

Severus frowned. "He has. He does not spend every moment with me, but even when his friends are here and he is outside with them, he checks on me frequently." He took a swallow of firewhisky. "I have decided to give him a few more weeks, Arthur. I have encouraged him to visit the Burrow, but he is not yet ready to do so. If he is not inclined to visit on his own by the time July rolls around, I will accompany him and we will both make a visit."

"You'd be welcome, Severus." Arthur considered a moment, then spoke again. "Ginny is quite fond of him."

"And he of her," said Severus. "I have spoken to him and do not leave them alone inside for long, Arthur. I have asked them not to close the door when they are in his room. Are you concerned about them?"

Arthur shrugged. "They grew up behind our backs, Severus. I look at her and wonder where my little girl went. It's like she's sixteen going on twenty-five. I very much doubt either one of us could convince either of them to not do something they wanted to do."

"I broke them up earlier this evening," said Severus. "They were only kissing, but it seemed to have gotten a bit more amorous than it should have. Harry huffed out of here and went upstairs to take a shower."

"That was his act of defiance?" grinned Arthur.

"It was," said Severus, grinning back, appreciating this small camaraderie with Arthur . "I have to admit I was relieved to find him acting more like a boy of his age and less like my caregiver."

"Well, I admit I came here tonight to speak to you about Harry. I was concerned that he wasn't coming to visit and wanted to make sure you understood that he—and you—are always welcome at our home."

"I appreciate that, Arthur," answered Severus. "I admit I am often at a loss when it comes to parenting."

Arthur chuckled. "Molly and I were barely twenty when we became parents, Severus. You're going to have to learn exactly like we did: by the seat of your pants. You'll make mistakes—we all do. But your heart is in the right place and you only want what is best for Harry."

Severus smiled his understanding and they sipped their firewhisky in companionable silence for a few more minutes. "How is Molly doing, Arthur?"

"Still not sleeping on her own. I'm a bit worried that the potion she's taking may become addictive. Since I'm here anyway, perhaps you could give me a recommendation."

"Is she still on that sleep aid from St. Mungo's?"

Arthur nodded. "A full dose every evening at bedtime. With it, she usually gets six or seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. Without it—she roams the house all night, cleaning, organizing, looking at old photo albums, crying over baby clothes in the attic."

"I would try reducing the dosage gradually—perhaps three quarters of a dose first, and if that is successful, down to one-half dose the following week. If you are not successful with that approach, let me know and I'll brew something else for her—something that will relax her enough so that she falls asleep but that is not addictive." He looked across at Arthur, assessing him. The man looked ten years older than he had the year before when he routinely saw him at Order meetings. "What about you, Arthur? Are you sleeping?"

Arthur drained his glass of firewhisky and Severus poured him another. "I'm sleeping. Not well, and not peacefully, but I do get enough sleep to function." He laughed, a short, abrupt sound. "Intellectually, I knew this might happen. That we might lose one of our own children, or that either myself or Molly might lose our lives in the war. But knowing it might happen and actually experiencing it are two matters altogether different. And that it was one of the twins..." He sighed. "Not that I value them or love them any more than the others, mind you," he explained. "But George…poor George. And when I come home from work and sit at the table and he's there with the others, waiting to eat, it always happens, you know. I look closely at him to see which twin it is, you see. And it's always George now. Always George."

"To Fred and George," said Severus solemnly, reaching out with his own glass toward Arthur. They clinked glasses and toasted the twins. "Arthur, I never told you this—and I regret not having done so while they were both alive—but those boys were brilliant thinkers. Unorthodox, yes, but brilliant in application. The troublemakers often are, you know. They make trouble because they're bored with the classroom proceedings."

"Troublemakers?" Arthur laughed, a glint returning to his weary eyes. "My boys?"

"We simply stopped calling you in," said Severus. "We learned early on it had virtually no effect on the twins' behavior, so it was better to simply give them detentions and get some needed work done around the castle."

Arthur smiled fondly. "You know," he said, taking yet another long swallow of the liquor, voice more serious now, "it's Ron I'm worried about most."

Severus looked over at Arthur, considering this unexpected statement. "Ronald? Why is that, Arthur?"

"He's offering to change his career path for George, isn't he? He's going to give up trying for the Aurors and go into business with George—in Fred's place." Arthur held out a now empty glass to Severus, who gave a mental shrug, picked up the bottle from the side table, and filled it up again.

"You'd prefer him to go into the Auror Corps? I'd say that working with his brother is certainly a safer path in life." He tried to stay neutral, to keep his voice even, to not show his own hand, his fears for his own son's safety.

"Which is why Molly is so thrilled with the decision. She wept, Severus! Hugged Ron to pieces, nearly smothered the poor boy, in fact. I think that had he asked us to reverse our decision about this next year at Hogwarts at that moment, she would have given in."

"Have you spoken to him about this?" asked Severus.

Arthur shook his head. "I'm going to. I want him to be sure."

"His class schedule at Hogwarts will look very different if he plans to enter the Auror Corps," said Severus. "He'll need N.E.W.T.s in Potions, DADA, Charms, Transfiguration…"

Arthur was quiet for a long moment, considering. He drained his third glass of firewhisky and looked up at Severus, a plea in his eyes.

"Perhaps you could speak with him, Severus. As his headmaster."

Severus lifted the bottle again. He'd take Arthur home, send Molly a Patronus—he'd worry about that later. He was convinced at this moment that Arthur had not been allowed, or indeed, had not allowed himself, an evening away from the Burrow to air his troubles.

"I'll speak to him. Next time he visits."

"As headmaster?" Arthur took a long, grateful drink of the liquor.

"As headmaster, yes. And as Harry's father, if you don't mind. This decision affects my son as well. I must admit that the thought of Harry spending his life in that line of work, courting danger daily, does not sit well with me."

"But you wouldn't keep him from it? Forbid him to go that direction?"

Severus sighed and looked across at Arthur. The father of seven children, reduced to six now, looked back at him with a calm sort of wisdom in his eye. Severus could not help but ask.

"How did you do it? Raise seven children from infancy and make it through the teenage years? I have one child, only one, and he is flummoxing me at every turn."

Arthur laughed. Severus wondered how long it had been since the man had truly laughed like that, deep, rich, from the belly, from the heart.

"We have children as babies when they are tiny and helpless so that we can love them unconditionally and will remember that love and how tiny and helpless they were when they are teenagers." He toasted Severus again and Severus obligingly lifted his own glass. "But what you have done, Severus, is in many ways much greater. You have taken in a teenager—indeed, one for whom you had little previous love or tolerance…"

"Little?" interrupted Severus. The corner of his mouth twitched.

Arthur laughed again. "Severus, you have taken in Harry Potter and have so totally lost your heart in this that you are doomed, utterly doomed. Get used to it. Your life will never be the same, you will never again sleep as well as you once did." His voice had a noticeable slur now and he lifted his glass.

"To Harry Potter," said Arthur. "To the Boy Who Lived, who saved us all, to your adopted son. To Harry."

"To Harry," repeated Severus. He tipped back his glass and took another long swallow of the alcohol. The liquid burned going down and contributed to the warm feeling growing in his stomach.

When Arthur stood to leave twenty minutes later, he was swaying noticeably on his feet. Severus helped him with the Floo powder and followed him to the Burrow to explain his condition to Molly. Molly was waiting up for Arthur and insisted that Severus stay for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. He couldn't refuse—she was teary and overwrought, and when Arthur told her what Severus had said about the twins, she threw her hands around Severus' neck and hugged him.

He Flooed back home thirty minutes later and sat back on the sofa, thinking through all that he and Arthur had discussed. The alcohol he had imbibed made him sleepy and he nodded off, curling up like a teenager on the sofa, wrapped in one of the ubiquitous crocheted afghans that seemed to multiply like rabbits around the cottage.

The next morning, when he woke up in his bed upstairs, he had only a vague memory of walking up the stairs, leaning heavily on Harry. Of Harry pulling back his quilt, bending down to remove his shoes, pulling the covers up over him, turning off the light.

But the note he found on the bedside table brought the events of last night clearly to mind. "Dad—I helped you to bed at two a.m. You smell like firewhisky and Mrs. Weasley and you called me Arthur. I'm looking forward to hearing all about your evening in the morning. Regards, Harry."

 

 

(Chapter 4)

A/N: More humor in this chapter than tears. Hope you enjoy!

________________________________________

Chapter 4

Harry was sitting at the table on the porch eating a plate of eggs and sausages when Severus finally came downstairs the next morning. Harry heard him fumbling around in the kitchen making tea, and he was indeed carrying steaming mug when he appeared in the doorway.

"That smells good," he said, nodding to Harry's plate as he placed his mug on the table and pulled out the chair across from Harry's.

"I'll trade you some for a few stories," said Harry, making a show of shoving an overloaded forkful of eggs in his mouth.

"Will you?" asked Severus. He reached across the table and pulled Harry's plate over toward him.

"Hey!" protested Harry.

"You offered to trade for some stories. What do you want to know?"

"I offered to trade you some," clarified Harry, grabbing a sausage off his purloined plate while he still could and shaking his head in mock exasperation. "So, did you go to the Burrow last night or did Mrs. Weasley come here?" His voice was casual, almost too casual, and he took a bite of sausage just to have something to do with his hands other than point a sausage at Severus.

"Mr. Weasley came here and I saw him safely home some time later," answered Severus, helping himself to some of Harry's eggs.

"What did he want?" asked Harry. He swallowed at the look Severus gave him. "Oh—I'm sorry. He is your friend and all; I suppose you don't have to tell me."

"He's not exactly my friend, though we are making inroads," corrected Severus. "And he came over to talk; we have common interests, as you well know."

"Were you drinking?" Harry took a drink of orange juice—at least Severus hadn't taken his glass of juice.

"Do you disapprove?" asked Severus. "I do believe I recently heard you give me your blessings to go out and get drunk."

"Did you?" asked Harry.

"Did I what?" He may not have been being deliberately obtuse but Harry blew out a frustrated breath.

"Did you go out and get drunk with Mr. Weasley?" Harry spoke slowly, enunciating each word.

Severus shook his head. "We were in the cottage the entire time, so no, I did not go out and get drunk with Arthur. We did drink—your note mentioned firewhisky, did it not?"

"Did you get drunk?"

Severus supposed it was a fair question but he didn't quite understand Harry's interest or his apparent disapproval.

"I would not have called myself drunk last night, though I definitely was affected by the alcohol. And no, I did not operate heavy machinery, drive a motor vehicle or attempt to fly. Is the inquisition over now? My eggs are getting cold."

"You mean my eggs are getting cold," grumbled Harry. He pushed his chair back, stood up and went into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with another plate, this one heaped high with eggs and toast. "I made enough for you the first time," he said.

Severus watched as Harry layered two fried eggs on his toast and ate them sandwich style.

"You said you had questions—as in more than one. Is there anything else you'd like to know?"

"When I turn eighteen, will you take me out to celebrate?"

Severus bit back the "I'm sure your friends would enjoy getting pissed with their headmaster" retort that very much wanted to issue forth from his sarcastic mouth.

"If you'd like. It certainly will be a cause for celebration. However, I thought you might like a party here with all of your friends."

"I would like that," answered Harry softly. He stared across at Severus, who eventually sighed.

"What is it, Harry? You may think that I can read your mind but I cannot."

"How long were you gone last night?"

Severus put down his fork and refilled his tea cup. He took his time answering, aware that Harry was staring at him, tense, waiting for an answer.

"Oh, I don't know," he answered, doing his best to sound casual. "Thirty minutes? Forty-five?"

"Nearly an hour then," said Harry. He fiddled with his juice cup, turning it back and forth on the table. "What if something had happened, Severus? What if you'd Splinched yourself?"

"Harry—I've been Apparating for more than twenty years. I hardly think I'm likely to Splinch myself."

"But you're not recovered yet. You're still weak; anything could happen."

"I know my limits, Harry. You're going to have to trust me on this."

Harry nodded, still fiddling with his now empty glass.

"If it will make you feel better, I won't leave the house again without at least leaving you a note." He saw the look of relief on Harry's face and wondered why the boy hadn't just asked him for this small courtesy.

"You should wake me up to tell me—if you have time," suggested Harry. "Or leave the note on top of my glasses on my bed table. I'd always find it there."

Severus nodded. "Alright. I can do that." He spread jam on a piece of cold toast. "Molly Weasley forced coffee and cake on me, and when I mentioned what brilliant minds I thought the twins had when they were at Hogwarts, she threw her arms around me and hugged me."

Harry looked up, surprised, his disquiet seemingly forgotten.

"You really thought the twins were brilliant?"

The look on Severus' face as he answered was perfectly serious. "I did."

"So did I," said Harry, sighing. "So did everyone."

/

Severus had arranged with Molly and Arthur for Ron to come to the cottage to spend a few days with Harry. He planned on taking that opportunity to speak to both the boys about their future plans and deliver a bit of advice while he was at it.

Harry and Severus were finishing lunch on the porch and, as they had expected Ron to Apparate or arrive by Floo, they were startled to hear the sound of a car engine revving out front.

"Stay here—I'll go see what's going on," said Severus, pushing back his chair and standing up just as the front door banged open.

"Harry! Bill's got the MG again and he let me drive the last leg of the trip!" Ron came barreling into the room to find Harry already on his feet.

"Great! Do you think he'll let me take her out, too?"

"I'd suggest you study for your operator's license if you're serious about motor vehicles. Both of you." Severus nodded at Ron. "Good afternoon, Mr. Weasley."

Bill had followed his brother into the cottage and stood in the doorway to the porch, looking around with interest.

"Didn't take you two too long to de-feminize this place," he said with a grin.

"Hey, Bill," said Harry. He'd seen Bill only once after the final battle—and that time was at Fred's funeral. Even after spending a month of the previous summer here at Shell Cottage with Bill, he still wasn't accustomed to the scars that marred the man's face. They'd faded over the past year but were still noticeable, and to Harry were a vivid reminder of the night Albus Dumbledore had died.

"Harry took the curtains down," said Severus, nodding at the windows that surrounded three sides of the porch.

Harry pretended to shudder. "They reminded me too much of the Divination classroom," he said and Ron gave a sympathetic shudder of his own. "It was like looking at the ocean with a layer of gauze over your eyes."

Bill laughed. "I'm not in a hurry," he said, looking significantly at Severus. "Do you want to go out for a drive, Harry? Ron's had the wheel already."

"It's no Ford Anglia," said Ron, eyes almost dreamy. "Of course, it doesn't fly, either."

"Thank Merlin," said Severus, shaking his head.

"I remember," said Harry. He glanced over at Severus, realizing that he'd be leaving his best friend alone in the house with the dreaded Potions master and headmaster.

"I promise I won't eat him," said Severus with a dramatic roll of his eyes. He had taken his seat again and picked up his half-eaten sandwich. "Sit, Mr. Weasley. Join me for some lunch. Have you already eaten?"

"Mum forced a couple sandwiches on me before I left but I can eat again," he said, sliding easily into Harry's chair and reaching for a sandwich.

The storm door banged behind Harry and Bill and the car engine started up soon after. Severus finished his sandwich and sat watching Ron work his way through a pile of crisps, a bunch of grapes and two sandwiches. The boy drank two glasses of milk with the apple spice cake Severus offered and finally leaned back in his chair. He seemed vaguely uncomfortable so Severus took pity and launched right in.

"Harry tells me you no longer wish to enter the Auror Academy—that you plan on going into business with your brother."

Ron opened his mouth in surprise and closed it again. He quickly seemed to get over his shock that Severus was speaking directly to him, however.

"It's not that I don't want to be an Auror," he answered. "It's just that this other opportunity is more important, is all."

"Oh? And why is that?" Severus settled back in his chair and folded his arms comfortably on his chest.

"Because it's family," answered Ron, as if that simple explanation was all that was needed. "George needs me."

Severus stared across the table at Ron another long moment.

"And what if I were to tell you that Harry needed you in the Auror Academy?"

"Well, then I'd have to say you don't know Harry very well."

Severus blinked. Then blinked again. He took a moment to reheat his tea with a warming charm.

"Point taken," he conceded. "But what if Harry wants you at his side? As an Auror?"

"I guess he'd have to want me more than George needs me," answered Ron with a shrug. "He's like family, too. I'd have to let them battle it out."

Severus raised an eyebrow, reminding Ron that those two had indeed already "battled it out." He decided to change tactics.

"What about you, Mr. Weasley? Given the choice of a career chasing dark wizards and one devising pranks and jokes and selling them to future generations of Hogwarts students so they can plague me and the other professors—which would you choose if George and Harry were completely neutral?"

Ron shrugged, his eyes now on the ocean outside the window. "When I was really little, I wanted to be the driver of the Knight Bus. Then I wanted to play professional Quidditch. When I was ten or eleven I wanted to work with Dad at the Ministry. I didn't even know what he did—not really. And since fourth year I've wanted to be an Auror, with Harry." He refocused on Severus. "This past year I never even thought about a future. And these past few weeks, I've only ever thought of being George's partner. There's not too much fame and glory in that job, is there?" he asked with a shrug.

"You will need your Potions N.E.W.T.," said Severus, seemingly pulling that one out of the air. Ron's mouth dropped open.

"My Potions N.E.W.T. to run a joke shop?"

"Your Potions N.E.W.T. to develop skills you'll need to research and create new products."

"But George is the..." His voice trailed off as he saw the look being leveled at him from across the table.

"Transfiguration is a must as well, and of course Charms. I'd suggest Arithmancy as a future study—though you may learn enough in a year to at least complete an OWL in it. Professor Vector has added some basic mathematics and accounting to the course over the past few terms." Severus was very much enjoying the look that had taken over Ron's face. "You can drop Astronomy, though you would need it as an Auror, and there's no use in completing your N.E.W.T. in Defense now…."

"But I love Defense! It's my favorite—"

"You will need the time for Arithmancy. Now, do you see a need to continue with Herbology? I think, perhaps, that given the experimental nature of your proposed business and the quality and quantity of potential plant-based ingredients, you should continue the study and pursue that N.E.W.T.."

"Well, I…I thought that maybe I…" His voice faltered again and he stared helplessly at Severus. He looked gobsmacked. Severus suppressed a smile. He thought he understood perfectly what was going through Mr. Ron Weasley's mind.

"You thought you would be going back to Hogwarts for an easy final year, to pacify your parents. You would leave Hogwarts and set up shop with your brother, relying on your innate skills, not having achieved mastery in any of them. After all, what is really needed for a career as a shopkeeper, inventor, entrepreneur, retail manager, purchaser and strategist but an O.W.L. in Defense Against the Dark Arts, hmm?"

The beginnings of a smile wormed their way across Ron's face. "Damn, you're good," he said.

"Language, Mr. Weasley," responded Severus, shaking his head and thinking to himself that they were going to have more trouble with these eighth years than he had anticipated. "Wait here a moment."

He rose to his feet carefully—balance after changes of position was still somewhat of a challenge for him at this stage of his recovery—and made his way into the parlor, where his Hogwarts documents were currently piled up on the sofa table beneath a polished stone Harry had brought in from the shore the day before. He found a seventh-year course guide and returned to the table, placing the document in front of Ron along with quill and ink and retaking his seat.

"Those are the areas of study offered to N.E.W.T. level students. To earn a N.E.W.T., you of course need to have earned an O.W.L. in the same subject." He nodded at the ink bottle. "Write "O.W.L." beside each area in which you've earned an O.W.L."

Ron picked up the quill and dipped it in the ink. "Are you doing this as headmaster or as Harry's guardian?" he asked before he set the quill to the parchment.

"The headmaster is paying special attention to your particular case because of who you are to Harry," answered Severus easily. "Harry cares about you and I care about Harry. Go on, now."

Thirty minutes later, at almost the exact moment that the sound of the car engine approaching was heard again, Ron picked up a completed course schedule for his eighth year at Hogwarts.

"I'm going to miss Defense," he said with a sigh as he studied the list. "And Arithmancy? With the fifth years? Hermione is going to have a field day with this one!"

"Basic accounting is taught in fifth year," said Severus. "Our modern Arithmancy isn't all about runes and predictions any more."

Ron sighed again, shaking his head as he regarded his schedule. "How did Harry take it when you did this with him?"

"I haven't done this with Harry yet, Mr. Weasley. I wanted to practice with you first. Thank you for being my guinea pig."

The front door opened, announcing the arrival of Harry and Bill.

"That was brilliant!" exclaimed Harry to Ron as he sat on the chair at the end of the table and looked curiously at the parchment, quill and ink in front of his best friend.

Ron's eyes lit up. "I wish we could take it out together." He glanced hopefully at his brother.

"Not a chance, Ron. One of you has to be licensed first. Are either of you interested in getting your learner's permit?"

Ron's face broke out in a smile. He'd learned to drive years ago, but only on the property at Ottery St. Catchpole and only in the old Ford Anglia. "Cool," he said. "What do we have to do?"

Harry, however, did something totally unexpected.

He looked over at Severus, so obviously seeking Severus' approval that Severus was momentarily dumbfounded.

Something had changed in Harry. Something fundamental, something big. That look meant they had achieved something more than trust, which had been difficult enough for Severus to earn.

He nodded, the barest hint of approval and was rewarded with a thankful smile. Then Harry turned to Ron and furrowed his brow.

"What IS all this stuff anyway?"

Ron sighed.

/

Ron had brought back Harry's trunk and broom and the boys went down to the beach to ride brooms a few minutes later. Bill went out with them to check the wards but came back in after a short time, climbing up the outside porch stairs to find Severus standing against the window, watching the boys on their brooms.

Bill didn't say anything at first, turning instead to look out the window beside Severus. Suddenly, he laughed.

"Harry claims he's rusty. Says he hadn't been on a broom for a year." He shook his head, a wide smile on his face as Harry skimmed low over the water, arms spread out in a 'Look at me! No hands!' posture. "This is what he calls rusty?"

"He doesn't seem to have lost this particular skill," commented Severus, wincing as Ron toppled off his broom onto the sand while trying to grab something—perhaps a stone—while flying low over the beach.

"He'll need this one if he's going to try for the Aurors," said Bill. "Speed and agility. With wand in hand, pointing backwards." He watched as Ron remounted his broom and began tossing a fist-sized stone back and forth with Harry as they flew. "You've not tried to talk him out of it, I take it?"

Severus shook his head. "Nor will I. I will help him determine, however, if that is the course he wants to take in life. He has many choices; he may not be aware of them all."

"No, I imagine he's had dark wizards on his mind for a long time now," said Bill dryly.

"In more ways than one," quipped Severus. "I want him to heal this summer, but I'm afraid the summer won't be time enough. Some of his wounds run very deep, and some things will never be unlearned." He glanced over at Bill. "And some of those things—his wariness, for example—will benefit him greatly should he go ahead with his plan to become an Auror."

"Kingsley was over at the Burrow the other night. He says they've lost more than a third of their Aurors, all told."

"All told?"

"Dead. Injured too badly to continue. A number of early retirements and a few that simply quit. And of course there were more than he'd like to admit who were working for the other side."

"Hmm." Severus' eyes rose and his head tilted back as he watched Harry soar over the cottage roof, followed closely by Ron. "It is a dangerous profession. There is no way around it."

"I think…" began Bill. He paused over his choice of words. "I think he would reconsider his choice—if you asked him to. If you gave him other viable options."

"I plan to present him other viable options," answered Severus. "But I will not—I cannot—ask him to give up his life's dream. No matter the danger." He turned away from the window and settled into one of the comfortable lounge chairs that faced the ocean. "Up until this point, Harry's entire life has been laid out for him. He has had no real choices. Even when he was forced to choose, the choices given him were so diametrically opposite that he really had no choice at all. Hunt Horcruxes or run away? Give himself up or let the Dark Lord's reign of terror continue?"

"Go back to Hogwarts for an eighth year or face his father's fury?" Bill had turned to face Severus, leaning casually against the window.

Severus smiled and shook his head. "I'm still unused to hearing that term."

"Get used to it. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to take on that title in a year or two. You'll have to give me pointers."

Severus laughed. He laughed now more frequently than he used to, but the sound was still an odd one coming from him and it took Bill a moment to determine that Severus was, indeed, amused .

"I'm afraid our experiences will not have much overlap. I've never raised an infant and I fear the experience I do have with teenagers is colored by my years as a professor."

Bill looked at Severus almost fondly.

"And by your long association with one Harry Potter," he said. "Raising an infant should be a breeze compared to that."

Severus wondered then, watching Harry fly back from the front yard and soar over the ocean, what Harry would have been like as an infant. He imagined the same messy hair, a plushie Snitch grasped in a chubby hand, the thumb of the other hand firmly in his mouth. A baby swaddled in a blanket, its fat cheek resting against his mother's shoulder as she sang a quiet lullaby. Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, Lavender's green…

"Someday Harry's going to give you grandchildren, Severus." Bill's voice interrupted his reverie. "You'll learn all about infants then."

"Let's get him out of Hogwarts first, shall we?" said Severus. Not that he was opposed to the idea of grandchildren. It would just take some getting used to.

/

Severus had gone up to bed already and Harry and Ron sat side by side on the porch, their lounge chairs pulled next to each other with a low table between them holding their bag of crisps and butterbeers. Ron held the Deluminator and kept snuffing out all of the oil lamps on the porch only to light them again, balls of flame careening back toward the walls at dazzling speeds.

"Do you still have your gift from Dumbledore?" asked Ron.

Harry nodded. "Upstairs in my bag from Hagrid. I expect I'll always keep it."

Ron sighed. "Hermione's got her book from him in her bedroom in a special box. She's rather fond of it."

"I bet she is," laughed Harry. "She's fond of all of her books."

"Well, this one in particular," said Ron. "Like I said, special box and all."

"Hogwarts: A History probably wouldn't fit in the box," said Harry. "Hey, how do you know about this box anyway? Have you been to Hermione's bedroom?" He looked over at Ron curiously in time to see his face color with a blush.

"Well, yeah—we are together now, you know," answered Ron. He flicked the Deluminator, pointing it at the oil lamp on the breakfast table. The lamp flamed up and shadows danced around the room.

"Together?" asked Harry, carefully. "Like, how together? Have you…?"

"No! Not really. I mean no, we haven't. Not yet."

"Not really?" repeated Harry, both amused and suddenly very interested in where this conversation was going. If only it wasn't Hermione they were talking about.

"Well, we've done some stuff but not it," clarified Ron. "Listen, I know you're my best mate and all but this is kind of awkward. Hermione's your friend, too…."

"Tell me about it," muttered Harry, thinking of having this same conversation about Ginny and suddenly wanting very much to change the topic.

"Wait a minute." Ron put down his bottle of butterbeer and glared over at Harry. "You and my sister haven't gotten up to anything, have you?"

"No! Of course not," Harry choked out.

"What do you mean 'of course not?' Isn't she good enough for you?"

That odd twist left Harry confused. "What are you on about, Ron? First you as good as threaten me, thinking I might be up to something with your sister, then you accuse me of thinking she's not good enough for me because we haven't done it yet."

"You haven't?"

"I just told you we haven't, you prat! It's just me and Severus here—how do you suppose we'd manage that?"

Ron processed that a moment. "What I think I'm hearing you say is that you only haven't done it because you haven't had the chance but that you'd do it in a second if you were alone." He glared sideways at Harry and Harry, frustrated as he was at Ron's circular logic, wanted to laugh.

"I didn't say that at all. I said that even IF we wanted to do it, we wouldn't really have a chance around here, would we? It's not like I get to sneak up to Ginny's bedroom like you do with Hermione. Kind of convenient that her parents are out working every day and she has the afternoons off, isn't it?"

Ron's offensive posture dropped away. He sighed dreamily. "Yeah, it is, isn't it?"

Harry was suddenly reminded of Ron after he'd eaten the spiked Chocolate Cauldrons and had developed a sudden infatuation with Romilda Vane.

Harry echoed his sigh, but his was one of frustration rather than contentment.

"I was kissing Ginny goodbye the other night after you and Hermione had already Flooed out and Severus came in and literally yanked us apart. He had me by the collar!"

Ron let out a loud guffaw. "You must have been practically devouring her face for him to do that. Where did you have your hands?" Then he suddenly seemed to recall who Harry had been kissing. "Wait a minute. Where DID you have your hands?"

"Where did you have yours when you and Hermione were doing whatever 'not really doing it' means?"

"You better not have had them there!" hissed Ron. He and Harry stared at each other a long minute and then both erupted in laughter.

"Just do me a favor and NEVER tell me what you're getting up to with my sister, OK?" asked Ron when they'd calmed down enough to talk again.

"Listen, Ron, we're best mates. Best mates talk about what they get up to. Maybe we should make up some code names for our girlfriends. We can just call them 'Lavender' and 'Cho.' Then you can give me the play-by-play, since you're obviously a lot closer to scoring than I am."

"Would you stop talking about scoring with my sister?" moaned Ron.

"I'm not! You're supposed to be talking about scoring with 'Lavender.'" Harry laughed at the pained look on Ron's face. He mumbled, "Won-Won," under his breath and Ron hit him with a pillow.

"OK, how's this?" Ron took another handful of crisps and popped one into his mouth, chewing loudly. He swallowed. "OK, Harry, last night Lavender let me take her t-shirt off. Then she let me take her bra off. Then she let me touch her breasts. Sweet Merlin, they were gorgeous. All firm and perky but soft and so smooth. I could have packed up my bags and moved into those breasts—that's how much it was like coming home…."

"Stop! You're talking about Hermione's breasts!" Harry looked vaguely ill.

"No, I'm not. I'm talking about 'Lavender's' breasts. You told me to call her Lavender so we could share this stuff like best mates do."

"I was wrong. Never mention it again."

They sat there for a long while, talking quietly, drinking butterbeer and, when the crisps were gone, eating the biscuits Mrs. Weasley had sent with Ron.

"I can't believe so much time has gone by," said Harry at last. "It's the middle of June already. We'll be back at Hogwarts in two months."

"Yeah, and I'll be eyeballs deep in N.E.W.T. classes, thanks to our favorite headmaster."

Harry chuckled. He'd spent a good thirty minutes looking at Ron's class schedule and dreading his own session with Severus which Severus had agreed to put off until Ron's visit was over. "Can you imagine Hermione's reaction when she finds out you're going to be taking Arithmancy?"

Ron smiled. He pointed the Deluminator to the wall sconce again and put out one of the lamps. "You remember how I used the Deluminator to find you last Christmas? After I left?"

How could he not? "Of course I do," Harry answered quietly, looking at the grey steel device in Ron's hands. He wanted to hug that Deluminator for bringing Ron back to them. He wanted to reach into the grave and thank Dumbledore for having the foresight and wisdom to leave such an important gift to his best friend.

"Well, it still works like that, you know. I guess…I guess it tries to take you to where your heart is, or where it wants to be. Last winter—I wanted to be back with you both so much it was all I could think of. It would tease me with your voices. But now—now it teases me with hers. If I use it during the day, I can sometimes hear her talking with her parents in their office if she's there with them. Or in the evening, I hear them laughing in front of the television."

Harry smiled at Ron. "Looks like Dumbledore gave you something you'll always treasure, then," he said.

Ron shrugged and put the device back into his pocket. "Yeah. I keep it with my wand. Guess it ranks right up there with that, eh?"

After a long quiet moment, Harry's voice broke the silence.

"So, did Hermione really let you...?"

He felt he definitely deserved the punch on his shoulder.

 

 

(Chapter 5)

Chapter 5

"They want you to do what?" Minerva grabbed the parchment with the Ministry seal right out of Severus' hands and began to scan it. Nearly a week had passed since Ron and Bill's visit. Term started in ten weeks and she and Severus were now meeting twice a week to iron out the details of a new year at a boarding school for hundreds of magical students.

"A deposition?" She raised worried eyes and met Severus’. "I understand why this is needed, Severus. But so soon?"

"They've given me nearly two months already," said Severus. "It is not an unreasonable request, and certainly not unexpected. Especially considering what they are up against."

"What? Rebuilding an entire government when nearly half of its former officials are now imprisoned in Azkaban? Trying to locate the Muggle-born witches and wizards who fled the country and assure them it is safe to return? Determining how to compensate the hundreds who were imprisoned for the impossible act of stealing magic from legitimate magical beings? Arranging for trauma counseling for all of Hogwarts' professors and students?

"I think they are most concerned now with sorting out the accused," said Severus dryly. "And they believe that I may be of help." He indicated the parchment in Minerva's hand. "Thus, the summons."

"You will need to distract Harry—perhaps send him to the Burrow for the day," suggested Minerva as she helped herself to tea, adding a touch of milk and frowning as she stirred it in.

"I am not sure that is possible," said Severus. "We have already discussed his reluctance both to leave me and to foray out into the Wizarding world. I have agreed to leave him be until July."

"He cannot go with you," said Minerva in a voice that brooked no argument. "Harry has made only a half dozen appearances since the final battle—each and every one of them at the funeral of a loved one. More than a month has passed since the Creevey boy's funeral, and he's gone from Hogwarts to this cottage in that time. I know he reads the Prophet, Severus, but does he have any idea what it will be like out there? The number of people who have him to personally thank for their lives and liberty?

"We cannot hide here forever, Minerva. His failure to appear in public will make the aura of mystery around him even greater. He must face this sometime, but he truly doesn't know what it is he will face." He sighed as he sat down on his usual place in the center of the sofa. "I will have to tell him about this, Minerva, and I very much doubt he will let me go to the Ministry without him. As much as he wants to avoid that place, he will not trust them with me."

"I'm not sure even I trust them with you," said Minerva quietly. "I think it prudent that I accompany you, as well. I don't want anyone to get any hare-brained ideas and elevate you to some ridiculous Ministry post when Hogwarts has such need of you."

"I will be fine. This is a deposition, not a trial."

"Speaking of trials, have you heard anything yet of Draco Malfoy?"

Severus' mouth tightened into a line. "He is at the manor with his mother. Both are being used as collateral, so to speak, against Lucius. He will be permanently interned without trial if they leave the country or break the terms of their provisional freedom." He shook his head. "The greatest challenge Draco faces is the charge from Katie Bell's family. I cannot fault them for wanting recompense. The emotional turmoil and the financial expense of having her in St. Mungo's for all those months has nearly broken the family and she has never quite come back to how she was before the cursing.”

"Severus, did Draco Malfoy take the Dark Mark?" Minerva had taken her habitual seat across from Severus and was eying a second Ministry letter sitting on the table between them.

"He did," answered Severus with a sigh. "Interestingly, and quite surprisingly, however, the Ministry has decreed that the presence of the Dark Mark alone is not grounds for trial or internment. They are, however, working diligently to find evidence of specific crimes attributed to those who carried the brand."

"Carried it?" asked Minerva.

In answer to her question, Severus loosened the buttons on the cuff of his shirt sleeve on his left arm and slowly rolled it back, exposing his forearm. He slowly rotated his arm, showing the area from wrist to elbow where for so many years he had carried Voldemort's mark.

Minerva leaned in, then stared up at Severus.

"It's barely visible, Severus! Did you do something?"

He laughed. "Me? Hardly. Harry did something. This happened the last time—when the Dark Lord disappeared for all those years after trying to kill Harry. But always then it was a shadow just barely visible. Now…it is already nearly gone, and will soon be so permanently, I expect. The magic that bound it is gone and cannot retain even a tenuous hold on the mark."

Minerva reached out a thin hand and ran her fingers slowly over the skin of his arm. "What a gift, Severus. A chance for the young ones to start over."

"And some of the older ones, as well," added Severus, "though many will not have the chance. Their crimes are documented and they will be tried. Those who survived, in any case."

"There have been suicides in Azkaban, I understand," said Minerva. Severus did not comment and she nodded to the second letter resting on the table.

"A summons for Harry as well?" she ventured.

"Not exactly," said Severus. He looked out of the room toward the hallway and the bottom of the stairs.

"He's still in bed?" asked Minerva, checking the clock on the wall, which currently read eight thirty.

Severus nodded. "He's often up by now, but sometimes sleeps past nine." He glanced at the letter that had captured Minerva's attention. "The Ministry is requesting a series of memories from Harry, to be viewed by the Wizengamot, documented in narrative format for archival purposes, then returned to him. They will store with the documentation the memory of one of the panel reviewing the actual memory." Try as he did to keep his voice neutral, as if simply relating to Minerva that he hoped it wouldn't rain that day, there was a certain tightness, apprehension, in his voice that Minerva did not miss.

"I do not think the request itself is unusual," she replied carefully. "But the devil is in the details, Severus. Have they listed the specific memories they would like to view and record?"

Now he didn't bother to maintain his neutral tone. "Not exactly," he said, grimacing. "Although they have alluded to 'pivotal events leading up to and including the Battle of Hogwarts.'"

Minerva reached across the table again, grasping his hand. "You have been fully exonerated, Severus. Do you suspect they are looking for anything besides records for the official archives?"

"I think they are a curious bunch of old coots and biddies who are looking for more titillation than the Prophet can give them. I think there were enough eyewitnesses to Voldemort's demise that a memory from Harry is just icing on the proverbial cake. I think…"

"Severus—" interrupted Minerva with a smile. "Severus, Harry has not seen this letter yet?"

Severus shook his head. "It came this morning with my own." He tapped it with a formal-looking white quill that had been resting atop an inkwell. "It is at times like this, Minerva, that I most wish Albus were here. He'd have this sorted out quickly. His mind was so sharp, so calculating…"

"Which is something about the man that you most certainly did not appreciate while he was alive," said Minerva with an indulgent smile. "And while I am decidedly not Albus Dumbledore, I do suggest you discuss the matter with Harry and make a counteroffer of sorts. Ask for a specific list of memories they would like to examine. Or offer a list of your own making of memories he is willing to share. You must appear to be willing to cooperate, and turn the situation to your own advantage."

"Has anyone ever told you that you are a brilliant strategist, Minerva?" Severus said with a grateful smile.

"I'm more accustomed to hearing phrases such as 'blasted feline' and 'meddling old cat.'"

"Your reputation precedes you."

"I realize that. Now let's get through some of this paperwork so you have the afternoon free to spend with Harry. I expect this will not sit well with the boy."

Severus could only nod his agreement.

/

"I don't think you should go. You can send them an owl—tell them you're having a bad day."

Severus turned to face Harry, who was standing in the doorway of his bedroom. It was just past eight in the morning on Thursday but Harry was wide awake and already dressed in formal trousers and one of Severus' dark blue dress shirts.

"I appreciate your concern," said Severus. He took a deep breath and released it slowly, counting backwards from ten to keep himself from snapping at Harry. Three days since the Ministry owls had come, three days since he'd first sat down with Harry to discuss the impending visit to the Ministry. Three days of increasingly desperate reasons that Severus should not—could not—show up for his scheduled deposition. Three nights of fitful sleep—for both of them. Thank Merlin Harry's own appointment was two weeks away still.

"Harry, I am leaving in less than an hour for the Ministry. You do not have to accompany me—indeed, you know I would prefer that you remain here. Your friends have said they would come stay with you if you do not wish to be alone."

Harry stared at Severus. "It's not about being alone and you know it."

"Then I suggest you finish getting dressed, get your robes on and meet me downstairs in fifteen minutes."

Harry didn't move. Severus sat down on the bed, bent to pull on his socks. When he looked up, Harry was still there in the doorway, distressed but obviously attempting to compose himself.

"You're going."

Severus stood. "Twelve minutes."

Harry turned on his heel and disappeared down the hall.

/

"I will remind you now that I do not want you in the room with me while I am being interviewed," said Severus softly as he and Harry stepped out of the Floo into the vestibule of the Ministry of Magic.

"Interviewed. Right." Harry's voice was skeptical.

They both stared out at the people crowding the Ministry atrium.

For the moment, no one was paying them the least bit of attention. They had arrived at fifteen minutes 'til nine in the morning, at precisely the same time that an entire shift of Ministry employees was making its way through the atrium toward the lifts. Severus directed Harry toward the small kiosk at the end of the cavernous room where visitors checked in to receive their badges. The kiosk was obviously a temporary arrangement, hastily set up after Voldemort fell and the Ministry was retaken. Harry hadn't given much thought to what had gone on at the Ministry after Voldemort died. He had a general sense that things had been chaotic, that there had been fighting here as well, and the 'work in progress' state of the atrium seemed to confirm that. The most notable difference from the last time he had been here—in early September when he, Ron and Hermione had infiltrated the building using Polyjuice Potion—was the absence of the "Magic is Might" monument that had replaced the Statue of Magical Brethren.

Their anonymity, however, did not last long. They were recognized before they made it to the kiosk.

In the past, when he was recognized in Diagon Alley or the Leaky Cauldron or even in Hogsmeade, people would whisper and point, nod to him, and an occasional witch or wizard would greet him by name and shake his hand. His fame in those days was as the Boy Who Lived, the only person in history to have survived the Killing Curse and in doing so, dispatched the Dark Lord for thirteen years.

To say that his fame had grown since then was an understatement indeed.

Now he was the Boy Who Lived Twice, or the Boy Who Lived Again, the Chosen One, the Savior of the Wizarding World. The seventeen-year-old wizard who, with a simple Expelliarmus after nearly a year of finding and destroying Horcruxes, sent Lord Voldemort permanently to his grave.

Perhaps it had not been the best idea in the world to arrive at the Ministry of Magic at this time of the morning, when hundreds of Ministry employees were arriving to work.

Or on a day when depositions and arraignments were scheduled from a variety of individuals—noted and notorious—including the former High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge herself.

Severus' decision to not notify the Ministry that Harry would be accompanying him today suddenly seemed like a terrible oversight.

Nearly every individual hurrying across or waiting in the Ministry atrium that day felt indebted in some way to Harry Potter for what he had done for each of them personally, as well as for the magical world as a whole.

The Aurors positioned around the atrium recognized the potential threat as whispers, then calls, then shouts of "He's here!" and "It's Harry Potter!" rose throughout the vast chamber. As Harry tried to move in front of Severus at the same time that Severus tried to position Harry between himself and the kiosk, four of the red-robed Aurors managed to reach them.

Severus could see Harry's panic.

He was in near panic mode himself. He'd expected that he and Harry would draw attention, but the sheer number of individuals present, the surge of people moving toward them and the sudden appearance of the Aurors was much more than he had expected. With his focus on Harry and his unaccustomed physical weakness he felt decidedly threatened. He had drawn his wand reflexively, as had Harry, but did not even think of using it as the Aurors turned their backs to them, facing the crowd. Severus managed to grab hold of Harry's elbow and pulled him against himself as the Aurors pressed back against the crowd, shouting orders.

But all hell broke loose a minute later, when a shout of "Grab her!" rose up from near the lift banks. Shouts, screams, spells firing over heads as the guards who had been transporting Dolores Umbridge to her arraignment tore through the hall in her pursuit.

Severus heard one of the Aurors protecting them from the throng exclaim, "It's Umbridge!"

Harry heard, too. He attempted to jerk away but Severus wrapped a second arm around him and pressed back against the kiosk.

Unfortunately, the fray seemed to be headed toward them. The kiosk was at the far end of the atrium, the end closest to the lifts, and the crowds were heavy but not as dense past it.

A spell, an obvious scuffle, a shout, clearly heard above the other noise: "She's got a wand!"

Another shout: "Where's Potter?"

The Potter in question was currently struggling in Severus' arms, trying to free himself.

The Aurors surrounding them pressed them back further as a maniacal scream rent the air followed by a high-pitched "Alohomora."

Then another scream, this one starting loud and dwindling, the end of the dying scream covered by the uproar of the crowd, which changed course and turned nearly en masse away from their advance on Harry and Severus and toward the source of the scream.

"That was her. That was Umbridge! I remember that scream—from the Forbidden Forest, when the centaurs carried her off!" Harry strained to see around the Aurors and Severus pulled him back again.

"Let the Aurors take care of it, Harry. Don't call any more attention to yourself."

Reinforcements had clearly arrived and, after a frantic five minutes or so, one of the Aurors guarding them turned around.

"They're clearing the atrium," she said, addressing Severus. "Looks like our escapee has taken care of herself."

"That was Umbridge, wasn't it? What happened?" Harry asked anxiously.

The Auror glanced over her shoulder. Harry could see a throng of red robes now near the lift on the far left. Other Ministry officials had appeared as well and were directing people to the remaining lifts, the emergency staircases and out of the atrium through the Floos. Harry thought he saw Kingsley Shacklebolt by the lifts, talking with the Aurors.

"Fell down the lift shaft," said the Auror, turning back to face Harry and Severus. "Minister himself is over there now. We'll wait until the crowd clears before taking you up, Headmaster."

"Why was she here today?" asked Severus sharply. "I was told she was in prison."

"You didn't tell me she was in pris…." Harry cut himself off as he saw Severus' 'we'll talk about this later' look.

"She was being brought in for her arraignment today," answered the Auror. "There are arraignments and depositions scheduled all week. We've had high profile cases stacked back to back."

"And how did she end up on the bottom of a lift shaft?" Severus asked, acting as if he was the Auror in charge rather than the very capable-looking woman facing them.

The Auror cracked a smile. "Inopportune timing on her Alohomora spell. She forced open the lift doors before the lift arrived and…." She shrugged, leaving them to fill in the blank.

Severus glanced at Harry. The boy didn't look distraught over the death. Perhaps that was a good sign, considering how much he had suffered at her hands. He did look uncomfortable, however, and vaguely ill, as if the unexpected crowds and the unwelcome attention had left him with an upset stomach.

"Mr. Potter could use some tea and, frankly, so could I," he said, turning back to the Auror. "I have a deposition scheduled in fifteen minutes."

"Severus. Harry." The Auror stepped back as the Minister of Magic approached, tailed by two additional Aurors.

"Kingsley!" Harry greeted him at the same time that Severus reached out his hand.

"Minister Shacklebolt."

Kingsley shook Severus' hand, then clasped Harry around the shoulders.

"No one alerted us that you'd be accompanying Severus today, Harry. We would have taken precautions—slipped you in through one of the private entrances."

Severus shook his head. "I would have preferred that he stay at the cottage. He insisted on coming. I believe he feels I'm not yet recovered enough for an inquisition."

"Inquisition?" Kingsley raised an eyebrow.

"His words. I've explained depositions but he remains…mistrustful."

"You don't have to talk about me like I'm not here," put in Harry.

"Please, feel free to jump in at any time," quipped Severus.

"What happened to Umbridge?" asked Harry. "How did she escape? Is she really dead?"

Kingsley looked grave. "She's dead. They've just retrieved her body, in fact. She escaped while she was being transported to her arraignment. The commotion in the atrium provided a distraction and she grabbed a bystander's wand. We have been a bit concerned about her mental state lately, and something like this should have been anticipated and prevented."

"I hated her," said Harry. "I'm glad she's dead." He had a sudden memory of Mad-Eye Moody's magical eye mounted on her office door. Rest in Peace, Mad-Eye.

Severus' hand, which had been resting on Harry's shoulder, tightened. He exchanged a quick look with Kingsley.

"I realize the time is short, but that bit of tea would be welcome," Severus said.

"Of course. The depositions are being held on the level below mine. Why don't we stop by my office for a cuppa and Harry can stay with me during your appointment?"

"Right. Appointment," grumbled Harry, now eying even Kingsley suspiciously.

"Harry, I realize you have no reason to trust the Ministry in general, but could you at least trust me personally? Severus is performing an invaluable service and he will be treated with all respect due him."

Harry nodded as they were escorted by the Auror guard toward the lift farthest from the scene of the tragic end of Dolores Umbridge. "But he's not well yet, not entirely," he informed Kingsley as the lift doors opened and they stepped inside.

"None of us are, Harry. None of us are," answered Kingsley as the doors closed.

/

Kingsley's office was surprisingly modest. It was roomy and had a nice seating area where all three sat down for a cup of tea while the three Aurors who had accompanied them waited in the hallway. But the office seemed to have older furnishings and looked as if it had been put together rather hastily.

"This was an administrative office," Kingsley informed them as they sat drinking their tea. "The office used by Thicknesse is unusable." He glanced meaningfully at Severus. "It's quite tainted by Dark Magic, actually. We've had specialists in but, frankly, they're needed more urgently elsewhere, so I lowered it on the priority list and moved in here."

Severus finished his tea rather quickly, bypassed the biscuits entirely, and stood.

"I'd best get this over with. I expect it will take some time, Harry. Please be patient and wait here for me. Kingsley, perhaps you can find something to keep Harry busy?"

Harry stilled as Severus walked toward the door, staring after him until the door closed behind him. He put his cup down on the table, the half-eaten biscuit on the saucer forgotten.

"Severus explained depositions to you, Harry," stated Kingsley. "You understand the process is to collect testimony of a witness, don't you?"

Harry looked over at the Minister, then down at his half-empty mug. "Yes. I understand that. But he doesn't need…he doesn't need to…to…remember all of it. I told you already: he isn't completely well yet."

"But you understand, don't you, that Severus Snape's testimony is perhaps the most valuable of all? He witnessed many of the crimes our prisoners committed. He can provide eyewitness testimony, even corroborate some of the evidence given by cooperating Death Eaters."

Harry pushed his saucer away, frustrated. "But Kingsley," he said, voice low and tense. "He committed crimes, too. He had to."

Kingsley reached across the table and placed a hand on Harry's wrist. "Harry, Severus is not on trial. He's been granted immunity from prosecution; you know that. The only stipulation is that he cooperate at the deposition. Isn't it best just to get this over with?"

Harry let out a sound that was half snort, half resigned sigh.

"That's what he said." Harry looked across at Kingsley. "He's been busy taking care of me." He smiled at Kingsley. "Well, he thinks he has, anyway. And getting ready for next term. He's had plenty to think about, to keep his mind busy. I'm not ready…" He stopped, took a deep breath. "I don't think he's ready—not yet—to deal with those memories, with what he had to do." He looked up at Kingsley again. "He didn't have a choice."

"Harry, you forget I was a member of the Order of the Phoenix. I know what Albus asked Severus to do. I know some of what his other master made him do, too. I listened to Severus' reports at more meetings than I care to remember, Harry." Kingsley leaned back in his chair and studied the young man sitting before him. "I imagine you've seen and done some things, too, that you'll need to deal with, as you say. Harry, we have some very good mind healers here at the Ministry…."

Harry frowned. "Mind healers?"

"In the Muggle world they're called psychologists. Sometimes just therapists. They help people deal with trauma, work through grief."

Harry clenched his hands into tight fists.

"Harry. Listen to me. I am not suggesting this for my own ends, or for any purpose that benefits the Ministry of Magic. We already have a team of professionals working with the Hogwarts staff and a separate team, one that specializes in the needs of children and teenagers, will be working with Madam Pomfrey beginning in September when classes start. I am not singling you out—just offering a jump start, so to speak."

Harry understood, at some level, what Kingsley was offering. His mind registered that these healers would be at Hogwarts in the fall, and if that was so, that Severus as headmaster must know about it and must have given his approval. Was he planning on telling him?

"I think I'll wait," he said to Kingsley, forcing a smile. "I'll talk to Severus first."

Kingsley wiped a large hand over the top of his head. "The Board of Governors is requiring that all returning Hogwarts faculty speak to the counselors on a regular basis. The events of the past year were so traumatic…."

"The past year?" interrupted Harry, scoffing. "I'd say we had a bit or more of trauma every year." He stood and walked over to the lone window in the room and stood looking out over London. Odd that, since the building was totally underground. He turned to face the Minister. "Sorry—that was rude. That's all water under the bridge, anyway, isn't it? The important thing is that Voldemort's gone and the Ministry is putting things back together." He smiled. "Listen, I'll be fine. I've got loads of free time this summer, and nothing better to do than lie on the beach and collect seashells. Take care of stuff here. You don't need to be worrying about me or about Hogwarts. We're young. We'll recover. It will all be fine."

Kingsley stood and went over to his desk on the other side of the room. The desk was an old wooden monster, with drawers and cubbyholes and a space for an old-fashioned inkwell, just like any of those the Wizarding world still used. He rooted around the parchment stacked haphazardly on the desk and finally pulled out a single piece of parchment and dropped it on the desk in front of Harry.

"The names of the students who won't be coming back to Hogwarts," he said. "More than twenty of them dead. Another eight so traumatized they're still in St. Mungo's." He looked on as Harry paled, then glanced up at Kingsley.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because not a single one of those children still hospitalized saw anything worse than you did, Harry."

Harry glanced back down at the paper, his stomach churning.

"Did Severus ask you to talk with me?" he said at last.

Kingsley shook his head. "No, Harry. I didn't know you were coming today, remember? But I asked him a few days ago if I could come speak with you, just as I am speaking personally with quite a few of your classmates. Severus just asked that I wait until after the deposition. He wanted you both to get over that hurdle first."

"I'm not quite over it, actually," said Harry, glancing at the door.

"I realize that, Harry. I brought this up to you only when I saw your concern for Severus, your worry that he should not have to remember these…atrocities…yet. It struck me that he, as a Hogwarts employee, will be getting professional help and I wanted to make the offer to you as well. You could see the same healer; we have several who work with adults and children."

"I'm not a child."

Harry stared at Kingsley, arms folded defensively in front of him, chin slightly raised.

No, thought Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt, looking at the young man who reminded him much more of Severus Snape lately than of James Potter, you're not a child any longer, Harry Potter.

"Will you be requiring the students to talk to these…mind healers?" asked Harry, toying with the list in his hands.

"No. Only their parents or guardians can set that requirement. We will simply make the best trauma counselors available for those who choose to see them. Though there will be occasional large group sessions which all students will be required to attend."

"Can't we just put this all behind us and get on with life?" Harry asked. He sounded resigned.

"That's our intent, Harry. It will just take some time." He stood then and beckoned to Harry.

"Severus tells me you are still considering entering the Auror Corps. Come. Let's visit the training rooms. The recruits are dueling today."

/

Severus was not back until nearly one o'clock in the afternoon.

Fortunately, Harry had spent a content two hours in the training rooms watching the Auror recruits duel. Kingsley stayed with him, watching the duels and commenting on them, making the recruits nervous and on edge. At noon they returned to Kingsley's office, where Harry refused lunch and proceeded to pace for nearly an hour until the office door opened and Severus stepped inside, escorted by two Aurors.

He was pale and drawn. He sank gratefully into a chair Kingsley pulled out for him.

Harry moved quickly over to him. "Let's go home, Severus. You need to lie down."

Severus raised his hand. "In a moment, Harry. You are right—I am in need of a good lie down. How did you spend your morning?"

Harry sat down next to him and poured him a cup of tea from the service that had appeared on the table. He looked at Severus, still obviously worried. "Kingsley took me down to watch the Auror recruits duel."

Severus frowned and glanced over at Kingsley.

"I stayed with him, Severus. And no, I did not allow him to participate in the dueling."

"And he told me about the mind healers—at Hogwarts," said Harry, wishing to get that tidbit out on the table when both Severus and Kingsley were still in the room.

"Did he, now?" said Severus. "I was planning to tell you about that after we got through today."

"You're seeing someone?" asked Harry. "He said the staff was required to. He thinks I should see someone, too."

Kingsley had no doubt now where Harry's loyalties were.

"I'm not seeing anyone yet," answered Severus. "I am scheduled to meet with a healer at Hogwarts next month."

"Well, do you think I need to see someone?"

Severus stared at Harry a long moment. "I don't know, Harry. I thought you should get back into the business of being a teenager this summer, spend time with your friends, relax. I didn't plan on asking you to make a decision about counseling until the end of summer."

"But you're going to do it—right?"

"Yes. I am required to." Harry did not miss his slight frown as he said it.

"Would you do it if they weren't making you?"

"Harry, perhaps we should continue this conversation at home. Minister, thank you for spending time with Harry this morning."

He stood up slowly and Harry was up and at his side immediately. Kingsley watched them go without comment but inside he wondered how much reach Albus Dumbledore had from beyond the grave. The relationship between Severus Snape and Harry Potter was very much like something only Dumbledore could have dreamed up and orchestrated.

/

Harry settled Severus on the sofa and brought him a glass of water. Severus was lying back with this eyes closed by the time Harry returned from the kitchen, but he opened his eyes and reached for the glass when he heard Harry enter. Harry sat on the opposite end of the couch and pulled his legs up, assuming the position he so often took when he was upset or contemplative.

Severus had closed his eyes after drinking the water, and Harry sat there on the sofa and stared at him, stared at the pale face, the prominent nose he had ridiculed when he was younger, the tightly knit eyebrows, the dark hair drawn back with a band at the nape of his neck.

"Do you want to sleep?" he asked after a bit of time had passed. Severus' eyes were closed, but he was obviously not sleeping.

"They asked me about Charity Burbage," said Severus, opening his eyes and staring at the ceiling

"Professor Burbage?" asked Harry, off-balance at the sudden topic. "Didn't she teach Muggle Studies?"

"Yes, she does. She did. She was captured and brought to…Voldemort…last summer."

Harry stared at Severus even as the other man closed his eyes and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead.

"Did he…? Did he kill her?" asked Harry quietly.

Severus nodded, eyes still closed. "He had her suspended over the banquet table. He killed her in front of all of the Death Eaters—fed her to Nagini."

Harry paled, blanched. Watched Severus' face contort.

"You were there?" he asked, compelled by some inner force to ask even though he did not really want to know.

Severus nodded without a verbal response.

"That must have been awful," said Harry very quietly, eyes still glued to Severus' broken face. "Were you friends?"

Severus shook his head. "We were colleagues. Not friends."

"Oh."

This was just the type of thing, thought Harry, that one should keep inside. Not share. Pack up into a little compartment, nail the lid shut, store in the back of a mental closet. Charity Burbage had been dead for a year. So had Mad-Eye Moody. So had Albus Dumbledore.

"She saw me there, just before he killed her."

Shit. He didn't want to hear this. But he stared at Severus, transfixed.

"She called out to me. By name. She said 'Severus…please….please.' As she was trapped there, suspended, spinning in the air…."

Harry had no words. Tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes, tears for the helpless Muggle Studies professor, tears for Severus. He wasn't sure who he would have chosen to be if given the choice—Charity Burbage, condemned to death, or Severus Snape, condemned to watch her die.

Or himself. Sitting here on the couch with the one he now called father, watching his beloved face as tears streamed from his eyes, rolled down his cheeks.

"She was crying," Severus said through his own tears. "And I did nothing."

And because you did nothing, you lived another day, thought Harry. Because you did nothing you were headmaster of Hogwarts last year, and you did everything in your power to take care of my friends. To get things ready for me.

"She would forgive you," said Harry at last, in a voice hardly more than a whisper. "If she knew why you couldn't help her."

Severus opened his eyes and looked at his son, so wise for his years. Saw that Harry was crying too.

"But I have not yet forgiven myself," said Severus.

Harry remembered Cedric. And Sirius. And he thought he understood.

 

 

(Chapter 6)

A/N: My apologies for not getting a chapter out last weekend. My mother, who has suffered long from vascular dementia, died on December 1st. I took a short but necessary break from writing but felt up to it again this weekend. I'm not sure about this chapter-shorter than the others and not as meaty, but I've brought Neville to Shell Cottage and touched on Teddy again. Hope you enjoy .

________________________________________

Chapter 6

"Severus?"

Severus looked up from his papers—these days, he was often bent over piles of parchment and Ministry letters. It was Sunday evening, only three days after his deposition at the Ministry of Magic. Harry held up a piece of parchment.

"Neville wrote me last week. I wrote back and asked him out here to visit. I thought we could spend the day at the beach."

"You told me that last week, Harry," said Severus. He rolled up his right shirtsleeve, folding the cuff carefully. "Have you heard back from him?"

Harry waved the letter again. "Yeah, I have. He seems to have some concerns about visiting." He hesitated. "Well, about you in particular. Said there was some bad blood between you two this past year, actually."

"That's one way to put it," mumbled Severus.

"I was there at the end, you know," said Harry. "When he tried to hex you, before you…left."

"I was not kind to him," said Severus. "Not even covertly, as I was to Miss Weasley. I have been meaning to speak to you about this, Harry. Perhaps now is a good time."

Harry walked into the room from the doorway and sat down in what he now called "Minerva's chair."

"Ginny's filled me in a bit," he said. Severus looked at him as he spoke, waiting. "She said you gave Neville over to the Carrows once, for hexing practice." There was a slight challenge in Harry's eyes, almost as if he were asking Severus to deny this obvious truth. Ginny Weasley was a trusted source.

"I did," admitted Severus. He did not volunteer any more information.

"You did," repeated Harry. He glanced back down at the letter in his hand then looked up again at Severus. "I'm sure…you must have had a reason."

"I did," answered Severus, still not looking away. "But that does not excuse my actions."

Harry's face fell. "We've been over this already," he said. "I get it. It's just like with Professor Burbage. These things you did—that you're not proud of—a lot of times they saved a lot of people in the long run. You have to let go of some of this."

Severus' face lifted slightly, a small smile replacing the tight-lipped stare. "Perhaps you should be the counselor," he suggested.

Harry scowled and Severus smiled more broadly.

"I don't need counseling."

Severus raised his eyebrows. "I have never said that you do. In fact, I have not even suggested that you seek out one of the Ministry-provided mind healers when we return to Hogwarts. I may suggest that at summer's end if I feel you need it, but even at that point, Harry, it is ultimately your decision."

Harry let the subject drop, as he had several times in the past few days. "So are you going to clue me in as to why you picked on Neville all year?"

"Why don't you tell me what you think?" asked Severus. He picked up a rag and cleaned the tip of his quill as he watched Harry.

"I hate these games," said Harry crossly. "Just tell me."

"It isn't a game," responded Severus. "It's a call for you to put yourself in my place. I don't claim to have made all the right decisions, Harry. But I did as you asked. As Albus asked. I tried to protect your friends and all the children at Hogwarts." He looked at Harry, thinking that his heart, worn so openly on his sleeve, should be visible there. "Neville Longbottom protected more children at Hogwarts, more of your friends, than I ever could have. But to do so, he had to be their hero. And to be their hero, he had to be my enemy."

Harry stared at Severus, obviously turning the words over in his head.

"It could have been someone else. Why Neville?" he asked.

"He was there at the right time," answered Severus honestly. He sighed. "Harry, I cannot even begin to try to explain the travesty that was last year. We all walked on eggshells all the time. It was a delicate balancing game. The Carrows were the Dark Lord's watch—"

"Voldemort. Say Voldemort," interrupted Harry.

"The Carrows were Voldemort's watchdogs," continued Severus. "My loyalties simply could not be questioned. Neville was a Gryffindor. A known friend of Harry Potter. That he happened to be there when the opportunity arose to further prove my allegiance was nothing but coincidence."

Harry looked down at the letter in his hands.

"He wants to come see me," he said softly. "But he was hoping to come when you weren't here."

Severus now realized he should have addressed this issue earlier. He'd forgotten all about young Neville Longbottom these last few weeks. He had heard the tales of the final battle and the part Neville played.

"Would you like me to leave? I could spend a few hours at Hogwarts with Minerva and the other professors."

"No," answered Harry, a bit too quickly. "Just…would you be kind of…scarce?" Severus saw what that request was costing Harry and sighed.

"I can be as scarce as you'd like me to be, Harry," he answered. "And I will be cordial to Mr. Longbottom. Should I attempt to speak with him alone? Apologize for my behavior?"

Harry looked quickly down at the letter again. He shook his head. "I don't think so. Not this first time, anyway."

Severus sighed. "Fine. I do think, however, that Mr. Longbottom should see me, and should see me interact with you in a normal way."

"Alright," agreed Harry. "Maybe you could come downstairs and ask me something. Something normal. Like what I want for dinner or if I've done my summer homework yet."

"Why would I ask you if you've done your summer work yet in the middle of your friend's visit? Especially when you don't even have summer work?" teased Severus.

"You know what I mean," answered Harry. He smiled at Severus.

"Fine. I will be upstairs napping when Mr. Longbottom arrives. I will come down at some point to fix myself a snack and will inquire as to your dinner preferences."

"Or you could ask what I want for dinner," said Harry with a smirk.

"Since you have such a shocking lack of summer work, I just might assign supplementary reading from a thesaurus," threatened Severus. "You seem to need it."

"I don't need one; I have you," countered Harry.

"Cheeky," muttered Severus. Harry stood up. "When is Mr. Longbottom coming?" asked Severus as Harry made to leave.

"Day after tomorrow," answered Harry. He frowned. "I should have asked first. Sorry. Is that day alright?"

"It is fine," said Severus. "You do not need my permission to have friends over, Harry. Simply advise me of your plans and I'll be sure Minerva and I are not in the middle of your party."

"Hermione's coming over this afternoon," said Harry from the doorway.

Severus turned to look at him. "That is fine. A bit more advance notice would be appreciated in the future."

"Sure, Dad."

Severus heard Harry's footsteps on the stairs and he shook his head slowly, smiling. Harry didn't call him Dad often. He seemed to have a weekly quota of "Dads" in his mind and he used them seemingly randomly, always surprising him when he did. Always bringing that smile to his face.

That he had chosen to use it now, after that uncomfortable discussion regarding Neville Longbottom, meant quite a bit to Severus.

/

Hermione arrived just after lunch. Severus opened the door when she knocked, noting as he did that both the temperature and humidity had soared since he had gone outside earlier that morning.

"Hello, Headmaster," she said, standing on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, her customary greeting.

"Miss Granger," he acknowledged. "Harry is on the porch reading. Perhaps you can convince him to go for a swim. He's been brooding a bit since our adventure at the Ministry.

"He wrote to me about that," she said. "And of course it was all over the evening Prophet that night." She eyed Severus speculatively. "How did he react when she died?"

"He was…not upset," Severus replied, thinking back to the chaos that had surrounded the last minutes of Dolores Umbridge's abbreviated life.

"Hermione!" Harry appeared from the kitchen and came over to hug his friend.

"What is Mr. Weasley up to today?" asked Severus as he returned to his usual seat on the sofa.

"The whole family is leaving for Romania this evening," answered Harry with a sigh. "Charlie's invited them down for a week to see the dragon preserve."

"We were invited, too," said Hermione. "But I couldn't take that much time off work."

"Your parents would have let you, Hermione," began Harry.

"Of course they would have. But they'd be lost without me. They're doing their best to keep up and I've got an advert out for some office help, but they lost their hygienist so they've got to do all the cleanings themselves now, until we can find someone." She smiled. "No matter. I'll get to go some day."

Severus didn't ask Harry why he hadn't gone along. He wished Harry would feel comfortable enough to leave for a week, even for a day or two, but it wasn't time to push it yet.

"Charlie's got a boyfriend now," said Harry, blurting out the information with no preamble.

Severus raised an eyebrow. "Well, that is news, isn't it?"

"Why? Don't you approve?" Harry challenged.

"How could I approve or disapprove?" answered Severus, being careful to appear casual. "I've never met the boyfriend, have I?"

"You probably have. He's someone Charlie knew from Hogwarts."

"In which case I would have taught him. His name?"

Harry shrugged. "Can't remember." He studied Severus a moment. "So it doesn't matter to you—that Charlie's gay?"

Severus shrugged. "Not at all. Charlie Weasley's an adult. He can date whomever he pleases. I don't know Charlie well, Harry. Is he happy?"

"Ron says he is," answered Hermione. "He said his mum is already knitting a Weasley jumper for him."

Severus nodded. "One can never have too many Weasley jumpers," he noted dryly.

Harry smiled. He and Hermione went upstairs to change for the beach and Severus felt very much as though he had passed an important test.

/

An hour later, Harry and Hermione were sitting together on towels laid out over the beach blanket. Both were wet, and Hermione's long hair was drying on her back, curling up in little ringlets as it dried. She reached over and tugged on a lock of Harry's hair, down to his shoulder blades now.

"You need a haircut," she said. "How long has it been?"

Harry smoothed down his hair with a hand. "I've not had a proper haircut since last summer," he answered. "Bill took me to the barber before the wedding."

"You could leave it long," mused Hermione.

"I like it like this. At least for now. I might get it cut later on but I'd like to grow it long enough to tie it back."

"Like Bill's?" asked Hermione. "Are you going to get your ear pierced, too?"

Harry tossed a shell at her and she laughed. "Severus would have a fit," he said. He laughed then. "I think I'll ask him, just to see what he says. I'll probably get some lecture about how I already have enough holes in my head."

"Severus doesn't lecture you," admonished Hermione quietly. She might call Severus 'Headmaster' to his face, but with Harry, he was always Severus.

"No, he doesn't. Not often. Only when he's scared," said Harry. "I'm expecting one soon, though. I can tell he's not all for me going into the Auror Academy."

"It's dangerous work," said Hermione, not quite in her lecture mode. "He probably figures you've already done enough for the Wizarding world." She reached out and touched Harry's knee. "He doesn't want to lose you, Harry."

And there was that tug again, that annoying little tug at his heart that Harry was slowly getting accustomed to. The reality that someone cared about him. Would miss him if he were gone.

"Do you want to hear about Umbridge?"

"You're changing the subject, Harry. But yes, I do." Hermione picked up an extra towel and towel-dried her hair. "Go on, then. What happened?"

"She fell down a lift shaft, the stupid bint," said Harry. "Just like the Prophet reported."

"So tell me something I don't know already."

"She screamed all the way down. It didn't take too long—I think she only fell a couple floors. You could hear it over all the people in the atrium. Sounded exactly like her scream when the centaurs took her away in the Forbidden Forest. That's how I knew it was her."

"That must have been horrible, Harry." Hermione drew her knees up and shuddered.

Harry shook his head. "No, not really. The whole thing was already horrible—all those people pressing in on us, the Aurors suddenly appearing and pushing us back against the check-in kiosk. That was horrible. I didn't trust them at first. And then when Umbridge got loose, Severus practically sat on me." He turned toward Hermione. "I didn't even know she was in jail, Hermione. I mean, I'm glad she was. That's where she belonged, after what we saw at the Ministry last year." He stopped and sighed. "But now she's dead."

Hermione picked up a stick and started doodling in the sand in front of her. "How do you feel about that?"

Harry laughed harshly. "How do I feel about that? You sound like one of those mind healers Kingsley was telling me about." He picked up a small stone and hurled it out in the ocean. "I feel…nothing. I'm not happy she's dead. But I'm not sad, either. It's like her death is this insignificant little event in this big ocean of chaos. It just is."

"She caused a lot of pain," said Hermione softly. "What she was doing to those poor Muggle-borns..."

"She wasn't even human in my eyes," said Harry. "Dying like that—in such a Muggle way—it's exactly what she deserved. Magic didn't save her. Her own stupidity did her in. She's not worth thinking about any more."

Harry suddenly noticed what Hermione had drawn in the sand: a fairly good rendering of a fat toad. She was currently adding a ridiculously large bow on its head. He smiled thoughtfully and watched her draw for a moment.

"Are you glad Bellatrix Lestrange is dead?" he asked carefully.

Hermione suddenly went still.

"Odd that nearly every time I've used Polyjuice I've had a horrific experience," she said after a moment. Harry watched her use the stick to smooth the sand where the Umbridge toad had been. "First it was the cat. Then the woman at the Ministry that had to sit there next to Umbridge during those interrogations."

"Then Godric's Hollow," Harry added softly.

She nodded. Swallowed. "Then Bellatrix herself." She was drawing a woman's head now, with wild hair and large eyes. "Yes, I'm glad she's dead. She deserves to be dead after…after all that she did." She drew a large X over Bellatrix's sandy head. "Do you think it's wrong to be glad someone is dead?"

"I'm glad Voldemort is dead," said Harry. "Honestly, all those deaths of other evil people pale in comparison."

"I'm glad Voldemort is dead, too," sighed Hermione. "But I wish it wasn't you that had to kill him."

Harry looked over at Hermione and smiled sadly. "Me too," he said. And he picked up another stone and threw it out to sea.

/

When Neville Longbottom arrived at Shell Cottage at ten thirty in the morning on Tuesday, Harry wasn't there.

That wasn't how the morning had been planned. But Andromeda Tonks had fire-called at eight thirty asking if Harry could come over for an hour or so to mind Teddy while she slept to try to rid herself of a painful migraine.

Severus could see Harry mentally weigh his options. He loved his little godson and wanted to help out Andromeda, but was equally reluctant to leave Severus.

"Go," said Severus. "You'll be home by the time your friend gets here. I've got some migraine relief potion upstairs. You can take it to Andromeda with my regards." He figuratively crossed his fingers. Leaving him, even for a short time, would be an important step for Harry.

In the end, Harry agreed to go. He pocketed the potion from Severus and Flooed to the Tonks residence while Severus cleaned up the breakfast dishes.

Neville was scheduled to arrive at eleven, and Severus had just checked the time at ten thirty when someone knocked on the door.

Of course it was Longbottom. He stood on the front porch, long and lanky, hair recently cut, taller than Severus now.

"Mr. Longbottom, come in," said Severus in greeting, stepping back away from the door and closing it behind the young man who took two steps in and looked around for Harry.

"Harry was expecting you at eleven," began Severus, trying very hard to keep his voice neutral and pleasant."

"Oh. I told him between ten and eleven." Neville looked around the cottage, or what he could see of it from his current position near the door. "Is he still in bed?"

Severus shook his head and came to a quick decision. "Come in, have a seat." He motioned to Minerva's chair opposite the couch and walked over to retake his own place on the sofa. "Harry Flooed out for a short time to help out Andromeda Tonks with Teddy. He will be back here before eleven o'clock."

"Oh." 'Oh' must be the boy's favorite word, thought Severus. Neville took the seat Severus had indicated and sat down, almost cautiously. His movements were slow and measured, but he was not afraid, not as far as Severus could tell. Wary, yes. But not afraid.

In for a penny. Severus pulled at the collar of his shirt. "I would first like to thank you for permanently dispatching that snake."

Neville stared at the headmaster's scarred neck. "You're welcome," he said quietly. "But I didn't exactly do it for you."

"I know that," answered Severus. "Still, I wish to thank you. And I wish to apologize for my actions…and lack of actions…last year at Hogwarts."

Neville had been studying the papers strewn about the table. New parchments and scrolls arrived from the Ministry and from Minerva at Hogwarts nearly every day. But what had caught his eye was a list of the students who had died. The Ministry had ordered a memorial and Minerva had provided the list to Severus. He raised his eyes and met the headmaster's.

"Apologize." He spoke the word slowly, more of a statement than a question. "Maybe you can start with an explanation and let me decide if I'd like an apology."

Severus stared at the boy. Silly to call him a boy, really. He was Harry's age, after all. He hid his shock at the words that Longbottom had spoken. Challenging words. Adult words. He nodded.

"If that is what you wish." He paused, choosing his words carefully. "I knew that you were leading a group of students in resistance to my authority at Hogwarts. I approved of this group. And I felt, wrongly or not, that you would be more successful in your resistance if you had a clear enemy to fight."

"You," said Neville, looking up from the list of dead students, slightly pale. Lavender's name was at the top of the list.

"Me," said Severus.

"But Ginny…."

"Miss Weasley and I had an understanding," said Severus. "It is difficult to explain. She and I shared certain information. I prevented certain Death Eaters from having access to her, from grilling her on Harry's location."

Severus could not read the look in Neville's eyes. It looked like hurt, betrayal, but there was a certain strength and emotion there as well.

"It was important that you truly believed me to be the enemy," continued Severus, rubbing his eyes. He was not having a good day. He had awoken early with a budding headache and his throat was sore and scratchy. "Generals cannot rally their troops without a clearly defined enemy. And they are more successful if their enemy is close at hand. If it is a personal fight."

"You gave me to the Carrows," said Neville suddenly. "They used me for target practice." There was a touch of venom in his eyes now. Severus' headache sharpened.

"It is the act that I most regret having to take," answered Severus. "Yet it is the very act which solidified my loyalty in their eyes."

"Was it worth it?" asked Neville.

Severus looked at him appraisingly.

"You tell me. Was it?"

They stared at each other for a long moment, man to man. Neville was no longer a bumbling boy, prone to accidents, seemingly misplaced in the house of the lions. He looked out past Severus, through the wide front window, to the gardens already brimming with flowers. His voice, when he answered, was a bit shaky. As if a bit of that bumbling boy had come back, if only for a moment.

"It was worth it,” he said quietly.

The Floo chose just that moment to roar into life and Harry stepped out, dizzy and disoriented, coughing. His white t-shirt was covered with soot.

"Harry!" Neville stood and Harry's eyes darted over to Severus before glancing back at his friend. His face lit up with a wide smile.

"Neville!" He walked over to his friend and enveloped him in a hug. "You're taller than Ron now," he said, grinning like a loon. "You been here long?" Again, that nervous glance at Severus.

"Nah," said Neville with a smile. "Just got here."

Severus looked down at the table and smiled.

/

"He's great," said Harry a little while later. He and Neville were standing in the waves, water up to their thighs. "He's a Metamorphmagus just like his mum was. He can't do much yet—he's only a few months old—but he changed his hair to black today, just like mine. He was staring at me while I read to him in the rocking chair and suddenly I had this black-haired baby in my lap. I almost dropped him."

Neville laughed. "I've not been around many babies," he said. "Who does he look like—I mean, when he isn't changing his appearance?"

Harry smiled. There was a photograph on the mantel at Andromeda's house, an unmoving Muggle photo of Remus and Tonks on the day they eloped. He and Teddy had stared at it a long time today, and Harry clearly recalled Tonks' mousy brown hair, nearly a perfect match in color to Remus’, her button nose, high cheekbones, gleaming brown eyes. And Remus. Remus looking better than Harry ever remembered him looking. Looking proud, happy, in love.

"He looks more like Remus, I think," answered Harry. He turned away from Neville, hiding the sudden tears that brimmed in his eyes at the thought of Remus and Tonks. He gave a shout then, and dove into the water, letting the salty ocean water mingle with his tears, erasing them, hiding them.

"Remus was a great teacher," said Neville a while later when they were sitting on the sand on wet beach towels. "Do you remember the lesson with the boggart?"

Harry laughed. "Severus in your grandmother's hat and handbag? How could I ever forget that?"

Neville grinned. "I learned more defense that year than all the other years put together," he said.

"He was a great teacher," said Harry with a sigh. "I miss him."

"Teddy is like us, you know," said Neville after a comfortable silence. He looked over at Harry.

"You mean an orphan?" asked Harry.

"Yeah, being raised by a relative, parents dead or as good as."

Harry sighed. "At least he has somebody. At least we all have somebody."

They sat there together, gazing out at the sea, two almost-orphans contemplating their existence. For Neville Longbottom wasn't really an orphan; his parents were alive, after all, and he had his gran. He'd always had his gran.

And Harry Potter wasn't an orphan any longer. Not since two summers ago, when he'd come to this very place to learn Occlumency with Professor Snape. Not since Professor Snape had become Severus.

Not since Severus had become Dad.

As for Teddy, he figured he'd just have to love him three times as much. He smiled, thinking of the warm, heavy weight of the child in his arms, of the clean baby scent of his hair, the way his bright eyes followed him, the way he tried to put his finger in Harry's mouth when Harry was talking. Loving Teddy Lupin three times as much would not be hard at all.

 

 

(Chapter 7)

A/N: Thanks to all who expressed their condolences at my mother's passing. Your kind words mean a lot to me. We're soldiering on here, watching the holidays creep up. Writing has been challenging and I know the style of this chapter is different than the previous, and hope the content makes up for it. We'll be delving more into Severus' healing in coming chapters, and you should get a glimpse of where this is going in this chapter. -SS

Chapter 7

"Is it time yet?"

Severus turned his head toward the bathroom door.

"What time is it?" he asked, leaning in to examine his neck in the mirror. His beard still grew in the furrows of skin between the raised scars that marked his neck and extended to the edge of his jaw.

"Nine thirty," answered Harry. "Are we Flooing or Apparating?"

"I thought we'd Apparate to the gates. It's a nice day and the walk up will do us both good."

"It's a long walk," said Harry, hesitating. "And all uphill."

Severus pointed his wand at the scars on his neck and removed the hair there with a quick shaving charm. He ran his fingers over the area to be sure the charm had removed all the hair, then turned to look at Harry. "Are you afraid you won't be able to make it?"

He was pleased to see the smirk on Harry's face. Ever since he'd told Harry he would be visiting Hogwarts today, and had invited Harry to come along with him, Harry had been off. It was obvious that Harry wanted to go with him, and that his desire to go was not based solely on his need to keep a vigilant eye on Severus. But the desire was tinged by something else: a reluctance, perhaps, to visit the place where so many had died, where he had seen and experienced such horrific things. The place where both he and Severus had come so close to death.

Severus had come to Shell Cottage this summer knowing that both he and Harry had a hard road ahead. He had few expectations of how things would progress. His gut told him that what was needed was time, and normalcy, predictable sameness, long days of sunlight and long nights of sleep. He didn't fool himself that this would, in the end, be enough. Harry would eventually have to leave his side for longer than a few hours. He'd have to go back to the Burrow, to Diagon Alley and to Hogwarts. He'd spent nearly a year on the run, making his own decisions, eking out an existence from a canvas tent with friends no older than himself. Severus could at least give him this summer, this summer of the same, predictable bed every night, of three good meals a day, of enemies kept at bay. A summer when he'd have to decide on a course of studies at Hogwarts for his last year, a difficult decision indeed, but not so difficult as 'Hallows or Horcruxes.'

Severus walked out of the bathroom and back into his bedroom, Harry following him. He pulled out a set of black robes from the wardrobe and shrugged into them, leaving them open over his lightweight trousers and button-down shirt.

"Am I alright like this?" asked Harry, indicating his jeans and t-shirt.

Severus stared at Harry a moment. "You are not the headmaster. Muggle clothing is acceptable in the summer. However, you are going to need clothes that fit you better soon."

"These fit," said Harry. "I like them. You got them for me last summer…."

"No, I got them for you two summers ago, Harry," said Severus, staring at Harry now, finding it hard to believe that the jeans and shirt Harry was wearing were the same ones they had bought together in London in that summer between Harry's fifth and sixth years.

Harry shrugged. "I like them," he muttered. "Can we get going?"

Severus nodded, but held up his hand as Harry moved as if to Apparate.

"What now?" he asked, halting his turn and looking a bit disgruntled.

"There is a lot of activity at the castle, both inside and out. The repair work is being overseen by the Ministry of Magic. I have alerted them—this time—that you and I will be at the castle today."

"Will the Aurors be there?" asked Harry.

"I imagine so," said Severus. "Things will be back to normal once term starts," he assured him.

"You promise?" asked Harry, raising an eyebrow.

Severus looked at Harry. "No, I can't promise that. But I can promise that I'll do everything I can to make life at Hogwarts as normal as possible."

"Thanks." Harry sounded sincere. He gave Severus a faltering smile. "Can I go now?"

"Go on. I'm right behind you."

Harry turned on the spot and, with a surprisingly quiet crack, was gone. Severus looked at the spot where a moment ago Harry had stood, then followed him to Hogwarts.

/

Harry was holding on to the bars of the gates, staring between them up at the castle, when Severus popped in next to him.

Ahead of them, the grounds stretched upward past the Quidditch pitch, past Hagrid's hut and the Whomping Willow, up to the sprawling castle itself.

"I didn't know it was so bad," said Harry somberly as Severus stepped up next to him. He spoke as if he were at a funeral, Severus thought.

He didn't answer immediately. Harry had been at the castle for three weeks following the battle. Severus had been in the hospital wing for the majority of that time, but Harry had been free to roam about, to personally witness much of the destruction. Free or not, he had spent most of his time with Severus. Severus wondered if Harry had gone outside at all.

"The work has been concentrated on the castle," Severus finally said. "We will likely have to do without the Quidditch stands this season."

"Oh." Harry gazed up toward the pitch. The goal hoops were still present but the stands were roundly demolished. He wondered if the giants had had a go with them. He turned to Severus then, a question on his lips. "Will the eighth years be allowed to play?"

"Some will," said Severus with a smile.

"Some?" He followed Severus through as Severus spoke the temporary password and the gates opened for him.

"The official rule is that a student can play for no more than six years. As students are not allowed to play their first year—" here he looked significantly at Harry who rolled his eyes—"this rule allows a student to play all the years in which he or she is eligible."

"So I can't play, then." Harry shrugged, feigning indifference, and continued walking. He glanced over toward the shambles of a Quidditch pitch and sighed.

"Harry, how many years did you play?"

Harry looked at Severus and frowned. "Well, technically I was banned fifth year, but I played a bit before the ban." He looked suddenly hopeful. "Are you going to not count that year?"

"It doesn't matter. You didn't play your fourth year. No one did. Which makes all returning eighth years eligible to play Quidditch."

Harry punched Severus' shoulder playfully and shook his head. He looked relieved. "You could have just said 'yes,' you know," he said.

They walked side by side toward the castle, Harry's eyes focused resolutely straight ahead, not straying to the edges of the Forbidden Forest to their left. "Where's Hagrid?" asked Harry as they approached the half-giant's hut. He let his eyes stray over to the familiar structure and study it. The door was closed, the garden plot was unplowed and unplanted, and Fang was nowhere in sight.

"Hagrid's brother would like a more permanent home. Hagrid is off interviewing clans of giants, looking for the best fit for Grawp."

"Interviewing?" Harry shook his head. "That won't go well."

"No, it won't, will it? I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of Grawp around Hogwarts this year."

"And hopefully more of Hagrid, too," said Harry. Severus could hear the worry in his voice. He squeezed his shoulder.

"Hagrid will be fine, Harry. He's shown us time and again that he can take care of himself."

Harry thought of the time they had found Hagrid holding a bloody steak to his face after an early encounter with his brother. He shook his head. "Who's taking care of Fang?" he asked, looking around the grounds near the hut.

Severus' hesitation told Harry all he needed to know.

"No." He looked up at Severus, his face crestfallen. "Not Fang, too. Hagrid must be a mess, Severus! Why didn't you tell me?"

"Hagrid is handling it well, Harry. He has thrown himself into the repairs here at Hogwarts and into finding a way to improve his brother's situation. His size and strength make him quite valuable to the outside masonry teams. He asked that I not tell you; he was concerned for you. He meant to tell you himself when he saw you again." He spoke softly, watching Harry closely.

"Poor Fang," whispered Harry. He was obviously sad but not distraught at the unexpected news.

"Come, Harry," said Severus, taking Harry gently by the arm. "Fang had a good life—he was an old dog. He will certainly be missed, but Hagrid is already talking about getting a new puppy."

Harry's face brightened a bit. "Good. Hagrid needs a dog. I can't imagine him without one."

"I did tell him he is limited to one head on said puppy, however," said Severus, shaking his own head.

"Spoilsport," muttered Harry.

When they reached the Whomping Willow, Harry stared at it sadly. "Is it…?" he asked, looking at what seemed like only half of a tree. Broken limbs were scattered on the ground beneath it and many of the remaining branches seemed both leafless and lifeless.

"Professor Sprout believes the tree will recover," Severus stated, pausing as he turned to study the tree in question. He had, of course, been apprised frequently of the state of affairs at Hogwarts, but this was the first time that he, too, had walked the grounds since the Battle. "However, she says its personality seems to have changed and the tree may not return to its former behavior."

"You mean it doesn't beat the bloody hell out of anyone who gets too close to it anymore?"

Severus turned his head sideways and gave Harry the look, the look that said "Language!" without his having to utter a word. Harry grinned and looked nonchalantly to the side.

"The tree indeed seems to have lost its aggressive tendencies," Severus confirmed. "In fact, I have been told that it seems almost fearful of humans now. Well, if not fearful, then at least wary." He bent and picked up a rock from the ground, quickly transfigured it into a bird, and with a spell sent it flying toward the tree. Harry nearly flinched—he'd seen what that tree did to birds that wandered too close. But as the bird flew in a unsteady path toward the tree, the branches seemed to bend away from it. When it finally lit on a thin limb, the small branches and leaves around it trembled.

"Wow," said Harry, still staring at the bird. He looked over at Severus, visibly upset. "Maybe it's just temporary. Maybe it just needs time to recover."

"The enchantments on that tree were placed there by Albus himself," said Severus in reply. "They have not been renewed and were bound to fail eventually, as they were never strengthened by another wizard who is still living. But to have the behavior of the tree actually change like this is unexpected." He continued walking then, and Harry moved along with him, leaving the tree behind. "That the tree may no longer attack you upsets you for some reason?"

Harry glanced back at the tree as he walked beside Severus. "I don't know. It's the Whomping Willow. It's always been the Whomping Willow."

"Perhaps its job is done now, Harry. Maybe it's time for it to simply be…a tree."

"A Weeping Willow," said Harry softly.

"Pomona is calling it the 'Whispering Willow,’" said Severus.

Harry considered the name for a moment. "I like that," said Harry with a small smile. "I suppose we've had enough whomping and weeping already."

/

By the time they rounded the bend as they climbed the steep lawn up to the great castle stairs, they could already see the workers on the grounds around the castle. While Muggles would have approached the repairs with stonemasons and scaffolding, wizards apparently went about major structural repairs quite differently. Debris still littered the ground around the castle, but Harry thought it looked more organized than it had on those first days following the Battle .

"Despite the extent of the destruction, there was very little damage that threatened the structural integrity of the castle. The few load-bearing walls that sustained major damage were repaired first. All the workers outside are repairing the cosmetic damage. The balustrades were roundly destroyed, the cornices damaged, the finials, molding, pinnacles and turrets mostly demolished, the..."

"Severus—I have no idea what you're talking about." Harry was watching two work-wizards on brooms use a sand-blasting spell to even out a repair job twenty feet up on an outer wall. He turned toward Severus now and gave him a sad smile. "Though I did get the gist of it—destroyed, damaged, demolished." He looked away.

"The ornamentation on the castle," explained Severus in a low voice. "I can give you a better lesson from the headmaster's walk. Surprisingly, the walk wasn't damaged during the Battle."

"What are they doing?" Harry pointed to a group of four people standing next to the castle some distance past the men on the brooms.

"That's the sounding team," answered Severus. The workers, two men and two women, each stood with his or her left hand pressed against the castle wall while casting spells at the wall with a wand in the other hand. "They're testing the integrity of the repairs," he explained. He put his hand on Harry's shoulder, then. "Come on. Let's go inside. I have quite a bit to get done today and Minerva is waiting to see you."

Harry followed Severus up the stairs and through the castle doors into the entrance hall . The great doors were open already and two red-robed Aurors stood sentinel just within, one on each side of the doorway. Harry stopped in the center of the room and turned around, gazing at the House hourglasses, the marble stairway, the great windows. He inhaled deeply, imagining that he could see the Goblet of Fire in the middle of the room, blue and white flames flickering from it, Dumbledore's age line drawn all around on the floor. The Weasley twins, Fred and George, sprouting beards. Laughing. He smiled, realizing as he did so that it was the first time he had actually smiled at a memory of the twins since Fred died. Smiled instead of cried.

"It looks…it looks normal again," he said, looking over at Severus in surprise. "I thought it would be in ruins still." He smiled, noticing that the Aurors were watching him curiously. Looking at the room now, it was almost possible to forget how he’d had to pick his way through dust and debris when he had gone out to turn himself over to Voldemort that night in early May, not quite two months ago. If he could just stay here, frozen in place, frozen in time, he could almost…almost…forget.

But Severus was shaking his head. "I wish the whole castle was this far along, Harry. This was one of the first areas completed. Other areas are much further behind. Some of the castle is still closed to visitors, including the tower dorms." He swept his own gaze around the room, letting it rest a moment on the Hogwarts banner hanging behind the House hourglasses. "Come," he said rather gently. "I have been told that the repairs to my office have been completed."

They climbed the great staircase together, Harry a few steps behind Severus, hand on the railing, looking out and down the entire time that he climbed, eyes focused on the closed doors of the Great Hall. Doors he hoped remained closed as long as they were here today. And possibly forever. And for once, he was especially glad that the Forbidden Forest was…forbidden.

They stopped at the gargoyle, even though it was standing placidly next to the stairway instead of in front of it. Harry stared at it, remembering how defeated, demolished it had been when he'd come here to view Severus' memories, and again when Severus was out of the hospital wing that week before they left for Shell Cottage. He swallowed a growing lump in his throat, one that had something to do with knowing that Severus had almost died, and something to do with how wonderful magic was. A Muggle castle could not have been brought back to life like this. A Muggle headmaster would have died from wounds so horrific.

A Muggle headmaster would never have encountered Nagini.

"Do you still use sweets for passwords?" asked Harry as they stepped onto the moving stairway.

Severus shook his head and smiled, recalling the passwords that had protected his doorway the previous year. Imagine. "No, I don't."

/

Severus took a moment to check the owl post that had been deposited on his desk, then they both walked up to his personal quarters and from there up to the headmaster's hidden walkway. They'd stood here together before, that day they had left Hogwarts for Shell Cottage, when Severus had finally been cleared by Madam Pomfrey to travel. Had surveyed the grounds of Hogwarts, still bathed in death but sparkling, alive in the late May sunshine. It seemed like a lifetime ago to Harry, even though barely a month had passed since that day. Looking at Severus now, standing beside him, long-fingered hands gripping the railing lightly, not trembling, no longer as pale as death, Harry was suddenly choked with emotion in a way he had not been for some time. It wasn't grief that overwhelmed him now, nor sadness, but joy colored heavily with relief. To have made it so far.

"Did you ever read The Hobbit?" he asked Severus now, the question seemingly coming from out of the blue.

Severus was looking out over the lake. The wind was blowing his hair back from his face and Harry thought he looked more relaxed than he had seen him since that summer after fifth year, in those final days at Shell Cottage, swimming under the awakening stars.

"The Hobbit?" Severus smiled.

"By Tolkien," provided Harry, puzzling at Severus' expression. "I read it at the beginning of the summer after fifth year. Hermione sent it to me."

"I've read it," said Severus. "Several times, in fact." He looked back out toward the lake and recited softly:

"‘Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.’"

He stilled, that enigmatic smile just under the surface again. "Why did you ask about The Hobbit?"

"It's also called There and Back Again," said Harry. He was standing just next to Severus now, standing with his hands on the railing, looking out now past Hagrid's quiet hut, out over the Forbidden Forest. Perhaps he was comparing his journey to Bilbo's: a trek through a forest, an encounter with a dragon, a magical item that made him invisible, an escape from a stronghold, an epic battle to end it all. He didn't seem inclined to say anything else and Severus appeared to consider his statement a moment, digesting it.

"And you are thinking that you, too, are back again," Severus stated at length. "That your perilous journey had ended exactly where it started—at home."

"That's what I used to think," said Harry, his voice catching in his throat. A gust of wind blew against him and he held out his arms a moment, swallowing up the feeling of being so high off the ground with the wind in his face. It was almost like flying. "That Hogwarts was my home. When other kids were dreading the ending of term break, I was counting down the days until I could go back to Hogwarts. Nothing made me feel better than being back here again, with my friends, with magic. Somewhere where I was wanted, where I was needed." His voice trailed off. It seemed to Severus then that he did not know how to continue that thought.

"But now it is different," he stated after a quiet moment, giving Harry a path to follow.

"Yeah," said Harry. "I mean, I still love it here. It felt like I was coming back to see an old friend—someone who was sick, maybe, who needed help. I missed Hogwarts. It will always have a special place in my heart, and I hate to see her like this, so…so wounded." He placed his hand on top of Severus' on the railing and squeezed it, let it go. "But it's not home anymore. Home is where you are. Wherever you are. Wherever we are."

"I return the sentiment," said Severus, rather softly. "My idea of home has also been transformed."

"What was home for you—before?" asked Harry, daring to ask. He wanted to know yet he didn't want to know, all in the same moment.

"I have… a little house. I grew up there, in a rather poor Muggle neighborhood. I kept the house even after my parents died—and they died within a year of each other, soon after I left Hogwarts. The house is ugly and outdated, the neighborhood aging and failing." He sighed, standing near the top of the world on this glorious summer day, sunbathing his not-quite-so-sallow skin. "But it was home. It has been home, despite its flaws, despite its ugliness, for most of the years of my life."

Harry could hear the bittersweet tones in Severus' voice. He wondered about that, how someone could love such a miserable place. Perhaps you did if it was all that you knew. He thought for a moment of his cupboard, how it was his despite how much he hated it, despised it. It was certainly the only refuge he ever had in his growing up years, at least until he came to Hogwarts.

"Are you going to keep it?" asked Harry.

"No. I need to go there and pack up what I want to keep. I have not felt…ready to do so."

"Will everything fit in Shell Cottage?" asked Harry. "If it won't, we can store it at Grimmauld Place."

Severus smiled at the "we."

"It will fit. I won't take much, Harry."

"I can help you, you know," said Harry. "I'd like to see it—in any case."

Severus turned sharply at that. "You want to see Spinner's End?"

"If that's what you call it—yeah. I want to see it. Can I?"

Severus laughed, the sound harsh, reminiscent of the man he had been, the man he had been before Harry Potter, his son, had sent the Dark Lord permanently into the ninth circle of hell. Before he stood facing him, challenging him, telling him, telling the world, that Severus Snape was Dumbledore's man, not Voldemort's, through and through. Before the double life ended.

He sometimes forgot that he was no longer on the tightrope he'd been walking for sixteen years.

With Harry to care for, Harry to ground him, he had a purpose. He was grounded in an everyday reality. They had another year—one more year until Harry launched himself into an adult world, an adult career. Until Harry didn't need him anymore.

"Severus?"

Severus looked over at Harry, catching his worried look.

"It isn't much to look at, Harry. It's rather depressing, in fact. I have not…bothered with it. With making it welcoming."

"I don't mind. I'd still like to see where you lived."

Severus looked at him, considering. "If you'd like, then. We can plan a trip next week. Pack a few boxes. We'll pick a rainy day when we're already depressed."

"It can't be that bad," said Harry lightly. It can't be as bad as that cupboard under the stairs. It can't be as bad as the Dursleys’.

"It is," said Severus. But it was home.

/

Up a steep and very narrow stairway
To the voice like a metronome
Up a steep and very narrow stairway
It wasn't paradise, it wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise, but it was home.

(“At the Ballet”: A Chorus Line)

/

They met Minerva in Severus' office for lunch. Poppy joined them as well, insisting that Severus stop by the infirmary after lunch for a quick check-up, exclaiming over his color and his obvious weight gain. Minerva—who was living at the castle over the summer, filling the role Severus might have filled had he been uninjured and unencumbered—fretted over the speed of the repairs, especially to the first floor classrooms, and brought up the surprising number of house-elf pregnancies.

Severus' eyebrows shot up and Harry tried to stifle a grin.

"House-elves get pregnant?" he asked.

"Of course they get pregnant," said Poppy, shaking her head in mock exasperation. "Did you think they laid eggs to reproduce?"

Harry shrugged. "I guess I just never thought about it. I don't suppose I've ever seen a pregnant house-elf before."

"House-elves live very long lives," said Poppy. "They do not reproduce frequently. Yet at least a dozen are pregnant now—it's simply unheard of."

"They've lost a number of their own," said Severus, thoughtfully.

"Eight, to be exact," said Poppy.

"What? House-elves died in the battle?" asked Harry. He looked mildly ill. "I didn't realize…."

"Harry, you had other things on your mind—frankly, more important things. There were losses on all sides. Centaurs, giants, house-elves, even merfolk." Severus pushed a plate of sandwiches toward Harry. "I do not mean to diminish the house-elves' contribution. They fought valiantly for the home they loved."

"For Hogwarts," sighed Harry. "I shouldn't forget them so easily. I really should thank them, you know. For fighting with us."

"We'll go down to the kitchens after lunch, then," said Minerva. "That will give Severus some time with Poppy. We can then take the little tour I have for you and go over your schedule for next term."

When lunch was over, Minerva and Severus spent a few minutes discussing the incoming class of first years and the required home visits to the Muggle families, as well as their decision this year to visit the families of wizard-born children as well.

"Home visits?" asked Harry. "I didn't have a home visit. Is that something new?"

Minerva sighed. "We assumed you didn't need one, Harry. We will not make that mistake with any of our children again."

/

The best part of his day at Hogwarts—better than walking the headmaster's walk with Severus or visiting the owlery and seeing two of Hedwig and Mac's babies or running into Peeves and having the poltergeist fawn over him instead of pelting him with water balloons—was seeing the eighth year dorms.

Minerva opened the door to the third floor corridor, the forbidden corridor that had once housed Fluffy, the three-headed dog, and strode down the hallway. Harry followed curiously. He didn't remember ever having being here, aside from that illicit foray into Fluffy's chambers during their first year.

"This section of the castle was once reserved for staff members who had families who lived with them during the year. It hasn't been needed for some time, so we've decided to convert it into living space for our eighth year students." She spoke as she walked, slowing until Harry had caught up with her, and opened a door on the south wall, beckoning him inside. He was still trying to grasp the concept of an eighth year dorm and not eighth year floors in the traditional house dorms, when he ground to a halt just inside the door.

He was in a large common area, airy and light, with tall floor-to-ceiling windows along either side of a great fireplace. The room was furnished with furniture that was outdated yet comfortable and elegant. There was an upright piano against a wall, a space with thick area rugs and a mountain of pillows, and enough sofas and loveseats for any number of students. And there were desks—the kind found in the library. Large wooden desks, with room to spread out and thick reference books already piled on each of them.

"Madam Pince was not altogether on board with the idea of lending some reference books to this room for the duration of the year," Minerva said with a smile as she ran her hand over one of the tomes lovingly. "But Severus has convinced her that the books will be regarded as dear elderly grandmothers and treated with care and respect."

"Right," said Harry, thinking of the abuse Hermione's books had taken in that year on the run, tumbling about in her little beaded handbag. "Grandmothers. I'll pass that on." He turned around again. This is…this is fantastic, Minerva. I wondered where we'd be staying. I don't think I'll miss Gryffindor tower a bit."

"You'll have to find a way to stay fit other than climbing to the seventh floor several times a day," she said, raising her eyebrow as a house-elf, holding a dust rag, popped into the room, saw them, squealed, and popped away again. She shook her head and opened a door on one of the walls. "You'll have your own kitchen, too, though you will be required to eat your dinners with the rest of the school in the Great Hall. The larders will be kept filled for you, but you'll have to do your own cooking; we won't be providing personal cooks."

Harry followed her out of the kitchen and into another hallway.

"The boys will use this side," she said, "And we've managed to squeeze in enough rooms for all of you."

Harry ducked into a room she indicated, stopping dead in his tracks to gaze at the ornate four-poster, the dresser, desk, wardrobe and wingback chair with ottoman. He turned and looked back at Minerva, the expression on his face one of delight and disbelief.

"We felt you all deserved something special," Minerva said quietly as Harry turned in place, taking it all in. "After the year you all had." She caught her breath as Harry came toward her and enveloped her in a hug, kissing her cheek. He had tears in his eyes.

"My, my," she said, shaking her head. "And you haven't even seen the en suite."

/

Harry got through his scheduling meeting with Minerva without pulling out all of his hair. She was determined to set a demanding schedule for him—no, an impossible schedule. Besides Potions, Defense, Charms, Transfiguration, Astronomy and Herbology, he had an "Assistantship" in Defense.

"Just two classes a week, Harry. Severus suggested it; he felt you might be bored with the subject otherwise, but you must complete a N.E.W.T. in it if you wish to enter the Auror Academy next August."

He nodded, staring at the finished schedule on the table in front of him.

"So this is what I missed last year," he said with a sigh.

"No, Harry. You missed quite a bit more than this," she said with a gentle smile. "But I still wouldn't trade our year here at Hogwarts for yours."

He spent two hours in the library helping Madam Pince dust books in the Restricted Section while Severus and Minerva met with the restoration team, the chief reason Severus had had to visit Hogwarts today. Their meeting happened to be in the library, so Harry lingered about until Madam Pince saw her chance and drafted him. Each book had to be removed carefully, cleaned with a special magical feather duster, then re-shelved. Harry tried very hard to remember some of the interesting restricted titles. He laughed at Ye Olde Darke Magic Primer, a book with colorful pictures obviously meant for young children. Embalming Practices of Modern Western Cultures piqued his interest, but when he tried to open the book, it squealed, "Not dead yet!" and refused to open.

When Severus came out of his meeting at four o'clock, he and Harry made their way slowly to the front of the castle. Severus stopped to talk to the Aurors on duty while Harry walked outside, resolutely ignoring the closed door to the Great Hall. He sat on the top stair, gazing out toward the gates, glancing at Hagrid's hut as a shadow seemed to move beside the hut. He stared at the unplanted garden patch and a moment later saw another flicker of movement. He stood up.

"Harry, come in here. I'd like to show you the renovations in the Great Hall before we leave."

But Harry was halfway down the stairs, eyes still on the garden patch. Severus hurried outside and called to him from the top of the stairs.

"Harry! Where are you going?"

Harry turned and looked up at Severus. "I think it's a Patronus—down near Hagrid's hut!" He turned and pointed, catching another glimpse of the flitting shape as he did so. Without another thought, he took off at a run down the stairs.

Severus quickly assessed the situation. He did see something by the hut, a white shape, and he walked down the stairs at a more reasonable pace, following Harry down the pathway toward the hut. Harry had gained a substantial distance on him but was slowing down now, stopping, staring. Crouching down, holding out his hand. What was that thing?

But then the shape, discernible now as a large dog, was galloping toward Harry, through Harry, and Harry, instead of cringing at the most unpleasant feeling, was laughing. Severus forced himself to move, not quite believing what he was seeing.

It wasn't a Patronus. It was a ghost. A ghost of a dog, of a particular dog, a boarhound in fact: a boarhound named Fang.

A ghost of an animal.

Animals didn't become ghosts. They moved on, if indeed they had souls.

"Severus!" Harry turned and called out to him. "You didn't tell me—did you know?"

Severus shook his head. "No. No one mentioned it. I think…I rather think he has just appeared. Perhaps he was in the Forest…."

"You were looking for Hagrid, weren't you, old boy?" said Harry, addressing the dog, which had flopped down on its side—as much as a ghost could flop, in any case—and was scratching its ears. "You didn't want to leave him yet, did you?" He reached out his hand as if to pet the old dog, caught himself, let his hand drop. His face took on a curious look, disappointed, forlorn, puzzled. The dog, sensing his disquiet, barked. The barks sounded hollow, distant.

Harry and the ghost dog stared at each other for several moments. Fang's tail thumped noiselessly against the ground. He whined, an unspoken request.

"Can I run with him, Dad?"

Severus tore his eyes away from the impossible scene of the ghost dog scratching itself.

"Run?"

"As Lightfoot. I won't go far. And I'll have Fang with me."

Severus stared at Harry, then looked back at the dog. The dog, sensing that something was happening, gave another hollow bark.

Why not?

"Not far, and not long. I'll wait here."

And Harry was gone, and Lightfoot was there. She play-charged at Fang and the ghost ambled to its feet, barking with apparent joy.

And Lightfoot was off, kicking her back legs in the air as Fang tore off in pursuit, leaving Severus standing there by himself in front of Hagrid's hut, contemplating the impossibility of a ghost dog haunting Hogwarts, and the almost gift of one battle loss returned.

It might cause all manner of problems later on, but for now, for the moment, Harry was happy.

And Severus walked over to Hagrid's hut and sat down on a heavily reinforced Hagrid-sized bench near the garden.

Harry wanted to go to Spinner's End.

And Severus had told him he would take him.

What had he been thinking? What nostalgia for home had overcome him? He couldn't take Harry to that hovel, to that broken-down house of ancient appliances, musty books and threadbare furniture.

It was one thing for him to know Harry's past, his secrets, his childhood of anonymity inside a cupboard in a sterile house in a suburban neighborhood.

It was quite another for Harry to examine Severus' past. To be moved to pity. Severus' jaw tightened. He didn't even want to go there himself, to that parody of a home with no picket fence, no dog with wagging tail, no one to cuddle with on the sofa after dinner.

The doe and the ghost dog ran in front of him, Harry blazing a happy trail around the hut with Fang on his heels.

Another parody. A cosmically unsettling portrait of a boy...and his dog.

 

 

(Chapter 8)

Chapter 8

June was gone and July was a young upstart when Severus finally took Harry to Spinner's End.

He'd mentally committed to go there on a day when the weather was not conducive for walking along the beach or swimming in the ocean. Fortunately, the weather had complied—he certainly wanted to put off the trip as long as possible—and had provided brilliant blue skies, warmer than normal temperatures and even a balmy breeze for a full week following their visit to Hogwarts.

On Monday, when Minerva and Severus had taken a lunch break after working all morning on book orders, Harry actually convinced Minerva to come down to the beach. She, in turn, convinced Severus.

Severus sat there now, perched on one of the low beach chairs Harry and Ginny had lugged down and set up there for them. The area of flat, cleared sand was small, really only a pocket big enough for a fire pit and a few chairs and beach towels. One had to navigate over and around rocks to get to it, but the rocks actually provided some shelter and gave the beach area the feeling of a small, private cove.

Minerva sat now beside Severus, barefoot, legs stretched out in front of her, robes hiked up to her knees. Her sensible shoes were lined up next to her chair, stockings folded inside of them. Beside her, Severus was also barefoot and had rolled up the legs of his trousers to the tops of his calves, nearly to his knees. Minerva had transfigured a handkerchief Severus produced from his trouser pocket into a large, colorful beach umbrella, surveyed it critically and with two waves of her wand had added white fringe all around and an interesting wind vane at its peak. The umbrella shaded their heads and upper bodies now while the sun warmed their legs and feet and the wind vane spun around restlessly, creating an eerie whistle when the wind hit it just so.

There was a small table between them, granite-topped, transfigured from one of the flat gray rocks that lined the edge of the fire pit. Once they'd settled themselves on the chairs, Severus had summoned the pitcher of lemonade and the empty glasses he'd left on the porch table. Minerva had, in turn, transformed two pieces of long, reedy grass into two miniature paper umbrellas, one red, one green, and had speared them into the lemon wedges Severus fished from the pitcher and pinched onto the rims of their glasses.

"Does she come by often?" asked Minerva, and Severus knew she was referring to Ginny Weasley, who was out in the surf with Harry now.

"This is her first visit since the Weasleys returned from Romania," answered Severus. "But yes, before they left, she was here two or three times a week."

"Harry seems happy," she said, approving. "He was better last week, at Hogwarts. Less tense, less serious."

Severus watched Harry and Ginny as they played in the surf. Ginny seemed to be scooping up handfuls of stones and shells, examining them, then picking out keepers, which Harry dropped into the pocket of his swimming shorts.

"He is eating well now, and is more even-tempered. His nightmares continue, but seem less frequent. He has finally learned to wake me if he cannot meditate and fall asleep again in a semi-occluded state." He watched Harry bend to scoop up a handful of stones of his own. "He is still far more compliant with my wishes than a child his age should be, though he occasionally does challenge me on one thing."

Minerva glanced sideways at Severus. "Go on, then, Severus. Don't leave me hanging."

"Minerva, I would never have taken you for one who would paint her toenails." He was staring at her feet, with their ten ruby red nails.

"Admit it, Severus. You didn't even know I had toes, did you?" She wiggled said toes and stretched them, looking at them with approval. "Now go on—tell me how Harry challenges you."

Severus tore his gaze away from Minerva's feet and gestured out toward the water.

"He is deliberately noncompliant when it comes to Miss Weasley," he noted. "I was a boy his age once," he continued, glancing at Minerva, "and a Head of House for some time. I understand that there are hormones at play, but he skirts too close to the edge with her. I found them stretched out together on the sofa last time she was here, and pressed up against the house below the porch windows, where they could not be readily seen by me. And who knows what they get up to out there, when the water hides..."

Minerva looked out at the two Gryffindors playing like children in the waves. "What is your chief worry, Severus? That he is too young? Too immature to have a relationship so physical? That they will not take precautions and she will become pregnant?"

"Yes."

"Is that all?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.

"Is that not enough?" he answered.

"Of course. But you have just described the worries of every parent of every teenager. Please understand me: that the worries are shared by others does not make your concerns invalid. But I suspect you have other concerns you are not voicing."

"There is the matter of the Weasleys," Severus admitted softly after a long pause. Minerva had sipped her lemonade and twirled her red paper umbrella while he contemplated.

"Ah," she conceded. "There is that." She thought a moment more. "While I can think of a number of potential complications, I assume you worry most about his friendship with Ronald?"

"It has sustained him for years," answered Severus with a slight nod. "The boy—Ronald—followed Harry into hell and back again. He is a true friend, of the highest mettle. But he is not family—and to the Weasleys, family will always come first, will it not? If these two part company and leave bad blood between them, how will Mr. Weasley choose between family and friend?"

"If this thing between Miss Weasley and Harry does not work out, you fear it will challenge the friendship between Harry and Ronald. Understandable. But what of the relationship between Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger? Does that one not threaten to pull apart these three friends?"

"It does," said Severus. "Or better put, it could. Harry could easily feel like a third wheel." He sighed. "Which is why this thing with Miss Weasley is so convenient. It pairs them all up so nicely." Though he stressed the last word, Minerva did not think he thought it all that nice.

"You worry too much, Severus. Look at them." She nodded out toward the blue ocean. Ginny was standing in the water, waist deep, but all that could be seen of Harry were his legs and feet. He was apparently practicing underwater handstands. "He's having fun. I doubt he had an ounce of fun this last year—not until he came here with you, anyway. He knows how you feel about getting too carried away physically. And who is to say that he even wants to..."

"He wants to," interrupted Severus decisively. "All boys want to."

"You must trust him…."

"Trust an almost eighteen-year-old boy with an almost seventeen-year-old girl? Wearing swimwear? That kind of swimwear?" He gestured out toward the water. Harry was apparently kneeling now, only his head and the top of his shoulders out of the water, putting him at eye level with the swimwear in question.

"She's wearing a one-piece, Severus! With shorts on top of it."

"You call those shorts?" groused Severus. "They barely cover her hips."

Minerva shook her head fondly. "Severus, you have had the talk with him, haven't you?"

"Of course. More than once. As embarrassing and uncomfortable as I could make it."

"Perhaps you need to have a different kind of talk, then. A talk about priorities. About…friendship. And families." She reached over and patted him on the shoulder. "As I already said, you worry too much. You have been hoping he will begin to feel comfortable leaving you to do normal activities once again—visiting friends at their homes, shopping in Diagon Alley. Perhaps, Severus, if you make it difficult enough here for them to find time alone, he will go somewhere else with her to have some privacy."

"You're not helping, Minerva," said Severus, though he had to admit that her idea had merit.

They relaxed back into their chairs, enjoying the ocean breeze as it washed over them, content, for a time, to leave preparations for the next school year inside on the living room sofa table. Severus could not help but glance down from time to time at Minerva's bare feet with their painted toenails. Every now and then she would dig her toes into the damp sand, pushing it up like a child discovering the joy of digging at the beach for the first time. He looked out toward Harry. They had gone further out, into slightly deeper water and were bobbing with the incoming surf, standing up so that only their heads and shoulders were out of the water. Experimentally, he dug one big toe into the sand then flicked it upward. The satisfyingly compact sand flew out in front of him. He dug in the other toe.

When Harry and Ginny came in out of the water thirty minutes later, both Minerva and Severus were sitting sedately in their chairs, sipping lemonade placidly, discussing the new Potions professor, a transfer from Beauxbatons, Madame Claudel.

"You made a good choice, Severus," Minerva was saying. "She is completely no nonsense, yet she is interesting and a proven educator. The children will respect her."

"More important, they will learn from her. And they will find that Potions is not a popularity contest," he added, glad that Horace Slughorn had retired.

"What? Will we have to take the Slug Club off our official list of extracurricular organizations?" joked Minerva.

"We have a new Potions professor?" asked Ginny. She had been towel-drying her hair but looked over at them with interest.

"Madame Claudel. She comes to us from Beauxbatons," replied Minerva. "Did you meet her last week when you were at Hogwarts, Harry?"

But Harry didn't appear to have heard her. He was, instead, staring down at Severus and Minerva's legs. Both Minerva’s and Severus' feet were buried, each having worked their feet into the cool sand. When Minerva noticed Harry staring, she pushed up her toes so that her painted toenails stuck out of the sand but her feet stayed buried. Harry smiled.

"Sit down, you two," said Minerva. "Severus and I would like to have a word with you."

"We would?" said Severus.

"Yes, we would," said Minerva, quite decisively.

"With both of them?" protested Severus.

"Of course with both of them, Severus," she replied. "This is about both of them."

Harry looked vaguely ill. He glanced over at Ginny. Ginny's face was somewhere between oddly curious and wanting to bury herself in the sand. He sank down onto the towel next to Ginny and reached out for her hand. She squeezed it but let go of it quickly, almost as if it burned her, when she noticed Severus eying them.

"Children, relax," said Minerva. She wriggled her toes and pulled her feet out of the sand. Harry stared in fascination at her bare feet. "Severus just wants to talk to you a bit about your…future."

"And you're going to listen?" asked Harry, glancing at Severus' face and thinking that this conversation could not have been his idea.

"Of course," answered Minerva. "I'm your guardian…well, unofficially I suppose, now that you're of age. Think of me as your kindly old aunt, instead."

"My old aunt isn't actually kindly," commented Ginny rather dryly.

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "Muriel?" she guessed.

Ginny nodded and Harry, remembering Aunt Muriel from Bill's wedding, grimaced.

"You are too young to have sex," said Severus suddenly.

"I don't think I'd talk about that in front of my kindly old aunt," said Ginny while Minerva shot Severus the death glare. Ginny was grinning now, apparently successful at tamping down the initial fear.

"Severus! That was not the intent of this conversation!" She turned toward the teenagers. "I apologize on his behalf. He seems to have a one-track mind."

"For sex?" said Harry. He clapped his hand over his mouth as soon as the words were out. Had he really said that?

Severus groaned. Could this conversation possibly get any worse?

"As humiliating as that conversation was, it actually made sense," said Harry some time later. He and Ginny were lying next to each other in the hammock, alone in the cottage. Severus and Minerva had Flooed back to Hogwarts for thirty minutes—only thirty minutes, as Harry had been told quite clearly. The hammock swung gently and they snuggled together, side to side. Harry had his arm wrapped around Ginny, and her head rested comfortably on his shoulder.

Ginny laughed softly as she snuggled down closer to Harry on the hammock. "It was almost worth the embarrassment to see Severus' face. He looked like he'd taken one of the twins' Puking Pastilles and was trying to fight the effects."

The swayed slowly back and forth a few times. Harry reached over for one of Ginny's hands and held it, squeezing it softly, running his thumb over her palm.

"Well—what about what they said? What would happen if we had a bad break-up? Would I still be able to visit the Burrow?"

"You don't visit the Burrow now, Harry," Ginny pointed out softly.

"You know what I mean," said Harry.

"I…I really don't know," she answered. "If it were mutual—if we both wanted to end it—I think it would be fine. But if I ended it and you were still pining over me—"

"I don't pine," said Harry, tightening his grip on her.

"Right. No pining. If you still wanted me, but I had moved on—"

"You'd move on?" He tickled her waist and she squirmed.

"You know what I mean. Alright—have it the other way. If you had moved on but I was still pining over you, it would be uncomfortable. You'd be there, maybe with your new girlfriend—"

"Or boyfriend. Maybe I moved on because I realized I was gay."

"You'd better be gay if you move on from me," she said, squeezing his hand. "I don't think I could bear seeing you with another woman."

"And then there's Ron," he said with a sigh.

"Oh, I don't want to see you with him, either," she said.

"Thank you for that image," he said, wiping at his eyes.

"Oh, you mean your friendship with him," she said, smirking.

"Of course." He turned and looked into her eyes. People were always remarking about his eyes, how green they were, how unusual. How like his mother's. But in his mind, nothing could compare to liquid brown eyes, eyes like Ginny's. He let go of her hand and moved it to her head, stroking her hair and then gathering it up in his fingers. It was a matter of moving his head only an inch or two, barely leaning in, and he was kissing her, moving his lips over hers, opening them just enough to taste her. She moaned into his mouth then, pushing herself up against him harder, making the hammock sway even more and the porch beams creak. He broke the kiss, pressing his lips to her neck just below her ear.

"You're already a part of our family, Harry," Ginny said as she lay her head on his rapidly beating heart and traced her fingers down his face. "I can't take that away from you. Nothing can. If we don't make it, I'll still be your sister."

"You've never been my sister, Gin," he said with a laugh. She giggled.

"Yeah, this would be really weird if I were."

He laughed then, too, and they lay there together until the hammock was nearly motionless.

"I think Mum expects us to get married," said Ginny with a sigh.

"When?" asked Harry, seemingly in a panic.

Ginny tickled his side. "I mean eventually, you idiot," she said. "Settle down, get respectable careers…."

"So professional Quidditch is out?"

"For me, yes. I'll need to settle down and have the babies. James Arthur and Lily Molly."

"James Arthur works," he teased. "But Lily Molly? Too many 'lys.'"

"Fine. Lily Luna then. Luna's one of my favorite people, after all."

"You're not going to leave me for her, are you?" He hugged her more tightly, kissed her forehead above her eye.

"You really are an idiot," she said, but he could tell she was teasing, that he was, at least, a lovable idiot.

"Only two?" he said after a quiet moment when the only sound they could hear was the muffled crashing of the waves on the shore.

"Only two what?" she asked sleepily.

"Only two children," he said quietly.

"Oh. Hmm."

"Hmm?"

"I suppose we can have more. Are you thinking of seven?"

"Seven? Are you kidding?" Visions of redheaded twin boys with identical maniacal countenances flashed through his mind.

"Three, then," she said.

"And a crup?" he asked.

"You're pushing your luck, Potter," answered Ginny.

Harry smiled and closed his eyes. They had all the time in the world. He could talk her into the dog when the time was right.

/

July 3rd was a Friday. A rainy Friday. Harry stood on the porch at nine in the morning, eating a banana and staring out at the sea. He'd heard Severus in the shower when he woke up and had come downstairs to use the loo. But after he’d made tea and oatmeal, Severus still hadn't appeared. He was about to go upstairs and check on him when he heard movement on the staircase.

"It's raining," he called out. "And the tea tray's in here."

Severus came through the kitchen onto the porch. He was wearing a pair of black jeans, worn and faded with age, and a long-sleeved denim shirt.

"Why are you dressed like that?" asked Harry. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion and Severus gave an inward sigh. Harry still had not resolved his trust issues.

"I promised you a trip to my childhood home," he reminded Harry. "On a rainy day."

"Really? We're going today?"

"We're not going with you wearing that," said Severus, nodding at Harry's too-tight t-shirt, green plaid sleep pants and bare feet.

"I'm not dressed yet. Should I wear old clothes, too?"

"As if you have a choice," said Severus, rolling his eyes.

"They're not old," protested Harry. "They're just…snug."

"They're practically indecent," said Severus. "I can practically read the tag on your pants, they're so tight."

"Not wearing any," said Harry lightly.

Severus shook his head. "At least you're eating. Tomorrow we will go to London and replace your wardrobe."

Harry stuffed the remainder of the banana in his mouth and ran upstairs to dress while Severus sat down and prepared his tea. He spent a good amount of time staring out the window into the rain, his thoughts as grey as the day. He dropped in at Spinner's End once a month to check on the place, pay the utility bills and knock down a few cobwebs. He'd lived there last summer, mercifully alone, since the Dark Lord had taken up residence with Lucius and Narcissa at Malfoy Manor. Voldemort had kept Pettigrew close, using him as jailer, guarding the dungeons in case the wand maker tried to escape. Not having that rat in his home made it feel cleaner somehow, despite the mold and mildew, the oppressive shadows, the dust and grime of a lifetime and a half.

His parents had owned that house when he was born. He'd spent his childhood there, the early days when his mother was his teacher and he wandered the neighborhood with his friend Lily Evans, the later days when he was off at Hogwarts and home only for summers and holidays. His parents had died while living in that home—his father dead of a heart attack the summer after he left Hogwarts, his mother two years later, in a Muggle car accident after taking out his father's old Ford Cortina, driving it 'just down the road.' He never knew what she really intended to do on that short drive, for she'd been hit by another car a hundred kilometers from home.

He had memories of life at Spinner's End. But there had been little happiness there, and his thoughts now held no nostalgia. Still, he had called it home. Had called it home until quite recently, in fact.

What would Harry think of that hovel of a house, dirty and worn inside and out, buried in a neighborhood that had once kindly been called "working class" but now was nothing but derelict?

"Are you ready?"

Harry stood in the doorway, dressed in jeans and an old t-shirt. He had a nylon jacket over his arm.

Severus stood up.

"I am." He carried the tea tray into the kitchen and cleaned up then moved into the living room where they had room to stand side by side. But before he Apparated, he turned toward Harry.

"It is not much," he said, an apology in his voice that Harry did not miss.

"I know," replied Harry, voice deliberately light. "But you've kept it all these years. That must mean something."

Severus considered that a moment. His mother had died when he was twenty years old. He'd been at Hogwarts for most of Harry's life. There was no reason, no real reason, he'd had to keep the place. He could have rented a flat in the city, or a cottage in Hogsmeade, or even stayed at Hogwarts during school breaks. He had a home there. Private quarters, all his own. More commodious than the house at Spinner's End, certainly in a better neighborhood, with meals included.

Despite the lack of reason, he still owned the house.

"You're right, Harry. It does mean something."

"Then don't apologize for it," he said. "It was where you lived when you met my mum, right?"

Severus swallowed an unfamiliar lump in his throat. He nodded. "It was. Now let's go while the day is still dreary." He held out his arm and Harry took hold of it. With a subtle crack, no louder than usual even though Harry was along for the ride, Severus disappeared from Shell Cottage.

They reappeared in a narrow alley between two large, soot-stained brick buildings.

Harry hadn't asked what town Spinner's End was in and had no idea how far they'd traveled. But the sun was shining here and there were no puddles on the road to indicate that it had rained any time recently. The air had a stale smell to it and the street, once they'd taken a few steps out of the alley to stand on the pavement, seemed both sad and lonely.

There were cars parked about, and some moving down the road, as well. As they walked together down the pavement, Harry looked around from right to left. At least half of the shops were boarded up and there seemed to be a larger than usual number of taverns and pubs.

"Why are we walking?" asked Harry as he hurried to keep pace with Severus. "Not that I mind," he added quickly.

"I'd like to show you something on the way to the house," answered Severus. He glanced down at Harry and slowed his pace a bit. Two months now since he'd been bitten by the snake and he was having more good days than bad. He knew he should slow down anyway, conserve his energy, but he wanted so much to have this day over that he could not help but hurry through every piece of it.

"Alright," said Harry, following him as he turned a corner and moved away from the shops. A few more blocks and it was obvious they were in a residential area, though it seemed unnaturally quiet. Here and there an elderly man or woman was about, sitting on folding chairs on small front porches, toiling in small garden plots and flower beds, leaning against a fence smoking a cigarette, silently watching them go by. A small black dog with curly hair ran at them from within a garden fence, yipping and barking until its owner called out to it in a high-pitched and weak voice. "Nipsy! Naughty boy! Come back here!"

Severus turned right at the corner two houses past Nipsy's yard and walked halfway down the block, stopping in front of a small brick home with a steep-pitched roof. The house, like many around it, appeared to be vacant. The small front garden was overgrown with what Aunt Petunia would have considered weeds. Harry thought the wild flowers and grasses lovely, though. A hedge still grew on one side of the garden, effectively separating the house from the nearly identical one that stood beside it. Three crumbling brick steps led up to a tiny front porch whose wrought-iron railings hung off to the side, connected by hope alone.

"The house where your mother lived," said Severus softly, turning to Harry to judge his reaction.

"My mum grew up here?" he asked, as if disbelieving.

"She did. This neighborhood was once alive with children and families. It has become quite derelict over the last dozen years." He pointed to a large tree in the back, so tall it could be seen over the roof. "Your mother and your aunt played in the back garden, between the house and the alley. There was a swing in that tree, and bicycles in the shed." He smiled a far-away smile. "They loved to jump rope. They always made me turn the end."

"My mum lived here," said Harry softly, picturing the boy in the memories, the boy with the old-fashioned clothing, standing across from Aunt Petunia turning the end of a jump rope. He stared at the small house, no bigger, really, than the house he hadn't yet seen at Spinner's End, and grown even more depressing and derelict than Severus' home, but Severus knew he wasn't seeing the broken windows, crumbling brick and overgrown garden. He must be seeing exactly what Severus himself was seeing. A tidy home, with a porch kept scrubbed and swept by Lily's mother. A little red-headed girl sitting on the porch, reading a book. She was always reading in those days, always had her nose in one of those fresh-smelling tomes from the local library.

"It's called The Secret Garden, Sev," she said. "There was a cholera outbreak, you see, in India, and Mary's parents died. But they didn't love her, not really. They hardly knew her, in fact. And she went to live in Yorkshire with her uncle and discovered a wonderful garden, and she brought it back to life. It was magic, Sev. She and Colin and Dickon found the magic in the earth…."

She'd given him a copy of that book once, and he had it still, but he'd never read it. He couldn't bear to.

"What did my grandfather do?" asked Harry. He didn't look at Severus; he was still gazing at the house, still taking it all in with eyes wide and sad.

"He was a barber," answered Severus. He smiled, a touch of nostalgia overcoming him, the emotion almost unrecognizable in its foreignness. "He always wanted to cut off my hair. He didn't understand about wizards…."

"He probably thought you were a hooligan," said Harry. "That's what Uncle Vernon always said, anyway. 'Long-haired hooligans.'"

He thought I was too poor and couldn't afford haircuts, thought Severus sadly. But he didn't say that to Harry.

"Come, we'd best get on our way. It's not much further," he said, giving the little house where he had spent so many happy childhood hours a final glance, then moving on down the street, Harry following him without protest. As they walked, the homes grew closer together and though the neighborhood where they stopped seemed even shabbier than the one they'd just left, it didn't have the vacant air of the place where Lily Evans had lived.

They stopped outside the last house in the row on Spinner's End. Harry seemed almost startled to have reached it at last and regarded it silently with Severus.

"Home," said Severus, giving the house the kind of scrutinizing look he hadn't given it in ten years or more. The shrubs under the windows against the house were woody and overgrown, half obscuring the windows. The windows were dirty, the roof crumbling, the guttering loose. Garbage and newspapers had blown into the yard, and beer bottles were dumped in a corner of the garden where the hedge made a hard right turn and disappeared into the rear lot. He glanced at Harry.

Harry gave a brave sort of smile. Severus wondered what exactly he had expected.

"Well, it's not much, but it's a hell of a lot better than Number Four Privet Drive," he said, following Severus up the walk to the front door.

"Why is that?" asked Severus as he glanced around then pulled out his wand to unward the door and cast an "Alohomora."

"No Dursleys," said Harry with a smile.

Severus paused with his hand on the doorknob.

"Well, there is that," he replied. He pushed open the door, wand still in his hand, and went inside, holding the door open until Harry had followed him in. He flipped on the wall switch next to the door, illuminating a single, weak ceiling light in the hallway, and closed the door behind Harry.

 

 

(Chapter 9)

A/N: Elements in this chapter refer to the book Severus remembers Lily reading in Chapter 8, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. One of my childhood favorites, this book appears in more than one of my stories. You can read this book free online, or look up a plot summary of it if you're interested and haven't read it. The 1990s movie took a lot of liberties with the plot, though the Hallmark (?) and BBC versions follow it more closely.

Chapter 9

"Electricity," murmured Harry. During this last year, he'd stayed at Shell Cottage, Grimmauld Place, the Burrow, Hogwarts. And when not at one of those places, he'd spent most of his time camping in a Wizarding tent. He gazed at the light bulb in the ceiling in semi-wonder.

"My father was a Muggle," said Severus offhandedly. He glanced around the tiny foyer and apparently found it all in order. "I found it…convenient...to keep it, no matter that oil lamps shed a much warmer light."

There were only two things in the foyer of any note at all. The first was a mirror, hung on the wall to the right. It was round and frameless, spotted with age, and of the right size and placement for a woman to check her hair or her hat before venturing out into the street. The wallpaper that the mirror hung on was as old as the mirror, if not older: wide green stripes with narrow gold piping. Harry stared at it, reminded of the old brass candlesticks at Grimmauld Place stained green with corrosion. It wasn't a Slytherin green, nor was it a Gryffindor gold, and for some reason that comforted him.

The other item of note was the coat tree.

It was made of wood, either a wood so dark as to be almost black, or a lighter wood stained dark with age and grime. It would have been almost unremarkable, blending in with the darkness and grime of the house around it, had it not been for the robes that hung on it.

Women's robes. Dark green, with a frill at the bottom and small pink flowers embroidered around the collar. Dusty. So dusty that the color was muted and the robe appeared streaked around the draped folds.

If Severus noticed Harry staring at the robes, he didn't comment.

"Come," he said instead. He turned and walked forward into a dim room, nearly dark despite the sunshine outdoors. Harry had the immediate impression, when he entered the room, of being slowly suffocated. The air was still and smelled musty and old. Ahead of him, Severus, who apparently was able to see in the dark, or, more likely, knew the layout of the room like the back of his own hand, turned on a standard lamp. The lamp glowed dully, its shade covered in thick dust, as the chain Severus had pulled to turn it on swung against the metal pole with a hollow clang. Harry's eyes moved to the most impressive feature of the room, a wall made entirely of books, while Severus walked to a window, pulled apart the curtains and cracked open the window, tugging on it to loosen it instead of using an easy "Alohomora." Light speared into the room, cutting through the dancing dust motes. Harry blinked, finding the light almost intrusive in this sepulchral tomb of a room.

The wall of books turned out to be a wall of bookshelves so laden with books that it was difficult to even see the wood of the shelves beneath and around the many tomes. An old leather chair sat in a corner, with a worn leather ottoman before it and a side table between the chair and the shelves. The standard lamp Severus has just turned on stood at the other side of the chair. A fireplace took up the entire wall between the two windows and a small sofa, plush, old-fashioned and worn, not even big enough for Harry to stretch out on, was grouped with the chair, lamp and table. A doorway on the other side of the sofa led into another room—the kitchen, by the looks of it. There was one more doorway on the wall behind him, next to the small entryway. It led to a narrow corridor which ended in a closed door.

Severus had disappeared quietly into the kitchen and Harry heard the clanging of old pipes, then water spurting in staccato bursts from the kitchen sink as Severus ran the water and cleared the pipes of air. He heard the sound of breaking glass just ahead of a muttered curse and a terse "Reparo."

"Severus? You alright in there?"

Harry moved to the kitchen doorway, feeling like an uncomfortable visitor still, and flicked on the switch next to the door. Nothing happened.

"Bulb's burned out," commented Severus as he pulled up the old blinds over the sink, sending another shaft of sunlight into the room. His voice sounded both resigned and tired. Perhaps the bulbs burned out often here and he was simply tired of replacing them.

The kitchen at the Dursleys’ had been modern and sterile. The kitchen at Grimmauld Place was archaic and dark. The Weasleys’ kitchen was spacious and open and alive with laughter. The kitchen at Hogwarts was immense and magical, dancing with house-elves, spotless and cheerful.

But this kitchen was unlike any of those. This kitchen was old and worn and tired. The sink was framed on either side by a short worktop and narrow, dark cupboards. An old range, only half the size of Aunt Petunia's massive modern wonder, stood beside the short worktop to the left of the sink. An ancient fridge stood apart from the other furnishings, beside a second window. A tiny table was pushed against the wall beside the doorway leading to the sitting room and was surrounded by three metal chairs covered in brown vinyl.

The entire room looked sad. It was as dusty as the rest of the house, but otherwise neat and cleared of clutter and dishes and any sign of life or inhabitation. The linoleum on the floor was yellowed with age and worn through in the high traffic areas, leaving pathways from door to refrigerator and refrigerator to sink.

"Where did you sleep?" asked Harry. It was an odd question, considering he hadn't yet commented at all on the house or its contents since they came in through the front door.

"Upstairs," said Severus with the barest touch of a smile. "My father slept down here, in the front bedroom." He placed the repaired teacup he was holding on the rickety table beside a set of aluminum salt and pepper shakers and walked back out into the sitting room. He pointed toward the doorway across from the fireplace. "My father's bedroom. There's a small loo just off the hallway there. Flush it a time or two before you use it, if you need to go. That will clear the air out of the pipes and you won't get an unplanned shower."

He did not invite Harry to explore the bedroom and Harry couldn't help but note that he hadn't yet mentioned where his mother slept. He determined from what Severus wasn't saying that they had not slept in the same room.

"How do you get upstairs?" asked Harry, looking around the small room for another door. In answer, Severus walked over to the wall of books and reached into a spot where a book appeared to be missing and pulled a hidden handle. The bookshelf slowly swung forward, revealing a staircase.

"There wasn't enough wall space for the books," he explained with another almost smile. He turned to Harry then. "Well, have you seen enough?"

Harry was staring fixedly at what he could see of the dark, narrow staircase beyond the hidden door. He swallowed.

"Harry?"

Harry took half a step backward and steadied himself. He smiled apologetically at Severus.

"Sorry. Just reminded me of something there for a minute."

Severus had moved away from the bookshelves and glanced back at the staircase now, puzzled. Perhaps the stairs reminded Harry of some experience this past year, on the Horcrux hunt. Or perhaps of one of the staircases to the upper floors of Grimmauld Place. He looked at Harry's pale face as the boy struggled to regain control of himself.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" he asked, voice low and calm.

"Not really," answered Harry, looking away from Severus quickly. "And no, I haven't seen enough. Can I see your room? Didn't you want me to help you box up some things?"

"I had meant to start with some books," said Severus.

Harry glanced at the dusty volumes.

"Why don't we send Kreacher over here to dust them off first?" he suggested, taking a tentative step or two closer to the open doorway leading to the stairs.

"That is a good idea," replied Severus, surveying the hundreds of tomes. "It will certainly save our lungs from inhaling more of the filth of this town." He strode toward the stairs and ducked under the low doorway, then reached inside and flipped a switch on a wall that Harry couldn't see. The dark stairs lit up with a faint, shadowy glow and Harry could now see that the steps were covered in a threadbare blue carpet. Severus disappeared up the stairs, footsteps echoing in the sitting room below, and Harry hurried to follow.

The stairs were squeaky, steep and narrow. Harry noticed how his foot seemed to fit in a groove in the middle of each tread where the carpet, and the wood below it, had been worn down into a slight depression. Had Severus been a different kind of person, had Harry been able to imagine him as a boisterous, playful child, he might have imagined that the stairs were worn down from a small boy sliding down them on his bottom.

But Severus would not have been that kind of boy.

Nor had Harry been.

The staircase, which seemed to climb along the far side of the house, ended at a little landing. A doorway to the left led to a short passage with four doors, all of them closed. Severus had his wand out and illuminated now and walked ahead to the end of the corridor, pushing open the door there to reveal a tiny bath with a black and white tile floor and an old white porcelain basin. The mirror over the basin reflected the wand light back at Harry and he blinked in surprise.

Severus gestured to the single door on the right side. "My mother's room," he said. Harry thought his voice both sad and respectful. He wondered what was behind the door—had Severus left it exactly as Eileen Prince had left it? Were her clothes still in there? Her brush and comb on the dresser? Her shoes lined up at the end of the bed?

But Severus made no move to show Harry his mother's room and Harry dutifully turned toward the left side of the passage. Severus stood before the first door and waved his wand in a complicated arc, uttering a spell under his breath that Harry could not quite catch. The doorknob, an old-fashioned glass handle, glowed briefly and Severus reached down and pushed open the door.

Harry couldn't have said exactly what he expected to find in Severus Snape's bedroom in this, his childhood home. He imagined Severus had used this room most of his life, that it was in fact the room in the memory he had seen during those first Occlumency lessons during his fifth year. The room where a young Severus lay on the bed, lazily zapping flies. But that had been years ago, when his parents were still living, when he was still a student at Hogwarts. Surely the room would have been cleaned out since then, filled with the trappings of an adult, no longer a child's haven—no longer a young boy's prison.

That the room was a cluttered mess surprised Harry.

It was far cleaner than the downstairs rooms, if "cleaner" meant less dust and grime. But the clutter you might see in a normal house—not the Dursleys’, of course, as that house was as far from normal as any—seemed to be absent from the kitchen and living areas and confined to this one room.

"Do as I say, not as I do," muttered Severus as his eyes swept the room with Harry's. He moved over to the low dresser with a plain rectangular mirror attached to its back and picked up a school scarf in Slytherin colors, fingered it a moment, then hung it over the mirror and turned back to face Harry. "That means you are never to let your own room decay into the mess that you see here." He arched an eyebrow. Harry looked around again, certain he didn't own enough stuff to make that even a remote danger.

The bed was the antithesis of a Hogwarts four-poster. It was frameless and low, sunken in the middle, a plain double bed short enough that Harry imagined Severus had to sleep on it diagonally to keep his feet from dangling off the end. It was covered in a dingy white spread, the kind Mrs. Figg had in her guest bedroom, with little white puffs making patterns in the middle and long string-like fringe around the edges. At Mrs. Figg's, the fringe just grazed the floor. Here, it rested almost completely on the dark hardwood, looking more like a raveled edge than elegant fringe.

Harry was still staring at the bed when Severus handed him a large cardboard box—he'd enlarged a small box he'd found on the dresser—and pointed to a narrow bookshelf with three shelves against the wall at the foot of the bed.

"Start there, I suppose. I try to keep this room at least relatively dust free, so the books should not make you cough up a lung." He glanced over at the shelf, then sat down on the bed and pulled open the top dresser drawer. Harry could see that, instead of the anticipated socks and underwear, the drawer was full of a riot of small items—like the junk drawer in the Weasleys’ kitchen that held all manner of things like string and glue and tape and Muggle postage stamps and quills and….

He stared at the box in his hand, looked again at the more enticing drawer, and moved over to the bookshelf, sinking to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of it with the box beside him.

He looked at the shelf and suddenly realized that, instead of books on the Dark Arts and Potions, he was face to face with Severus' childhood.

He quickly glanced back over his shoulder. Severus was still sitting on the bed, poking around in the junk drawer, his back to Harry. Harry could tell by his posture, his attitude, that Severus was not exactly enjoying his visit to Spinner's End.

Harry understood. It was like his cupboard, he supposed, a quick sinking of his stomach making him recall how that first look into the dark staircase had reminded him of the view into his cupboard from the passage. As much as that cupboard represented all that was wrong with his childhood—and with the Dursleys, he quickly reminded himself—it was, in effect, his.

It had been home, for whatever that was worth.

He reached up and removed a book from the top shelf. A battered dictionary, the kind with the gold leaf on the edges, most of it worn away now. He placed the book in the box and removed another dictionary—Latin—and placed it on top of the first. French, German, Italian, Spanish. Surely Severus didn't speak….? Harry filed that question away, unconsciously respecting the quiet of the room, and continued to remove books and place them in the large box.

The top shelf contained all reference books, including a tome on trees, shrubs and flowers of the United Kingdom and another on the reptiles, birds and mammals native to Great Britain. A child's guide to Potions, bound in dark brown leather with gilded gold letters, was the only magical volume on the shelf. Harry packed them all into the box carefully, thinking, as he did, that he hadn't even had a dictionary of his own at the Dursleys’, then started on the bottom shelf, leaving the intriguing middle shelf for last. That shelf had what appeared to be novels and storybooks with brighter-colored spines and pictures on the covers.

The bottom shelf held mainly Hogwarts textbooks. Harry pulled out The Standard Book of Spells—Grade 4 and smiled. The Wizarding world certainly didn't update its textbooks as often as the Muggle world did. This one looked exactly like his own, down to the pigtailed young witch in old-fashioned robes on the front cover. Severus hadn't kept all of his textbooks, though he did have a fair number of Potions books and apparently all of his Defense Against the Dark Arts texts. Noticeably missing were the seven Gilderoy Lockhart books required during Harry's second year and the entirely worthless Defensive Magical Theory that the late Dolores Umbridge had used. Harry looked at Severus' fifth year Potions text, dog-eared and worn, rather than placing it in the box. He put it in his lap instead, and opened it to the cover page.

As he expected, Severus had written in this book, as well. There it was: "Property of the Half-Blood Prince'' written across the bottom of the page in the fine handwriting he now recognized. He looked over his shoulder at Severus. He was sitting on the bed still, an old shoebox in his lap, quietly sorting through its contents. Harry turned back to the book and paged through it quickly. Severus had not written in Intermediate Potions as heavily as he had in the book Harry used in his sixth year, though he did find the expected alterations to ingredients and notes in the margins. On the inside of the back cover was a crude but amusing drawing of a cockroach. The roach, a particularly fat roach, was holding a piece of glazed pineapple in his little roach hand. The drawing was captioned "The Bug Club."

It suddenly struck Harry that he and Severus had had the same Potions professor, at least for a time; that Severus had been a sixteen-year-old boy once, too; that he had doodled in his book and made fun of the Slug Club.

Harry closed the book, placed it carefully in the box and looked up at the last shelf.

A row of seven or eight books of the same size and shape caught his attention first. He pulled one out at random. Hard-Headed Hector and the Pygmy Post Owl. Harry blinked. He'd never heard of Hard-headed Hector. He pulled another book out and looked at the front cover. On this one, Hard-headed Hector was on a broom chasing a two-tailed dog. Hard-Headed Hector and the Magical Crup. He opened the book and could tell from the illustrations and the size of the typeface that it was the kind of book a ten- or twelve-year-old might read. The books were well cared for, yet Harry could tell they'd been read many times. He paged to the back of the third one he took out, Hard-Headed Hector and the Grumpy Garden Gnome, and ran his finger over the name written carefully along the bottom of the inside back cover. The words were printed in neat block letters, by a hand that could not have belonged to a child older than eight years old. Severus T. Snape.

Severus had written his name in these books. He'd read these books, perhaps in this very room, read them over and over again, and when he was too old to read them, had kept them anyway. Was he thinking, back then, that he'd someday pass them along to a son?

Suddenly, Harry wanted very much to read these books.

He pulled another off the shelf, smiling at the title: Hard-Headed Hector and the Nibbling Niffler. He stacked it in the box on top of the others and asked, rather innocently, "Severus, what's your middle name?"

"Tobias," answered Severus idly. "It was my father's name. And I have already told you that—in a letter, I believe."

Harry filed the information away and smiled as he stacked the rest of the "Hard-Headed Hector" series in the box and pulled down a child's biography of Arsenius Jigger. He recognized the name of the author of some of his Potions textbooks. Several more biographies, a copy of Tolkien's The Hobbit, a very worn copy of a book he'd never heard of, Stranger in a Strange Land. He added a multi-volume leather-bound set of the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and the box was nearly full.

But there was room for one more book. The last book sat on the edge of the shelf, pressed against the side, and when he tried to remove it the paper jacket was stuck to the wood. He wiggled it carefully and the paper unstuck.

He could tell right away that it was a book unlike the others. Muggle, but there had been other Muggle books in with the magical ones. No, what made this book stand out was that it was a girl's book, the jacket light green, the font fancy, a picture of a little blonde girl in a severe coat and a plain hat on the cover. The book was titled The Secret Garden. Harry had never heard of it.

He stared at the cover for a long moment then carefully opened the book to the first page, his eyes drawn to the inscription there.

June 30, 1978

Dear Sev:

"Where there is love, there is magic."

You know what this book means to me. I think you'll find yourself in here, though perhaps not where you'd expect.

Fondly,

Lily

Harry stared at the inscription, feeling like a voyeur, but soaking up the feeling, the feeling of seeing his mum's handwriting, of hearing her voice in his head, of knowing that she'd held this book, had touched this book. That this book was one she'd read, loved herself, treasured.

A feeling of overwhelming sadness, a melancholy so deep he didn't know how to push it away, overcame him then and he read the inscription again, and again. He wanted to know what the book meant to his mum. He wanted, so much, so hard, so deeply, to have a gift like this from his mum, a memento to treasure, even if he couldn't have her voice.

Except he had had her voice. On that final walk through the smoldering grounds of Hogwarts, through the Forbidden Forest, the Snitch clutched desperately in his hands. The walk to the end, to the close.

To the beginning.

But it wasn't enough!

He choked back a sob he would not, could not, let out.

He read the inscription again.

She had called Severus "Sev."

"Where there is love, there is magic."

Who had said that? Was it part of this book?

The date. Their last day ever at Hogwarts. He knew they had fallen into separate spheres by then, she with James, Severus with the Death Eater Crowd. Yet she had given him this. And he had kept it.

He paged through the book, too quickly, but was rewarded with more handwriting at the end, on the blank page between the end of the book and the back cover.

Sev:

I hope by now you see that you're all the children in this book. You're Mary, the unloved, forgotten child. You're Colin, long-suffering, afraid of life, neglected by his father. You're Dickon, who knows the earth and the plants and creatures who live in and on it. Just as they brought the garden to life, you made magic real for me, Sev, long before I knew it was real. Come what may, I'll always remember that. The gift you gave me. The light you brought to this child's eyes.

Lily

Harry stood and took two shaky steps toward Severus.

"Severus…Dad..." He had the book in his hand and, as Severus turned, pivoting on the old bedspread, he held it out toward him.

"Give me that."

Harry stopped, stunned. He took a step backward and clutched the book against his stomach.

"But…I wanted to read it."

Severus stood, face stoic, and held out his hand for the book, then paused, staring at his own outstretched hand, then at Harry. He took in the flush on the boy's face, the moisture on his cheeks, the way he was shielding the book with his body, then dropped his hand and sank back down on the bed. He held his head in his hands, his elbows propped on his knees. His hair fell around his face, shielding his eyes.

"Dad?" Harry's voice was soft, small, tentative, but it seemed to echo in the quiet little room, bouncing off the mirror, dancing around stacks of papers, ducking into the corner behind the old racing broom, the worn ice skates, the empty aquarium.

A ragged sob, trembling shoulders.

Harry froze, a step away from the bed, a step away from his father. He stared at Severus in confusion, trying to comprehend exactly what was happening. Another ragged sob and the bent head was shaking now.

"Dad? Are you alright?" Harry's own voice was shaky and unsure as he carefully placed the book on top of the still-cluttered dresser and stood in front of Severus, in front of his father, squatting down in the too-small space between the man and the dresser, reaching up to take hold of one of the long-fingered hands pressed against Severus' head. Squeezing it. "Severus? It's alright. I put the book down. On the dresser. You can have it."

And Severus looked up at Harry then, tears streaking his face, eyes sad and distant, then reached out with one arm and pulled Harry to him, wrapping both arms then around the child, the boy, the young man, the Chosen One, defeater of Voldemort, motherless orphan, Harry.

Harry remained stiff and frozen for a stunned moment.

And then he broke.

Because it wasn't fair. Wasn't fair that Severus knew his mother, and he didn't. Wasn't fair that Severus had that book, that piece of her. That she had read that book and found Severus in it, and not Harry. That she had played with him in the woods, and swung with him on the swing set, and made a flower come alive for him. That he had turned the end of the skipping rope, and knocked on her door. Hullo, Mrs. Evans. Is Lily home?

That Severus had loved his mother, while he had nothing to love.

"I want the book," he sobbed when he could finally lift his voice through the anger and swelling sadness. "I want something of my mum's."

Silly child…you have her eyes.

A long hand smoothed back his hair. He could feel the dampness of Severus' cheek, the bristle on his jaw. He clutched his hands into the fabric of the shirt. He ached. He wanted. He needed. The book. The memories. The love. He wanted to smell her, to hug her, to hear her voice reading the words aloud to him, telling him that he was like Dickon. Admiring his love of living things. That he was like Colin. Long-suffering. That he was Mary, the neglected, forgotten child. Except he didn't want that. He didn't want to be neglected, forgotten.

"I want something of my mum's," he repeated, voice trembling, tears slipping down his face and wetting Severus' cheeks now.

"The book is yours," whispered Severus, voice raspy, his hand still smoothing down Harry's hair rhythmically. Harry took in a shuddering breath and hugged Severus tight.

"Thank you. Thank you, Dad." He sighed out the words into Severus' shoulder. "Thank you."

Another long silence, not awkward, not uncomfortable.

"Did you find yourself in the book, Dad?" asked Harry minutes later, face still pressed in Severus' shoulder, hands still fisted in his shirt.

A long pause. The words, when they came, were stark and empty. Like Harry's moments ago, they filled the small room, sinking into the worn white bedspread, sailing on tiny currents above the bare wooden floorboards, somersaulting into the open dresser drawer filled with Gobstones and chess pieces and Chocolate Frog cards yellowed with age.

"I never read it. I couldn't bear to."

 

 

(Chapter 10)

 

Chapter 10

He couldn't sleep.

It had been difficult, nearly impossible in fact, to fall asleep in the first place. Harry had been exhausted when they returned from Spinner's End and had gone directly up to bed when they'd Apparated back to Shell Cottage after dinner at a pub in Manchester. Severus had Flooed back first with the boxes they'd packed, making four trips carrying two boxes at a time, while Harry settled into the comfortable chair in the sitting room and paged through the book Severus had given him. Lily's book. The Secret Garden. Dinner was good and hearty. The exhaustion of the day, both physical and emotional, should have ensured that he slept long and soundly.

But at one o'clock in the morning, Severus was awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to capture the remnants of the dreams that flitted around in his head. His arms and legs ached from moving so many boxes of books, and there was a heaviness in his heart that he couldn't quite banish, the weight of the past, the baggage of a lifetime.

He sat up on the edge of his bed after a time, convinced that he might breathe easier sitting upright, that the uncomfortable weight of his thoughts and memories would be somehow easier to bear were he not lying in bed, flat on his back. The moon was full, or nearly so, and his hands, resting motionless on his knees, seemed to glow in the soft light spilling in through the window. He sat quietly, breathing rhythmically, back straight, head bowed, looking at his hands on his knees, at his long fingers with their short fingernails, at his thin wrists, at the veins barely seen below the skin. Months, more than a year now, removed from daily potions yet the evidence remained that he was a Potions master, a collector of ingredients. That his hands cut flora and fauna of all varieties, that his fingers gathered chopped and minced and ground and pulverized bits of matter, mixed them with water and bile and blood and acid and tears, strained them, ladled them, bottled them. Though faded now, the stains of his chosen career adorned his fingers along with patches of shiny, smooth skin, burning memories of spills too late to avert.

He turned his hands over, still resting them on his knees, still gazing down at them as if studying someone else's hands, someone else's life.

The calluses were more evident now, on his fingers, from quills and stirring rods and on the tip of this thumb where his wand always rested. More faded stains, ink both black and red.

His mind wandered.

He had created thousands of potions with these hands, picked flowers for Lily, hugged his mother, punched his father. He had marked countless essays, picked up stones along the lake, skipped them over the water. He'd written hundreds of parchment feet of essays, kneaded bread dough in his mother's kitchen at Spinner's End, perched on a stool at the counter, turning and folding and working in more flour while his mum touched his nose with a floury finger, leaving a perfect dot on its prominent tip.

He'd used those hands to grasp the headmaster's robes, pleading with him for mercy, begging him to help Lily, to protect her.

He'd gone through much of his life with a wand in these hands.

He'd used it to murder Albus.

He'd scooped up bruise salve with these fingers, rubbed it on Harry's skin. Carded them through Harry's hair, dug in the sand with them in search of shellfish, licked that ridiculous butter cream frosting off of them, traced patterns on frosty window panes.

He'd held those hands in front of his face in fear as his father approached him, covered his face with them so his mother could not see his shame.

They were strong and dexterous and agile.

They were stained and destructive and guilty.

Guilty.

The weight of guilt could be oppressive.

He stood then, stepped into his slippers, picked up his robe from the hook on the wall and put it on as he walked quietly down the stairs.

He walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea, waited for it to boil, standing there in front of the range looking at the kettle, patient, studiously not thinking, centering himself in the moment, in the act of watching, in the patient posture of waiting.

He settled into one of the lounge chairs a few minutes later, cup of tea warming his hands on this mild, moonlit night. The moon was behind him as he gazed out toward the sea and, though he couldn't see it, it lit up the water, bathing it in its cool, pale glow.

Try as he might to keep himself in the here and the now, to look only toward the future—the upcoming term at Hogwarts, Harry's birthday at the end of the month—nights like these took over his resolve and led him backward, slow-arcing in reverse order through the years: that last year at Hogwarts as headmaster, the Harry years before that, the years since Lily died, the years since taking the Mark, his own Hogwarts years. Decisions made that branded him as a lover of the Dark Arts, as a Death Eater, as a traitor.

If only he had stood by Lily. If only he hadn't used that word. Mudblood. If only he had gone to Dumbledore before taking the Mark. If only he had not gone to the Dark Lord after hearing the Prophecy. If only. If only.

He was thirty-eight years old and, if luck and fortune fell into place and he didn't meet with an unfortunate accident leading to an untimely end, he might reasonably expect to live another seventy-five years.

How many years would be necessary to erase his sins? To remove the stains on his soul?

Twenty for Albus Dumbledore.

Twelve for the sins of omission. For watching while Charity Burbage pleaded for his help. Severus, please! We're friends… While the Carrows terrorized the school. While they tortured Neville Longbottom.

Seven for taking the Dark Mark, revealing the Prophecy, torturing Muggles, using Veritaserum on prisoners, lying to himself, always lying to himself.

Five for the years he had tormented Harry. Another for the year he had pretended to.

Five for uttering that cursed word….Mudblood.

Then—then could he forgive himself? Really forgive himself?

He was surprised, incredulous really, at the ease with which some were able to forgive.

Like Harry. Harry who seemed to look right through those blots on his soul, those stains on his conscience, and see not a teacher, not a tormenter, not a Death Eater, but a father.

Severus looked out to sea again, transfixed by the image of the moon both over the water and on it, rippling on the gentle night waves.

Lily had chosen James Potter. James had fathered Harry. James had died protecting him.

And later, Harry had chosen Severus.

He didn't deserve this. This taste of normalcy. This infusion of love in a life that love had never before graced for so long. He hadn't lived a good enough life, hadn't atoned for his sins, hadn't worked off his contempt of his actions. Hadn't been punished enough. Hadn't punished himself enough.

But still, there was Harry.

And most days, he could focus on Harry, and what Harry needed. Harry needed security, normalcy, a place to come home to, someone to guide him. He needed someone for whom he was the primary focus. A parent. A family of one. How odd that he found security here with Severus, a normal life with the least normal of all the teachers at Hogwarts, the least normal of all the adults in his life.

He stood then, compelled by what he did not know—the barely cool, fragrant air, the moonlight on the water, the sound of the waves against the shore—and walked out the door and down the stairs, turning to leave his slippers on the steps. Barefoot, he let the moonlight guide him down the smooth, well-worn path, picking his way through and among the rocks and grass, to the sand, to the water's edge.

He waded out into the water a few feet, looking down as it lapped around his ankles, happy that he could not see his face reflected in the water. His too-large nose. The prominent scars on his neck. The scowl that had settled on his face even before he was at Hogwarts. That look is going to freeze on your face one day, Severus! The fine dark hair, once lank and oily from hanging over steaming cauldrons, now clean, but still fine, not befitting a man of his stature, nor of his age. Baby fine, his mother had said in her sad, quiet voice, taking comb to his hair all those years ago, in the atrium of the Great Hall, just before his last end-of-term feast at Hogwarts .

He waded out further, the sandy sea floor firm and smooth beneath his feet. He stopped when the hem of his bathrobe touched the water, siphoning water up the fabric above his knees. He shrugged the robe off and it floated atop the water behind him, rocked gently by the waves. He had been sleeping in nothing but boxers and an old v-necked undershirt, and he moved further out now until the water lapped at the bottom of his pants, wicking up the fabric and chilling him.

He was a sinner in need of cleansing. Not Jesus Christ in the River Jordan but Saul on the road to Damascus. Unclean, unclean. A leper ostracized from polite society. An unwanted girl child in one-child China. A stray dog, underfed and mangy. He was oppressor and oppressed. Tormentor and victim.

Up to his waist now, he let himself fall forward.

Dying and reborn.

He was buoyant in the water, floating without effort as he turned on his back and gazed up at the moon.

Weightless.

Look forward, Severus, he told himself. The past is dead and gone.

Murmured susurrations reached him through the water. Forgiven forgiven forgiven, they said.

Not yet not yet not yet, he answered.

A month ago, maybe two, he would have said never.

/

In his nightmare, he hadn't listened. Hadn't done what Dumbledore wanted him to do. Hadn't destroyed all the Horcruxes. Hadn't believed the memories Severus had left him. Hadn't gone to his death willingly.

In his nightmare, he was a coward, hiding, quaking, shaking, cowering. Wrapped up in his Invisibility Cloak, skirting the edge of the forest, running while others fought and died.

In his nightmare, Severus lay on the floor of the Shrieking Shack, voiceless, breathless, bloodless. Unblinking, unseeing black eyes stared at the ceiling. The great snake, like a Dementor, feasted on his soul.

In his nightmare, Ron left and never came back.

In his nightmare, Hermione went with him.

In his nightmare, little Teddy Lupin, tips of his baby hair tinged turquoise, lay squalling on the floor between his dead mother and his dead father, a blasphemy of a family, a twisted portrait of togetherness.

In his nightmare, he kept the Elder Wand, used it to bring back Fred and Remus and Tonks. Revived Lavender, Colin and Moody. Woke up Dumbledore. Roused Cedric from his long sleep. Pulled Sirius back from beyond the veil. Went to Godric's Hollow, to the cemetery there, and pulled his parents from their restful sleep.

And they followed him, his small army of Inferi, so grateful were they for the life he had returned to them, so beholden to him. Surrounded him by day and by night so that he could not sleep and at night, lying awake and tense, he'd feel the mist of their ghostly breath and the touch of his mother's skeletal finger as she ran it down his cheek in that age-old gesture of love.

In his nightmare, the tent had a cupboard and the doorway to the loo had a veil.

In his nightmare, he was alone.

He awoke, heart racing, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling above him.

His bedroom was dark but the window in front of him was a picture postcard of the moon dancing on the water.

The soft light pulled him gently from his nightmare and he lay there, breathing.

Alone.

The house was quiet. Severus, he thought, was sleeping.

Just the knowledge that Severus was there, unseen, unheard, but there, comforted him, the feeling wrapping around his heart like a blanket, quieting its wild beating.

He could not sleep. Not yet. The nightmares were still there, just beyond the edge of consciousness. He had to stave them off with wakefulness, with other thoughts and distractions.

He reached for his glasses, put them on. Reached for his wand and lit it with a quiet Lumos.

Reached for the book on his bedside table.

For the twentieth time, he opened it to the inscription his mother had written to Severus.

Dear Sev:

"Where there is love, there is magic."

You know what this book means to me. I think you'll find yourself in here, though perhaps not where you'd expect.

Yours,

Lily

And then he turned to the back of the book and read the second one.

Sev:

I hope by now you see that you're all the children in this book. You're Mary, the unloved, forgotten child. You're Colin, long-suffering, afraid of life, neglected by his father. You're Dickon, who knows the earth and the plants and creatures who live in and on it. Just as they brought the garden to life, you made magic real for me, Sev, long before I knew it was real. Come what may, I'll always remember that.

Lily

Harry wanted to know those children—this unloved Mary, the neglected Colin, and Dickon, who loved the plants and the animals. He thought it must be a book for young girls, but he couldn't imagine not reading it, not now, not now that it was his. His mother had loved this book and the children in it had reminded her of Severus.

It was the first night that Harry Potter would read The Secret Garden when he awoke from a nightmare.

"When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen."

/

Severus was bone weary when he walked up from the sea to the cottage. He picked up his slippers from the porch stairs and carried them with him onto the porch. He draped his sodden robe on the back of a lounge chair, stepped into his slippers and carried his teacup into the kitchen.

The old clock on the wall beside the range read two o'clock.

He could sleep now.

He rinsed out the cup and filled it with water from the tap, drank it down, refilled it and drank that, too. He placed the cup in the drainer.

He took the stairs slowly, quietly, not wanting to wake Harry.

There was a ribbon of light wavering from under Harry's door.

Severus stood in front of the door. No, it wouldn't do to go in there now dressed in damp t-shirt and boxers. He padded softly to his room instead, pulled off the boxers and pulled on a pair of cotton sleep pants. He changed into a dry t-shirt and used a drying charm on his hair.

The light was still on under Harry's door. He knocked softly.

"Come on in," called out Harry in a quiet voice.

Severus opened the door.

"Having trouble sleeping?" he asked.

Harry was sitting up against the headboard, knees pulled up to his chest in his favorite position. The book was resting on his knees and he held his wand above it, the tip lit with a soft, full light.

"I started reading the book," explained Harry, not really answering the question. "What time is it?"

"Two o'clock," answered Severus. He hadn't moved out of the doorway. "You haven't been up all night, Harry."

Harry looked down at the book and then closed it, setting it carefully on his bedside table.

"No," he admitted. "I had a nightmare. How did you know? Did I make noise again?"

This time, Severus ignored the question. He walked over to the bed and sat down on it.

"Budge over."

Harry, surprised, obediently scooted over to make room for Severus, who leaned back against the headboard.

"Are they getting any better?" asked Severus.

"The nightmares?" Harry shrugged. "No, not better, I guess. Different though. More…personal."

He didn't offer more information.

"I think we are unaccustomed to pub food, perhaps," Severus suggested. "We are both awake far too early—or far too late, as the case may be."

"Yeah," agreed Harry, glad for excuse.

They sat there together in silence for a few minutes more.

"Was my mum a good skip-roper?" asked Harry.

Severus smiled.

"You might not believe this, but it was your Aunt Petunia who could skip circles around any other child in the neighborhood," answered Severus. "Your mother was rather…uncoordinated."

"No!" Harry looked appropriately shocked. He grinned at Severus. "Really?"

"Yes. Absolutely. Oh, she was more than adequate, but she hated that Petunia was so much better, so she practiced and practiced. She'd tie one end of the rope to a tree, or a door handle, and have me turn the other so she could practice without Petunia knowing."

"How very Slytherin of her," said Harry, smiling slightly.

"She used to wear her hair in plaits," said Severus. "One on each side, with green ribbons on the ends. They bounced up and down when she skipped."

"What about you?" asked Harry suddenly, turning his head toward Severus.

"No, I never plaited my hair," replied Severus, forcing back a smile.

"That's not what I meant and you know it," said Harry. "I mean skip-roping. I can't imagine you just turned the end all the time. Did you skip?"

"Boys did not skip rope," answered Severus rather definitively.

There was a brief pause.

"Even for my mum?"

Another pause.

"Maybe once or twice."

"I knew it."

"Your mother could be…persuasive."

Harry closed his eyes and Severus picked up the book from the side table.

"What page are you on?"

"Forty-five."

The pages rustled and Severus cleared his throat then began reading in a pleasant low voice.

"A man was drivin' across the moor peddlin'," Martha explained. "An' he stopped his cart at our door. He had pots an' pans an' odds an' ends, but mother had no money to buy anythin'. Just as he was goin' away our 'Lizabeth Ellen called out, 'Mother, he's got skippin'-ropes with red an' blue handles.' An' mother she calls out quite sudden, 'Here, stop, mister! How much are they?' An' he says 'Tuppence', an' mother she began fumblin' in her pocket an' she says to me, 'Martha, tha's brought me thy wages like a good lass, an' I've got four places to put every penny, but I'm just goin' to take tuppence out of it to buy that child a skippin'-rope,' an' she bought one an' here it is."

She brought it out from under her apron and exhibited it quite proudly. It was a strong, slender rope with a striped red and blue handle at each end, but Mary Lennox had never seen a skipping-rope before. She gazed at it with a mystified expression.

"What is it for?" she asked curiously.

"For!" cried out Martha. "Does tha' mean that they've not got skippin'-ropes in India, for all they've got elephants and tigers and camels! No wonder most of 'em's black. This is what it's for; just watch me."

And she ran into the middle of the room and, taking a handle in each hand, began to skip, and skip, and skip, while Mary turned in her chair to stare at her, and the queer faces in the old portraits seemed to stare at her, too, and wonder what on earth this common little cottager had the impudence to be doing under their very noses. But Martha did not even see them. The interest and curiosity in Mistress Mary's face delighted her, and she went on skipping and counted as she skipped until she had reached a hundred.

"I could skip longer than that," she said when she stopped. "I've skipped as much as five hundred when I was twelve, but I wasn't as fat then as I am now, an' I was in practice."

Mary got up from her chair beginning to feel excited herself.

"It looks nice," she said. "Your mother is a kind woman. Do you think I could ever skip like that?"

"You just try it," urged Martha, handing her the skipping-rope. "You can't skip a hundred at first, but if you practice you'll mount up. That's what mother said. She says, 'Nothin' will do her more good than skippin' rope. It's th' sensiblest toy a child can have. Let her play out in th' fresh air skippin' an' it'll stretch her legs an' arms an' give her some strength in 'em.'"

He faltered then, and closed the book.

He had loved skipping rope.

He'd done it more than once or twice, of course, had done it countless times when they were small, chanting the silly rhymes with Lily….Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack all dressed in black black black with silver buttons buttons buttons all down her back back back… turning the rope while she skipped, skipping while she turned.

Is that what Lily had remembered when she read this book? How skipping rope had, so long ago, brought color to Severus' pale face and strength to his skinny arms?

"I think I can sleep now," said Harry as he nestled down onto his pillow and pulled the quilt up over him.

Severus closed the book, placed it on the bed table, and stood up at the side of the bed.

"Goodnight then, Harry. No need to get up early tomorrow; sleep in as long as you'd like."

"Thanks," said Harry, snuggling down even more into the covers.

Severus was almost to the door when Harry's voice rose up softly again.

"Severus?"

"Yes?"

"In my nightmare, I bring them all back. I use the Elder Wand. I didn't think of that, you know. Of trying to use the wand on Remus, or on Fred…." Harry's voice wavered, stopped.

And Severus paused as well, thinking, considering.

"If the Elder Wand could revive the dead, Harry, don't you think Albus would have used it?"

"I've thought about that," answered Harry. "I thought about my mum and dad. And Cedric. Could he have is different to would he have, you know."

Severus stared into the room for a moment so long he thought Harry might have fallen asleep.

"Makes you think, doesn't it?" asked Harry, interrupting the silence.

"Indeed it does," answered Severus.

And he went back to his room, to his bed, rested his head on the down-filled pillow, pulled the quilt over him, up to his neck. Sighed.

Sleep was long in coming.

Chapter Text

(Chapter 11)

Chapter 11

By the middle of July, every day was a good day for swimming.

Severus had taken to wearing his long-sleeved button-down shirts with the top two buttons undone. He rolled the sleeves to the elbows now and walked around the house in a pair of old leather sandals he'd found in the back of a closet.

And while he could be coaxed into the ocean by Harry, dressed in rather long swim shorts, severely black, and slathered with sun screen of his own making, on days like today he remained fully dressed, even putting on socks over his suntanned feet.

Days like today, when Harry was entertaining his friends.

Ginny Weasley spent time at the cottage several times a week, sometimes Flooing over just for lunch and sometime staying for an entire afternoon. Hermione and Ron were frequent visitors as well, and Longbottom and Thomas had made appearances, too. Both George and Bill Weasley had visited twice. But today was the first time Harry was having something more organized, a party, or so he called it. Five of his friends, all at the same time, to swim in the ocean and have a picnic dinner on the sand and perhaps a late-evening fire to close out the day.

Short of staying upstairs in his bedroom, there really was nowhere for Severus to hide at the cottage. He'd become accustomed over the weeks to Harry's quiet camaraderie with Hermione and Ron, to the long chess games in the evening, the quiet conversations on the porch with Hermione's soft laughter and Ron's muffled snorts, conversations about classes and family and plans after N.E.W.T.s. Severus had come to a workable truce with Harry and Ginny, allowing them time alone on the hammock but not in swimwear and not on the couch and making sure Harry's bedroom—any bedroom—was off limits.

He was not accustomed, not yet anyway, to the sounds of shouting and laughing and splashing drifting in through the open porch windows on the salty ocean breeze. His paperwork was spread out on the porch table instead of in the parlor, and he sat in one of the straight-back wicker chairs instead of the loungers so he could see the teenagers reasonably well and occasionally do a head count. He thought he'd never have survived raising a child from infancy, considering his current obsession with ensuring that these near-adults had not drowned or been pulled out into the ocean currents by the tide.

The Weasley contingent had arrived early, just after breakfast, and had gone down to the seashore with Harry to remake the fire pit and gather driftwood for the evening fire. He'd heard them talking about Molly, sleeping better now but not yet herself, and wondered if a visit from Harry would help her heal. He'd remember that, and speak to Harry about it later in the week. He watched out the window as Ron, Harry and Ginny cleared the patch of sand of debris and set up blankets, chairs and umbrellas, then sat at the edge of the water, scooting back away from the gentle waves, tossing shells and stones out into the foam. Hermione arrived after lunch with a Muggle ice chest filled with soft drinks and a large beach bag on her shoulder. She'd given Severus his customary kiss on the cheek and complimented his more casual look. He'd managed to glare at her, if a steady stare could now be called a glare, but no matter: stare or glare or whatever it was no longer had any effect on this particular set of Harry's friends. He thought that didn't bode well for the coming year.

Neville arrived at two o'clock and was roundly hugged by all. He shook Severus' hand and looked him in the eye as he did so. And finally, fifteen minutes later, Luna Lovegood stepped lightly out of the Floo. They were all in the parlor waiting for her, but her first words, inexplicably, were for Severus.

As he sat in his chair at the porch table now, watching the teens playing in the water while he pretended to work on the agenda for the dreaded beginning of the year faculty meeting in mid-August, he couldn't help but pick out Luna from among them. She was almost absurdly pale—certainly as pale as he himself was. The long blonde hair streaming down her back called out her white arms and legs. But she stood out even more because of the bathing suit she was wearing. Both Ginny and Hermione wore one-piece Muggle swimming suits, Ginny's green and black and Hermione's cobalt blue. Luna, however, wore a riotous bouquet of colors, pinks and oranges and yellows and pale greens. Her swimming suit had a short skirt, solid pink, below which pale green leggings reached down to her knees, giving her the look of a very brightly colored magical grasshopper.

It was an odd thing, almost fairy-like, and not like anything Severus had ever seen in either the Muggle or the magical world, though he certainly didn't have a great deal of experience with female swimwear.

Hermione had brought some Muggle beach toys—two beach balls, a raft big enough for two, even a child's sand pail and shovel. They were tossing the beach balls about now, standing in a wide circle in water up past their knees, batting the balls across from one to the other in high, slow arcs overhead. Harry, as tall as he'd gotten this last year, was still the shortest of the young men, with both Ron and Neville towering above him by half a head at least.

Severus stood and glanced out the window again some time later, counted heads, then moved quietly into the kitchen to prepare tea. Why he drank hot tea in the mid-afternoon in weather like this he couldn't say—habit, he supposed, born of long years of nights with not quite enough sleep and a caffeine habit he hadn't yet been able to shake. He set his teacup on the table a few minutes later, several plain biscuits resting on the saucer, crowded against the cup. Idly, he picked up a biscuit and stood at the window. Harry and Ginny were out on the raft now, lying on their stomachs, heads together. The other four were sitting on a blanket on the sand side by side, facing the water. He could see their backs—Weasley's and Longbottom's bare, both of them long and lean. The two girls were wedged together between the boys. Luna was now wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. He thought it might have radishes hanging down like fringe around the edges.

He almost smiled. Almost.

Instead, his hand came up to rest on the side of his neck, the side on which Nagini had attacked him, the side with the still-prominent scars. Touching them as he did now…touching them still felt odd. It was a gesture he had made often in the past as he brought his hand around to the back, fingers massaging the stiff muscles there then pulling down to stretch his neck. Even now, two and a half months after that day, the muscles of his neck and shoulders were still tight and stiff. The skin around the scars seemed too taut, too stretched, too thin, while the scars themselves seemed thick, rope-like, restricting cords wrapped around his neck and throat. He felt little sensation when his fingers brushed the skin there, or lay heavily on it. He could rake his nails over the scar and feel nothing but a numb pressure.

No one else touched the scar, no one except Poppy or one of the other healers sent in from St. Mungo's. It would be rude, after all, for a casual acquaintance to ask permission to do so, an invasion of personal space. Harry had never tried, but then again, Harry didn't even seem to really notice it anymore, just as Severus barely noticed the scar on Harry's forehead.

But now, gazing down at the children who were not really children on the strip of sand that was not really a beach, touching the numb ridged skin on his neck, he puzzled again over the way Luna Lovegood had greeted him when she stepped out of the Floo several hours ago. Harry and his other friends had all been in the parlor, Harry, Ginny and Hermione and Ron crowded together on the sofa while Neville sat in Harry's customary chair across from them, the plush, comfortable seat Harry sat in for their evening chess games.

Severus had just walked into the parlor when Luna Lovegood stepped out of the Floo.

"Luna!" The cry went up from Luna's friends, none of whom had seen her since they all left Hogwarts after the Final Battle. Luna smiled brightly at her friends as they struggled to stand up, the task difficult as they were really wedged in together tightly. Neville reached across and took Hermione's hand and pulled her forward, but by the time they were all getting to their feet, Luna had walked behind the sofa and had stopped in front of Severus.

"Professor Snape," she had said in greeting, a far-off smile on her friendly face. He had nodded to her, the formal greeting on his lips silenced as she raised her hand and cupped it around his neck, her fingers on the sinews that ran down it in the back, her thumb running lightly down over the raised scars.

Behind her, Harry stood frozen, mouth open but silent, hand raised as if to pull Luna back.

Severus shook his head, the barest of movements. Harry dropped his hand and stepped back as Luna's lyrical, clear voice spoke again.

"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

She dropped her hand and smiled enigmatically up at him, then turned toward her friends. Harry stepped forward and hugged her and, as he did so, looked up at Severus, begging him silently to let it go.

Severus did let it go. What other choice did he have, really? But standing here now, watching Harry and his friends soak up the sun, he had to wonder why this young British witch was quoting Khalil Gibran. And he wondered, too, at her words, at the words of Gibran. He considered them again. Strongest souls. Massive characters. Seared with scars.

He had certainly underestimated Luna Lovegood.

And he may have underestimated the strength of these particular children's souls.

/

The sun had dropped low in the sky, not much more than a glow in the horizon; the evening breezes were cooling the air and sand and water, and the six friends sat comfortably around the fire, some sitting cross-legged and others with knees bent before them, resting back on forearms or hands. Neville was entertaining them now with a story about shopping for school supplies in Diagon Alley and getting not one, nor two, but three marriage proposals, one of them from a woman clearly in her forties and another from a young man who spoke broken English and offered a castle in Bavaria as a dowry.

Harry listened to Neville speak. He was funny and confident, his voice steady and deep, deeper than Harry remembered it being at the end of sixth year when he had last spent any significant time with him. He recalled the first time he'd ever seen Neville, on Platform 9 ¾, before he boarded the Hogwarts Express for the first time. Round-faced, earnest, telling his exasperated gran that he'd lost his toad—again. Running to the Gryffindor table after being sorted, so excited he'd forgotten to take the Sorting Hat off of his head. Neville falling off his broom and breaking his arm. Neville trying to prevent him and Hermione and Ron from going after the Philosopher's Stone. Blowing up cauldrons in Potions. Facing the Snape-shaped boggart in his grandmother's clothing in third-year Defense class with Remus. Doing acrobatics under the Imperius Curse in the fake Moody's class. Dancing with Ginny at the Yule Ball. Neville beginning to come into his own in Dumbledore's army. Neville on a thestral. Neville beheading Nagini.

It was Neville, wasn't it, who was responsible for Harry's early Quidditch career. When Malfoy had grabbed the Remembrall from him and hurled it into the air, Harry had chased it and caught it and Minerva had seen him do it.

Harry felt an odd ache in his heart, remembering that first time on a broom. Finally, finally, being good at something, better than most people. Finally believing in himself.

Looking at Neville now, he realized that Neville had gone through precisely that transformation. That he had changed from an insecure child, a child using his hero father's wand, growing up in the shadow of his grandmother's grief and his parents' martyrdom, into a confident young man, more adult than even Harry.

More than anything else, when Harry looked at Neville, he could not help but think that this was the other boy of the Prophecy. The other boy born as the seventh month died. The boy not chosen.

Like Harry, the boy who lived. Perhaps not in such a grandiose way at the beginning, but in such a meaningful way at the end.

Neville, in Harry's book, was Character with a capital C. Neville was the boy who pocketed the Drooble's Bubblegum wrapper his mother had given him. Who defied Voldemort to his face when he came to Hogwarts with Harry's body. Who killed Nagini and with her, the final Horcrux. The trembling first year, whom everyone said should have been a Hufflepuff, now the bravest Gryffindor Harry had every known.

Neville had finished his story now. "Have you been out for your supplies yet?" he asked Harry with a grin.

"Not yet," Harry answered, exchanging a glance with Hermione. "Not sure I'll be going myself, actually."

"What—afraid of a few marriage proposals?" joked Ron.

"He'd better be," answered Ginny. "He's not getting married before I do!" Harry reached out for her as they all laughed and she took his hand and squeezed it, working her fingers through his as they sat comfortably side by side.

Hermione was talking now, about helping rebuild her parents' dental practice. This initiated a lively discussion of Muggle dentistry versus the Wizarding kind and Ron began to recount the tale of his first trip to the dentist, when he was five or six years old, and how the old wizard dentist had charmed a set of false teeth to sing the tooth-brushing song to him.

Harry couldn't imagine Ron that young. What had it been like, growing up in the Burrow with all those brothers and sisters? What made Ron different from the other Weasley brothers? What made him his best friend? A chance meeting when Harry was wandering through King's Cross Station, looking for Platform 9 ¾? Being sorted into Gryffindor and sharing a dorm room? Chance? Fate? Something beyond all of their power to comprehend?

With Ron he had had adventures. The Flying Ford Anglia. Aragog and the army of giant spiders deep in the Forbidden Forest. The life-sized wizard's chess match. The confrontation in the Shrieking Shack with Sirius. The woods after the Quidditch World Cup. And with Ron he had had fights. Misunderstandings. Small ones. Big ones. Gigantic ones. But in the end, Ron had been there. He had been there. To destroy the locket. To topple the king. To infiltrate the Ministry of Magic—not once, but twice. To press the Yellow Submarine shirt to Severus' bloody neck, to hold down that awful flap of skin while Hermione poured on the dittany. Ron, poisoned by the mead. Ron, riding on a thestral he could not see. Ron, his hair clashing violently with the orange Cannons hat, grown up before his eyes, sitting there now with Hermione between his knees leaning back against him, his arms draped around her middle, pressing a soft kiss to her ear. Ron, acting like a man, looking like a man. His boyhood lost in the Forest of Dean.

If Neville was Character, then Ron was Constancy. Even when he had doubted, when he had walked away, he always returned, and he always came back stronger, truer. For Harry to truly appreciate his friend, all he had to do was remember the times he wasn't there.

"What are you doing for your birthday, Harry?" Luna was staring at him from her place next to Hermione and Ron.

"Why don't we do this again?" answered Harry.

Luna clapped her hands. "Can my father come?" she asked. "He'd love to see the ocean, and dig for dangerbellies in the sand."

"He can come," answered Harry with a smile, catching Hermione's exasperated gaze again, undoubtedly biting her tongue and this close to rolling her eyes.

Merlin, how he loved Hermione. Loved her not like Ron loved her, of course, but of all of his friends, Hermione got him. She was the smartest person he'd ever met, except for perhaps Severus, too smart for her own good sometimes, he thought.

Smart enough to alter her parents’ memories and send them to Australia to protect them. Selfless enough to give up something she loved, strong enough to carry the weight of the world in her little handbag. To keep on going, to keep on believing, when Ron had abandoned them.

She was steadfast. She was true. Unlike Ron, she had never abandoned him, despite her doubts. She stood by him in Godric's Hollow, in front of his parents' graves. She climbed aboard a dragon for him, rode an invisible thestral, impersonated Bellatrix Lestrange. She lied to Professor McGonagall about the troll, lied to Umbridge about the weapon. She saved Severus with the dittany, saved Harry...by saving Severus.

Hermione was unwavering. He knew, with his heart and his soul, that she'd be there for him until the end, whenever that be, the sister he had never had.

He loved her enough now to wear a S.P.E.W. badge for her.

Ginny leaned in against him as Ron stood to get more wood for the fire.

"We used to sing around the fire, on camping trips with my mother and father," said Luna, out of the blue. "Of course, that was before Mother died. I was quite little, of course, but I'd stand between her knees and she'd hold me around the middle so the dumpledings didn't chase me into the fire. Then she'd sing while Father played the harmonica."

"What did she sing?" asked Ginny.

"‘God Save the Queen,’" answered Luna and everyone laughed. Luna looked perplexed.

"Mum loved the Queen. Well, honestly, she loved the Queen Mum more than the Queen. She thought her such a model of virtue."

Harry smiled as Hermione launched into a tangent on the line of ascendency to the monarchy and how women were not properly considered. Luna hummed as Hermione spoke and Harry was reminded of Luna in the compartment on the way to Hogwarts during their fifth year. How had he managed to overlook her the previous four? Reading the Quibbler—upside down. Her necklace of butterbeer caps. Taking her treatment at the hands of her housemates in stride. Commentating at the Quidditch match. How she had recognized him at Bill's wedding, despite the Polyjuice, by the expression on his face.

Luna in the Malfoys’ dungeon. Luna, helping him into Ravenclaw Tower.

The ceiling of Luna's bedroom.

Friends.

Original. Honest. One of a kind. By all appearances, an innocent. But not so, not really. Luna's eyes saw right into the heart of things, and she spoke the truth, with words colored by a heart purer than any other Harry had ever known. He had never known—would never know—anyone as comfortable in their own skin as Luna Lovegood.

They were all singing “God Save the Queen” now, with Luna leading. Not surprisingly, Hermione knew at least three verses. The last one had a bit about "May she defend our laws," and Ron was pointing out that those verses undoubtedly sat well with Hermione.

Beside him, Ginny rested her head on his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her waist.

He smiled.

He thought about Ginny a lot lately, but really, when it came to Ginny, he'd rather not think at all. Severus told him to think with his head, and not with a certain other organ. He'd colored a bit the first time Severus said that and made the mistake of suggesting that perhaps Severus needed a girlfriend. He'd got a cuff on the head for that.

He wasn't very excited, not really, about going back to Hogwarts in the fall, facing all those people—students and teachers alike. It was all a bit more bearable because of Ginny. He loved that she wanted to be with him, but didn't seem to need to be with him. She was strong, and funny, and smart, and independent. She could hold her own against almost anyone, even Aunt Muriel. She could give him a run for his money in Quidditch, could hex the boogers out of his nose, and Merlin, could she kiss. She might look like she had soft and gentle lips, but Harry knew better. There wasn't anything weak about Ginny, or anything faint, though she could be gentle as a lamb if she wanted, and you couldn't deny how soft she felt when he lay with her in the hammock, pressed against her front to front. He didn't like to think of her as a little girl, or as Michael Corner or Dean Thomas' girlfriend. With Ginny, he didn't need the nostalgia of the past. He only needed the promise of today and the hope of tomorrow.

"That song is ridiculous," he said at last as Hermione sang, "‘The choicest gifts in store on her be pleased to pour’?"

Hermione laughed. "I suppose it is," she said. "Why don't you sing a better one, then?"

"Yeah, Harry. If you hate the Queen so much sing something else," teased Ron.

"Harry doesn't hate the Queen," said Luna.

"I might," said Harry. "I'm not a big fan of yellow hats, you know."

"Go on then, Harry," said Neville. "Let's have another song."

Harry considered only a moment, then started singing softly, feeling in that precise moment profoundly grateful. For the clear skies, and balmy weather. For the safety of the cottage, and the sanctuary it offered. For his life. His friends. His family. He gazed up at the porch, knowing that Severus was there still, seeing his silhouette outlined against the window by the oil lamp behind him.

For his father.

"‘What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song,
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
I get by with a little help from my friends,
I get high with a little help from my friends,
Going to try with a little help from my friends.’"

He was getting by. Just like the song said. Getting by with a little help from his friends.

He and Severus had been here six weeks. There were six more left before term started. They'd reached that halfway point, and he wondered—was he halfway healed?

Were the nightmares only half real now? The dead only half gone?

He shook away the gloom and looked up at the rising moon.

Half-full.

Waxing, not waning.

Heading toward full. Heading toward healed. A cup half full, not half empty.

Halfway there. And in the company of his friends, looked over by Severus, the second half of the journey didn't look nearly as daunting as the first.

And as it turned out, he was at least half right about that.

/

Harry was asleep upstairs. When his friends had departed an hour ago, just before nine o'clock, he'd managed fifteen minutes of conversation with Severus before turning in. He was tired, a bit pink around the shoulders and looked like he'd been the winner in a serious snogging session.

Severus, however, had not had the exhausting day that Harry had had. He'd spent a good portion of it reading a pile of Potions journals that had stacked up during his convalescence, and another hour in the front garden cutting flowers and herbs useful as ingredients in a variety of common household potions. Now he sat on the parlor sofa, reading an old Hemingway novel he had pulled from the shelf that morning, listening to the old cottage creaking in the breeze.

He was surprised when the fire in the hearth flared up and Arthur Weasley's head appeared in the flames. Severus looked up, book face down in his lap now. "Arthur?"

"Severus. Do you have a moment?"

Severus nodded. "Go on."

"Severus, I learned something today at the Ministry and wanted to share it with you."

Severus leaned forward, eyes on Arthur's face.

"You're taking Harry to the Ministry next week?"

"On Thursday. We've agreed on that day for the memory extraction."

Arthur's face tightened.

"Lucius Malfoy's trial has been scheduled for Thursday, Severus. And they are planning to call Harry as a prosecution witness."

Severus stared at Arthur, shaking his head slowly.

"No."

"I only know because Xenophilius Lovegood contacted me today to tell me that Luna is being called to testify as well. He wanted to know if Ronald was, too, so I did some checking and discovered that they planned to call Harry. I wondered if the timing of his own visit to provide the memories was coincidental."

"Harry knows nothing that Ron and Hermione do not know—not as it pertains to Lucius Malfoy, anyway," answered Severus, frowning deeply.

"Severus, Harry can place Lucius Malfoy at Voldemort's side, in the forest."

Severus stood up. "I will go sort this out in the morning," he said, his voice hard. "Do you think Molly would be willing to come here tomorrow, perhaps early—seven or seven thirty? In case Harry wakes while I am gone?"

Arthur smiled, then flinched when a flaming log cracked suddenly, sending sparks flying out onto the stone hearth.

"She'd love to, Severus," he said.

He disappeared a moment later, leaving Severus staring at the book in his lap. A Farewell to Arms. Perhaps, he thought, he had been a bit premature in picking up that particular tome.

 

 

(Chapter 12)

A/N: First, thanks for all the very nice reviews. Many of you have been reviewing nearly every chapter, and I do read them and thank you for the encouraging words.

This story stretches in time from late May through September 1, 1998, or approximately three months. We're halfway through the time arc now. The Summer will, of course, end with the start of the Hogwarts term.

This chapter is rather slow, more of a bridge. Not too terribly angsty for a change. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 12

Severus was awake at six, showered and dressed by six thirty and ready to leave for the Ministry by seven. He paced around the cottage for a few minutes, unable to settle, and finally stepped out the front door and walked slowly through the flower and herb gardens, trying to center himself—center his thoughts at the very least—before Molly arrived and he subsequently left to see Kingsley Shacklebolt.

No, not just to see Kingsley. To confront Kingsley.

He was in no mood for games. True, the Ministry had been uncharacteristically accommodating of them, of Severus' clear and standing request that Harry be left alone this summer, that he be allowed to begin to heal in the privacy of his own home. No public ceremonies, no individual testimony unless Harry was the only witness to a specific event that was directly relevant to a single trial. The Ministry request for Harry's memories had come dangerously close to the edge of how far Severus was willing to bend, but he had worked with them on Harry's behalf and had been able to arrive at a compromise, a middle ground that was acceptable to all.

But now…now, if Arthur was right—and he had no reason at all to suspect that he wasn't—Harry was to be called to give specific testimony, live, real-time testimony, at a Death Eater's trial.

Lucius Malfoy's trial, at that.

Throughout the entire Horcrux hunt, from August at Bill Weasley's wedding through May when he'd finally killed Voldemort, Harry had been accompanied by his friends. There were almost no occasions when he was alone, nearly no confrontations without Ron or Hermione at his side.

Except for one.

When Harry had gone to face Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, he had gone alone.

Harry would not say so, of course. He'd say that he had his parents with him. And his godfather. And Lupin. He wouldn't tell just anyone that, of course, because not everyone knew of the Resurrection Stone and it was best, indeed it was best, that the matter of the Deathly Hallows remain as much of a fable as it did in The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

But for all practical purposes, Harry had walked alone to face Voldemort, and standing in front of him, in those brief moments before the Dark Lord lifted his wand and cast the Killing Curse, Harry had, perhaps, seen who was in the forest with him.

Harry had not had Ron and Hermione with him then. But Hagrid—Hagrid had been there.

Severus, of course, had been lying in the Shrieking Shack at the time, half-cured and hidden by Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley while Harry hurried away with his memories.

Severus would never forget, could never forget, the moment when Harry's thin, unshaven, tear-stained face had hovered over him after Nagini had struck, after Voldemort had left him for dead, bleeding out on the filthy floor of the filthy shack, months after he'd last seen him in the Forest of Dean. Severus had no thoughts then except for the one, the need to give Harry the last critical memories he needed. His instinct had been to fight against their efforts to stop the bleeding, to urge Harry on to do what he had to do but to do so while clinging to Harry, staring at him, in his eyes, filling his last conscious moments with his son while he still had breath in his body.

Short as that time might be.

He sat now on a stone bench amid a tangle of coneflowers. Echinacea . One of the principle ingredients in Pepperup Potion. He reached out and broke off a flower and was sitting on the bench with the long stemmed daisy-like bloom in his hands when Molly Weasley stepped out onto the porch from the front door of the cottage.

He stood up, flower still in hand.

"Severus," she said. Her voice was quiet but carried in the still morning air.

"Molly." He started to walk toward the porch where she stood against the rail. She was wearing green robes of a lightweight fabric. Even though they were not of a form-fitting style, it was obvious that she had dropped weight. Her red hair was pulled back into a loose knot at her neck and her eyes, so obviously careworn, lit up a bit as he approached.

"It's so lovely here," she said.

"It is," he agreed, handing her the flower. "It's turning out to be one of the most pleasant summers of my life, in fact."

She smiled, a painful smile, and he reached out and took one of her hands between his own.

"You deserve a pleasant summer," she said.

"We all do," he countered, not forgetting for a moment that this woman, unassuming as she was, was responsible for ridding the world of Bellatrix Lestrange. He turned to look outward toward the gardens and the lane in the distance. "Did you visit Bill here?"

"Only twice," she answered. "Once in the fall and once in the winter. I didn't realize the gardens were so full of flowers."

They went inside together, through the kitchen and out to the ocean-facing porch. "We usually eat out here," said Severus. "Harry is normally up between eight and nine—I let him sleep as long as he needs to and don't wake him unless we have somewhere to be. He'll make his own breakfast, though you're welcome to make something for him if you'd like."

"I'll make something up. He especially seemed to love breakfast at the Burrow," she said. She was staring out at the ocean as she spoke. She turned then toward Severus. "What would you like me to tell him, Severus? About why I'm here?"

"The truth. I think it best you tell him the truth. That I learned last night that he's likely to be asked to testify at Lucius Malfoy's trial on Thursday and I've gone to the Ministry to sort it out."

"He'll be worried for you, Severus. What if he tries to go after you?"

Severus gave a tight smile. "Worried for me when he should be worried for himself."

"Sounds like Harry," said Molly with a tired smile.

"I think you'll be able to convince him to stay here. I'll return as soon as I can, certainly by noontime. Please make yourself at home, Molly. I have time to fix you some tea before I leave."

"Don't be ridiculous—I can take care of myself. Go on, now! Arthur is already there—you can wait in his office until Kingsley gets in."

Severus nodded gratefully.

"Thank you. I'll stop by Arthur's office first." Severus walked toward the door leading into the kitchen, then turned and looked back at Molly. "And thank you—for agreeing to come this morning. I think it will be good for Harry to see you. Perhaps you could talk to him about visiting the Burrow…soon?"

"Oh, yes! I certainly will." She glanced up at Severus. "You're probably getting tired of having Ginny over here so often…."

Severus laughed. "No, not at all. It's more likely that she's getting tired of me. I'm new at this, Molly, and I'm afraid I make private time difficult for the two of them."

"You're afraid you make it hard for them to be alone together?" Molly's face had brightened a bit, the careworn look leaving for a moment, replaced with the visage of a seasoned parent, wise to the ways of her children. "I knew you'd be a natural at parenting a teenager, Severus. Keep up the good work. Merlin knows those children have plenty of opportunities while they're away at school."

"Perhaps," he replied. "But this year, they'll have me to contend with, as well."

Molly shook her head. He thought she looked almost sorry for her daughter.

A minute later, he stepped into the Floo.

"Ministry of Magic atrium," he called out. With a whirl and a flash, he was gone.

/

When Harry came downstairs at nine o'clock, he'd already showered and dressed in clean swim shorts and an old Gryffindor Quidditch t-shirt. He had sandals on his feet and had towel-dried his hair. It was too long to stand up in all different directions, resembling a dark lion's mane now more than a bird's nest.

"Severus?" he called out as he walked down the stairs.

"He's at the Ministry, Harry," called out a voice from the sun porch.

Harry stopped on the fourth stair from the bottom. Until that moment, his face had had a peaceful, still-sleepy look behind the just-washed shininess from the shower. But now a wariness had come over it and he slowly walked down to the bottom landing, puzzling out the voice he had heard calling out to him.

"I've got breakfast made and waiting, dear," it called out again. "Come out here and eat something before it's time for lunch."

"Mrs. Weasley?" He walked into the kitchen. Someone had been cooking indeed, someone who wasn't quite so obsessive about returning everything to its proper place as soon as they were finished with it.

Molly Weasley appeared just then, framed in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the porch. She had a dust rag in one hand and her wand in the other. "Harry dear!" The smile that appeared on her face as she opened her arms made his fears that somehow she blamed him for Fred's death all fade away.

He stepped forward quickly into the hug she was offering, realizing as soon as he wrapped his arms around her that he must have grown even taller and that she'd lost weight. The comforting softness he had loved so much as a child had a harder edge to it. Life, he told himself, life had a harder edge to it these days.

"Oh Harry, I'm so glad to see you again," she said as he buried his face in her shoulder.

The comforting softness might be gone but she still smelled like tea and oranges and her arms still held him tightly, almost ferociously.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he said, hugging her tightly after she had loosened her grip and prepared to let him go.

To her credit, she didn't ask what he was sorry for. She just held him more tightly.

"I know, dear. I know."

/

At precisely eight thirty in the morning, Severus Snape walked up to the Minister of Magic's temporary office and rapped sharply on the door.

The answering voice, however, came from behind him.

"Severus!"

Severus turned quickly around.

Kingsley Shacklebolt was approaching him, two aides hurrying along behind him.

"May I have a word, Minister?" asked Severus, narrowing his eyes at the look on Kingsley's face. He knew! The rat bastard knew! Severus was a proficient, accomplished reader of faces and saw immediately that the Minister was both surprised to see him and trying desperately to mentally frame his story.

Kingsley continued forward and opened his office door with a wave of his wand.

"Of course, Severus. Come in. I need a minute with these two, then I'm all yours."

The minute turned into nearly ten, all ten of them taken outside of the office well out of Severus' earshot. Severus sat at the table, more determined with each passing minute to keep Harry well away from the Ministry on Thursday. He had trusted Kingsley—well, trusted him as much as Severus was able to trust anyone—and the realization that Kingsley did intend to take advantage of Harry's presence at the Ministry on Thursday for the memory retrieval was akin to a betrayal.

He stood up as soon as the door opened and Kingsley walked back into the office, smile on his face. The man had been at this job for only two months and already he could smile at will. Severus scowled as he stood.

"Don't even try it, Kingsley," said Severus. "Tell me the entire plan now and I might not leave the country with Harry."

Kingsley stopped in his tracks and stared at Severus.

"I do believe you're serious, Severus," he said slowly. He turned and headed over to his desk and took a seat in the chair behind it. He leaned back a bit to stare up at Severus as the man stood on the other side of his desk, glaring, hands folded tightly across his chest.

"Severus, Harry's going to be here anyway. It was a coincidence that Malfoy's trial was scheduled for the same day…."

"Coincidence? You expect me to believe that after what happened last time Harry and I were at the Ministry?"

"That was a coincidence, Severus! No one knew Harry was going to be here that day." Kingsley's deep voice boomed out and Severus closed his mouth with another scowl. Kingsley had a point. No one had known Harry would be here. The fact that Dolores Umbridge was brought in, escaped and fell to her death might actually not have had anything to do with Harry's presence.

"Point taken. However—" Severus rested his hands on Kingsley's desk and leaned in slightly, "I am here to discuss our agreement." He raised an eyebrow. "Harry is not to be called to provide testimony unless he was the only witness to a given event."

"Severus, you know he was the only one there in the forest."

"Rubbish. Hagrid was there as well."

"Hagrid is not deemed a reliable witness."

"Not deemed a reliable witness! He is a trusted employee of Hogwarts, a professor, even. The children love him. He is loyal to a fault and incapable of lying. How is that not reliable?"

"Severus." Kingsley's voice held a certain plea. Severus stared at him, unrelenting. He could see now that the man was exhausted. Weight of the Wizarding world on his shoulders or no, Harry deserved better than this.

"What? Is Hagrid's trustworthiness the real issue, Kingsley? Is the Wizengamot insisting that they must have Harry Potter?" His hands tightened into tense fists. He forced himself to release them, to stretch out his fingers against his legs.

"Severus, sit down. Please. I can explain."

Severus glared at Kingsley. "I doubt it. But by all means try."

"Will you sit?" Kingsley pointed his wand at one of the chairs by the table and summoned it. It scooted along the floor, spun around and stopped right behind Severus.

Severus took his time. After a long moment where his face continued to show his displeasure, he sank back into the chair.

"You have five minutes."

"He's been quiet long enough, Severus. We need to rally around our hero."

/

"Where's Severus?"

Harry had finally let go of Mrs. Weasley and was standing in front of her still, just inside the kitchen.

"I thought I told you already, dear. He had to go to the Ministry. Arthur found out last night that they're planning to have you testify on Thursday at the Malfoy trial and Severus went down to sort it all out."

"Thursday? I was supposed to go in on Thursday to give them those memories. No one ever said anything about testifying at a trial." His voice got louder as he spoke and she reached out a hand and touched his arm.

"I know, dear. That's why Severus went to take care of it. He and Arthur have a feeling they were going to spring this on you without warning on Thursday."

"What time did he leave?" He didn't like the anxious feeling settling in on him.

"Around eight, Harry. He was going to go speak with Arthur then visit Kingsley. I'm sure he'll get it all sorted out. Now come, have some breakfast."

He let her lead him to the table on the porch and sat at the chair she pulled out for him. She sat down across from him as he reached for the jam and began spreading it on the toast. His hand slowed as he realized something.

"You remembered I like toast," he said. There were at least three more pieces on the plate to his right.

"Of course I remembered. And you prefer sausage to bacon and don't like your egg yolks broken."

He looked up in surprise. "That's right." A slow smile stretched across his face. "How do you remember what I like? You have so many…."

"What does Severus like, Harry?" asked Mrs. Weasley. She took a sip of tea, frowned, then warmed it with her wand.

"Bacon. Poached eggs. Oatmeal with a touch of honey. He likes his toast buttered but doesn't use jam."

"And Ron?"

Harry grinned. "Too easy. I've eaten hundreds of breakfasts with him."

He ate in silence for a while, enjoying the breakfast Mrs. Weasley had made him. It felt a bit like having a late breakfast at the Burrow, when nearly everyone had already eaten and it was just he and Ginny or he and Ron and Hermione.

"Have you eaten?" he said, suddenly realizing how rude he must seem, stuffing his face while she sipped on tea.

"Oh, I had a bite or two before I left this morning. I'm not too hungry, really."

She smiled at him again, and he saw how thin her face looked. He wondered if she'd lost all the weight since the Final Battle or if the past year, when Ron was gone with him, had worn her down before the tragic end.

"I know what you see, Harry," she said softly. "And I don't want you worrying about me. I'm getting better every day."

Harry swallowed a last bite of toast and finished his pumpkin juice. He carefully placed his juice cup on the table, then looked up at his best friend's mother, his girlfriend's mother, the one woman in this crazy world who sometimes felt like his own mother. She knew how he liked his eggs. She'd made him all his favorite things. She'd come here this morning so someone would be here when he woke up, so he wouldn't panic when he couldn't find Severus.

And she'd done that for him even though she was still mourning her son.

He knew what mourning felt like. He knew how the pain ate a raw hole in your gut. How the guilt gnawed at that hole. How the worry, the "what ifs," knitted the small holes together into cavernous gaps. He knew all this and yet…and yet…he'd never lost a child.

"We should walk down to the ocean, Mrs. Weasley," he said, the idea talking hold of him and feeling right.

Mrs. Weasley looked out the window and her eyes took on a faraway look. She stared at the waves a moment longer. Harry knew, as he watched her, that she was seeing something in the ocean that he wasn't seeing. But the ocean was funny like that. It was different things to different people. It evoked feelings and memories. It lulled him into a peaceful acceptance. It buoyed him and lifted him with strength he often did not have within himself.

"Yes, I'd like that, Harry. Let's clean up the breakfast dishes and then go on down." She stood and started gathering up the dishes. When he stood to help out, she looked up at him. "And Harry, I'd like it very much if you'd call me Molly."

He stared at her then gave a quick nod.

"Alight then...Molly."

/

"No."

"Severus, you're being unreasonable. I'm not asking for an interview in the Prophet or an Order of Merlin ceremony or a special ball held in his honor."

"What you're asking for is almost as bad, Kingsley. You want to put him in the middle of a courtroom surrounded by fifty wizards who can ask him almost any question they please…."

"Only as it is relevant to the death of He Who Must Not be Named."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Kingsley, say his name!"

The two wizards stared at each other until each of their faces broke out in unexpected, wide smiles.

"Am I really being that unreasonable, Severus?"

Severus shook his head, half in defeat.

"No, you are not. Not in normal circumstances. You are being underhanded with how you are going about it, however. Did you really think you could spring that on us when we came on Thursday for Harry to pull the memories? 'Oh, by the way, could you step into Courtroom 10 for a moment, Mr. Potter? There's someone we'd like you to see?'"

"You know we wouldn't have done…."

"Is there any doubt, any doubt at all, that Lucius Malfoy will be convicted and sent to Azkaban?" interrupted Severus.

Kingsley shook his head. "I admit there's not. The Lovegood girl will be testifying, as will Ollivander. The fact that they were held so long in the Malfoy dungeons is enough to put him away for some time."

"Then why, Kingsley? Why Harry?"

Kingsley threw up his hands. "Because the Wizarding world wants to hear from him, Severus. They want to hear from his mouth what happened. What he saw when he faced the Dark…Voldemort. What he felt. What happened in that forest, Severus." He held up a hand as Severus began to protest again. "I know what you are going to say. Yet even I, Severus, I want to know. This is the biggest thing that has happened in my life, that is likely to happen in the rest of my life. And if feels—well, it feels as if there is something still unsaid, undone. A loose end to wrap up—a door to close. My guess, Severus, is that you don't feel this way because you have already had the boy's story. And you have your own story, of course…."

"Which I have already given to you, Kingsley," reminded Severus.

"Severus, we can hold the trials without Harry and achieve the same ends," offered Kingsley at last.

"Of course you can," said Severus. He sounded suspicious.

"But we would like a concession of some sort in return."

"A concession?" Severus' voice was sharp. He stared at Kingsley, body taut.

"We would like to hear Harry's story. From Harry."

"And who is this 'we,' Kingsley?" Severus kept his voice even, his face as impassive as possible. He did not want Kingsley to know that he thought the suggestion a win—if, indeed, the Ministry would vow to leave Harry alone, not ask Harry to testify again or appear at future Ministry functions or be their poster boy of the year.

"The Ministry Department heads, selected members of the Wizengamot, the Hogwarts Board of Governors…"

"Twenty-five," said Severus.

"Twenty-five?" Kingsley looked puzzled.

"No more than twenty-five people. If Harry agrees to this. Plus your written—and I do mean written—commitment not to call Harry as a witness of any sort for any trial or hearing having to do with the war against Voldemort. And we will not be coming here on Thursday for this memory retrieval and analysis farce."

Kingsley frowned. "Any more conditions, Severus? I will need to sit down with my team and discuss this."

"Just one more," said Severus. "The event will be at a location of Harry's choosing."

"You drive a hard bargain, Severus," said Kingsley.

"And I haven't even discussed this with Harry yet," Severus answered. "I will let you know his answer once I have a chance to talk with him."

/

"The sea is lovely," said Molly Weasley. "I haven't had my feet in it since I was a girl."

Harry had set up two of the low chairs in the small strip of sand they called their beach, then he and Molly had waded out a few feet into the water, looking down as the waves lapped at their ankles. They'd stood there together for a long time in a kind of companionable silence, neither one talking and both spending some time looking out toward the horizon.

"I know why Bill loved this place so much," said Molly now. She was sitting in the low chair, feet bare, toes digging in the warm sand. "Last year, when everything was so out of control, when you couldn't leave the house without feeling a present danger, knowing you could be seen, be attacked, that your family could be in danger…" She trailed off and sighed. "Bill and Fleur could come out here and sit together, much like you and I are sitting here, Harry, and know that no matter what Voldemort controlled, what he destroyed, he couldn't control the waves. He couldn't destroy the sea." She smiled and Harry, looking at her from the corner of his eye, thought the smile was sad and a bittersweet.

"I love this place too," he said. "I feel safe here."

"I imagine that's a feeling you'll appreciate the rest of your life," said Molly. She reached over and took his hand, squeezed it, let it go.

"Hermione said the sea has healing properties," he said. "That it touches all the senses and soothes the mind."

"I think she's right," said Molly with a small laugh. "But then, she usually is."

Harry snorted. He couldn't help it. He and Molly exchanged a significant look.

"Ron's quite smitten with her, isn't he?" she asked.

Harry nodded. "He has been, you know. Since fourth year."

"Fourth year, eh?" asked Molly. "Quite the early starter as my boys go."

"Well, they just kissed for the first time in May," said Harry, grinning.

"You do realize you're talking to your best friend's mother, don't you?" asked Molly with another faraway smile.

Harry laughed.

They were quiet again for a while, then Molly broke the silence as a strong wave broke over the bank and washed up under their chairs. She spoke in a quiet voice, but a warm one, and she looked out to sea instead of over at him.

"I was wondering, Harry, if you'd come visit us at the Burrow soon. Severus is invited as well, of course."

"Alright," Harry answered after a slight pause. "I'll talk to Severus—see what his schedule is like…."

"Oh, I spoke to him about it when I arrived this morning," said Molly lightly. "He seemed to think it was a good idea. I'm sure he'll be able to fit it in his schedule. But we'd best do it soon, before his preparations for the school year get even more busy."

Harry was quiet, continuing to stare out to sea, watching the gulls dip into the water and float on the wind.

"Harry, we all miss Fred. We always will. But staying away from the Burrow won't make it better—not for you, and not for us. We miss you. You've been a part of our family since you were twelve years old."

He opened his mouth to say something—he didn't know what, not really—but closed it again.

"We're all getting better little by little, Harry. It's hardest for George, of course…."

He wanted to say "Seems like it's been pretty hard on you, too," but he didn't.

"…but he's getting by. His friends are so helpful—Lee and Angelina have both moved in with him in the flat over the shop. And Ron…wanting to go into business with him. I'm not really so sure about that—he's always wanted to be an Auror, after all…." She trailed off and Harry swallowed. He had to say something.

"I think Ron might be tired of chasing after dark wizards," he said at last.

"Oh, I imagine he is," she answered. She reached out and took Harry's hand again, but this time she didn't let it go.

"So, Friday, then?" she asked, still holding his hand lightly. "A picnic dinner and some Quidditch?"

"Severus…."

"Providing it's alright with Severus, of course," she added.

He wrapped his fingers through hers and squeezed them.

"It will feel so…so…empty. Without Fred," he whispered.

"It will," she responded sagely. "And it feels empty without you, too."

He turned his head to look at her then, just as she turned to look at him. They looked nothing alike, this odd pair, sitting together on this summer day as the ocean water lapped beneath their feet. He was in swim shorts, she in casual summer robes. His nearly black hair touched his shoulders, her stringy red hair was done up in a bun. But they each had a worn look about them, as if cares had pressed them down hard lately, as if they'd been too busy to eat, or too bothered, or too distracted.

"Five o'clock?" he asked. The outside corner of his mouth twitched up.

"Five o'clock," she agreed.

"Ginny will be there, right?" he asked a few minutes later.

"She will," said Molly. "It will be a chance for Arthur and me to talk with you—together."

/

Severus stood quietly on the porch, watching Harry and Molly below him at the water's edge. They were sitting in the low beach chairs Harry favored, Harry with bare back and Molly in the green robes she'd been wearing when she arrived. But her shoes were resting on the sand beside her and Severus suspected her toes were digging into the sand. You couldn't help but do that when you were barefoot on the beach. Even Minerva had succumbed to the pull of the warm sand.

They'd been down there for some time, he knew. He'd been back for thirty minutes already, but they made no move, gave no indication that they would abandon their positions and make their way back inside.

They looked…peaceful. He watched as their hands joined, then released, then joined again.

The sea had healing properties.

He'd heard Hermione talking to Ron and Harry about it a week ago, as they sat on the porch after sunset, sipping glasses of wine from the bottle Hermione had brought with her. She said she'd read it in a book about grief and healing, something she had found at the public library near her home.

He found it interesting that Hermione Granger was researching grief.

The sea worked on your senses.

The smell of the sea, the taste of the salt, the sound of the surf, the buoyant feel of the water and the sand beneath one's feet, the sight of the gulls and the dunes and the waves.

He had a sudden vision, standing there as he so often did, a vigilant voyeur, of old men in beards and old women in silk robes cavorting in the waves, the British Wizengamot holding court at Shell Cottage, questioning Harry, listening raptly to his story around a blazing beach campfire.

Why not?

Why the hell not?

He'd bring them all here, if Harry agreed. Make them come to the Boy Who Lived to hear his tale around a roaring beach fire.

He thought they'd make s'mores. He laughed, a snort, really, imagining the male members of the Wizengamot with marshmallow in their beards.

 

 

(Chapter 13)

Chapter 13

Severus walked out onto the porch landing, dressed in his summer uniform of loose-fitting trousers and button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had sandals on his feet and was carrying a beach chair. He paused and looked down to the postage-stamp of a beach, down to where Harry and Molly were still sitting, reclined in low beach chairs, looking out to sea.

He saw them more clearly as he approached from behind. The wind was against him, and he knew they would not hear him until he was nearly upon them. Harry was sitting in the same chair he'd been in for more than an hour, talking quietly with Molly Weasley. They were facing the ocean, bare feet toeing the warm sand. Molly seemed fascinated by the gulls, pointing at them as she watched them pick up shells and drop them on the rocks to crack them, then dive down to scoop up the treats before the competition could get their prize.

"Look, Harry! It's the Wronski feint!" Molly pointed and Harry, following her finger, grinned broadly.

Severus smiled. He had paused near the rocks at the back of the strip of sand. He stood still and listened, not wanting to interrupt the moment.

/

Molly pointed to a seagull swooping down for a crushed mollusk. Harry, head turned marginally, smiled as the bird dropped from the sky, and Molly let out an "Oh!" as another gull, a near twin to the first, dropped as well, racing for the treat. They each grabbed a piece of the broken shell and hopped to a landing on the sand.

They were just seagulls. Plain, ordinary seagulls. As alike to each other as they were to all the other seagulls flying above them and cawing raucously.

But seeing only two of them there together, now squabbling over a dropped piece of meat, made Harry suddenly think of Fred and George.

"Oh," said Molly. "Look at them. You know who that reminds me of, don't you?" Her voice was low and more wistful than sad. Harry looked past her at the gulls.

"Yeah," he said as the first gull hopped away from the second, cawing loudly, then took off into the air, followed closely by the other. "Fred and George."

Molly turned her head away from the gulls and back out toward the ocean. She settled back into her chair a bit, sighing.

"I haven't felt this relaxed in weeks, Harry. What a good idea to come out here to sit."

"I love it out here," he said. "After all that time we spent in the forest, and in the cold, and how careful we had to be all the time, this feels like…well, it feels like freedom."

Molly gave him an understanding smile, then closed her eyes and leaned her head back.

"Do you know, Harry, that some people have told me that losing one of the twins can't be as bad as losing one of my other children? That at least I have the other still, the one who looks and acts exactly like the one who is gone?"

"But…but George…" he began, wanting to say, But George doesn't act at all like Fred, but stopping himself, unsure of her reaction.

She looked at him sagely. "No, he doesn't, does he?" She smiled again, as if the memory of her boys together compelled her face to soften, and looked out toward the gently rolling and bubbling surf. "Sometimes, when I was cooking—you know how those boys loved to eat—one of the twins would come up behind me and put his arms around me. 'Mornin' Mum,' he'd say and I'd turn my head a bit, to see what he was wearing or to see if the scar from the garden gnome bite was on the right or the left eyebrow. It was a tiny scar, but it was enough. Now, when those arms go around me, I know it's my George, of course. These days, they stay around me quite a bit longer. The other children, they're still a bit afraid of me, I think. Afraid I might break—that I'm too fragile for a hug. But George knows better. He knows I'm made of strong stuff."

Harry watched the gulls sail, his thoughts even further away than the birds. He pictured the twins in his head. Fred and George. Always Fred and George—never George and Fred. George by himself, he thought, was someone separate, different, not part of Fred and George at all. "I never noticed the scars, really," he said. "I always looked for the big freckle on—"

"On Fred's forehead," finished Molly, squeezing her eyes shut. "F for Fred and F for forehead. That's how Ron knew them apart when he was small. Well, and by their personalities, of course. Fred was out in front most of the time, you see, but George—George was the idea man. Fred was in trouble more often than George. He wasn't afraid to act—not in the least. Consequences meant nothing to that boy. He'd charge…." She faltered and Harry saw a pained look cross her face. She struggled to speak again. "He'd charge…charge right into danger. But most of the time, George would put him up to it, you see. I was their mum. I figured that out by the time they were two."

Harry closed his eyes, remembering Fred's final charge into danger. Nothing would have held him back. Nothing would have kept him out of the action when Hogwarts was threatened, when the time…when the time had come.

"Poor George," Molly said with a sad smile. "It's like a pair of mittens, you know. You have two of them, and they look nearly identical to each other. One for the left hand, of course, and one for the right, but you could even turn them around or inside out and use them on either hand. And one might get a hole—like George did, with his ear and all. But you still love that comfortable pair of mittens, and maybe you sew up the hole and keep wearing them. But then one day you can't find one of those mittens, and you're cold, and you want to go outside and play in the snow so you find another mitten, but it's a different color, and maybe a little bigger or a little smaller. And you've got them on your hands but it takes a while to get used to them like that, all mismatched. That's Ron, you know, trying to be Fred for George. The hand is still warm as can be under that spare mitten, and you can still make snowballs with it, but it's not a perfect match. It's awkward, and obvious."

Harry felt a lump grow in his throat. It was silly. All this talk about mismatched mittens. It shouldn't make him feel like this, feel like he'd swallowed an orange whole and it was sitting right at the top of his stomach, a hard ball of misery.

"George told me he's fine," continued Molly. "He said that Fred would want him to go on with the joke shop. To make children happy. But he's not fine. I saw him nearly jump out of his skin yesterday, catching his reflection in the mirror from across the room. Looked like he'd seen a ghost."

"Fred and George…" began Harry, the orange-sized lump in his throat turning into a grapefruit, a cantaloupe. He struggled with the words, knowing exactly what he wanted to say—what he needed to say—and hoping that Molly Weasley would understand. "Fred…and George…they didn't treat me like I was special because I was Harry Potter. They treated me like a kid. Just their little brother's best friend. I loved them for that."

It was entirely possible that he hadn't understood what he loved about Fred and George until that very moment.

"They helped me." He laughed hoarsely. "They gave me this marvelous map. They understood me…what I needed. I think…I think they understood what a kid needs, and knew I wasn't getting it at the Dursleys’."

Molly reached out and ran her hand down the side of Harry's stubbled jaw.

"Oh, Harry."

The touch of her hand on his face felt so right…and so wrong. He should be comforting her. It wasn't right for him to be feeling this swell of pain and loss when her pain was so much more overwhelming, so much greater. So what if he missed Fred? So what if it hurt to see George alone? So what if he hadn't dealt with the grief yet? He was undeserving of it, of the blessed relief of tears.

He stood suddenly, dropped his glasses on his chair, fished out his wand and dropped that too, then without a word struck out toward the water, running into the waves with a strangled shout. When he was far enough out, he hurled himself into the water, buried himself under the buoyant waves and screamed out his grief, but only while submerged, so that only the ocean could hear, crying silently when he surfaced, salty tears invisible in the salty sea.

/

Molly was standing by the time Severus made it up to her. She looked up at him and he knew she realized he'd been there, observing them, listening to their conversation. But she said nothing, just touched his arm and nodded out toward Harry. They stood there, standing close together, watching him for a long while before either spoke.

"He's working it out," said Molly. She smiled wistfully. "In his own way."

"There's something about the sea," said Severus softly, looking out at Harry.

"There is, isn't there?" answered Molly.

They watched Harry for a few minutes more, then Severus appeared to come to a decision.

He turned and kicked off his sandals as he unbuttoned his shirt. He dropped the shirt onto Harry's abandoned chair and pulled his wand from his pocket and dropped it on top of the shirt.

"You'll burn up, Severus," admonished Molly gently as she watched him.

"It will be worth it," he said. Without another word, he waded into the water, trousers and all, and when he was thigh-deep he dove in as Harry had done, swimming out toward him with long, strong strokes.

The siren song of the sea could not be stilled, could not be quieted. The wind picked up and Molly Weasley stretched out her arms, like the figurehead of a ship at sea, like the statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado, the maritime wind picking up her robes and pushing them outward like a sail. The wind kissed her careworn face, a benediction, an anointing, an invitation.

She wondered, standing there with arms outspread, feeling light enough to sail with the gulls above her, when the last time was that she had played with her children. A tea party with three-year-old Ginny? Hide-and-Go-Seek with the boys before Ginny was even conceived? Too busy raising children to be a child. Too busy worrying to join their games.

She raised her eyes to watch Severus and Harry at play. They were wrestling, Harry on Severus' back, Severus falling forward to pull Harry underwater.

Molly Weasley walked into the ocean.

The water lapped at her ankles and crept up to her calves. Her robes wicked the water up further, to her knees, her thighs. She strode out even farther, until the water was at her knees and her robes floated on top of the water, a pool of green in an ocean of blue.

Another step, and another.

Then Harry was there, in front of her, understanding her need.

He lifted her up, the way a man would carry his bride. When had he grown so tall? So strong? That he could lift her—Molly Weasley!—like a babe in arms? Little Harry Potter—poor, motherless child. Alone in King's Cross Station. Taped-up spectacles on the messy haired Savior. He laughed as he strode purposefully back toward Severus, ignoring her high-pitched squeals, holding her more tightly as she struggled in his arms. And when the time was right, when he was deep enough but not too deep, he dropped his arms to his sides.

"Be free," he said softly as she sank beneath the waves, enveloped by the arms of the sea. Cleansed. Renewed.

They struggled to the shore some time later, laughing. Collapsed on the sand. Rolled onto their backs. Gazed at the clear blue summer sky flecked with wispy clouds and cawing gulls.

If Fred could see her now, he would know she was better.

If Lily could see her son now, could see Severus now, she'd know they were healing.

If Albus was here, if Albus saw them like this, wet and sandy and exhausted and so very relaxed, he would think they were two different men.

Not cured. Not healed. Not whole again.

Not yet.

But better.

/

"You told them to come here?" Harry looked at Severus and snorted. Laughed. "Here? Are they going to drink butterbeer and roast marshmallows?"

"If you'd like," answered Severus. He shifted uncomfortably as Harry rubbed the last of the sunburn potion on his shoulders.

"Do you think I could get them into the water? Would they need bathing caps for their beards?"

"After what I saw this afternoon with Molly Weasley, I have no doubt at all that you can get them in the water," replied Severus. "As for bathing caps for their beards, they can use the Impervius Charm."

"Or Bubble Beard charms," said Harry.

Severus rolled his eyes.

Harry was grinning. He rubbed the excess potion on his hands down Severus' back. "You should know better than to go out in that sun without protection," he lectured. "You, of all people. You're as pale as a ghost most of the time."

"I hadn't planned on getting in the water," stated Severus.

"Obviously," said Harry. He grinned again. "But when Molly told you to get out of those wet trousers immediately and don't mind her, she'd seen plenty of men in their pants…the look on your face!"

"Hmph," said Severus. He eased carefully into a dry shirt and began buttoning it.

"Yet she remembered to use a drying charm on herself," laughed Harry. "Do you think she wanted to get a look at you in your…" He trailed off when he saw the dangerous look on Severus' face. "Never mind."

"We need to discuss the Minister's request seriously, Harry."

Harry wiped his hands on his jeans and looked at Severus. "Alright. Seriously, I don't want to do it." He met Severus' eyes as he spoke and didn't crack a smile.

Severus sighed. He had hoped this wouldn't be difficult. But Harry's visit with Molly had, it seemed, buoyed him, given him some unanticipated extra strength and resolve.

"You had agreed to their previous request for the memories," said Severus, hoping he sounded much more neutral than he felt.

"They're always changing the game," said Harry dismissively. "They can't be trusted. Where were these supposedly interested people last year when I was Undesirable Number One?"

"You don't trust Kingsley?" Severus finished buttoning up his shirt and made his way into the kitchen from the porch.

"Alright, I trust Kingsley. Mostly." Harry followed Severus through the kitchen and into the front parlor, dropping down into one of the plush chairs as Severus took his habitual seat on the middle cushion of the sofa.

"Mostly?" Severus leaned gingerly back into the sofa cushions and steepled his hands below his chin.

"He's a politician," said Harry. "At least, he is now. He's…different. I know you've noticed." He said the last words half-accusingly, as if challenging Severus to refute them.

There was no reason, however, for Severus to refute the truth.

"Different? He is no longer an Auror and a member of the Order of the Phoenix, working covertly against the…against Voldemort. He is the Minister of Magic, Harry, head of state of the magical peoples of the United Kingdom." He looked hard at Harry, searchingly, knowing he had to say this next thing. "He has an obligation to do—to try to do, at least—what is best for magical Great Britain, even if it is not best for you, or for any other given individual."

Harry, unfortunately, seemed in a mood to argue. Severus sometimes forgot, in this upside down summer, that Harry was still only seventeen.

"That sounds suspiciously like an argument for the Greater Good," he said. "What about my rights as an individual?"

"With rights come responsibilities," sighed Severus. He didn't want to have this argument. It was a difficult one to win. Not that winning was his goal. He wanted Harry to see, to understand, that he would be dogged until he gave—something. "It's about balance, Harry," he said at last, leaning in a bit and peering at Harry, his chin resting on his fists. "Balancing the rights of an individual against the needs of magical society."

Harry rubbed his eyes. "I get it, Severus, I really do. It's just…alright, it's hard. Hard to talk about. There's so much I can't talk about—like the Hallows. But how can I not talk about them? And what about the Horcruxes? They're going to get it in their head that now that I know all about them, I'll make one of my own. Maybe two. Hell, maybe seven!"

"Harry—"

"He's dead, Severus. Voldemort is dead. Why isn't that enough?" Harry stared at Severus, obviously wanting, and waiting for, an answer.

"Because of what happened the last time the Ministry thought he was dead," answered Severus calmly.

"Yeah, but this time we have an actual body!"

Severus smiled. "There is that."

Harry smiled in return, then narrowed his eyes. "What happened to it, anyway?"

"What happened to it?" repeated Severus, puzzled. "You mean Voldemort's body?"

"Yeah. What happened to it? Did they bury it? Feed it to the giant squid?"

"Are you being deliberately callous?"

Harry stared at him, the expression on his face darkening. "Actually, no. But it wouldn't surprise me if they did something like that."

"They?"

Harry shrugged. "The Ministry, I guess."

"You're forgetting that the Ministry was Voldemort, Harry." Severus held up his hands when Harry began to speak again. "Listen to me a moment, please. Voldemort's body was magically cremated. His ashes are in storage at the Ministry." He looked carefully at Harry. Where was this coming from? He had thought Harry was healing, that he was putting the events of the previous year slowly behind him, looking forward.

Harry looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry. I'm being stupid. I'm just upset about the Ministry wanting to question me, I guess."

Severus stared at Harry, a serious expression on his face. "Do you need proof, Harry? Do you need to see the remains?"

Harry shrugged. "They're just ashes, aren't they? How would I know if they were really his ashes?" He looked up at Severus then, a suspicious look on his face. "Why are they keeping them, anyway? What are they going to do with them?"

"That, Harry, is a matter of great debate at the Ministry currently. No one has come forward to claim them; he left no family, of course, no next of kin. If he did, I doubt anyone would have the nerve to lay claim to them, anyway. There is a Ministry cemetery for unidentified bodies, for murder victims and the like. Personally, I would recommend that they flush the lot down the toilet, but no one is asking me."

Harry's face quirked into an almost-smile.

"Sometimes I forget he was just a man."

"A man who is well and truly dead, Harry. And as much as you want that chapter in your life to be over, there are others who desire closure as well. And they think they will find that closure in your story, told from your mouth."

"Closure for closure, then," muttered Harry. A curious expression came over his face. "I'll speak to them—in exchange for Voldemort. His ashes, I mean." He glanced in the direction of the sea, blocked by the cottage walls but ever present in his mind. "I think a burial at sea is in order…."

Severus stared at Harry in shock. "You're serious."

"I am."

/

It was far easier to get the ashes than Severus had imagined it would be.

Kingsley reached into a cabinet behind his desk and fished out what looked like an ordinary cardboard box. Its sturdy lid was tied on with twine.

"If anyone asks, I'm going to say they were lost when I moved back into my office," he said. "I trust Harry doesn't have nefarious plans for them?"

Severus smiled. "No, and he wonders the same about you. He didn't say so, but I think he was worried that they'd make their way to the Department of Mysteries to be used in some sort of necromancy experiment."

Kingsley looked pointedly at the box. "I don't think the strongest magic in the world could make a body from those ashes, or put a soul back in it."

Severus picked up the box and nodded to Kingsley.

"Services are private," he quipped.

"I imagine they are," said Kingsley. "

/

"This is it?" asked Harry, looking obliquely at the plain cardboard box tied up with twine.

"What did you expect?" asked Severus. "A commemorative plaque?"

"Wouldn't have surprised me, really," muttered Harry. He reached out for the box, untied the knot in the twine and unwrapped it. He looked up at Severus then. "I didn't expect you to actually get this, you know. I figured they'd hold on for something more from me once they knew what I wanted."

"Actually," said Severus softly, "I never attached any conditions to the request. I simply asked Kingsley if you could claim Voldemort's remains as his vanquisher. He fished the box out of a cabinet and handed it to me."

"You're kidding," said Harry. The smile he gave Severus made him look like a teenager again.

"No, I'm not. Though I'd still like to talk to you about the Ministry's request." He walked around the table and stood next to Harry. "After you deal with that. I'd rather not have it hanging about the cottage any longer than necessary."

Harry nodded and reached out a tentative hand and removed the lid of the box.

The box was lined with plastic and filled with a chalky white substance.

Harry looked up at Severus, then reached his hand out again and touched the ashes. He bit his lower lip.

"Dust," he said, in a voice so low it was nearly a whisper. "Nothing but dust." He looked up at Severus. "Care to take a walk with me?"

Harry bypassed their little beach and instead followed a foot path and headed north from the cottage. They walked quietly for twenty minutes until the path met a long, narrow stretch of sand.

The sea was rougher than usual, the wind a bit stronger. Harry seemed oblivious to this as he waded purposefully out into the water. He waded out quite a distance from the shore before the water reached his knees and Severus watched, fascinated, as his son reached into the box and took a handful of the chalky ashes and scattered them on the water before him.

Another handful, tossed underhand this time, further out.

A third handful, and a fourth.

And Harry, standing in water up to his knees, watched the pieces of ashes and bone and dust scatter in the wind, sink into the water, float on the surface of the sea.

When the box was empty, he held it upside down in front of him and shook it.

He thought, then, of the eulogies he and Severus had composed in their letters during Sixth Year, and of all the things one could say to sum up a life, to speak of the effect one man's life had on the world.

He thought there should be music for such an occasion, but all he knew were Christian hymns from his childhood church days with the Dursleys, and he hardly thought them appropriate.

A gull cried. Harsh, stark. Another answered.

Their music would do.

He stood there until he could see no more ashes, until the last pieces that had settled on the surface of the water were swept out to sea or submerged in its depths. Then he sang quietly, the words coming to him from a remembered lyric.

"Eleanor Rigby, died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came."

He wiped his hands on his shorts.

Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No one was saved.

He turned then and walked back toward Severus.

 

 

(Chapter 14)

A/N: There are references in this chapter to some of the letters Harry and Severus wrote to each other in the story "Regards, Harry." The song in question is mentioned in Chapter 25.

Chapter 14

Harry woke up Friday morning thinking about his visit to the Burrow that evening.

He'd promised Molly he would come, and Severus had been invited to dinner as well. He was relieved Severus was coming along—perhaps, having Severus there would give Mr. and Mrs. Weasley something to concentrate on other than Harry. Maybe, with Severus there, he wouldn't notice Fred's absence quite so much.

No. He'd feel it all the same.

But he had something else to worry about—that talk Molly and Arthur wanted to have with him. And Ginny. About their 'relationship.' Could it possibly be any worse than the 'talk' with Severus?

Unfortunately, he thought it could.

Severus surprised him at breakfast by announcing plans to go into London.

"We've avoided this long enough," he said as he finished his tea while Harry cleared the breakfast table. "You need clothing that fits you. Today is as good a day as any. It's nearly August and my schedule will be more difficult to work with once I have to be at Hogwarts every day."

"Every day?" Harry turned away from the sink, facing Severus.

Severus studied his son. "This should not come as a surprise to you, Harry. I am the headmaster. With classes starting September first, the month of August is a busy one, especially this year with much of the castle still not repaired."

"Will…will you be staying there? Overnight?"

"By mid-August, yes. At that time, you may move to the castle with me. You may also elect to stay here, go on holiday with your friends, or even stay at the Burrow."

Now Harry studied Severus. "Holiday?" he asked. With my friends? He shook his head. "No, this is enough holiday for me this summer," he said. "I'd rather go to Hogwarts with you—if that's alright?"

Severus narrowed his eyes. "Of course it's alright. It certainly is my preference. However, you must know you have other options."

Frankly, Harry didn't want to consider other options. "I've traveled enough this past year," he joked, but somehow the joke fell flat. They continued looking at each other for another long moment.

"Someday," began Severus. He faltered and started again. "Someday you will not want to stick so close to me. You will not want me to know exactly what you're getting up to. Someday…."

"Yeah," interrupted Harry, shaking his head slowly. "But not yet." He finished rinsing off the dishes and stacked them on the draining board. "Today I get to annoy you by picking out clothes that are too colorful, or too tight, or too trendy…."

"Jeans and plain, colored t-shirts," said Severus. "And shoes. A jacket with proper buttons—not those zippered contraptions with hoods you seem to live in. Trousers to wear under your school robes." He stood and fetched quill and parchment from the parlor, then sat back down at the kitchen table and began making a list. Harry peeked over his shoulder.

"A suit? You mean a suit with a proper Muggle tie? What do I need a suit for? I have formal robes…"

"Your formal robes are far too short, and you don't plan to wear them to the theater in London, do you?"

"The theater?" Harry walked around and pulled out the chair in front of Severus and slid into it. "Alright—what do you know that I don't know?" he asked with a smile he tried to hide.

"I said…I promised…long ago…that I would one day take you to the theater to see Les Miserables. It is playing in London this summer." Severus was tapping the end of the quill against the parchment now and he looked up at Harry, gauging his reaction.

"Wow." Harry leaned back in his chair. "That's great, Severus. When are we going?"

"Next Friday."

"That's my birthday…."

"Indeed." Severus raised an eyebrow.

"I'm guessing that's not a coincidence, then."

"Box seats for Les Miserables have to be obtained months in advance," answered Severus.

"Months?"

Severus nodded. "Did I mention we are going on opening night?"

Harry stared at him. "How…how long…." His voice trailed off.

"Six months," said Severus. He wasn't looking at Harry now. He was studying the list he had just made of clothing and supplies to purchase. He was trying to appear nonchalant but it came off as uncomfortable instead.

"Six months," repeated Harry softly, incredulously. He stared at Severus' hand as it picked up the quill and added another item to the bottom of the list. "I don't need new boots, Severus."

Severus paused and regarded his list, but shrugged and didn't cross off the item he'd just added.

Harry pulled out the chair next to him and sat.

"You bought these tickets in January?"

January. The Forest of Dean on Boxing Day at the end of December.

Severus didn't answer his question. "Regrettably, I was only able to procure two tickets. If you'd rather take one of your friends, I will make appropriate arrangements."

Harry ignored his suggestion completely. "In January, Severus? Right after you brought me the Sword of Gryffindor?"

Severus' tapping quill was leaving small blotches of ink on the bottom of the shopping list. "It will be best to take the suit to Madam Malkin's. While she does not sell contemporary Mugglewear, she can do alterations and will have them completed in time for the performance. Do you think you can tolerate a stop in her shop if we spend the rest of the day in Muggle stores?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah, I think I can tolerate a stop." He opened his mouth again, then closed it, biting his bottom lip. What had Severus been thinking back in January? How had he got into Muggle London to buy theater tickets when Voldemort was breathing down his neck and Harry…Harry had nearly been killed trying to destroy even the first of the Horcruxes? More important—why had he done so? Tickets for a production in July and, as things were going in January, it would be years before they had found all the Horcruxes and had even the most remote of chances to face and kill Voldemort?

Severus placed the quill on the table beside the list and picked up the parchment and blew on it to dry the ink.

"Well, let's get ready to go," he said. "We need to be at the Burrow by five and….Harry?"

Harry blinked. He hardly heard Severus. The doe Patronus, aglow like moonlight, flitted across his vision. Hope. The feeling that had welled up inside him when the doe appeared. The coldness of the night, the snow on the ground. The frozen pond.

Ron. Ron's hands pulling him out of the drowning water. The bone-chilling cold.

The doe disappearing. Knowing Severus was out there. Silent. Invisible. Watching.

Severus going back to Hogwarts. Severus going into London days later to purchase theater tickets….for July.

He tried to wrap his mind around that.

"Were….were they expensive?" he blurted out.

"Expensive? The boots?" Severus was looking at him oddly.

"The boots?" Harry frowned, puzzled. "No. No…I meant the tickets. The theater tickets." Harry had turned his head to look at Severus, searching his face for the answer.

Now Severus frowned. "Not that it matters, but yes. Quite expensive. It is a gift, Harry. We are going on your birthday."

"But what if…what if we couldn't go? How did you know?"

"How did I know we'd be able to go together when I purchased the tickets? Is that what you're asking?"

Harry nodded and watched the frown on Severus' face change to something contemplative, something fond. Severus' dark eyes regarded him. He didn't understand, couldn't understand what Severus was seeing in him, but whatever it was seemed to make him satisfied.

"I didn't know, Harry," he answered with a slight smile. "After I saw you that day—saw you go after the Sword of Gryffindor and with Mr. Weasley destroy that locket—I found within me a hope I had not had previously. It was enough for me to make plans—to take a chance on those tickets."

"But what if I hadn't made it?" asked Harry. "What if we were still hunting Horcruxes?" His hand shook as he reached out and took hold of Severus' wrist. He finished in almost a whisper. "What if I had died?"

"The tickets would have stayed where they were, then," he said, looking up from Harry's hand, tight on his wrist, to his earnest face. "I would not have gone without you."

Harry continued to hold his wrist, to stare at his face. "That's not what I meant," he said. His grip loosed marginally but he didn't let go of Severus' arm. "What if we were still hunting? What if we had failed? What if I had died?"

"You're not talking about the theater tickets any longer, are you, Harry?" asked Severus quietly.

Harry dropped Severus' wrist and pushed back his chair, embarrassed. He stood and walked hurriedly over to the doorway. "I'm ready to go whenever you are," he said. "Just let me go put on a clean pair of jeans."

"I believed in you, Harry," said Severus. He stood up and turned to follow his son as Harry made for the stairs. He stood at the bottom as Harry hurried upward. "The tickets—the tickets were something concrete I could hold onto. They represented the hope I began to feel again after bringing you the sword and watching what you did with it…and the Horcrux."

Harry had paused at the top of the stairs. He turned to look down at Severus. He very much wanted to drop this, to stop thinking about the things he was thinking about now. But just as much, he wanted to know. He wanted an answer to his question.

"What if I'd died, Severus?"

He stared down at the man at the bottom of the stairs. A man, he fully realized, who had almost died himself. Who was only just beginning to fully recover from his injuries.

"I think you are finally beginning to face the enormity of what you had to do ," answered Severus carefully. Harry continued his steady gaze, wanting even more. "Accepting, perhaps, the finality of failure—a failure, I will add, that did not happen." He took a breath. "Had you died, it is quite likely that I would have tried to kill him myself. And just as likely that I would have failed. And frankly, Harry, I can't think too far past that. Come, now—we have a long day ahead of us. Let's get moving."

Harry stared at Severus, then nodded once and went into his room to change his jeans. Why did the thought of Severus trying to kill Voldemort make him both inordinately happy and oppressively sad?

It doesn't matter, he thought as he pulled on a clean pair of jeans. I'm here. I survived. Severus is here. Severus survived.

It doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter.

/

The store where he bought his suit was a bit stuffy and certainly overpriced.

Severus didn't seem to mind, however, and had obviously been in the place before. He had something in mind already, it seemed, and directed the sales attendant to a selection of well-cut but traditional jackets. Harry had several choices of colors—all of them grey—and patiently tried on a half dozen of the jackets before both Severus and the clerk were satisfied with the fit. An embarrassing conversation about dandruff followed, with the clerk suggesting a tweedy-looking fabric that apparently "hid" the scalp flakes, and Severus nodding in agreement but ultimately allowing Harry to pick the fabric and shade he liked best.

Severus chose a shirt and tie for him, but allowed him to pick out an alternate pair of his own. Severus then arranged to pick up the suit the next day to have it tailored by his "personal" tailor and they were off again to the next shop for shoes.

A late lunch followed, then a stop to pick up socks, belts and underwear. They finally made their last stop of the day, for Harry's casual clothing. Harry could tell Severus was getting tired, but he insisted on finishing the trip, saying he'd never get Harry back out here again. He instructed Harry to pick out at least six new pair of jeans and trousers and a variety of shirts, then sat on a bench near the changing rooms waiting for him to try them all on.

Harry found him there thirty minutes later, a frightened-looking Dudley Dursley sitting next to him.

Harry's mouth fell open. He closed it with effort. Dudley looked up at him in apparent relief.

"I ran into an old friend of yours," Severus said. "I asked him to wait around a few minutes to say hello to you. I can't say he was eager to see you again, but he did agree to sit and chat for a few minutes."

Dudley had, unbelievably, stood up. He held out a hand to Harry, and Harry took it and shook hands. His cousin looked essentially the same as he had two years ago. A bit less heavy, perhaps, a bit older. But essentially the same.

"Harry," he said, his voice strangely neutral. He stared at his cousin, looked him up and down in apparent wonder. "We thought—we thought you might be dead."

Harry frowned and gave Severus a quick glance. Severus rolled his eyes. Harry turned his gaze back to his cousin.

"Hello, Dudley," Harry said. He smiled slightly. "Guess I haven't seen you since your dad ran me over with his car."

"That sure was a mess," said Dudley, letting out a big breath of air. "Mrs. Gibbons next store was convinced Dad did it on purpose. She still comes over every so often and asks after you. Drives Dad crazy. It's gotten so that he makes things up—told her you've joined the Royal Air Force and of course she asked how that was possible with your bad eyes. So he decided you're a navigator and not a pilot after all. Then he claimed that you served with Prince Andrew. Of course, he's in the Navy…."

Harry stared at his cousin, not knowing what to say. He glanced again at Severus. Severus shrugged.

"What are you doing these days, Dudley?" asked Harry, interrupting Dudley's rambling.

"Working with Dad," answered Dudley with a sigh.

"Drills?" asked Harry, suppressing a smile.

Dudley nodded. "I just can't get quite as excited about them as he does."

"Well, we'd better pay for this stuff and get going," said Harry after another awkward moment where he and Dudley looked at each other.

"You got tall," said Dudley suddenly. "You're nearly as tall as me now."

"Well, yeah," said Harry. "It's been what—two years now? Since I left?"

"That long?" asked Dudley.

"Yeah," said Harry. "That long." He looked around Dudley to Severus again. "Listen, we have to get going."

"Alright," said Dudley. He shook Severus' hand a bit reluctantly when Severus stood and offered his hand, then looked again at Harry as he moved to stand next to Severus.

"I'll tell Mum you said hullo, then?" he asked. He nervously wiped his hands on his jeans.

Harry stared at him a long moment. Beside him, he felt Severus' silent, supportive presence.

"Alright," he said at last. He nodded. "Tell her I said hullo, then."

It felt, somehow, like a weight slid off his shoulders as he walked to the cashier with Severus and his armful of new clothing. A weight he hadn't known he was carrying. He stood at the counter beside Severus and watched Dudley walk past him and out the door, shoulders rounded and slightly stooped, hands shoved in his front pockets. He looked back at them as he pushed the door open, then he was gone into the London crowds, looking somehow smaller than Harry had ever seen him.

/

They had just enough time to go home and change clothes before Flooing to the Burrow.

"I wanted to take some flowers to Molly," said Harry just minutes before they were due to leave.

"‘Molly’?" asked Severus, raising an eyebrow at the familiarity of the name.

"She asked me to call her that," said Harry. "Do you suppose she'd like roses? Those big red ones out front are pretty."

"I'm sure she'd love roses, Harry," said Severus, glancing up at the mantel clock as Harry opened the front door. He tamped down the slight annoyance he felt at Harry thinking of the flowers at the last moment. He stood at the window overlooking the front gardens and watched Harry gather a half dozen of them, using a cutting charm on the stems, then pause in front of a bush with white roses just beginning to bloom.

Harry reached out with his hand and fingered a large white bud, then quickly cut the stem and added it to his bouquet.

Severus frowned, wondering why he'd chosen only one white rose. Harry opened the door a moment later and hurried inside. Severus looked down at the flowers in his arms.

"Six red and one white," explained Harry. He looked up at Severus, then bit on his bottom lip as he so often did when he was thinking. "The white one's for Fred…." He drifted off a moment, looking back down at the flowers he was carrying, then back at Severus. "Do you think I should get a red one instead?"

How could he possibly answer that question?

"I was going to get seven red," Harry hastened to explain. "One for each of her children. But then I thought of a special one for Fred. The white ones are just starting to bloom…."

"Why don't you get one more red one and keep the white one?" suggested Severus.

Harry looked puzzled.

"You're forgetting yourself," said Severus. "You know the Weasleys consider you their son, too."

The rose Harry added to the bouquet just before they Flooed to the Burrow was a darker red than the others, and slightly smaller. It lay among the others, obviously different, but somehow blending in. Severus thought it looked perfect.

/

.

The bouquet of roses stayed on the Weasley's mantel until nearly every petal had dropped off of each of the eight buds.

Mrs. Weasley had met Harry at the Floo when he stumbled out and had accepted the bouquet with tears in her eyes. She'd arranged the flowers in a vase and had exclaimed over Harry's new clothes just before Ron came in from outside.

"Are you ready to play, Harry? We need you for Seeker," Ron said breathlessly. He grabbed Harry's arm and pulled him outside, giving Harry time only to wave quickly to Severus and Molly.

As soon as he stepped outside, something exploded.

It turned out only to be fireworks, but fireworks loud enough to cover up the shout of, "Surprise!" from his assembled family and friends.

Harry froze, turning around in place as everyone clapped and started a round of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Severus stepped outside next to Molly and watched Harry with concern. But the look of surprise—closer to horror—on Harry's face soon turned into a wide smile as he took in the gathering.

Bill, Minerva, the Lovegood girl, Hagrid, Andromeda with Teddy, Hermione, Longbottom, Dean Thomas, even a few students who had already left Hogwarts, like Lee Jordan and Angelina Johnson. All of them clapping and wishing Harry a happy birthday. The rest of the Weasleys were there, of course, even Percy, and Severus watched Ginny hug Harry and give him a quick kiss. He stood back as Harry was hugged and greeted and led over to a picnic area with tables and chairs and fairy lights already sparkling in the trees, even though it was still daylight.

It was the perfect kind of day for a picnic. The weather was warm but not overly so, and clouds flitted by in the sunny sky. The tables were covered with blue tablecloths and one of them, in the center, was piled high with gifts. Another held bottles of butterbeer and two pitchers of lemonade. Harry wasn't given much time to take it all in before he was, indeed, pulled away to the yard for the event of the day—the Quidditch game.

Severus found himself sitting on a garden chair watching the game with Minerva, Molly, Arthur, Fleur, Hagrid and Andromeda. Everyone else had been recruited to play, even Hermione and Longbottom, neither of whom was terribly comfortable on a broom. Lovegood had appointed herself commentator, and beside him, Minerva cringed more than once as the girl described the game in her magically magnified voice.

"He's such a natural on a broom, Severus," said Minerva as they watched Harry dip and dive and maneuver.

"He is," agreed Severus. He watched Harry dart among the other players. "He's a natural at other things as well, fortunately. I doubt he could earn a living his entire life on a broom."

"Well, perhaps part of his life," suggested Minerva. "Has he ever spoken of playing professionally?"

Severus watched Harry a moment more. He shook his head. "No. He still has it in his head that he's going to be an Auror."

"An Auror." Andromeda's voice, lower-pitched than Bella's, warmer than Narcissa's, held a note of sadness. "It's a difficult life, Severus. A dangerous one. Perhaps you could lead him elsewhere? Suggest something else?"

They were all looking at him now. He felt as if he were on display and somehow being judged. As if somehow he could redirect Harry.

"I would have him choose nearly any other career," he said after a moment. "He's done enough." He sighed. "He's given enough. But he's still hell-bent on finishing the qualifying N.E.W.T.s this next year and entering the Academy."

"He may yet change his mind, Severus," said Minerva. "There's an entire year ahead of him still."

Andromeda smiled. Fleur was holding the sleeping Teddy. "He'll have to teach Teddy to fly," she said. "I'm awful on a broom—awkward and afraid of heights."

"Teddy will be a good flyer before he gets to Hogwarts, then," said Minerva. "It's probably too early to make these predictions, but we may see your grandson in Gryffindor House."

"We don't sort at three months for a reason," said Severus, glaring good-naturedly at Minerva.

"Four months now," said Andromeda, smiling fondly at her grandson. "Teddy was born in March."

Before the end of the Quidditch match, Teddy had been passed around to nearly all of the adults. They had handed him to Severus despite his protests, and while he attempted to position the baby in his arms, thinking that the child must have an abnormally large head, Andromeda handed him a warmed bottle. The baby took it greedily while Severus watched his little face rather clinically, wondering where all the air was going that the child was certainly swallowing with the formula. As Teddy ate, a shout went up from the pitch and Harry and Ginny dived nearly in tandem toward the ground. It all ended with a tangle of arms and legs and brooms, Harry holding up the Snitch in his left hand and Ginny on top of him, both of them laughing, as she tried to pry his hand open.

Teddy continued to eat, seemingly oblivious of the commotion around him.

When Harry plopped down in the empty chair next to Severus a few minutes later, Teddy let out a satisfying burp and Severus nearly dropped him in surprise.

Harry nearly doubled over in laughter.

"Let me have him," Harry said a minute later when Teddy finished his bottle.

"I think not," said Severus rather primly. "You're filthy and your nose is bleeding."

He had a surprisingly nice evening, all in all, despite being surrounded by a bigger crowd than he liked, many of them his students. Dinner was abundant and hearty, the weather stayed nice and Harry was obviously having a good time. Harry's gifts were both entertaining and thoughtful, and Severus stayed outside with the birthday crowd, talking and laughing and watching as Harry finally got his turn to hold his godson.

Molly had been right, thought Severus.

Harry's first time at the Burrow this summer should be a big, loud affair. An affair with too many people to count. So many faces that the absence of one or two didn't stand out so much. A happy occasion on a warm, moonlit evening with people he loved.

More important, Severus thought, with people who loved Harry.

People like Hagrid, who offered Harry an easy camaraderie. People like Minerva, whose official guardianship had ended when Harry had turned seventeen, but who still considered him her ward. Parents like Molly and Arthur, who truly considered him their surrogate son. Adults like Bill Weasley who had stepped in for Severus and kept Harry together that awful summer after Albus died. People like Ron and Hermione, Harry's closest friends, constants in his life for seven years now. People like Ginny Weasley, testing out the romantic waters with Harry, for good or ill, treading a path with him that was bringing him joy right now, in this season of new joy following the long cold chill of Voldemort's reign.

People who loved Harry.

How could you not love the boy? It seemed inconceivable to him now that there had been a time when he himself had not loved him. A time when the sight of Lily's eyes staring at him from within that tangled tousle of Potter hair had constricted his heart, clouded his vision, made venom rise within him. A venom he thought was hatred. A venom that was poison to be purged.

A purge that was too long. Too slow.

He watched Andromeda take a sleepy Teddy back from Harry, watched as she held him against her. She would, were she fortunate, have another eighteen years of his childhood. Grubby hands and tadpoles and muddy footprints on the floor. Goodbyes on Platform 9 ¾, Christmas holidays, August trips to Diagon Alley for robes and books and supplies. Arthur and Molly—years, lifetimes, between the day Bill entered their young lives and the time Ginny would leave their home for a life of her own. By the time Ginny left, they were likely to have grandchildren, if the look in Bill and Fleur's eyes as they watched baby Teddy was anything to go by.

He didn't regret the short time he'd had with Harry. He hadn't expected—hadn't wanted—to be a father. Two years in all, framed by two very different summers spent in the same place together, with a chaotic stream of unspeakable events leading to a horrible crescendo sandwiched in the middle.

And now…now was the slow unwinding.

The crowd dwindled. Hagrid and Minerva left together, and Bill and Fleur after them. Andromeda left with Teddy, but not until Harry and Ginny returned from a walk around the distant pond with the baby snuggled up against Harry. He saw them walking back together, Ginny holding the baby now, and everything inside him screamed no no no no no not yet too young while at the same time a gurgling soft voice pronounced perhaps some day, perhaps some day.

The fairy lights were warm, soft glows in the trees around them now, and the moon lit up the night sky. Harry and his friends sat in a circle outside and Severus went in with Molly and Arthur. He helped Molly clean up first, then settled down with Arthur, a chess set between them, glasses of an adequate scotch in front of them. They played without talking and Severus won the first game, though Arthur gave him a good run for his money. They could hear the comforting sound of Molly in the kitchen and the low rumble of voices blowing in the windows from the children outside.

Children. The youngest was almost seventeen. Hardly children anymore.

"Harry mentioned you and Molly wanted to speak with him about Ginny," Severus said between games when they were resetting the pieces.

"We do," answered Arthur. He carefully lined up his pawns so they were precisely in the center of each square. "You've already talked with them?"

Severus shook his head. "With Harry, yes. Not with both of them."

Arthur smiled. "We have quite a bit of experience with boys, Severus. But very little with girls. Our daughter has a mind of her own and unfortunately is quite adept at getting what she wants."

"They're so young," said Severus. He sighed. "Too young."

Arthur nodded. "While I agree, I should note that I was nineteen when I proposed to Molly and twenty-one when Bill was born."

Severus stared at him over the chessboard.

"And I was approaching forty when I became a father."

Arthur smiled. "Let's let Harry finish out his evening on a pleasant note and save the conversation for another day, eh?"

They began playing then, and some time later the door opened and they looked over together as Harry appeared in the doorway.

"We're playing Truth or Dare outside," he said.

"I'm not interested in playing," said Severus with a smile. He looked down at the board and made his next move.

"Not asking you to play," said Harry, mouthing "git" under his breath.

"I heard that," muttered Severus back at him.

"I'm doing my dare," said Harry. "Lee just dared me to come in here and tell you how I lost my virginity."

Arthur and Severus stared at each other, then both their heads swiveled toward the door.

"Harry, you don't…."

"No. I accepted the dare." Harry walked over toward them then and stood next to Severus. He whistled softly at the board. "You're going to lose, Dad."

"Perhaps," answered Severus. "And you do not have to do this, Harry, no matter what your friends have asked you."

"I haven't," said Harry.

"‘Haven't’?" asked Severus.

"Haven't lost my virginity. So there's nothing to tell."

He was still standing next to Severus, and he reached down and squeezed Severus' shoulder lightly, then walked back toward the door.

"And they thought they were killing me with that one," he said before he slipped back outside.

Arthur watched him go, then looked at Severus.

"Quite the boy you've got there," he said. He moved his queen. "Check."

Severus moved his own gaze back from the door to the chessboard and smiled.

/

A week later, Harry and Severus sat side by side in a packed theater. Harry had been transfixed by the production from the beginning. He had never been to a production of any kind before this one, and found himself easily swept away, a seemingly invisible spectator eavesdropping on the lives of these nineteenth century characters.

He remembered the letter Severus had written him all those months ago, the letter quoting the lyrics of a song from this play. He remembered sitting in the common room listening to Hermione sing the song to him, could still hear her voice as it rose in the empty room.

But nothing could have prepared him for hearing the song in the context of the play, nor of sitting beside Severus as it was performed.

Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy

Harry reached out then and took hold of Severus' hand. Laced their fingers together. Gripped Severus' hand as the tears he had been fighting rolled down his face. Looked over at Severus, caught him in profile, staring ahead, up at the stage, utterly transfixed.

If I die
Let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.

Severus joined in the tumultuous applause.

His plea answered. His son home. His own life delivered.

Home.

 

 

(Chapter 15)

A/N: It's August now and the Hogwarts school year is just around the corner. Three more chapters are left in "A Summer of Flotsam and Jetsam." This chapter is followed by "Harry's Story," then a final chapter at Shell Cottage and finally, the return to Hogwarts. Thanks for all the wonderful reviews throughout this story and for sticking with it as my writing schedule became more erratic.

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Chapter 15

Summer was winding down.

It was only the first week of August, but school began on September first, and Severus knew he had to be moved back to Hogwarts and fully engaged in headmaster activities by the fifteenth. They had only ten days left at Shell Cottage, and he wanted to end the summer on a high note—for himself and for Harry.

But the matter of the promised meeting between Harry and the Ministry officials still hung over their heads. Harry had consented to the meeting after Severus had shown him the document from Kingsley, signed and sealed by the Minister, guaranteeing that in exchange for Harry's cooperation in telling a select group of Ministry and Hogwarts officials his story, he would not be asked or compelled to provide additional testimony of any kind in any trial resulting from crimes during the war.

And the Malfoy trial was fast approaching .

But as yet, Harry hadn't chosen a place for the meeting and frankly, they were running out of time.

"Not here," said Harry that night as he and Severus sat on the covered porch, plates with hamburgers and chips and cut-up melon on their laps, watching the evening fade away before them. Harry looked over at Severus, worry clearly etched on his face. "I know it would be easier to just have them all come here, but I don't want to share it with everyone." He looked out the window toward the ocean and Severus knew he guarded this place selfishly, deep in his heart. "I think—I think we should do it at Hogwarts."

"Hogwarts?" Severus repeated. Somehow, he had not anticipated that decision. He would have thought that Harry would feel safer here, at Shell Cottage, less exposed and vulnerable. But Hogwarts—in the very place where he had defeated the Dark Lord? Where Severus had nearly bled to death on the floor of the Shrieking Shack? Where Harry had faced death himself?

"Yeah, Hogwarts," repeated Harry. "I already have so many bad memories associated with Hogwarts to go along with the good ones—having the meeting there can't make it any worse, can it?" He shrugged and picked up a chip and popped it into his mouth. He chewed slowly and did not look back at Severus.

"No. Hardly ." Severus had to agree with Harry's reasoning. Hogwarts. Hogwarts had been Severus' rock in a tempestuous sea. His island in a bitter storm. But as much as Hogwarts offered shelter and succor, it also represented the scene of some of the greatest tragedies and losses of his own life—and in Harry's. He shook off that feeling, addressed Harry's decision.

"And Hogwarts is also secure, and can easily accommodate any number of people." He turned toward Harry. "If you are certain about this, I will inform Kingsley today and let him schedule the date—the sooner, the better, in my opinion."

"I'd like to get it over with soon, too," said Harry. He said it with a certain tone of voice that made Severus realize that this remaining obligation had been weighing heavy on his mind.

"You have something else left to do," said Severus, nodding at the table to his left where Harry had piled the seventh year schoolbooks that Severus had brought home from Hogwarts for Harry to use in his summer studies. "Those are borrowed books. You need your own—and you need to purchase you other supplies."

Harry's hand stilled as it reached toward his plate for another chip.

"Do you think I need to go myself?" he asked after a long pause. "I haven't always gone, you know. The year we went to the Quidditch World Cup, Mrs. Weasley went for me. She bought everyone's supplies that year." He smiled. "She even bought me my first set of dress robes—bottle green, she said, to match my eyes." He smirked a bit and Severus could not know he was thinking of the old-fashioned maroon robes she had bought for Ron.

"I think we should both go," said Severus. "Tomorrow—it's Tuesday and won't be as busy as the weekend. We're still a few weeks out from the start of classes, so the last-minute shoppers won't be about." He glanced at Harry. "You have reservations?"

Harry shook his head. He didn't look convinced. "No. Not really. I just don't want anything happening like that day at the Ministry."

"I will alert Kingsley when I fire-call him about the meeting at Hogwarts," assured Severus. "He can have extra Aurors about, just in case. Nevertheless, you need to resume a normal life, Harry. And that involves going to public places."

Harry nodded but didn't say anything. He finished his burger and chips and set his plate on the floor beside his chair, then picked up his bottle of butterbeer.

Severus leaned over and slid his empty plate onto the table. He reclined in his chair and lifted his feet up and rested them on the ottoman. Despite all the progress made toward his recovery this summer, he was still often tired and sore at the end of the day. He shifted the pillow behind his head and closed his eyes, waiting for the question he knew was coming. He understood Harry's introspective moods. Long active days with friends, days that should tire him out and lift him up, were nearly always followed by quiet, reflective evenings. Evenings of chess games, and peaceful reading, and sometimes walks together on the shore.

"Do you really think I can have a normal life?"

Severus counted to ten slowly before he answered.

"Well, I suppose that depends on your definition of normal," answered Severus carefully once he had reached ten. He didn't open his eyes. "How would you describe a normal life?"

Harry's voice was soft and contemplative when he answered, though he was not able to keep all the bitterness he undoubtedly felt from it. "I suppose a normal life means not worrying about exactly when and where and how you're going to die. And if you're not always thinking about if you're going to die, and who's after you, or your friends, you can think about living. Having fun with your friends. Finishing school. Planning your career and not thinking 'Why bother? I'm never going to live to be an Auror.' Going out without having people stare at you, or chase you down and thank you for saving the world. Being just another bloke—or at least, just another wizard."

"Harry…."

Harry looked over at Severus, the contemplative expression still on his face. He smiled at Severus then, the expression rather vague, as if his heart wasn't completely behind the smile.

"Harry," interjected Severus, framing the thought carefully. "I don't believe you'll ever be 'just another wizard.'"

Harry sighed.

"That doesn't mean you can't have a normal life, however. It simply means that your ‘normal’ might not line up with the definition of 'normal' that you currently have. Harry—it's normal for you to be singled out by people."

"I guess that's one way to think about it," said Harry. He didn't sound convinced.

"You do not want to spend your life hiding, Harry. You may have enjoyed this summer here at Shell Cottage, with time alone with me and with your friends."

"Of course I enjoyed it," said Harry. "Why do you think I don't want to leave?"

All good things must come to an end, said Severus' inner voice. But when he spoke, he voiced another thought.

"You are not a solitary person. There will come a time—I assure you this is true—when you will want to go to the store, have a pint at the Leaky Cauldron, walk down Diagon Alley in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday because that is the time that is convenient for you to shop." He paused and looked over at Harry. "You cannot help being a celebrity, Harry. But you can affect your status by how you behave. The more reclusive you are, the more you hide, the more likely you are to be sought out."

"I'll be mobbed in Diagon Alley." Harry said the words with conviction, but not with fear. "Look what happened at the Ministry."

"The Ministry of Magic is a place that defies all rules of order and logic," said Severus, sighing. He hated that place. He always had. "Still, you may be right. There may be mobs of people interested in you. The first time, anyway. Perhaps the second and third as well. And I do not believe you will be mobbed in the true sense of the word. You will be noticed. You may be followed. You will certainly be approached."

"Neville got marriage proposals when he went to Diagon Alley to get his supplies. From women and men. I don't think I could take that."

Severus suppressed a grin.

"I think, Harry, that it will be best that, this first time, we go early, and that your friends accompany us. They have some notoriety of their own and may deflect some attention away from you. And there is usually more safety in numbers."

"I wish this scar didn't make me famous," said Harry after a quiet moment when Severus lay still on the lounge with eyes closed and hands clasped across his chest, relaxing in the warm evening and thinking of all the things that could happen on Harry's first real outing into Wizarding London since the end of the War. "I wish I didn't have it anymore," Harry continued more quietly. "I mean, I lost the ability to speak Parseltongue. Why couldn't I lose the scar too?"

You lost yours, Severus heard, unspoken but there.

Severus understood this. But he knew there was something else Harry did not understand and needed to hear from someone he trusted.

"Harry," he began. He moved his feet to the floor so he was semi-straddling the lounge chair. He sat up marginally and faced his son. "What you did—that day in May at Hogwarts—what you did was a great thing." He knew his words were inadequate. Great? What Harry did was far more than great. "It was a selfless act, it freed thousands of people from fear, it saved countless lives. I have a question for you, Harry." He moved now to sit on the side of the lounge chair, facing Harry. Harry stayed where he was but turned his head to stare at him. Eyes hooded. Suspicious, perhaps ; disbelieving. Sad.

"Why? Why did you do it?"

Harry nearly spat.

"Why?" he repeated. Severus could not quite interpret the look on his face. Pained? Hurt? Angry? Disgusted? A combination of all of those feelings? "You've already forgotten about the Prophecy? Dumbledore told me—damn it you know what he told me. He told me it had to be me…."

"Harry…." Severus reached out now and took one of Harry's hands in both of his own. "Harry, if you had died—really died—when you gave yourself over to Voldemort, would someone else have killed him? Or would all have been lost?"

Harry narrowed his eyes.

"Don't think too hard about it. What would have happened if you had died along with the Horcrux within you?"

Harry nearly choked out the words.

"I…I suppose someone else would eventually have killed him. Neville, maybe. Or Ron or Hermione. Someone…."

"So—did you have to do it, Harry?"

"Dumbledore..."

"Forget Dumbledore. Did you have to go after Voldemort? Hunt down the Horcruxes?" He had taken Harry's other hand now, squeezed it. "Did you have to turn yourself over to him?"

"I didn't have a choice," said Harry, looking up and over at Severus, then down again at their joined hands. "I had to do it."

"You always had a choice," insisted Severus.

"No! I didn't. I had to do what he asked or…or…."

"No, Harry. You didn't." Severus' voice was low and calm. "You could have chosen to run. To hide. You could have gone after the Elder Wand and collected all three of the Hallows. You could have ignored Dumbledore's instructions. You could have lived another life, perhaps in the States or on the Continent or elsewhere."

"No." Harry's voice was rough. "You don't get it, do you? I couldn't have, Severus. Not with you here, and my friends at Hogwarts. Not with what he was doing. Not knowing about the Horcruxes. Someone had to do it, or at least try to do it."

"So…you chose to do it?" Severus let go of Harry's hands and with a finger, tilted up Harry's head. Harry stared at him, and he tried to read the thoughts behind the eyes. Did Harry not know, not realize, that the Prophecy had only set him on the road—that it hadn't kept him on it?

Harry bit his bottom lip and tried to dip his head again as he pulled his knees up against his chest in the posture he favored when he was scared, or tired, or insecure.

"Why is this so hard for you to admit?" asked Severus. "You are not an accidental hero—a hero of circumstances. You chose to do what Dumbledore asked of you. You chose to do it—for your family, for your friends, for strangers who were being oppressed by the Dark Lord. It was your choice, not your responsibility, not your obligation, no matter what Albus Dumbledore may have led you to believe."

"But I couldn't not do it," Harry said, eyes pleading with Severus. To see inside. To understand.

Severus smiled. "And that is what makes you different. What makes you a hero. Normal, Harry? You are not normal. You have never been normal. But you can have a normal life. The first step is to recognize what you, Harry Potter, have done." He pressed three fingers against Harry's chest, held them there, spoke more softly. "Recognize what you have done, Harry, and why you did it. Stand up and say it. 'I killed Voldemort because I love my friends. Because he killed my parents. Because he destroyed my life and I was tired of him destroying everything I loved. Because it was what our world needed. Because I was strong enough. Because I could.'"

Harry nodded, still looking down at his knees.

Severus moved his hand from Harry's chest to his shoulder. "For whom did you do it, Harry? For Albus Dumbledore? No—don't answer. I am well aware how persuasive he could be and I acknowledge that some part of you wanted to fulfill this quest for him. But who else? If you did it for your friends, your family, for Muggles who could not defend themselves against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, for the Wizarding world as a whole—do not be surprised if they want to approach you, to thank you, to get a glimpse of their hero."

Harry sighed. He nodded, in understanding if not acceptance.

"But I didn't want to be a hero," he said at last.

"For someone who didn't want to be a hero, you well and truly took the biscuit," said Severus fondly.

Harry looked at him, the beginnings of a grin on his face.

"I don't think I'd know normal if it punched me in the gob," he said.

"And unfortunately, I'd not be much help," quipped Severus. "But I'd be happy to stumble through this with you, starting with that trip to Diagon Alley tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," sighed Harry. "Have we really got to?"

"Yes, we do," confirmed Severus. "Tomorrow."

/

They started with breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron. Ron and Ginny joined them, and though the other patrons definitely took notice of Harry Potter and Severus Snape, the meal progressed in relative calm.

"They're staring at you but trying to act like they're not staring at you," muttered Ron to Harry in between bites of eggs and toast. Ron may have been fully grown, but he still shoveled in breakfast as if he had just come out of a forty-day fast.

"Isn't that Susan Bones over there?" asked Ginny, nodding in the direction of a table where Harry and Ron's classmate sat with two smaller boys and a woman who was undoubtedly their mother.

"Yeah, that's her," said Ron, glancing over where Ginny was looking. Susan looked up and waved. Ron blushed, embarrassed to be caught staring, and waved back.

"I didn't know she had brothers," said Harry.

"I bet they're starting at Hogwarts this year," said Ginny.

"They are starting at Hogwarts this year," said Severus. "And it's impolite to stare." He refilled his tea. "I can only hope the Bones twins are nothing like the Weasley twins."

It was three months, nearly to the day, since Fred Weasley had died in the Battle of Hogwarts. And while Fred's friends and family would mourn him for years to come, they were able to smile now.

They were still sitting there, going over their supply lists, when the Bones family finished their own breakfast and approached their table.

Severus stood, gracefully pushing his chair back and extending his hand to Mrs. Bones and then to Susan. Harry and Ron exchanged looks, then hurriedly got to their feet. Ron's chair fell over backwards and clattered to the floor. Ginny grinned up at Susan as Ron righted his chair, looking sheepish.

"Oh, please sit back down and finish your meal," said Mrs. Bones. "We just wanted to stop by and say hello." She glanced down at the twins, both of whom were staring unabashedly at Harry. "And the boys—the boys especially are so grateful. They thought they'd never get to go to Hogwarts, not after how bleak things seemed just six months ago."

"You're Harry Potter," said one of the boys, stepping in closer to his mother until he was leaning against her side. His mother's hand came down to rest lightly on his shoulder.

Harry looked at the boy. Merlin, he was small! Could it really have been only seven years ago that he was eleven years old and getting ready to go to Hogwarts for the first time? The Sorting Hat would surely fall right down to this little boy's shoulders, his head was so small.

"I am," he said with a smile. "What's your name?"

"Chris," answered the boy. He pointed at his twin. "And he's Richard."

"So you're going to be Sorted in a few weeks?" asked Ron.

Chris and Richard exchanged a nervous glance.

"He says we have to wrestle a troll," said Richard bravely.

Ron smiled. "Yeah, something like that," he said.

Richard and Chris exchanged another look.

"You ask him," hissed Richard.

Richard took a brave step forward.

Harry forced a smile on his face. He expected a question about Voldemort. Is he really dead? Did you kill him? What spell did you use? What was it like to kill a person?

"Would you teach us the Wronski Feint?"

The Wronski Feint?

A smile, a genuine smile this time, took the place of the forced one on Harry's face. Stress and tension he hadn't realized he'd been holding on to seemed to melt from his body.

Quidditch.

"You two know how to fly already?" he asked, glancing at Mrs. Bones.

The boys exchanged yet another glance. Mrs. Bones bit back a smile and waited for them to answer themselves.

"Some…." said Richard. "We're getting brooms for our birthday."

"Why don't we work on some of the standard Quidditch moves first?" Harry suggested. "Before we try the Wronski Feint."

Severus caught Ron and Ginny smiling as Harry finished talking to the boys.

Quidditch, he thought. Quidditch was where Harry could begin to recapture normal..

/

The rest of the day did not go quite as well as breakfast had, though it was far from an unpleasant day overall. There were gapers at every turn, in every store. Adults approached them to offer thanks, groups of shoppers followed them from store to store. No one wanted to take Harry Potter's money. Babies or toddlers were pressed into his arms for photographs a half dozen times. An elderly man hugged him; a middle-aged woman pressed a kiss to his cheek.

He had half a dozen marriage proposals, despite the fact that Ginny was on his arm for most of the morning.

And Harry, following Severus' lead, greeted well-wishers warmly, taking their hands, listening to their stories, accepting their thanks. He responded best to the children, Severus noted, often getting down to their level, kneeling in front of them, returning their hugs, ruffling their hair.

Not so different than the way Severus sometimes ruffled Harry's.

How many children there were!

Or perhaps it was just this particularly fine day in August, and the fact that everyone needed supplies, and whole families came out because it was safe to walk about in Diagon Alley now. Safe to visit Ollivander's for a new wand. Safe to sit outside of Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlor, or to wander into Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, or to stand outside Quality Quidditch Supply and ogle the new racing brooms in the window.

Even with the freedom, the safety, there were bound to be low moments in the day.

Like walking into Flourish and Blotts just as Dennis Creevey and his mother were walking out.

"Harry!" Dennis turned to his mother, a small woman with mousy brown hair and large eyes. "Mum, this is Harry Potter," he exclaimed. "The one who saved us."

Harry was staring at Mrs. Creevey. The one who saved some of us, he thought to himself.

"Harry Potter?" she said, a smile touching her careworn face. "My boys thought so highly of you," she said with such sincerity that Harry was rendered nearly speechless. "Colin—his letters were always full of stories about you."

Harry felt tears in his eyes for the first time that day. Dennis was staring up at him, glancing from his mother to Harry.

"I'm sorry…" he began, faltering. "I'm sorry for your loss. Colin was…a good friend."

Mrs. Creevey beamed. "That's why he went back. That's what he told me. ‘Harry needs us, Mum. He needs Dumbledore's Army,’ he said." She smiled again and Dennis led her away. Harry stood on the sidewalk watching them go, his heart sinking low, a painful knot in his stomach.

Colin Creevey was Muggle-born. He hadn't been at Hogwarts last year.

He'd come back, there at the end, with the rest of Dumbledore's Army.

He would have been a fifth year last year.

Sixteen years old. Maybe fifteen.

Harry needs us, Mum.

"You didn't call them back, Harry." Ron seemed to understand. "It wasn't you. You wouldn't have wanted them to come."

"I know," he managed to say as he watched the small forms of the Creeveys walk down the street toward Gringotts.

Severus stood behind Harry and rested his hands on his shoulders.

"It wasn't only your war, Harry," said Severus softly, so that only Harry could hear. "It wasn't only your fight."

And Harry, buoyed by the promise of Quidditch and new first years, kissed by babies and middle-aged women, cooled by Fortescue's ice cream and warmed by Ginny's hand in his own, knew that Severus was right. That his words were true.

But he could not help think of Colin Creevey, and what he had left behind. And he wondered, could not help but wonder, what normal felt like these days in the Creevey home.

"Dennis! Dennis! See that boy down there? The one with the black hair and glasses? See him? Know who he is, Dennis?"

Harry Potter.

The boy who lived.

 

 

(Chapter 16)

A/N: Harry has his meeting with the Wizengamot members in this chapter, but it's underplayed, with an emphasis on some symbolic "closure" before and after. Two more chapters to come-a final goodbye to Shell Cottage and a going-away party there then the beginning of the 8th and final year with the feast and sorting. Thank you all for the nice reviews on the last chapter. This one feels like more of an interlude than a substantive piece, but it's leading to the final wrap-up. Onward!

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Chapter 16

Harry stood in front of Severus' desk in the headmaster's office. He had agreed to do this, to meet the selected members of the Wizengamot and the Ministry officials, mixed together with his own selection of friends and family. To tell his story—the story of the Horcrux hunt—to answer their questions. To do it one time, just this once.

But he wasn't ready.

"Harry, you need to relax. We have hours still; it's only noon now. Minerva's here somewhere, and Hagrid, too. Go find one of them and get your mind off of it."

Harry shifted from foot to foot. He looked over at Dumbledore's sleeping portrait. But the snoozing former headmaster didn't help or hinder him. In the end, Harry stood where he was.

"Do you need any help in here?" He looked at the tall stack of parchment sheets and the tumble of scrolls on Severus' desk, then looked hopefully back at Severus.

Severus leaned back in his chair. "No, Harry. I need to get through a week's worth of mail and start answering these letters from some of our new students' parents. I won't go anywhere; I'll be right here if you need anything. Surely you can find something to keep you busy for a few hours. Why don't you go see if Minerva needs help getting her classroom ready?"

Harry gave an exaggerated sigh and Severus tossed a wadded-up piece of parchment at him.

"Hey! What was that for?" Harry dodged the missile and grinned. "Alright. Fine. I'll go find Minerva. I'll meet you for dinner downstairs, then?"

"Acceptable," said Severus. He scowled at the mess on his desk, shaking his head. "I have no idea how parents juggle work and family responsibilities," he groused.

"Hey, don't blame me for you getting behind!" said Harry. "Not my fault that you spent too much time on the beach with your toes in the sand dreaming of marking up potions essays with gobs of red ink…."

He dodged another wad of paper and slipped out the door with another deep, exaggerated sigh, surprising a house-elf shining the brass railing outside the office. He was unused to seeing the Hogwarts house-elves doing their daily duties, but had discovered that they spent the summer months out in the open, polishing, dusting, scrubbing and cleaning. This particular elf bowed low and Harry grinned down at it, shaking his head, then rode the spiral stairway down to the floor below.

He found Minerva in her classroom; she smiled at him and invited him in. She was surrounded by boxes of books and supplies. Her hair was slipping out of its bun and she had a smudge of ink on her cheek. She looked both absolutely harried and delighted to see him. He helped her for more than an hour, then she shooed him away, ordering him outside to get some fresh air and sunshine.

"You're tense, Harry. Stop worrying about this evening and go outside and find that infernal ghost of a dog. Or, better yet: get one of the school brooms and get ready for a victorious Quidditch season for Gryffindor."

He spent an hour on the pitch, thankful for the time away from his worries, feeling the sun on his face, the wind in his hair. After he tucked his borrowed broom away in the cupboard, he made his way back to the castle. As he climbed the stairs to the front door, he remembered, suddenly, how high they had seemed, how long, the first time he had climbed them all those years ago. And he remembered standing on them at the beginning of fourth year, waiting for the students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons to arrive. But mostly, mostly he remembered sitting here not much more than a year ago, at the end of sixth year, with Bill, ready to leave for Shell Cottage with him after Severus….after Severus….

He couldn't help but stop at the top of the stairs then, and turn toward the lake. He had stood here that evening, only days after Severus killed Dumbledore and fled with Draco, and watched the doe—Severus' doe Patronus—walk daintily along the lake bed and disappear into the forest.

He remembered that feeling. Of helpless despair and unlooked-for hope.

Ushering out with it his aborted childhood—the teaspoon of innocence that was left in his world.

If only things had been different.

If Cedric had taken the cup by the handle before him.

If Sirius hadn't died.

If Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had loved him, accepted him.

If Uncle Vernon hadn't run over him with the car.

Harry smiled.

It was precisely that event—his careless uncle running over his legs that day halfway through the summer between fifth and sixth year—that most changed the course of his life…for the better.

For that accident had given him Severus. Well, Dumbledore had given him Severus. Or better yet, forced Severus to take him.

"Potter!" said Snape suddenly. "What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?"

"I don't know, sir."

He imagined, for a moment, his eleven-year-old self, excited about Potions class, raising his hand. Answering "The Draught of Living Death, sir." Imagined Snape smiling at him, nodding his head. "Very good, Potter. Five points to Gryffindor."

A scenario from a fantasy world where all was fair, and expected, and just. A world he had never known, would never know.

He made his way inside and up the great stairway, noting how everything in the castle was beginning to move back to normal again. There wasn't an item out of place in the entry hall: no scaffolding, no loose pieces of plaster or stone, no shattered glass. No blood. He glanced at the four ornate hourglasses that tallied up house points. They were whole again, with brightly colored gems piled up in each, waiting for the students and their successes and failures.

Poppy's voice called out to him from the infirmary as he passed by. He went in and let her fuss over him, climbed on the scale at her direction, smiled as she exclaimed over the weight he had gained, at how fit he was looking. She shooed him on his way soon after and he roamed about the castle, letting his instinct lead his feet forward.

His footsteps led him, inevitably, to Gryffindor House, to the common room, then up the stairs to his old dormitory.

His dorm. There were five beds there still, though he knew some hadn't been used last year. Not his, not Ron's. Not Dean's. Not even Neville's once he took up residence in the Room of Requirement.

Had Seamus been lonely there?

But all five beds remained, with their crimson curtains and fluffy pillows and warm quilts and soft duvets . They were already made up, pristine and clean, waiting for the seventh year Gryffindor boys.

Without giving it a second thought, Harry sat on the edge of one of the beds—his bed, or where his bed would be anyway, were it his bed still. He toed off his trainers and settled on the bed, head propped on the pillows. His body instinctively relaxed into the mattress and, before he knew it, he had taken off his glasses and laid them on the bedside table. He dug into his pocket for his wand and placed it on the table beside his glasses. The room was strangely silent in the way a boys' dorm was never silent. A moment later, his eyes had drifted closed.

He was sitting on the beach, knees pulled up close to his chest, bare feet and toes digging into the warm sand. One of his hands sifted through the sand, picking up shells and rocks, studying them, tossing them into the waves with careless side-armed throws. The sky was a pale blue, the ocean a striking blue-green. He was barefoot but wearing new jeans, jeans that fit him, that felt good on his hips and legs. He had a t-shirt on, too, with John Lennon's face, and a single word—Imagine. The shirt was blue, the words black.

"I thought I might find you here."

The voice beside him didn't surprise him. It was a familiar voice, old as any he knew, but younger than he remembered. Softer. Kinder. Unhurried.

He dropped the handful of sand in his fingers and turned to look at the man sitting beside him on the sand. Albus Dumbledore was wearing white. Fine white robes, with fine silver embroidery. His head was bare and the lenses of his half-moon glasses, perched on the end of his crooked nose, had darkened like sunglasses. His hair was more white than grey, flowing down his back, and his beard was blowing back over his shoulder in the breeze coming in off the sea. He reminded Harry of the wizard he had known, but also of another wizard—Gandalf the Grey turned Gandalf the White—reborn after trial by fire and water. Or of one of the angels in the children's Bible, dusty and forgotten on Dudley's bookshelf at the Dursleys’ home.

"Are you real?" This time, Harry asked the question immediately. Dumbledore felt real. This dream felt real. But after his experience with Dumbledore at King's Cross Station, he didn't think he'd know real from imaginary ever again.

"Ah." Dumbledore reached over with one hand and pinched Harry's arm. Harry stared at the whole, unblemished hand, at the fingers as they lay on his flesh. "It appears I am as real as you are," he responded brightly. He turned to gesture at the ocean. "As real as the sea."

Harry's gaze had left Dumbledore's face and was now fixed on his feet. Bare feet, narrow, with long toes. Toes digging in the sand, flicking bits of it forward.

"I have always loved Shell Cottage," said Dumbledore, casually flicking more sand with his big toe. "I feel that one can never experience the ocean too much or too often."

"I love it here, too," sighed Harry. He hugged his knees and looked back out to sea. "Were you looking for me?" he asked, glancing at Dumbledore, then turning back to stare at the horizon as if not really wanting to hear the answer to his question.

"Yes. Or rather, you were looking for me. You have questions for me." He bent forward a bit and hiked his robes up so that his lower legs and knees were exposed to the sun. "Do you mind?" he asked.

Harry's eyes were glued now to Dumbledore's bony knees. Knees. The old headmaster had knees!

"No, go ahead," he answered. He pulled his gaze away from Dumbledore yet again, vaguely uncomfortable.

"You are looking exceedingly well, Harry," Dumbledore said.

"I nearly died," said Harry, too quickly. "More than once. And Severus—he nearly died too."

"More than once," said Dumbledore, looking out to sea himself. Harry watched him in profile, noted the slow smile on his face. "But he is well now, yes? And you? You are recovering here with him?"

"Yeah," answered Harry. "We're both doing alright. We have each other now."

"It is more than I ever could have hoped," said Dumbledore. "I took so much from each of you and you gave it back tenfold and still had enough left for each other."

Harry puzzled over that statement, then smiled. The smile softened his features and made him look more a boy, less a man.

"He's my dad now," he said softly. "We'll always have enough for each other from now on—and not just the leftovers."

"Ahh," replied Dumbledore, nodding in agreement. "Your loyalties have changed, Harry."

"Yeah, they have," Harry answered. "I think I've earned the right to be selfish."

He knew Dumbledore's statement was not a criticism, and his answer was not a biting retort but a gentle admonition.

"I am happy for you, Harry. For both of you. You have come a long way, you have both sacrificed much. And now—now you are whole."

Harry wanted to argue that. He didn't feel whole. Not exactly. Not unless…well, not unless Severus was there, too.

"We are—together," he answered.

A long, comfortable silence followed. Dumbledore closed his eyes, tension leaving his face as the sea wind blew over him. His toes continued to play in the sand and Harry sat there and watched him, trying to form the words he needed.

"It didn't have to be me," he said at last. He did not look at Dumbledore as he spoke.

Dumbledore didn't answer at first. He glanced at Harry, then stared out to sea, obviously taking the time he needed to form his words as well.

"No," he answered at last. His voice was sad, resigned. "No, it did not have to be you, Harry."

Harry wanted to feel triumphant. He wanted to feel hurt, betrayed. He wanted to feel wronged. Vindicated.

He felt none of those things.

He swallowed. Nodded. Accepted.

"Why? Why me?"

"Everything pointed to you. The prophecy. The attack on you and your family in Godric's Hollow. Voldemort's obsession with you."

"But it could have been someone else. Neville. Or you. Or even Severus. If I had failed—if he had killed me…."

"Yes. It could have been any of those, so long as the Horcrux you carried within you was gone as well."

"But I was only a boy."

He is young, he is only a boy.

A gentle thumb, wrinkled, rough, wiped the tears from his cheek.

"It is too late, Harry, for my reasons. Too late for my apologies. Too late for justifications. I decided it should be you and I threw every ounce of my effort into making it so. And you did it. You destroyed him. And it is over."

"No," said Harry. He turned to study the man beside him. The man who, until that summer two years ago, had been the most important man in his life. "It isn't over. It's just beginning."

Dumbledore smiled. He reached down and picked up a shell in the sand, turned it over in his hand, and with a side-armed movement, skipped it out over the water. The shell skirted along the surface of the sea, bouncing along an impossible, twisted course, bringing up small geysers of water wherever it touched.

"Everyone thinks you were a great wizard," said Harry as he watched the skipped shell work its magic.

"Everyone but you?" asked Dumbledore.

"No. I know you were a great wizard," answered Harry. "But more important, I know you were a great man."

A man who loved hard, who suffered long, who regretted his sins.

Dumbledore's bright blue eyes were upon him now: kindly eyes, surprised, understanding.

"I've learned from you, you know," said Harry. "You should take care of your own heart first and you'll have a far better time of it taking care of others’."

It was another one of those gentle accusations, those barely recriminatory admonitions.

Dumbledore reached out then and placed his hand over Harry's heart.

"I, too, have learned from you," he said. "You are not destined to repeat my failures." He paused, a smile flitting across his face as he watched a seagull wing over the water. His mind appeared to change course. "Where are the Hallows, Harry?" he asked in the most gentle of voices.

Harry looked out to sea, watching the same gull sail. "I put the wand back—with you," he said. "The stone is lost in the Forest and I'm not going to look for it. I'm keeping the cloak. I may have a kid of my own one day who'll need to sneak into the Restricted Section."

Dumbledore stood. He looked back toward the cottage on the shore behind him with something in his eyes Harry could not discern, then turned to look down at Harry. He seemed to look right through him, through his skin and into his heart of hearts.

"Not going to look for it…," he said, shaking his head. "Not going to look for it? Oh my boy. My dear, dear boy!" There were tears on his face now, tears rolling slowly, slowly down the wrinkled, wrinkled cheeks. "Your choices, Harry, as always, have defined you."

He held out his hand to Harry, and Harry took it and let Dumbledore pull him to his feet. They stood facing each other, bare feet soft in the warm sand, and Harry realized that he was looking almost directly into Dumbledore's blue eyes, onto the bridge of the crooked nose where the half-moon glasses rested in a groove worn by the metal.

The face was too real, too close, too alive. How could this be the dream of a dead man?

Dumbledore reached out his hand then and lifted it to push away Harry's fringe, then traced the lightning bolt scar that hid beneath it.

"Such an unusual scar," he said quietly, almost to himself. "But as it turns out, it wasn't what made you stand out after all." He dropped his hand to Harry's shoulder and squeezed it.

"Farewell, my boy. Until we meet again."

He nodded and stepped back, then stretched out his arms and in a flash of blinding light transformed into a fiery phoenix, trilled in a voice so clear and so lyrical that Harry closed his eyes and let the sound roll through him, a musical marathon of caresses. The newly born phoenix disappeared then with a crack and another flash of light.

Harry blinked. Blinked again.

He reached out then and plucked from the air in front of him a crimson feather as it floated down toward the sand.

When Harry awoke, curled up atop the bedclothes on his old bed in Gryffindor Tower, his hands were empty.

/

He walked into the Great Hall at Severus' side at six thirty in the evening.

He saw Hermione first, sitting at the small head table. Ron sat beside her, and Neville next to him. Two additional chairs were empty beside them—one for him, one for Severus. Hermione lifted a hand to wave to him and he smiled.

He'd gone to the Astronomy Tower after he woke, the dream so fresh and real and alive and corporeal in his mind that he could not shake it. He was unsettled and needed air, and his feet, his treacherous feet, led him to the scene of Dumbledore's death.

And he found, for the first time since that day more than a year ago now, that his breath did not catch in his throat and he did not lean over the edge, did not see Dumbledore's body down there, limbs askew and puppet-like, lying far below on the ground.

He stood for a long while looking out over the lake and imagined—remembered—the song of the phoenix.

The red and gold of the fiery feathers.

The blue of the headmaster's eyes.

The glint of gold of his half-moon glasses.

It had given him strength, it had centered him. The thought of Dumbledore. The memory of his eyes.

And now, heading toward his seat, walking beside him was not Albus Dumbledore but Severus Snape.

No cerulean blue eyes with age-old wisdom but cautious, calculating eyes, of the darkest brown. A shadow man, walking beside him, not before him. Leading him, but with an even hand. Guiding him, not pushing him. Concerned, first and foremost, about the boy called Harry Potter, greater good be damned.

When Harry and Severus had taken their seats, the rumble of voices quieted and Harry looked out at the curious faces.

"It all started here—for me, anyway. If I'd been brought up as a wizard, I suppose I would have known that something was up seven years ago when the Sorting Hat tried to put me in Slytherin House. And it all ended here, too, so I guess it's fitting that you're all sitting more or less on top of the spot where Voldemort died.

"And I know you're all here to hear all about what happened in the middle, between when it started and when it ended, especially about what happened last year while Voldemort controlled the Ministry and Hogwarts, and I was on the run with my friends here. You probably want to hear about how three kids broke into Gringotts and flew away on a dragon, and how those same kids broke into the Ministry of Magic, and how in the end Tom Riddle fell to a simple Expelliarmus.

"So, how many of you have ever heard of a Horcrux?"

/

Severus stood in the door of Harry's bedroom watching him sleep.

He was too old to be worrying like this, sneaking into his child's bedroom to make sure the bad dreams were held at bay.

But it had been a tough day, a particularly tough evening in front of half the Wizengamot at Hogwarts, and he just wanted to be sure.

The group had listened attentively as he told his story, told the part his friends and Severus had played in the outcome. They'd allowed him to take his time in the telling. But when he'd finished, they'd had questions.

"What did it feel like to have a piece of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's soul inside you?"

"Why did Albus Dumbledore choose you instead of Mr. Longbottom?"

"Where is the Elder Wand now?"

"Do you feel that Albus Dumbledore used you?"

"Do you believe the Malfoys should serve time in Azkaban?"

"Do you know how to create a Horcrux?"

"How can we prevent this from happening again?"

"What are your plans after achieving your N.E.W.T.s?"

"Do you plan to run for Minister of Magic?"

"Did you kill anyone else during your months on the run?"

Many of the questions had clearly upset Harry, but he'd done his best to keep a level head and answer them truthfully.

Harry was sleeping soundly. Severus walked past the end of the bed and looked out the window toward the moonlit sea. He lifted open the middle window to let in the healing sea breeze, the breeze that brought on sea dreams, glanced once more at Harry, and went back to his own room.

The breeze wafted through the corridor and into his own room.

And Albus visited him in his dreams.

"We are the lost-and-found boys, Severus," he said as the old headmaster took a seat beside the new headmaster in the Quidditch stands. They sat together silently, watching Harry fly circles over their heads.

"You speak in riddles even in your death, Albus," said Severus. "Whom do you mean?"

"Myself. You. Harry. Whom else would I mean?" Dumbledore steepled his hands and leaned back, tilting his head up to watch Harry.

"And how are we lost, Albus?" asked Severus.

"How were we lost, you mean?" answered Albus, raising one eyebrow.

"Fine. How were we lost, then?"

"You know that already, Severus," answered Dumbledore softly. "The more important question, I believe, is 'How were we found?'"

Severus stared at him, waiting.

"Harry was found by you, and you by Harry. The how of it has a bit to do with fate, and a lot to do with love."

"And a bit to do with your machinations, Albus," he added. "And you, Albus? How were you found?"

Harry dropped low, speeding just over their heads, chasing the Golden Snitch that zoomed an arm's length before him.

"I have passed beyond the veil and have been found by those that went before me. Like you, I have family again, Severus."

"Family," said Severus, "is well worth the wait.”

Dumbledore stood up then on the bench and in a flash of light transformed into a phoenix, soaring into the air with flaming feathers of gold and red. Severus watched the bird chase after Harry, outpacing him, disappearing ahead of him into the horizon.

When Severus awoke the next morning, a wren was singing at his window.

The small bird's song didn't melt into his heart and stir his soul like the song of the phoenix, but he was still glad to hear it. The way he saw it, waking to a wren's song every morning was what he should aspire to from now on.

Small miracles. Measured paces. Wren songs and sea breezes and restful sleep to replace the heart-wrenching trill of the phoenix. The sparkle of the water instead of the sparkling blue of Albus' eyes.

He heard Harry's bed creak in his room across the corridor as he stretched in the morning sunshine.

Albus could have the showy magic of the phoenix and the Elder Wand. But Severus—Severus would take, from here on out, the magic of ordinary days.

 

 

(Chapter 17)

A/N: Thanks to all for the many wonderful reviews for the last chapter and throughout the writing of this story. Thanks as well for your patience as I've approached the end of F&J. This is the penultimate chapter: just one more, the return to Hogwarts. Enjoy this last bit of Shell Cottage.

________________________________________

Chapter 17

They were going back to Hogwarts on Monday.

But today, today everyone was coming over to say goodbye to the summer, to celebrate together before ordinary life swept them away.

Ordinary life and ordinary days or school and Quidditch and revising for N.E.W.T.s. Of walking through the castle openly toward Severus' quarters, unworried that someone might see him and wonder where he was going.

Harry looked forward to this new ordinary, this new extraordinary.

It would be the same, and it would all be new.

The same Hogwarts, died and reborn. Flotsam on the river of time.

Classes, classmates, Quidditch and meals in the Great Hall prepared by the Hogwarts house-elves.

Hogsmeade weekends, homework in the library, chess with Ron, walks with Ginny by the lake.

But all the same, different.

Classmates gone, faces missing, loyalties…changed.

Being with Severus at Hogwarts. Being able to walk freely to his office, to visit him in his quarters, to greet him with a smile. To live without the animosity of the first five years, without the secrecy of the sixth year, without the terror of the seventh.

"Harry, let's start getting things ready."

Severus came onto the porch dressed in the casual lightweight trousers he'd been wearing here most of the summer. He had sandals on his feet and his hair was tied back at the nape of his neck. Harry hardly noticed the scars anymore. They were such a part of Severus that his eyes no longer traveled directly to his neck. The collared shirt partially obscured them today. Severus covered them on the few occasions they had gone out in public but here at the cottage, in front of Harry, he made no attempt to hide them. Why hide a mark of bravery? Why cover the reminders of how it could have been?

Together, they carried armloads of beach chairs down the stairs, along the path and out onto the sand. Severus had borrowed an awning from the Weasleys and set that up with chairs underneath in the shade. Harry cleared the sand of stray sticks and debris and began gathering driftwood for a fire and sticks for roasting marshmallows. Severus made another trip back to the cottage and came back with two cool boxes trailing behind him. He directed them under the awning and sat down on top of one of them, facing the ocean.

He looked out over the water for a while as Harry worked, then stood and began to help Harry gather more wood.

"Ron and Hermione said they'd come early to help," Harry said.

"Good. They can help with the food," said Severus.

"Are you going to swim?" asked Harry a few minutes later as he dropped an armful of wood on the fire pile.

Severus snorted. "And traumatize my students with their headmaster's half-naked body? I think not, Harry."

"Traumatize? I don't think anyone would be traumatized. Well, maybe Neville. And Ron." He laughed. "But it's hot today—really hot. You should swim if you want to. You can wear a t-shirt or something so Ron doesn't go off the deep end."

"What I want is to see you have fun with your friends," replied Severus.

"And with my family," added Harry. "And it would be fun to see you try the hula hoop."

Severus leveled a glare at him and Harry grinned. "Right. No hula hoop for you."

"Perhaps Minerva could be convinced," Severus suggested.

"Talk about traumatizing the students…." He meant it to be funny, but as his voice trailed off something else came to mind. Traumatized students. Students who'd been in the castle during the final battle. Who had seen Hogwarts nearly destroyed. Who had seen their friends and comrades fall. He looked away, out to sea, to the horizon. The sea calmed him. He took advantage of its presence often, depended on it, really, to help him find a calm center again when his riotous thoughts got the better of him. What would he do when he was back in Scotland for months at a time?

Severus was watching him when he looked up again. "The transition back to Hogwarts will be difficult for some, Harry," he said, understanding the look in Harry's eyes, the pause in his voice. "But we have taken care to put measures in place…."

"Counselors," said Harry. He didn't sound like he was interested at all in seeing one.

"Counselors, yes," said Severus, nodding. "But that is not all. We have taken some care to recognize and honor the fallen, and to leave some of the castle's scars intact. We do not advocate a 'move on with your life' philosophy but rather, 'recognize, recover and remember.'"

"That sounds like something the counselor came up with," said Harry, turning the phrase over in his mind.

Severus smiled. "Partly. But others have been involved as well—myself, Minerva, even Kingsley. Come now, let's finish setting up. Perhaps there will be time for a swim before the guests arrive so I can avoid traumatizing your friends."

He headed back toward the house, ruffling Harry's hair as he walked by.

/

Hermione brought her parents.

He had met them before—briefly in Diagon Alley and on Platform 9 3/4 –but never before in a social situation where there was time aplenty to get to know each other.

They were exactly as he imagined they would be. Smart like Hermione, professional as dentists ought to be, socially minded and terribly interested in Hermione's world. Hermione resembled her mother strongly, though she had her father's eyes, and when he chuckled at a story George was telling, Harry knew she'd inherited her laugh from him, as well. Mrs. Granger hugged Harry tightly when they arrived. She wasn't oversweet or overbearing, but she obviously felt a connection to him and thanked him, more than once, for all that he had done, for all that he had sacrificed.

"No, you don't understand. I was nothing without Hermione and Ron. I couldn't have done any of it without them." His voice was adamant, his face sincere. He willed her to understand.

"Oh, I understand," she said with a kind smile, looking over his head at Hermione, who was standing in front of Andromeda Tonks cooing over baby Teddy. "I know my daughter well. But Harry, she's quite a different person now, and I can only attribute that to you and Ron." She smiled again, knowingly. "Thank you for that."

Harry found Severus seated with the Grangers on more than one occasion, and could tell that Severus liked them. He felt oddly pleased at that, and didn't understand why.

Neville brought his gran and his uncle.

His grandmother was stern and proud, gracious and regal, and her fondness for Neville showed in how she spoke of him when he wasn't in her immediate presence. Harry could not help but think of Neville's boggart back in third year: Severus dressed in Neville's grandmother's clothes. The hat with the stuffed vulture perched on top. The monstrous red handbag. The green, lace-trimmed dress. The look on Neville's face had been priceless. Harry had been nothing but delighted to see his hated Potions professor in that ridiculous getup, and had laughed along with the rest of his class.

Today, however, with the formidable Augusta Longbottom in his presence, graciously accepting lemonade from Severus and accepting his offer to top it off with firewhisky, that day back in his third year seemed as if it happened not just in another epoch, but in another lifetime.

Great Uncle Algie turned out to be a jovial, if unconventional, old man. Harry remembered Neville telling them how Uncle Algie had dropped him out of a window and how he had bounced across the ground, proving that he was magical and not a Squib. He was older than Neville's grandmother, and sat sipping his spiked lemonade and chatting with Hermione's father about Wizarding dentistry and with Luna's father, animatedly debating the findings of one of the recent investigative articles in the Quibbler.

"You cannot have located the Three-footed Starnibbler in the Canary Islands," Uncle Algie was protesting in his thin, reedy voice. "The climate is much too balmy there. We have a place there, you know…."

Minerva arrived rather late in the afternoon with Hagrid. Harry could not help but stare at her when he saw them walking together down the path toward the seaside gathering. She was wearing robes, but robes unlike any Harry had ever seen her wear before. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck and she was hatless. And the robes…the robes were light green in color, flowing and open. Underneath, she wore old-fashioned women's swimwear, in matching green, which covered her from wrists to ankles. However, no matter how covered she was, the skintight swimwear could not help but reveal that she had hips and breasts. Harry could have gone longer—perhaps a lifetime—without visual evidence of that. Ron was on his way up to the house when she appeared at the top of the path, and he stared at her, mouth hanging open, until Severus elbowed him in the ribs and said, "Close your mouth, Weasley. You did realize she had a body under her teaching robes, didn't you?"

Supper was a beach picnic eaten on chairs and blankets. All of the Weasleys were there, even Percy and Charlie. George had brought Lee and Angelina, his almost constant companions since Fred had died. Arthur and Molly sat with most of the other adults under the large awning while the younger generation spread out on towels and chairs, drying in the waning sun of the early evening after playing all day in the sand and in the waves.

It had been a long, very warm afternoon and Harry found himself now in a sated state of contentment. Severus and Arthur had gotten the fire going, with Arthur going through an entire box of Muggle matches despite having his wand supposedly at the ready in his pocket. Harry smiled, the memory of a similar predicament at the Quidditch World Cup remarkably fresh in his mind, bringing on a sense of nostalgia a person of his age would normally not experience. Strange that the memory of that day and night at the Quidditch World Cup evoked nostalgia now and not horror. Had he really been only barely fourteen when he had taken his first Portkey? When he had seen the Dark Mark for the first time? When he had walked into his first Wizarding tent?

Frankly, he wouldn't care if he never saw another Wizarding tent in his lifetime.

Or another Dark Mark hovering in the night sky over Great Britain.

His thoughts lightened as they roasted marshmallows on long sticks after the fire had burned down to warm coals. Things got livelier when Lee started a game of charades. They were acting out people, and had to give their clues without words or magic. Lee did a remarkable impersonation of Gilderoy Lockhart, beginning with a flashy smile and a toss of his imaginary periwinkle robes, then grabbing Harry and putting his arm around him as he smiled and preened for an imaginary photographer. He even mimicked Lockhart stumbling around in the Chamber of Secrets looking dazed and confused, even though the entire group was shouting out, "Lockhart!" by that time.

They gave the point to Ron, who had been the first to guess, and he tapped an imaginary person on the shoulder and made what looked like a gagging gesture. He stood there, making the gagging gesture again then looked at his audience, apparently amazed that they hadn't guessed it. He patted his hair. Still nothing. Finally, in exasperation, he mimed stepping forward, turning around, pushing an imaginary button, then falling to the floor.

"Umbridge!" shouted Ginny as everyone laughed, even Harry.

Ginny was up next, and in less than ten seconds managed to act out turning into a bug and buzzing into Hermione's hair. Hermione guessed, "Rita Skeeter," and stood in front of the group with shoulders slumped and feet pigeon-toed. She didn't have to even get on her imaginary broom before George called out, "Victor Krum," and Ron scowled at the reminder of his competitor for Hermione's affection. Harry grinned, happy that those days were long behind them.

When Harry guessed Nearly Headless Nick after Neville bent his head over sideways so far he thought he had a rubber neck, he got up in front of the group, crossed his arms in front of his chest, assumed a look that was half bored, half annoyed, and raised one eyebrow.

So many voices called out, "Snape" and "Severus" at the same time that it was impossible to judge a winner. Luna volunteered to be next, and five minutes later no one was any closer to guessing her clue, even though Ron called out, "Crumple-horned Snorkack" several times. George, however, acted out a perfect Percy by miming putting on glasses, then studying a cauldron and measuring the thickness of its bottom.

But the party really started when Ginny produced four hula hoops after the game of charades ended.

Most of the younger generation could hula hoop reasonably well, though Neville stuck out his tongue in concentration as he gyrated and Percy resolutely refused to try. The real fun, however, was in convincing the adults to give it a go.

Harry had never laughed so much in his life.

And Merlin, it felt good to laugh.

Andromeda was good—really good. She almost put Ginny to shame. But it went downhill from there, with Molly and Arthur gamely taking turns, followed by the Grangers and Mr. Lovegood. Mrs. Granger somehow managed to send the hula hoop flying over her head while attempting to spin it on her neck. Uncle Algie got so dizzy that he fell over sideways into the sand. Augusta Longbottom wisely claimed she had back problems and didn't try. The hula hoop didn't begin to fit around Hagrid, so he gave it a pass.

It was down to Minerva and Severus.

"Care to place a wager on which one of us is most successful?" asked Minerva, testing the hoop in her hands and giving Severus a challenging look.

"No. I do not intend to ever find out," he answered. He was sitting in a comfortable chair in front of the fire, drinking something warm that Minerva had produced from an old-fashioned thermos. He looked quite comfortable in his worn sandals and lightweight, loose button-down. Ron had pulled Harry aside when he got there, wondering when Snape was going to get dressed.

"Oh, come, Severus. Everyone else has given it a go. We've sat here and laughed at Algie losing his balance and Arthur making those most obscene gestures with his…well, it doesn't bear repeating. It's only fair that they get a turn to watch us."

"I am the headmaster of Hogwarts," Severus declared. "That thing—" He nodded at the hula hoop in her hand. "That thing is undignified."

Minerva put her hands on her hips.

"Are you afraid you can't do it, Severus?" she asked.

"My fears—or lack thereof—are inconsequential. It is simply not befitting my position to be caught in such an…awkward…position."

They were all laughing now, catcalling, urging Severus to have at it.

"A Gryffindor-Slytherin wager then," she proposed, a devious smile crossing her face, that face that had so often of late seemed brittle and careworn to Harry but which today was relaxed, genial. The end of the war had erased a decade off that face and Harry liked it so much better this way.

"Oh?" Severus raised one eyebrow and tilted his head a degree or two to regard his old friend.

"If you win, I shall, on the first day of classes, award Slytherin House an additional fifty points beyond any points I would have awarded them due to their performance in my class. I shall also dye my hair green for the beginning-of-term feast."

"And if you win?" he asked, obviously intrigued but still reluctant.

"If you win, you shall award Gryffindor House fifty points, under the same terms, and sit with me at the Gryffindor/Slytherin Quidditch game to cheer on Gryffindor."

Severus looked at Minerva appraisingly.

"I am the headmaster of Hogwarts. I must make every effort to be neutral when it comes to house affiliation and recognition."

"Oh, pish. Don't be ridiculous. It is a well-known fact that headmasters favor their own houses, Severus. Look at the neutral example dear old Albus set…."

"Might I point out that my own house, Minerva, is not Gryffindor."

"So convinced you're going to lose, then?" she challenged.

And that did it.

Severus stood, took his time to carefully roll his sleeves back to his elbows, then walked out to the strip of sand between the fire and the ocean where the hula hoops were waiting. Minerva grinned and followed him. When she got to her hoop, she removed her outer robe, then threw it behind her. The breeze caught it and it fluttered down over Neville's head. He sputtered and clawed out of it, looking vaguely disturbed. Minerva was left standing in her turn-of-the-century bathing suit, which more accurately resembled a scuba diver's pressure suit without the hood and with an interesting skirt with ruffles on the rump.

The hula hoop duelers bowed to each other in a parody of dueling etiquette, then stepped into their respective hoops and lifted them up to waist-level.

"Wait!" called out Hermione. "How do we judge the winner?"

"Oh, I expect that will be obvious," said Minerva. "I was a champion hula hooper in my day…"

"But that's impossible. The hula hoop was invented in the '50s…" protested Hermione. All eyes turned to her as she smacked her hand over her mouth. Harry laughed as he saw her father roll his eyes.

"The hula hoop, Ms. Granger, was introduced into Great Britain in the 1300s," retorted Minerva primly. "Of course, it was not called the hula hoop at the time, as Polynesian dancing wasn't seen by British sailors until the 1800s. It was called hooping in those days, and no, I wasn't around then, either."

Laughter all around, even from Severus, and very loudly from Hermione's parents.

It was clear from the beginning that Severus was at a disadvantage.

Minerva could move! She had the hoop going immediately, gyrating slightly with her arms raised, elbows bent and held aloft by her ears. Ron's mouth dropped open and he gaped openly and Neville looked purposefully at the ground while Percy blushed a deep red and Charlie, Bill and George cheered on their former Head of House .

Severus was having a bit of trouble

He was managing to keep the hoop going at his waist, though it wobbled a lot, and his movements were wide and exaggerated, not at all natural like Minerva's. He had a ridiculous look of painful concentration on his face and he was biting his bottom lip as he swung his hips around. He looked as though he didn't know what to do with his hands, so he put them on top of his head, which made him look a bit like a very out-of-practice exotic dancer.

Minerva began walking slowly across the sand, showing off, and Severus, apparently knowing the game was over anyway, slowly raised one foot and stood on one leg.

Briefly.

The gyrating made him lose his balance, and he fell over, hoop and all, onto the sand. Minerva immediately let her own hoop fall, then collapsed into a tired heap on the sand beside Severus.

"I'm too old for this," she said, laughing.

"Fifty points to Gryffindor," said Severus as he stood and helped her to her feet.

Sitting there in the sand with his friends, cheering for Minerva and Severus, roasting marshmallows, letting baby Teddy pull off his glasses again and again and again, holding Ginny's hand between his own. Ordinary things. Laughter and friends and family and fun.

And love.

He felt ridiculous, wiping away tears on this day of all days, a day of joyous celebration, togetherness, camaraderie. He saw Severus wipe sand from his trousers, sit back down beside Hermione's father and turn to him casually in conversation.

Harry realized Severus had become was a completely different person, yet was utterly the same.

He caught Severus' eye a moment later as he and Ginny sat together on the blanket, listening to Lee and George discuss their newest experiment—Lewd Lotion—a concoction which, when applied by one person onto another's skin, evoked in the second person a particular kind of physical reaction. Harry hoped that Severus was not listening too closely. Severus held his eye only a moment, then gave a nod, the barest of nods, but a gesture that conveyed a wealth of understanding, a measure of approval, and was, ultimately, a simple statement of unconditional love.

Harry tightened his hold on Ginny in response but, though he had her in his arms, her silky hair beneath his chin as he held her against his chest, and it felt good, and right, and welcome, he knew it would be nothing—nothing—without the wrapper of Severus' own love and approval around him.

/

Nearly everyone had left. Only Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville remained down at the beach, sitting around the fire with marshmallows and butterbeers. Severus and Arthur were still in the house, cleaning up and passing the time until they would escort Ginny and Luna back to their homes. Bill and Fleur had surprised everyone with an announcement that they were going to have a baby, and Molly had cried and Arthur had hugged Bill and even Ginny had hugged Fleur.

"A baby," said Molly, taking little Teddy from Andromeda's arms and snuggling the sleepy little body close to her own. "One just before the end to remind us of why we kept fighting and one just after to remind us why we'd do it all over again."

Harry had taken Teddy when he'd fallen asleep, and had sat in a chair next to Severus with the sleeping child in his arms, looking down at the little face in profile. For the first time, he saw more than chubby cheeks and a button nose. Now, he saw Remus.

Remus sleeping in profile on the Hogwarts Express, his face tired, his body worn. Remus with a shock of brown hair falling into his eyes. Teddy was everything Remus was not. Young, healthy, hearty. Alive. But he had his father's eyes, his father's nose. Looking at the tiny child, Harry hoped that one day he would be as intelligent and as kind as Remus, as playful and brave as Tonks. I'll teach you the Patronus spell one day, Teddy, he thought. I'll save your arse if you get beat up on the Hogwarts Express.

He wondered what had people thought of him at five months old? Had they ruffled his hair and said he looked just like his father…only with his mother's eyes? Had the hoped he'd grow up to be as smart as his mother, or ride a broom as well as his father?

But Teddy was gone now, home with Andromeda, and Bill and Fleur had gone home, too, tired but happy. It was just the six of them on the beach now, and Luna stood up and raised her hands at the quarter moon and walked forward into the water.

"It's warm still," she said, facing the distant and invisible horizon. "I could swim again."

They saw her only in the light of the stars and the sliver of moon as she pulled her top over her head and threw it behind her onto the beach. Neville nearly squawked as it fell in the sand beside him. Luna, laughing, fell forward into the water and a moment later her colorful bottoms landed in the sand as well.

"Oh, Luna—I really don't think we ought to…." Hermione's voice was quieted as Harry stood up.

"No—I think she's got it. I think it's an excellent idea, really," he said. Where was that coming from? Severus—prim and proper and always doing the right thing would kill them! But the thought of swimming naked in the sea was suddenly the most appealing thing he'd ever imagined. The buoyant salt water cocooning him in the darkness. "Just a bit of a swim," he said, grinning back at Ron and Neville, who were both starting to stand up now, too.

They'd had a few butterbeers, but if they were drunk, it was on the summer breeze and the star-filled night.

"I'm in," said Ginny, grinning as she stood and waded out until she was in waist-deep water. She plunged under and a moment later was swinging her one-piece suit over her head, lassoing it back to the sand.

Hermione stood alone on the sand five minutes later, hands on her hips, looking reproachfully out into the greyness where her five friends were trying to convince her to come join them.

"It's fantastic, Hermione!' called Ginny. "Really! It feels wonderful!"

"Look, I can do a handstand!" called Ron. His head went under and Ginny and Luna squealed as his feet rose out of the water, only to his knees in the end. Hermione shook her head.

"Come on, Hermione," called Harry. "When are we ever going to have a chance to do this again?" He gave her his puppy-dog eyes, but she didn't see them in the darkness. She didn't need to. With a long-suffering sigh and, "I'm going to regret this," muttered under her breath, she waded out and peeled off her suit, tossing it onto the sand and swimming out to meet her friends.

A half hour later, they were treading water peacefully, arranged in a circle, in pairs, though Neville and Luna were not regarding each other in quite the same way Hermione and Ron and Ginny and Harry were. They were talking and laughing quietly when something plopped in the middle of their circle, splashing them all.

"That's my suit," said Ginny, grabbing the thing, then looking around quickly.

Another plop. And another.

Hermione plucked her own suit from the water, and Luna reached out for hers. All their eyes were on the shore now, where, predictably, Severus stood, arms folded.

"Put them on and get in the house," he said in a neutral yet firm voice that carried across the water.

"But what about our….?" asked Harry.

"Quiet," interrupted Severus. "Girls, suits on and in the house, please."

Hermione looked only semi-horrified, obviously understanding that the boys had a different kind of punishment than they did. Ginny was hurriedly wiggling into her suit. "It's full of sand," she hissed.

"Serves you right," said Severus.

The girls swam toward shore and the boys stayed where they were.

"Listen, Severus, we're all of age…we weren't doing anything…." began Harry.

"You are all naked. You took your clothes off to get that way, did you not? Or was there some cosmic interference of some sort that stripped you and tossed you out into the ocean?"

"Professor Snape—"

The girls had hurried up the bank and had disappeared into the cottage. Harry hoped they were getting dressed and were not lined up at the porch windows watching. Severus beckoned to the boys with his hand.

"Come out of the water."

"But our…." protested Ron, looking helplessly around as if a pair of swimming shorts might choose that exact moment to float by on the tide.

"Now." Severus used his Snape the Potions Professor Voice. Neville swallowed in alarm.

"Dad…."

"You had no qualms about being naked with three girls. What is your problem in being naked now?"

"But you're not a girl!" said Ron.

"Ron!" hissed Harry and Neville in unison.

"Well, he's not!" Ron hissed back.

Severus bent down and picked up the wet swimming shorts on the ground at his feet. "You will be going all the way back to the house naked if you aren't out of that water before I count to ten."

They stood in front of him a minute later and were subjected to the sort of parental lecture that made their ears turn red with embarrassment, and they were already plenty embarrassed at being lectured by their headmaster while standing there dripping wet and naked.

Severus then tossed them each a pair of shorts—Harry ended up with Neville's, but he put them on anyway, while Ron forced Harry's shorts up over his hips—and sent them into the house.

He watched them go, knowing the embarrassment would soon wear off and it would be just another story of this summer, this summer of Flotsam and Jetsam.

Severus turned to look at the sea.

Flotsam. The wreckage of a ship and its cargo, floating on the waters, drifting to the shore.

Jetsam. Cargo deliberately cast overboard to lighten the load.

They'd had plenty of both these last few months, but as the summer progressed, there was less flotsam, more jetsam.

He laughed.

The six wet and sandy bathing suits were jetsam, weren't they?

As stern as he'd appeared, as displeased by the impropriety of the act, he had been pleased that Harry had dared to do something so brazen, that he had been able to expose himself to the scrutiny of his friends. That he had trusted them. That they had trusted each other.

Severus Snape was not a spontaneous man.

But it was dark, and it was warm, and the sea breeze spoke to him, whispering in his ear.

Lighten your load.

He unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall onto the sand. Toed off his sandals. Stepped out of his trousers.

He waded out into the ocean in nothing but his black boxers. The water enveloped him. Warmed him. Washed away the lingering cares of schedules and to-do lists and softened the edges of his constant concern for Harry's well-being.

More, whispered the breeze as the fabric of his shorts clung to his thin legs. Lighten it more.

The boxers flew toward the shore, but landed in the water near the edge, floated there on the surface a while, then were pulled back out with the waves, a small bit of jetsam in a brilliant expanse of dusky blue-black water in a summer of Robinson Crusoe and Friday navigating the turbulent waters, floating closer and closer to sea, putting the shipwreck of their lives behind them.

 

 

(Chapter 18)

A/N: "A Summer of Flotsam and Jetsam" ends with this chapter. While I've had this one more or less worked out in my head for some time, I must credit two readers/reviewers for non-original material I used in this story. The poem at the end of the first section was mentioned by badgerlady in a PM to me. I hope you find it both bittersweet and comforting. It fit this story so well I couldn't help but grab onto it. And to Unheard Chime goes the credit for the song I used at the end. I've added a bit more about the song and where to find it at the end if you don't know it. Thanks for sticking through to the end for this story. I'd like to say it's over...but darn if I don't have another story in me...

________________________________________

Chapter 18

Harry sat on the front stairs of Hogwarts Castle, waiting.

It was only five o'clock, and the Hogwarts Express wouldn't pull in until quarter of six, and it would take a while after that for all the carriages to arrive, then the boats with the first years.

There would be a bumper crop of first years—the forty-four eleven-year-olds who had just reached the required age to start at Hogwarts and another batch of Muggle-born twelve-year-olds who weren't issued invitations last year because of their blood status. Hagrid had already set out for Hogsmeade Station, his ghostly companion running circles around him, faster than Harry had ever seen the old dog run in life. Hagrid had a new dog now, a Welsh Corgi named Shorty, but he was terrified of Fang and was skulking around the cottage now. Hagrid had asked Harry to come with him to the station, but Harry, for some reason, preferred to stay and wait.

He'd been at the castle for two weeks now with Severus and these would be his last moments of peace and quiet for a very long time.

He'd wandered through the halls of the school for days, exploring places he'd somehow never been before. He and Severus had taken long walks every evening, sometimes joined by Hagrid, sometimes by Fang, and sometimes walking alone together, quietly, skipping stones on the lake or skirting the edge of the Forbidden Forest.

He'd spent an entire day helping Filch reassemble the trophy case, working quietly with a subdued Mr. Filch until each and every trophy and medallion that had been saved was polished and restored to its original place.

He spent a lot of time in the library, in a section of Muggle British and American literature. He read a book Severus had recommended—short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle about the detective Sherlock Holmes—then started two that Madam Pince dropped on the library table in front of him one warm afternoon, The Once and Future King and All Creatures Great and Small.

He read on the shores of the lake, sitting cross-legged on a throw he'd taken from the sofa in Severus' sitting room. He took a book to the headmaster's walkway and sat in a corner in the sun, leaning against the cool stone wall with his feet braced on the other side. And when he slept at night, on the sofa in Severus' quarters, comfortably curled up on his side with his arm wrapped around the feather pillow, the books were stacked on the end table, his glasses and wand on top of them.

He never saw Severus come in as he so often did, in the early morning hours when he rose from his own bed and went quietly into the kitchen to make his morning tea. He never saw him pause to stare at Harry asleep on the sofa, shake his head with a wry smile on his face as he picked up a sock to tuck it into a shoe or put a scrap of parchment in a splayed-open book and close it softly.

He'd read almost constantly these past weeks, and had returned the books to the library and carefully arranged his new books in his study area in his room on the eighth year wing. He and Severus had taken his trunk there last night, and he'd picked out a room—not the largest, nor the sunniest, but certainly the most private—and moved his trunk and his clothing there this morning. But he left some pajama pants in Severus' quarters, a school robe, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a jumper.

He sat surveying the wide sweep of the grounds of Hogwarts for long minutes. The pumpkins in the patch beside Hagrid's hut were twice the size of Quaffles already. He'd seen them close up an hour ago when he'd helped Hagrid harness the thestrals to the carriages. Hagrid had lured them out of the forest with the carcass of a cow. They had cooperated willingly enough as he led them, one by one, to the line of carriages. Harry had run his hand down over the flank of one of the creatures, had touched its leathery wings, felt its scale-like hide. He remembered the feel of the great beast beneath him on that long flight into London, the sound of the beating of the wings over and over and over again.

Only two years and a handful of lifetimes ago.

The same scaly skin. The same leathery wings.

Nothing had changed; everything had changed.

His eyes wandered over the grounds again, coming to rest on the white marble tomb where Dumbledore lay sleeping.

One of the first things Severus had done, or had had done, once he was well enough to bend his mind toward undoing all the wrongs that had been done while he was headmaster last year, was to have Dumbledore's tomb repaired. The cracked marble had been mended, the tomb restored to its original condition.

The Elder Wand, the terrible wand of power, restored to its last owner.

Harry reached into his robe pockets for his own wand, extracted it, laid it crosswise on his knees.

He had been glad to see that the Elder Wand, when it had repaired his holly wand (eleven inches long, phoenix feather core, nice and supple), had not been able to make the repair invisible. There was a scar, faint but visible, marking where the wand had once been broken.

Harry thought it gave the wand more character. It was not an ornate wand, nor particularly interesting in shape as the Elder Wand had been. He liked to think it was ordinary, in fact.

Though it really couldn't be anything further from ordinary as wizards' wands go.

He picked it up and pointed it slightly upward, suddenly aware of just how little magic he'd done this summer, how infrequently he'd held his wand like this, poised to utter a spell.

"Avis!"

Little brown birds shot out into the air, chirping and fluttering.

"Orchideous!"

A bouquet of daisies fell into his hands.

"Accio flowers."

The flowers in his lap shot sideways and Harry looked up and back, startled, as Severus lowered himself to sit beside him on the stone steps.

"What is the occasion?" asked Severus, looking critically at the bouquet of white and yellow wild daisies accented with full, dark green fern fronds.

"Practicing," said Harry. "I thought I might be out of practice. I haven't been using magic much lately."

"Really?" Severus raised his eyes in mock surprise. "I wondered when you'd notice."

Harry smiled and shrugged. "I guess I had other things on my mind."

"I was thinking," said Severus after a quiet moment when they stared together out toward the white marble tomb. "I was thinking that you haven't transformed lately."

Harry slowly turned his head to stare at Severus. "I'd almost forgotten," he said. "It has been a long time."

"You were too busy being a teenager and exploring your hormones," Severus said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

Harry rolled his own eyes in return. "One little night of skinny dipping and I never hear the end of it," he whinged.

"One night of skinny dipping, countless evenings spent snuggled on the hammock with a certain Miss Weasley, a few assorted love bites…."

"Alright, alright," conceded Harry with a grin. He stood up then, brushed off the dust from the seat of his robes and handed his wand to Severus, then, without further comment, walked down the long, wide stairway, and out onto the lawn. He turned and looked back at Severus and grinned cheekily. He raised his arms toward the castle, spun around to encompass the lake and the gates and the Forbidden Forest and the Whomping Willow and Hagrid's hut and the Quidditch pitch.

"I love magic," he said with a sigh.

And transformed into Lightfoot.

Severus noticed the change immediately.

The young doe, spots still faint in its maturing coat, was nowhere to be seen.

The creature before him was a deer, but a doe no longer.

Odd, thought Severus, that Harry had once been a doe. Unusual, Minerva said, but not at all unheard of to attain a different gender under transformation.

Patronuses were apt to change with big life changes. But an Animagus form?

Harry had noticed. A moment later, he was standing there again, a teenage boy with his mouth open.

"That…that's not right," he said, looking up at Severus in confusion.

"Isn't it?" asked Severus. He was on his feet now, his wand and Harry's both in his hand. He nodded, held out a hand in invitation. "Try again."

And once again, his son morphed into a young buck.

A red deer, not really like Prongs at all. Its tail was long, its coat thick and reddish in hue. Even though it was late in the summer, its antlers were still small, velvety nubs.

Then Harry was back again.

He was grinning.

"You know," he said. "I was kind of worried about being a girl…."

"Minerva assured you that Animagus gender is not always tied to human gender."

"I know she did. But still…" He groped his head where his antlers would be. "I had antlers, didn't I? I could feel their weight."

"Small ones," said Severus. "Teenaged antlers."

"Wow."

And he was gone again, transformed back into Lightfoot—why change the apt name now, thought Severus? The deer took off at a run toward the lake, headed directly for Albus' tomb. It slowed as it approached and walked around the edifice twice, nibbling on some of the flowers that Pomona and Minerva had planted there, coming up with a mouthful of daisies.

Severus bent to pick up the bouquet on the stairs, then began a slow walk to the tomb. It had been some time since he'd been down there himself, and the flowers were a fitting tribute of summer to the man who had died when summer was just around the corner.

Lightfoot was grazing several yards away when he arrived, head down in the deep green grass, and the creature lifted its head only a moment to regard him before returning to graze again. Severus placed the flowers on the ground in front of the tomb and traced his thumb against the words he'd had engraved on the restored marble.

Words of a poem Albus had loved, that he had read aloud to Severus. Severus had been unimpressed at the time. The poem was too simple. The construction too forced. The images too…ordinary.

And the words were the same still. Their meaning, though, was completely, utterly different.

/

I Sit Beside the Fire and Think

by J.R.R. Tolkien

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

/

Harry Potter sat near the end of the Gryffindor table, between Ron and Hermione, across from Ginny and Neville.

There was an empty place beside Ginny.

And another three places down from his own, on the same side.

Just across from him, at the Slytherin table, on the opposite side, was another still.

The hall was alive with voices and with laughter.

He didn't think he could stand much more of the noise.

Or the hugging.

People he hardly knew were hugging him. Girls mostly, coming up to him and throwing their arms around him, hugging him, kissing his cheek, thanking him. Crying on him.

There was a LOT of crying.

He realized that the hugging and the crying wasn't all about him. They were hugging each other, too, and crying, and calling out welcomes across the hall, over the heads of the extremely small first years who were waiting in the entry hall, huddled together, ducking when Peeves sailed over with a handful of water balloons.

The room quieted when Severus stood up and nodded toward the back of the room. Heads turned to watch Minerva lead a large pack of tiny bodies encased in miniature black robes into the room. She was carrying the wobbly three-legged stool and the Sorting Hat, singed and dingy, stood upright on it.

From the looks on the faces of the faculty, the Sorting Hat had lost its brains during the Battle of Hogwarts. It became apparent that it was asking each child where he or she wanted to be instead of recommending an appropriate house. One rather boisterous girl bellowed at it after a long quiet moment of sitting and fidgeting on the stool, "No, I am NOT going to burn you, you sodding piece of dirty felt!"

Neville dropped his head onto the table and snorted.

The girl was immediately sorted into Gryffindor.

"The hat's a mess," whispered Hermione. Harry was happy she'd come to the welcoming feast. She was going to stay over tonight but most days would go home after lunch and Floo back in the morning.

When the Sorting finally ended, Severus rose again to address the students. Harry almost held his breath as he waited for Severus to speak.

He hadn't been here last year. Hadn't ever seen Severus stand behind that podium.

It seemed as if the rest of the hall was holding its collective breath as well. How would the headmaster, this Slytherin Death Eater turned inside-out, begin the year?

"As I can hear Mr. Weasley's stomach grumbling from up here, let us end his misery. Let the feast begin!"

Everyone laughed. Slytherins, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, Gryffindors, faculty. Harry pounded Ron on the back as the plates in front of them filled with food, as the cups filled with milk and pumpkin juice, as the students busied themselves with eating, and reacquainting, and looking around the restored Great Hall and marveling that it was so different. Yet so much the same.

Harry's eyes wandered upward, taking in the charmed ceiling, the starlit sky, the hundreds of lighted tapers whose flames flickered off the golden plates.

He didn't pay much attention when Severus introduced Lidia Hamstead and Ryan Young, the two counselors hired by the Ministry to work with the Hogwarts students this year. His mind was far away as they spoke in their calm, measured, reassuring voices.

The Head Boy and Head Girl were introduced. He didn't know either of them well—neither was from Gryffindor House.

The eighth years were asked to stay for a meeting following the meal, and they sat there at their places as the tables emptied and the prefects led the students to their dormitories. When the hall was empty except for the headmaster and the seated eighth year students, Harry realized that there was only one person left at the Slytherin table.

Surprisingly—or not—it was Draco Malfoy.

Severus eyed them slowly, counting silently.

"Follow me," he said.

He walked into the room at the back of the hall, the room Harry had been called to when his name appeared out of the Goblet of Fire. Benches scuffed against the floor as the eighth years stood and followed him.

Malfoy, Harry noted, got to his feet quickly and was the first through the doorway.

Chairs had already been set up for them, in a horseshoe arrangement, and they quietly found seats and waited. Malfoy sat on the end, close to where Severus was standing, waiting.

Harry thought that the eighth years were a whole lot quieter than the rest of the students. He looked around. There were empty chairs here too. He counted quickly. Six of them.

Severus cleared his throat.

"I would like to start this year on the right foot," he began. "I trust you have read the papers this summer, and that you are aware of my loyalties, past and present. I have been asked to remain at Hogwarts as its headmaster, and I am counting on your support this year. Now is the time to ask any questions you have, to challenge my actions or lack thereof last year, to question my motivations. You are the only group to which I am granting this opportunity. You will leave here as ministers of Hogwarts. You will help promote her healing, and in doing so, advance your own healing as well." He swirled his wand, uttered a Tempus, and a smoky time stamp floated in the air. "You have thirty minutes."

No one spoke. The room was utterly silent. Finally, the bravest of those gathered spoke up.

"The Carrows. What happened to the Carrows?" It was Neville. His voice was low, but steady.

"Kissed. Both of them," answered Severus without pause. "They are in a new wing of St. Mungo's. I will give any who request them passes to visit."

"Why did you kill Headmaster Dumbledore?" Harry glanced over at Parvati, surprised that she had asked.

"Because he asked me to," answered Severus. "He apparently thought my soul was too blemished to save and he wanted to save a rather…unblemished…one."

The room became quiet again. When five minutes had gone by, Hermione spoke.

"Really, Headmaster, you don't have to…."

"Thirty minutes, Ms. Granger." Though he had interrupted, cut her off, he did it with a hint of a smile. He glanced around the room.

"Silence is more uncomfortable than conversation," Severus said. He renewed the Tempus Charm.

"Did it hurt?"

The question came from Draco Malfoy. Harry was almost surprised to hear his voice.

Severus turned his head to face Draco. He considered him quietly. Seriously.

"Yes, it did. I was in a great deal of pain all year, Mr. Malfoy."

He held Malfoy's eyes for what Harry considered to be an overlong time. Malfoy was the first to look away, dropping his eyes to his hands, which, Harry noted, were clutched together in his lap.

The time was creeping by so slowly.

Five minutes left. Harry, at last, spoke up.

"The chairs. No one has explained the empty chairs."

Severus had been looking at the floor. He raised his head and looked first at Harry and then at the six empty chairs scattered around the room.

"Fifteen students were killed in the Battle of Hogwarts. Their chairs—in the Great Hall, in their classes—will remain vacant all year, in their honor, so we do not forget."

"Recognize, recover, remember," said Harry, looking at the floor, his voice low.

He didn't see it, because he wasn't looking, and he was quite absorbed in his own thoughts, but only three chairs over, Draco Malfoy was also looking at the floor, his own pale hands clasped tightly in his lap.

/

Harry waited until everyone else had left, lingering in the doorway back to the Great Hall.

"The chairs," he began. He swallowed, tried again. "The chairs—whose idea…?"

"Mine," said Severus simply. He walked over toward Harry and stepped into the Great Hall. The house-elves had worked their magic while they had been gone these past thirty minutes. The hall was shining, spotless, benches perfectly aligned with tables, wooden tops clean and polished. A bright moon lit the sky, the soft light illuminating the vast hall, reflecting off the tabletops, leaving the corners in deep shadows still.

"Empty chairs at empty tables," said Harry, remembering. He looked over at Severus. "From the play—from Les Miserables. Right?"

Severus nodded once.

Harry remembered how Severus had leaned forward into that song during the performance.

"Phantom faces at the window…Phantom shadows on the floor," continued Harry. "I can almost see Fred there…and Remus…if I try. If I just close my eyes and imagine them here."

Severus turned slightly and saw the flash of a green eye, magnified by a tear.

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me…that I live and you are gone…

"Come, Harry. It is time for bed. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow."

But Harry's hand came out and grasped his wrist. He turned toward Severus then, his face earnest.

"Have you forgiven me, Severus? That I'm the one that lived? And not my mum?"

"There is nothing to forgive, Harry," answered Severus gently, understanding, in the desperation of Harry's gesture, what Harry needed. "Your mother was a dear friend, the first—the only—woman I ever loved. But she was never mine. But you, Harry. You are mine."

He hugged the boy, the boy too fast becoming a man, and Harry hugged him back, unashamed of his tears. Healing was a vindication, a soft caress, a tingle of energy in fingers and toes, a quiet brush of a mother's lips on her baby's warm forehead.

They slipped out of the room in the darkness, arm in arm, leaving behind empty chairs at empty tables, walking away from the unspoken grief into the promise of a sunny September morning.

/

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

from Les Miserables

There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about `tomorrow'
And tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner
They could see a world reborn
And they rose with voices ringing
I can hear them now!
The very words that they had sung
Became their last communion
On the lonely barricade at dawn.

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me
That I live and you are gone.
There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

FIN