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Tuesday, December 29, 1998 ---- 8:11 a.m.

Severus gasped as the mark on his arm began to flare to life.

Harry had been leaning against him as they sat together on the settee, waiting, but at that, he sat up straight and looked into Severus' eyes. "It's starting?"

"It is."

"Right, then." Harry went straight to the Floo and snatched powder from the mantle.

Severus frowned, thinking the plan through, though of course he'd done nothing but that for the past hour. Could anything go wrong, anything at all? Albus was already waiting for them at a safe house in southern England. Apparating from there, they hoped, would keep Voldemort from realising that one of the wizards responding to his call was coming from the direction of Hogwarts.

Albus had left them alone to wait, presumably so they could say whatever might need to be said at a time like this. Not that either one of them had said anything. Severus hadn't known how to begin. Couldn't even imagine how, actually.

And even if he could, he wasn't about to make some sort of declaration. Merlin knew, he might regret that later. Just the day before, Harry had been flinging words likehate at him, and it hadn't been the first time, either. It was almost as though he knew how to best strike at Severus, even without being told how important he was, how Severus longed for him--

Longed for him to survive. That was the only thing that mattered, surely. So, best not to distract him. Yes, yes, Severus decided. If they'd spoken only of inconsequentials during the last hour . . . well, that was probably as it should be.

Standing before the Floo now, preparing to leave, however . . . he found he couldn't say nothing at all. And no words of battle or victory could make any difference. Perhaps, nothing could. But still, Severus felt a need to say something, however meaningless. However mundane.

Something that would resonate inside Harry, and give him strength. Not that he seemed to need any. Harry was eager to be on his way, a fount of confidence, his earlier doubts washed away as though they had never been.

Severus still wanted to give him something.

"Disneyworld," he said quietly, taking Harry's hand as they stepped together into the Floo. "The one in Florida is Disneyworld. I investigated."

Harry stretched up to kiss him. Just a peck, and a single sentence whispering against Severus' lips. "You really are the best, you know."

Trite words, after the claim of hatred the day before. But Severus clung to them anyway, as the roar of green fire swept upwards to swallow them whole.



 

Tuesday, December 29, 1998 ---- 8:16 a.m.

Albus greeted them quietly with a few words. There was no review of their plan, no rushed exchange of probabilities or contingencies. They'd done all that earlier, and now, there was nothing more to be gained from such discussions.

Severus might have cut that kind of talk off even if it was strategic, because their primary strategy, of course, was Harry. Harry, who didn't need to second-guess himself. Harry, who needed simply to act, to fulfil the prophecy that for so long had ruled his life.

He gathered Harry to him, tightly, and closed his eyes against the certain knowledge in Albus'. The older wizard knew he cared. Knew he loved, even. Severus had given too much away for there to be any doubt of it now.

He forced himself to answer the call pulling at his flesh, keeping Harry with him as he allowed himself to be pulled through that narrow tube leading to the Dark Lord's side. The process this time was painful. Two people in that tube, constricted, pressed so close together they might as well be one.

Severus gasped for breath, or perhaps Harry was the one gasping. He couldn't tell through the lurch of movement sucking him through, through, through, every second coming closer to the frozen air that was the Dark Lord's presence--

Now, Harry, he tried to shout, but it was as though his mouth had been forced shut, lips glued together, and all he could do was think the scream, now, now, now--

He abruptly fell to earth, Harry clutched tightly to him. Lying awkwardly on his side, Severus could barely force his eyes open, but when he managed, his vision swam, the world around him a wash of colours trying to paint themselves over, again and again.

He sensed Harry moving beside him, flipping over somehow, and then a whispered hiss. "I can't see him."

I can't see anything, Severus would have said, but he was still panting.

A noise like a fire crashing somewhere very close to hand had Severus jerking his head up. The whirl of colour that produced made him reel, but he still reached for his wand, struggling to draw it out.

"No, no danger," said Harry, quietly, his voice nothing more than the murmur of reeds in wind, really. "It's the one who was supposed to follow us."

If Severus had had more energy, he might have praised such careful phrasing. As it was, he had no energy to spare.

"My boy," said Albus' quiet voice as Severus lay there feeling like a broken wand, "I don't think you can make it back on your own. I'll take you back, now that I know where to return to."

Strength seemed to appear from nowhere, enough so that Severus managed to lift a hand and clutch a wad of fabric. Sleek, it tried to slip from his grasp. Severus tightened his grip. "No, no," he groaned, his voice quivering with exhaustion. "No. Don't leave him alone."

Thankfully, by then the weakness in his limbs was fading. His vision was clearing, too, as his body recovered from the terrible shock of Harry's twice-filled powers forcing him out of Apparition early. Severus sat up and moved his hands to his lap as he leaned against . . . something. Oh, a fallen tree. They were outdoors, somewhere. "I'll Apparate myself as soon as it's practicable," he announced, his voice sounding rough still, but much better that time. "I won't stand for him being left here alone."

"Of course, my boy, of course--"

Albus reached out as though to pat him on the shoulder.

Severus instantly lifted his wand hand, relieved to see that he was able to keep a grip on his wand. "Don't do it, old man."

"Leave him alone," said Harry, crawling over to him. Crawling? Oh, to hide behind the tree. Severus wanted to applaud the caution. "Do you recognise this place? Can you tell us anything?"

Severus made more of an effort to observe his surroundings, something he would usually do without being prompted. "New meeting place," he finally groaned.

"He was on holiday when he read the paper," whispered Harry, sounding so disgustingly cheerful, chirpy with it really, that Severus could hardly bear it. Joking, at a time like this. Joking!

But perhaps that meant that Harry was in his element, here. He didn't play the hero; Severus knew that, now. No, he was a hero, and that was something rather different.

"Movement to the east," murmured Albus, his lips barely moving, his eyes glowing now as though he had second sight. "Apparition."

"Latecomers," explained Severus. "Follow the screams. Go. Go. He may Legilimise them any moment, and discover that none of them are hiding you."

Harry leaned more fully over Severus and looked him in the eyes. "You Apparate away as soon as you possibly can. Don't pull some Gryffindor stunt like staying here. Promise me that."

Severus didn't have any intention otherwise. To stay here was folly. Not only for his sake, but for Harry's as well. Look at how he was delaying, even now, to extract this promise!

"I'd have let Albus take me back if it wouldn't leave you here alone," he gasped. Breathing was still difficult, although less so than before. Harry didn't move, not until Severus said what he was waiting for. "I promise."

Harry's hand swiftly closed over his, tightening Severus' grip on his wand. "Stay safe."

With that, he was gone, shimmering out of sight as he cast a Disillusionment charm across both himself and Albus. Not a twice-filled spell, though; he would want Severus to recover, not grow even weaker.

Struggling with his left hand, Severus managed to draw out the mirror in his pocket. Propping it awkwardly against a pebble, he could see an image of trees moving swiftly past, as Albus made his way toward the screaming that had begun.

Albus, and Harry.

Severus drew in a deep breath, and then a deeper one still, and saved his strength for whatever lay ahead.



 

Tuesday, December 29, 1998 ---- 8:25 a.m.

The screaming stopped, as suddenly as it had begun, but that was only because Voldemort had gracefully lifted his wand, ending whatever curse had been cast. His almost lipless mouth curled into a thin smile. "Perhaps next time you'll remember that I would appreciate your prompt arrival. Yes?" The whimpering man on the ground nodded frantically, and crawled forward to kiss the hem of Voldemort's robes.

Voldemort gave a low chuckle as he swept his hand about as though to indicate that all his Death Eaters should pay close attention. "Very good, Carrow, but not good enough. Crucio."

The man collapsed to his back and began screaming again as convulsions caused him to jerk madly about, his arms and legs flailing in all directions.

Harry felt sickened just watching it. Too reminiscent of his own experiences at Voldemort's hand.

The curse ended again, and that time, Voldemort ignored the man writhing at his feet. "So who among you has concealed your deeds?" he roared, prowling to and fro, back and forth, catlike as he challenged first one follower and then another. "Albus Dumbledore himself, taken alive, and I must learn it from other than your own lips?"

"No, my lord."

"No, my master."

"The Prophet lies, my lord--"

When Voldemort held up a hand again, the murmured protests stopped at once. "The Prophet spreads what lies I wish! This is something else, some treason among you . . . Crucio!"

That time, he swept his wand in an arc that encompassed three Death Eaters at once. They fell to the ground, twisting, pleading, begging. Harry ground his teeth together as the magnifying spell he was watching through illuminated details. Masks, robes.

But also, a gleaming metal hand.

Harry didn't even need Albus' whispered now to know the time had come. He would get no better chance than this, with three of Voldemort's followers made useless by his own hand.

Gripping his wand tightly, he drew upon his own magic only, and silently Disapparated. He didn't arrive in silence, though. He'd learnt to do it differently out on the rock, learned how to use his twice-filled powers to advantage. The advantage of surprise . . .

An enormous boom echoed through the field around him as he appeared in a position just outside the circle of Death Eaters. The noise was like a thunderclap, but with physical force. A shock wave spun outwards from Harry as he emerged from the magic, the booming noise going on an on. The Death Eaters who weren't underCruciatus fell to their knees and clutched their ears, screaming almost as loudly as the ones who were being tortured.

Only Voldemort remained upright. "Why Harry, Harry," he said, his lips curling back to reveal his teeth, his eyes glowing like coals. "Have you forgotten already, proper duelling rules--"

Harry wasn't about to listen to any of his useless blather. "Avada Kedavra!" he screamed, flinging his wand hand out and up. You needed hatred to make it work; he had that. And you needed the desire to kill.

He had that, as well.

"Avada Kedavra!" shouted Voldemort, moving his wand in a circle before yanking it sharply upwards to meet Harry's killing curse.

Their spells collided in mid-air, like in the cemetery. A glowing, fiery line shot from between their wands to connect them. This time, however, Harry's spell was the stronger one. It pushed and pushed, unyielding, surging toward Voldemort, sweeping the other wizard's spell out of the way as it moved.

Harry drew even harder on his crossed powers and watched his Killing Curse advance relentlessly toward Voldemort, who gripped his wand like it was a lightning bolt about to explode.

From behind, Harry realised he was hearing spells fired left and right. Curses, shields, explosions. A whirlwind too, as Albus battled the Death Eaters and kept them from attacking Harry.

"What will you do, Harry Potter?" shouted Voldemort over the tremendous noise of their colliding spells. "No Mudblood mother to save you now, is there? And your mentor has his hands full, it would seem!"

Harry didn't listen to that. Albus could hold his own against any number of Voldemort's minions, and besides, he recognised the claim as a lie. As manipulation. "I can see right through you!" shouted Harry. "What a poor Slytherin you make!"

Voldemort reacted to that about as well as Bole had. Fury surged in his eyes. "You cannot kill me, Harry Potter! Nothing can kill me! Nothing, and no-one! Your careful web of lies has come to nothing, nothing!"

Harry ignored all that, and held his wand steady and firm, pushing his powers as far as they would go, shoving the Killing Curse down the fiery band connecting their wands. Shoving it at Voldemort. Three feet more, then two--

"Accio wand!" screamed Voldemort, and one came flying at him. He caught it in his other hand and pointed it at the three Death Eaters still writhing under Cruciatus. "Finite! Attack Potter!"

Albus was fast enough to disarm two of the three, even while he continued his own raging battle, but Pettigrew got off a stunner that caught Harry in the leg and send him stumbling.

The arc of fire connecting Harry's wand with Voldemort's abruptly vanished, and Voldemort was left holding two wands. He twirled one in his hand as he considered Harry, who was lurching back to his feet. "Oh, such a pity your dear Mudblood mother won't be here this time to see the last of you," said Voldemort, his tone something between a snarl and a simper. "Such a pity. Because you're in rather a bind now, aren't you, Harry Potter? You should have realised you would need another wand, after we duelled a few years ago. You've nothing but a wand that can't fight mine. But I," he paused to smile broadly, his red eyes burning like torches, "have another."

Voldemort didn't waste another moment. "Avada Kedavra!" he roared again, this time using the borrowed wand, the spell flashing straight toward Harry.

"Protego!"

Harry's shield spell spread out from him like a great balloon, only this time, the balloon seemed made of marble.

Voldemort's Avada collided with it, smashing through, but the spell had lost momentum. As Harry stepped to the side, it sailed right past him and hit a Death Eater squarely in the chest.

Quickly cancelling the shield spell so his next tactic could work, Harry reached deep into his twice-filled powers, and concentrated on the wizards all around him, everyone except Albus. "Accio wands!"

They came sailing at him from every direction, it seemed, fast enough that they might as well be bullets.

"Protego!" Harry shouted again, and the wands clattered against marble, falling harmlessly to the ground.

Voldemort made a contemptuous noise as he banished all the wands lying in the dirt. "So foolish, young Harry. Impressive, but foolish. So you thought to get another wand, did you? If Dumbledore should be so foolish as to give you his, I'll kill him before you can so much as lift it."

Behind Harry, the battle came to an abrupt end, all noise ceasing.

Voldemort still had his own wand, the one with the phoenix feather, but his borrowed one was gone. Harry didn't spare time wondering why his summoning charm had failed. What was, was.

"An interesting dilemma," continued Voldemort, clicking his teeth. "What will you do, Harry Potter? You've been practicing advanced magic, but your wand is still no proof against mine. Have you learnt nothing of use? They share a core, and cannot battle each other! And dear Dumbledore is tired now, isn't he, or he would have done something already, to save you as he saved you last time--"

Harry had heard just about enough. He knew why Albus wasn't saving him, this time. Only Harry could do what needed to be done. "Accio Severus' wand!" he screamed, flinging out his own as hard as he could.

Voldemort's whole face convulsed. "Severus!" he roared, whirling left and then right. "Where is the traitor?"

"Safe from you!" shouted Harry, but almost at once he wondered if it were really true, because even a twice-filled summoning spell should take some time to bring Severus' wand to him, yet it was here already, flying at Harry with enough speed to pierce straight through him. Quickly twisting his wand, Harry damped his power down.

"Accio Severus' wand!" Voldemort called out, stomping forward to advance on it, but the length of ebony obeyed Harry's spell, not his.

It fell into Harry's outstretched hand, and Harry wasted no time in using it.

"Avada Kedavra!" he shouted again, pulling on every ounce of power he could possibly find. An image flashed before his eyes: the cavern crashing in on itself. Harry gritted his teeth, pulling harder, then harder, then harder still on Severus' magic. All his magic, this time. Nothing less would kill the evil standing just a few feet distant.

A hundred caverns, thought Harry, willing himself to be stronger, then stronger still. A thousand caverns. A hundred thousand. The world, the entire world, every mountain, every river. At my command--

A blinding green light exploded from Severus' wand and leapt across the distance to Voldemort, like lightning arcing.

It hit the dark wizard full in the chest, but it didn't knock him down. "You foolish, foolish boy!" crowed Voldemort, throwing back his shoulders and laughing cruelly. "Don't you think I thought of that, don’t you think I--"

But something was happening to him, something Harry had never seen before. A ball of green light seemed to be gathering in his chest, glowing so fiercely that it was visible even through his robes. The ball rotated and then began to spin, faster and faster.

Gasping, Voldemort clutched his chest with one hand, as if he could hold the spell inside himself, even as his wand hand was still extended toward Harry. "Avada-- Avada--"

He seemed to be weakening. Unable to speak, unable to complete the incantation, but he was such a powerful wizard that a jet of green light left his wand all the same, moving slowly.

Harry easily countered it, using the wand that was a twin of Voldemort's own.

Behind Harry, the noises of Death Eaters losing hope began to rent the air.

"What's happening?"

"What's happening?"

"The Dark Lord is dying!"

Pettigrew's scream interrupted them all. "No! The Dark Lord shall reign forever!"

And then everything went still, and silent. No noise in the clearing but the ones Voldemort was making. Harsh, staccato noises coming from the back of his throat as the green light inside his chest kept spinning, spinning, faster and faster, glowing brighter every second.

Harry didn't know what was happening behind him, but he couldn't take his eyes off Voldemort to see. "Albus?" he asked, keeping both his wands at the ready.

"I've silenced them, now," said the older wizard, sounding exhausted.

Voldemort fell to his knees, his eyes wide open in an expression of utter horror. "Accio Voldemort's wand," Harry tried, but again, it didn't move. No matter, really. Voldemort had dropped it by then and didn't look capable of bending to pick it up. He looked like stone, as still as death, but breathing still.

"Of course, of course," murmured Albus, and then suddenly, more urgently, "Harry, move. Get out of the way! Now!"

Out of the way of what, Harry wanted to ask, but he never got the chance, because by then, it had begun. The ball of green fire in Voldemort's chest exploded, and six enormous green rays came pouring out of him. Or seven, perhaps. Harry lost count as he dropped to the ground and rolled.

A couple of the spells shot right over his head, so close that he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

Clapping a hand to his nape and rubbing, Harry got cautiously to his feet. The rays of green light were continuing along their trajectories now, shooting away from Voldemort in all directions, like the spokes of a wheel.

One, however, had never really left at all. It had leapt away from Voldemort only to shoot straight down at the spot where the dark wizard's wand was lying. Or rather, where it used to be. The wand had been incinerated, and the earth beneath it had blackened and caught fire.

Voldemort, though, was still alive. His chest nothing but a gaping hole, a wound lined with blackened flesh, he was on his back by then, his mouth open on a silent scream, but breathing. Still breathing.

How he could possibly be alive was anyone's guess, Harry thought, walking closer, both wands still at the ready. He couldn't possibly have a heart still . . . but then, he'd never had much of a heart, had he?

"Harry," said Albus, sounding pained. Harry glanced at him, quickly, and saw him surrounded by Death Eaters bound tight with cords, and frozen into place. Albus looked exhausted, but that only stood to reason. Even the strongest wizard would find one against--Harry quickly counted--sixteen a bit of a strain.

"You are all right, Harry?"

"I'm fine." Harry's brow furrowed as Albus took a limping step forward.

"Not to worry. The battle was a strain, but I will recover."

"Will he?" asked Harry, moving a little closer to Voldemort, who was writhing by then, his fingers scrabbling against the dirt. "Why isn't he dead, already?"

"Because your magnificent Avada has yet to complete its work." Albus weakly gestured to the east and west. "There are parts of him, Harry, parts of his soul, hidden in far-flung places, I think. Horcruxes, we call them. He's split his soul so his body can't die even when there's not enough of it left to stay alive. But your Avada is hunting his Horcruxes out, and when they are all destroyed . . ." Albus left the rest unsaid.

"One of them was his wand," gasped Harry, suddenly understanding. "That was why I couldn't summon it, because it wasn't just a wand, it was part of him."

"Yes, I should think so. Yes."

Voldemort's lips were moving, but it seemed he couldn’t speak. No air left in his lungs, or more correctly, no lungs. Enough air was left in his throat, though, for him to finally force out one syllable, just one.

"How--"

Albus dropped to his knees in the dirt, just beside Voldemort's head. "How did Harry find out about your Horcruxes, Tom? But he didn't. None of us did. And in that case, how did he kill them?" Albus smiled, the expression gentle. "Because Harry understands the most important truth in this life, the truth that you failed to ever learn. To give is better than to take. To save, is better than to rule."

"No, no, no," Voldemort began saying, but the words were silent; he had no breath left with which to speak. A shudder wracked him, and then another, his eyes rolling up in his head, even as he kept shaking it. No, no, no, no . . .

Harry didn't know if he was protesting Albus' words, or if far away, his soul was being annihilated, bit by bit. Could he feel that? Did it hurt?

Now that he posed no more threat, Harry almost wished it didn't. He'd come here with fury, but that was gone, now. He wasn't sure what had taken its place. Not pity, not exactly. But something. Some emotion that was less bitter that what had been there, before.

Albus had moved to cradle Voldemort's head between his palms, and he was stroking his cheek now, slowly, and saying something, his voice a low whisper.

Sensing that the moment wasn't one he should be watching, Harry turned away. The Death Eaters were still and silent, Albus' spells holding them tightly bound. Except for Pettigrew with his gleaming arm, Harry didn't know who they were. But he found he didn't really care. They were defeated, and from the look in their eyes, horrified comprehension visible through the holes in their masks, they knew it. They knew their Master was beyond recovering, now. Knew that he was soon to die.

Something would have to be done with the Death Eaters held helpless here, Harry thought. Death would be simplest. They could go with Voldemort, and never trouble Harry again.

The idea had appeal, but only the result, not the actual execution. Harry couldn’t kill in cold blood. Not even Death Eaters.

Not even Pettigrew.

He'd told himself before that he would have to become either murderer or victim, that there would be no other way, but that wasn't true at all. He'd had to kill, but it was like Albus had said. He'd done it to give, not to take. To give them all a chance at life, instead of a living death under Voldemort's rule.

And Harry . . . Harry wasn't a murderer. He stepped away from the Death Eaters.

In the far distance, the sky lit up in shades of green, but then the colour faded away, and Harry realised that Albus was standing at his side. Voldemort was still now, his mangled body obviously lifeless.

But still, Harry had to ask. "He's dead, then? Really, truly dead?"

"Really, truly dead," echoed Albus.

"How could you, why did you--" Harry turned to the headmaster. "You held him as he died!" Something thick lodged itself in his throat; Harry swallowed until it went away. "He was horrible! How could you? Why would you? I . . . I don't understand."

"It's very simple, really," said Albus, clasping both Harry's hands in his own, even though it made him wince. "Harry . . . he was my student, too."

"So you . . . you'll mourn him?" asked Harry, the words surging up before he could stop them.

"No, never." Albus smiled, very sadly. "But I will always mourn what might have been, you see. I'll always wonder if there was something I should have done differently."

"No, no," said Harry, all his anger draining away as understanding flooded in to take its place. He knew now what Severus had been trying to tell him. What all his friends had tried to tell him. "You did what you could. Everything you could. The rest . . . you have to let it go."

"Ah, yes. Wise words from one so young." Dropping Harry's hands, Albus turned to survey the frozen Death Eaters. "I think it is time we requested Aurors."

"Yeah, and then I have to go and tell Severus how it went, everything . . . not that he doesn't know already, I guess." The mirrors worked in two directions, though, so Harry stood on tip-toe to peer up into the little crescent Albus had pointed to earlier. "Hey, Severus! We did it, we did it!"

Severus' face should have come into view. Should already be in view. He'd be looking in the mirror, of course. He'd be tracking the battle and the aftermath. But his face never appeared.

It was like the man hadn't heard him. Or couldn't hear him, maybe. And the view in the mirror . . . it was showing only sky, not some part of the dungeons, like it should if Severus had returned to Hogwarts.

"Something's wrong," gasped Harry, waving haphazardly toward the Death Easters. "Make sure they stay under until the Aurors arrive. Guard them, or I will, or-- No, Ihave to find Severus--"

"Go," said Albus, taking off his hat and handing it to Harry. "The mirrors are well-linked. This one will lead you to the other. Go. I will summon the Aurors and wait here for them."

Harry nodded and took off at a run, the hat clutched tightly in his hands. 







 

Tuesday, December 29, 1998 ---- 8:44 a.m.

Severus wasn't propped up against the fallen tree where Harry had last seen him.

That was annoying, even if it did mean that Severus had Apparated himself to somewhere safer, just as promised. But where would he have gone? That wand definitely hadn't come flying at Harry all the way from Hogwarts. Crossed powers or no, it had arrived too fast for that to be true.

So Severus couldn't be terribly far. Harry just had to find him.

Albus had said that the tiny mirror attached to his hat would solve that, but Harry wasn't getting any sort of feeling from it. "North? South?" he tried asking, staring into the mirror, which still showed nothing but sky. No answer. Raising the hat closer to his face, he gave it a good hard shake. "Where to? Where?"

Still, no answer.

Frustrated, Harry laid his wand flat on his open palm and pulled hard on his twice-filled powers, demanding they do his bidding. "Point me Severus Snape!"

The wand spun about so fast that it rubbed Harry's palm raw, until it felt like his skin was burning, but Harry gritted his teeth until the wand finally stopped. Fat lot of good that did him; the stupid wand ended up pointing to Harry's left, which was probably north in any case. Harry cursed. What had made him think he could invent new spells on the spot, just because they sounded useful? All Point Me ever did was show you which way was north!

What good were his vast powers if he couldn't find a way to use them, now? What could he do, summon Severus to him? That seemed like a terrible idea, though. Summoning spells were violent by nature. Severus wasn't a broom or wand. He wasn't designed to bodily careen through the forest; he might bang into things on the way. At high speed.

All right, so calm down, calm down, and think of a better spell . . .

The hat in his hands seemed to be twitching slightly. Hardly noticeable. Harry certainly had no idea what it might mean. Ah. So that was the trick. The hat--or mirror, rather--would lead him if he was calm enough to hear what it had to say. Harry took a deep breath, shaking out his legs a little, trying to work his tension out, and then, he concentrated hard on sensation, on the feel of his own hands as he held the hat perfectly still. Listening. Really listening.

And watching, of course, but the tiny crescent mirror was still showing nothing but a solid patch of blue. Harry glanced up, to see that the sky above him was looked to be the exact same colour. Severus was somewhere near here . . .

"Come on, now," said Harry in a coaxing tone, when before he'd been almost growling at the mirror. "I know I'm not Albus, but you can do it, you can show me . . ."

The hat quivered, and then gave a distinct tug as the mirror on it tried to drag the hat in the right direction. In the opposite direction from the way his wand had pointed.

Harry took off at a run again, his gaze sweeping the countryside. He wasn't sure where he was, really. Somewhere dotted with trees. When he reached a small lake, he stopped to listen to the mirror again.

He felt a tug east. A gentler one, that time, which he took to mean that he should walk instead of run. "Severus!" he called, skirting the edge of the lake as he strode forward. "Severus! Are you near here?"

No answer, none. Harry couldn’t hear anything except the cawing of water birds in the middle of the lake.

But then he rounded a bend and saw a little bit of black fabric in the far distance. Severus' robe, the rest of it behind that boulder . . .

Harry broke into a run. "Severus! Severus!"

It was Severus, all right, lying behind the boulder, face down, part of a shredded robe flung up over the back of his head. The rest of his clothes were ripped and torn, too, huge parts of them missing. Oh God, splinched.

The mirror lay to one side of him, facing the cloudless sky, but reflecting the concern on Harry's face. Harry dropped Albus' hat to the cold ground and fell to his knees beside Severus.

He peeled back the robe covering Severus' head, shaking the man's shoulder all the while. Gently, though. He didn't understand what had happened here, though it did seem that only Severus' clothing had been splinched, not the man himself. "Severus? It's Harry. It's over, Severus. You're safe, we're safe, we're all safe . . ."

No reaction.

None.

It didn't even look like Severus was breathing.

Oh, God. Oh, no. Harry gritted his teeth again, holding back the surge of panic trying to swamp him. Surge, hell. Tidal wave, more like. And that wasn't what Severus needed now, was it?

Moving cautiously, Harry gently slid his hands beneath Severus' chest and levered him onto his side, and then his back. No reaction to that, either. Worse, when Harry laid a hand on his chest, he couldn't feel a heartbeat.

Harry pushed a pair of fingers against the place where Severus' pulse beat in his throat. He knew the exact spot, after all the times he'd teased that spot while they were making love. He loved to feel Severus' pulse accelerate, loved to feel it thudding hard during the man's climax . . .

But now, he couldn't feel it at all.

"I won't let you die," Harry said through clenched teeth. "Think you can die and leave me, do you? Ennervate!"

If anything, the incantation only seemed to make Severus crumple further. But that was probably because the spell hadn't been strong enough. Just a regular spell . . . Harry hadn't wanted to make Severus' heart explode with shock, after all.

But desperate times called for desperate measures, so Harry stood up and braced himself, wand hand fully extended, and reached for his twice-filled powers, their crossed powers, that part of Severus that he could call to him at will--

Something popped behind him, but Harry paid it no mind, not even when the noise repeated.

"No, Harry, no!" said a voice, urgently, as Albus reached forward to grasp his arm, forcing his hand down until his wand pointed at the ground instead of at Severus. "You mustn't!"

Harry snarled as he whirled around to face the headmaster. Kingsley Shacklebolt was there too, but Harry couldn’t spare time to even greet him. "Severus needs help!"

"Yes, but not that kind," said Albus quickly, reaching for his hat. "Portus. There, Harry. This will take you directly to Hogwarts' hospital wing where Poppy will be waiting. Go with Severus. But do not, do not, cast anything, not anything at all. Not even regular magic, Harry. Severus is drained too far already."

Drained too far already. Albus hadn't said the rest, but Harry heard it clanging inside his own mind. Drained all the way, until there's nothing left.

A cold hand clenched him. All those spells, one after another-- violent spells. Avada Kedavra. Damn it, Avada Kedavra more than once, even! And every one of those spells had been draining Severus of his power. Draining him more and more and more, while he lay helpless, crumpled, while his heart stopped from the stress . . .

The more we ask the more he gives . . . and we must seek to see he lives.

His hand shaking, Harry passed Severus' wand to Albus, and then his own. He could get it back when it was safe to cast again, when it wouldn't hurt Severus.

The valiant man shall give his all . . .

And Severus had. Severus, not Harry.

Kneeling beside Severus again, Harry gathered his limp form into his arms before he reached out and took hold of the Portkey.



 

Tuesday, December 29, 1998 ---- 8:52 a.m.

"He's been drained of magic," Harry gasped, laying Severus down on the nearest bed. Poppy hurried over. "Drained too far, I can cast with his and mine both but I went too far with it--"

"I understand, Harry. Let me examine him."

Harry fell silent, watching as she cast a series of diagnostic spells. Not that he could stay silent for long. "Is he breathing at all, is he alive? Is he dead?"

"Quiet." Poppy flicked her wand, and a bottle of potion appeared in one of her hands. "He's not breathing, no," she said, her wand transfiguring itself to a spoon as she spoke. She poured a small measure of greyish liquid out. "And his heart isn't beating. But we may be able to change that. Help me prop him up."

Harry angled Severus' torso up, wriggling so he could hold him from behind. He couldn't see much from behind the man's back, but he knew the exact moment when Poppy pried Severus' mouth open and thrust the spoon between his lips.

Severus jerked like those people on the telly. The ones who'd just had electrical paddles put to their chest.

Whatever she'd done to shock him back into life, it seemed to have done the trick. His back began to rise and fall, quickly, like he was out of breath and panting.

"There, there," Harry heard Poppy croon, as the noise of something else being poured out hovered behind Severus' rapid breathing. "It's going to be fine, Severus. You've gone a little while without oxygen but this wonderful potion of yours will set you right as rain . . . That's right, then, ease it down, ease it down . . ."

A gurgling noise, then, and a gulp, and Severus' breathing began to calm.

"Let him down, now," Poppy advised.

Harry carefully moved out from behind and took a good look at Severus. Ashen features, his eyes looking sunken in his skull, but he was breathing well now, deep strong breaths as his chest moved up and down.

Harry sank into a chair and smiled. "Oh, good. Brilliant. You're going to be all right."

No answer.

Oh, God. A sinking feeling seemed to plunge Harry completely underwater. Severus wasn't even looking at him, he was just staring at the ceiling, his lips slack, a little bit of drool actually dripping down the side of his face. He didn't seem to have even noticed it, even if he was too weak to wipe it away, himself.

And that wasn't like Severus.

Harry reached up to wipe away the moisture streaking Severus' face, but Severus didn't appear to realise he'd been touched. Or that Harry was there, or . . .

Jumping out of his chair, Harry leaned over him to look into his black eyes. Vacant black eyes. "Do you know me? Do you know what's happened, where you are? Say something, Severus!"

Poppy reached across the bed to settle a gentle hand on Harry's shoulder. "None of that, now. He's fine."

"Fine!" Harry lurched back to get away from her hand. Patting him now, as if that would make any difference. "He's . . . he's gone even though he's here!"

"He stopped breathing for too long and his brain sustained some damage," she calmly corrected. "But Harry, I would think that you of all people would know how fine a hospital this school has. He will be perfectly well again. You need to let that potion have a chance to heal him."

Panic clawed at Harry again. "What-- what if it doesn't?"

"It will. Severus made it, after all."

Harry sank back into his chair and nodded, dully. Yeah, she was right. Of course she was. Severus would never stock the infirmary with an inferior potion. If he'd brought it up here then it was guaranteed to work, exactly as it should.

Waiting for it to do that, though . . . that was damned difficult.

Poppy disappeared into the storeroom for a moment, then emerged with a plaster for Harry's hand. He'd forgotten all about it, but when he looked down and saw the way his wand had rubbed him raw, it started hurting again.

Oh, better. The plaster had obviously been soaked in a tincture or something, or maybe just doused in magic; the moment Harry stuck it on, his palm started to feel a lot better.

"Any other places needing healing, Harry?"

"No. Thanks, though." Harry thought back a bit. "Um . . . sorry I screamed at you like that. This is a very fine infirmary and I know we all have you to thank for it."

She patted his shoulder again, and that time, Harry found he didn't even mind.

"You looked like you were expecting us," he said, realizing that she shouldn't even be at Hogwarts, just now. "Or somebody, anyway. You didn't go back to Milan on holiday, after all?"

"Oh, I did, but came back yesterday at Albus' request. Though I dare say the headlines this morning would have sent me back here on their own. Dumbledore captured . . . yes, I'd have known to expect trouble out of that."

For a second, Harry though Albus was important enough that the Italian papers had reported him missing, too. But no, that wasn't right. Albus had sent his letter only to the Prophet. Obviously, she must get the paper while she was abroad.

And just as obviously, stress and worry and maybe the aftermath of the battle were all catching up to him, since he couldn't think straight. "He explained what he was doing?"

"No, he merely told me to be ready for patients." Her voice went more quiet. "Though he did mention Severus' periodic bouts of weakness, and asked me to review what little is known of the enchantment you both are under."

"I'm the one under it, not him," said Harry in a tired voice. Once, he probably would have spat the words, if he could manage to say them at all, to anyone besides his closest friends. Now, he was used to the idea. And Poppy knew more than she was saying, anyway, didn't she?

"Oh, you're both subject to it," said Poppy, her skirts swaying as she turned to look down at the bed. "You couldn't pull magic out of him, otherwise."

That was one way to look at it, Harry supposed. Severus was looking better, anyway. His colour wasn't back to normal, but it was less grey than before, and his mouth was closed. But he still looked a right mess, laying there in torn clothes with all the buttons missing. Somehow, Severus looked wrong without those long rows of buttons. "Do you have some pyjamas or a nightshirt? I think I'd better clean him up, a bit."

"Oh, I'll see to that--"

"No, I'll do it," interrupted Harry. "I want to. And don't worry, I won't use any magic."

She brought him what he needed, then went into her office and closed the door. Harry stripped Severus and sponged him off, hoping this was helping him feel better even if he couldn't say so, then got him into the nightshirt Poppy had supplied. When his hair was brushed, too, Harry tucked him in and sat back down to watch and wait.

Not long after that, Albus stepped through the open door. "How is he?"

Harry looked blearily up. "Um, out of it, but Poppy swears he'll be fine. Thanks for stopping me from casting again. And for the Portkey to get us here, so I didn't have to Apparate. One more serious draw on his power might have . . . well, it wouldn't have been a good thing, that's for sure."

Albus feathered a touch along Severus' cheek, the motion reminding Harry of what Albus had done while Voldemort was dying. But then, Severus had been his student, too. Just like Harry had been.

And Albus cared about all his students, Harry suddenly knew. Even the ones gone terribly wrong.

"And how are you?" asked Albus, very softly, a chair skittering to him as he lifted his hand. He sat down in it, close alongside Harry, but where they could both watch Severus.

"I'm all right. I'm glad it's over. Uh, everything under control, then, with the . . ."

"Oh yes, the Aurors have it all well in hand."

Harry swallowed, a part of him twisting at the image that came to him. He'd wanted to be an Auror so much! But now . . . no. No. He didn't want a life of fighting evil. Severus could probably arrange it . . . he was pretty clever when it came to working inside Cambiare Podentes, but Harry felt like he'd been an Auror of sorts ever since he'd come to Hogwarts. He'd had enough of it.

Still, he had to ask. "All those Death Eaters are in Azkaban by now?"

"Awaiting trial."

"And Voldemort . . . he is really dead, isn't he?"

"Yes." Albus smiled, but it was a sad smile. "Really, truly dead, Harry."

"Do I have to go on trial, too?" Harry swallowed. "Neither Severus nor you ever brought it up, but I do know which spells are technically illegal . . ."

"Oh, Harry . . ." Albus shook his head. "I wish you didn't have such cause for distrust. No, no. This once, I promise you, the Ministry will treat you with respect and dignity, as they should have done, all along."

"Ha, if they don't run screaming in horror," muttered Harry. Because this was it, now, wasn't it? "They'll interrogate those Death Eaters. Veritaserum, right? And they'll tell what they saw, what they saw me do. The Ministry will figure out about the Horcruxes, and wonder how I could possibly have managed to kill him, and--" Harry slumped back. "Maybe you should just write another letter to the Prophet and be done with it."

"I don't think that would be the best approach."

"Yeah." Harry sighed. "But I actually do think we'd better announce or explain or something, before somebody stumbles across the truth on their own . . . it's like with the Quibbler, you know? I'd rather have some control over how things are put."

"Life . . .alter . . . de--"

Severus' voice. Weak, rasping . . . barely there at all. But he'd clearly been able to understand the conversation, and give a sensible reply. Life-altering decision, of course. Harry had to talk it all over with Severus before deciding to announce anything to the world at large.

"Welcome back," said Harry warmly, moving to take Severus by the hand. The other man's fingers clutched his, just briefly, before falling away. "And you're right, of course. That would be a life-altering decision, so I won't do a thing about it until we decide together. But Severus, don't talk now, all right? I can tell it's exhausted you. But you saw what happened? In the mirror? Just nod."

Severus shook his head, the motion tiny. "App-- App--"

"Now, Severus," said Poppy, who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Well, she always had known when her patients needed her. Or needed advice. "Harry said not to talk and he's quite right, you know. Don't strain yourself. Rest is the very best thing."

Severus' eyes narrowed, but clearly she was right, since he was too tired to protest.

"You tried to Apparate," said Harry, distracting him from it. He could see now, what must have happened. "And I probably cast something just at that instant and pulled you out of it. I . . . sorry, then. Your clothing was splinched beyond repair, but at least you pulled through all right."

It wasn't hard to guess the rest, after that. Once the battle had begun, Harry's repeated spells had kept Severus weakened and drained, unable to Apparate further. Unable to even turn over, or look in the mirror. And then that tremendous Avada, the one that had built up inside Voldemort and then shot out in several directions . . . that must have been the spell that had harmed Severus. The one that had sucked his magic out so fiercely that his heart had stopped from the drain.

A good thing Albus had found them and whipped up a Portkey, Harry thought again. "How did you locate us, anyway?" he suddenly asked the headmaster. "The button you'd charmed was gone, by then."

An amused look flitted across Albus' wrinkled features. "Oh, I think I can find my own hat, wherever it may be."

Severus had enough strength to chuckle briefly.

Another good sign. Poppy had known what she was about; Severus was going to be right as rain. Well, as long as Harry didn't drain him any further while he was still laid up. "How long do you think I have to avoid magic?" he quietly asked Albus.

"You can probably cast again now, though I certainly wouldn't recommend any twice-filled spells for a while longer."

Harry wrinkled his brow, remembering how Severus had seemed to crumple when Harry had cast a simple Ennervate. The spell had only used his own magic, not their crossed powers, but still, Severus had been affected. "How did you know that even regular magic might hurt him when he was so weakened?"

Albus folded his hands together. "I didn't know for certain. But it seemed a good precaution. His magical state is linked to yours, and the spell you're under can be unpredictable."

Yeah, Harry understood that well enough. But he was used to it now, so he shrugged. "The Aurors have to talk to me, I suppose?"

"I'm sure they'll want to once they've dealt with their prisoners. Quite a lot of Death Eaters at once. And too, Kingsley has come here so he can report back that you're in hospital and that it will take you some time to recover."

Well, that was good. It would give Harry time to decide everything with Severus. It was his life, too, after all. Which reminded him.

"If they want to give me a stupid Order of Merlin then I want Severus to have one, too."

"I'm sure that can be arranged." Albus stood up, briefly clasping Severus' hand in his own as he spoke. "My boys . . . I can not tell you how much, how proud, how . . . " As a handkerchief appeared in his hand, Albus began dabbing at the corner of his eye. "There simply aren't words for what you have done. Both of you. I . . . I have no words."

He let himself quietly out the door. Harry caught a glimpse of Shacklebolt waiting outside, but he didn't try to come in. In fact, he closed the door as Albus began walking down the corridor.

"First time for everything," drawled Severus, sounding much more like himself. "Albus, speechless."

"You're supposed to be speechless at the moment," Harry said. "You sit there and listen, and I'll explain how it all went."

Severus began shaking his head.

"You don't want to know?"

"You needn't talk of it--" Severus started coughing, and didn't stop until Poppy spooned some elixir into him. Then he scowled, probably because she had her hands on her hips and looked about to launch into a five-minute lecture.

"He won't talk again," said Harry quickly. "I won't let him."

"See that you don't, then," she said crisply, before leaving them alone again.

Severus looked mulish, but instead of talking, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Harry.

It took Harry a second to remember where they'd been. Oh, right. "I can talk about it," he said. "Parts were awful, but . . . yeah, I want you to know everything."

Fifteen minutes later, Severus did.



 



 






 

Wednesday, December 30, 1998 ---- 8:10 a.m.

"You're looking better," said Harry as he pulled a chair up to Severus' bedside. "How are you feeling?"

Severus scowled, wondering if he should tell the absolute truth. He decided he might as well. "As though my innards have been pulled out through my teeth."

"Oh, ouch. Sorry about that."

"And shoved inside again, backwards," added Severus. "Why are you so far away?"

Harry scooted his chair a little closer, the look in his green eyes rueful. "You know, I expected you to get dizzy and weak during the final battle, faint maybe, but I had no idea the Killing Curse would affect you that much."

At that, Severus sighed, his voice heavy as he replied. "How could you? There's no book to guide us through this. Even the précis is of limited use. You aren't a weak wizard, after all."

"Um, yeah." Harry fished something out of a deep pocket in his robe. "And it looks like word on that's going to be getting around. Do you want to read the front page? Or should I read to you?"

Severus held up his hands, fingers splayed. "Perhaps you should. I'm still feeling a bit shaky."

"Can I ever sympathise with that," murmured Harry, the paper making a crinkling noise as he unfolded it and began to read. YOU-KNOW-WHO DEAD AT BOY-WHO-LIVED'S HAND

Top Aurors are reporting that He-Who-Etc. has been utterly destroyed by none other than Harry Potter, also known as the Chosen. When asked how Magical Law Enforcement could be sure that You-Know-Who is permanently gone, Kingsley Shacklebolt of the Auror Corps had this to say: "It seems he was using an ancient form of longevity magic known as Horcruxes. A Horcrux is a highly illegal magical object almost impossible to create, but somehow he managed. Mr Potter's genius is that he simultaneously destroyed both [name redacted] and all his Horcruxes, therefore ending him, once and for all."

MLE had no official comment as to how Harry Potter learned about You-Know-Who's Horcruxes or how he destroyed them. There is no question, however, of why young Harry attacked when he did. As reported yesterday, Albus Dumbledore, esteemed headmaster of Hogwarts, had been taken captive by Death Eaters. Harry Potter launched a daring rescue which culminated in the death of You-Know-Who and the capture of sixteen of his top followers (see page 4). Insiders at the Ministry, privy to the ongoing interrogations of the captured Death Eaters, have mentioned claims of "the Killing Curse gone berserk," though Veritaserum questioning is reportedly going very slowly due to bouts of hysteria among the prisoners.

Mr Potter cannot be reached for comment as he is presently recuperating from his ordeal.

"I'm sorry they didn't even mention you, Severus," said Harry as he laid the paper aside. "That's not right. You were as big a part of this as I was. It was even your own wand that finally ended it all."

"They won't know I was involved until the rest of the truth is disclosed."

Harry made a scoffing noise. "Well, they probably won't report it right, even then. I mean, look at this tripe. I did not rescue Albus! They have to know that by now, if they've talked to Kingsley. He'd have told them it was all a trap."

"You don't expect the Daily Prophet to admit that they were hoodwinked, surely?"

"No, guess not. They're pretty stubborn. Right down to name redacted instead of printing what Shacklebolt really said. Well, the Quibbler will do it better, when we're ready. I'm going to give them all the exclusives." Harry cleared his throat. "Um . . . how long do you think we have? I don't want anybody digging up that certificate before I'm ready."

"I've no idea." Severus struggled to sit up more, but he didn't have much strength. "Are you anxious about it?"

"Not really . . . well, yes, but not like before. You were right. It won't make any difference to my real friends."

"Speaking of whom," said Severus, jerking his head. Harry's back was to the door, but Severus could see both his best friends standing just outside, clearly wondering if they should intrude.

Harry turned around. "Oh, hallo. I guess you read the paper this morning?"

Hermione ran across the length of the hospital wing and threw herself into Harry's arms. "Oh Harry, Harry!" she cried, hugging him tight. "I saw that and I was so worried! Where were you hurt? Are you sure you should be out of bed already? Do you need me to bring you something to read?"

Harry wrapped his arms around her and patted the back of her head as she more-or-less sobbed against his shoulder. "I love you too, Hermione."

Something inside Severus twisted, hearing those words emerge from Harry's lips. It wasn't jealousy, not this time. He knew exactly what Harry meant and what he didn't; he knew that Hermione Granger was Harry's close friend, nothing more.

But still, something inside Severus twisted.

"But I'm not hurt," Harry went on, setting her a little distance away.

Hermione wiped at her eyes. "The paper said--"

"When are you going to learn not to believe everything you read?" asked Ron, coming forward. "Harry's obviously fine, and that other was just put there so give him some room to breathe, right? You know he doesn't like talking to reporters!" As Hermione smiled and nodded, a little sheepishly, Ron gave Harry a clap on the shoulder. "Good job, mate! You did it!"

"We did it," said Harry, stepping closer to Severus' bedside again.

Yes, I am actually the injured party, here, Severus thought, a little peevishly. Perhaps he was slightly jealous, after all. Not over the comment Harry had made, but over the easy, friendly way he got on with his friends. The three of them blended like a brew coming together.

"Severus is the one who got hurt," Harry went on, but he didn't explain how, which was just as well, as far as Severus was concerned. "The Prophet doesn't know about our . . . contract yet. For the moment, we're keeping it that way. And . . . listen, I'm really glad to see you both, but I can't really talk or anything, not with Severus laid up--"

"Oh, please," said Severus scornfully, though he was secretly pleased that Harry had chosen him over his friends. "I'm hardly infirm any longer. I need rest, not a nursemaid--"

"He's horrible when he's ill," said Harry in a voice full of good humour. "I'll owl you, all right? Later this week, when I have some time."

"Go with your friends--"

Instead of answering, Harry just sat down again, crossing his arms. If Severus had felt stronger, he'd have leaned over to kiss him. Perhaps not, though, since Weasley and Granger were still hovering.

"Very good to see you, Profess-- er, Severus," said Hermione, really quite warmly. "Though I didn't expect to see you so soon after Christmas. Is there anything you need?"

Oh. Severus hadn't expected that. To be . . . included, so easily. Thank Merlin, though, that Weasley didn't clap him on the shoulder as he'd done to Harry. Severus felt so weak, he might have toppled off the bed.

"Looks like you took the brunt of it, eh?" said Ron, smiling in a way Severus found quite odd. Like he knew something. Or thought he did, at any rate. "But good job helping Harry. I know he doesn't need much looking after, considering, but it's good to know you'll be doing it anyway."

"Oh, honestly, Ron," said Hermione in an exasperated tone. "We're wearing out our welcome."

They took their leave then. Harry stared after them until they were gone, then blew out a breath that made his fringe fly up. "What was that about, do you think? With Ron?"

"I've no idea."

Harry nodded. "Have you had breakfast?"

"An hour ago."

"Oh. All right. Um . . . "

Harry had that look on his face, the one that meant he had a lot to say, and wasn't saying it. Severus could tell from the way his forehead was scrunching up. "What?"

"Well . . . I was wondering about something."

"Any plans to wonder out loud?"

Harry laughed, then quickly sobered. "It's not so funny. I keep thinking about your magic, actually. Draining it like that, so far down. I have a feeling that for a while there, I left you with nothing at all, and that made me wonder . . . oh, God. You can do magic again, can't you? I've been feeling sick, worrying that I accidentally took it for good."

"Don't be daft."

"Did Albus give you your wand back, have you tried any spells, did they work all right?"

"Yes, no, and of course they will."

"Cast something," said Harry urgently. "Something easy . . . or did Poppy say not to?"

"You really do worry too much. I'm sure I'm fine, if a bit on the weak side. But, if you insist, hand me my wand." Severus vaguely gestured toward the drawer where Albus had placed it, holding it loosely once Harry fetched it. He could barely manage the required movement as he incanted, "Accio Daily Prophet."

It came flying toward him, but of course he couldn't move quickly enough to catch it. The paper ending up smacking him in the face.

Harry quickly set it to one side.

"Satisfied?" asked Severus, nostrils flaring. "Or do you need to see me set it ablaze?"

"Not that it doesn't deserve that, but no," murmured Harry, leaning over to kiss Severus softly on the mouth. "Sorry about that. I should have caught it for you."

"You should get over this idea that you have to save everyone from everything. That's all over with. You've done it."

Harry smiled. "It'll never be all over with. It's part of who I am. You should know that. But . . . I guess maybe it's mostly over with, now."

"Good, because you deserve a proper holiday more than anyone I've ever met," said Severus, completely serious.

Harry grinned. "Oh, Disneyworld. Brilliant. I can't wait, can't wait--"

"Do be sure to owl me about it--"

Harry's grin only got wider. "As if I'd think of going without you."

"Well, you did say you can't wait, and I'm not in shape at present to--"

"All right, I can wait." Harry laughed. "It's our celebration, you know. Ours. So . . . er, any word from Poppy on when you'll have your full strength back?"

"Just in time to greet the students returning to classes," said Severus, a little sourly. It wasn't that he wanted to go to this Disneyworld, but he did want to visit the Everglades, as he'd said. And he wanted time away from Hogwarts, time for he and Harry to be alone. But that would have to wait, he supposed.

Harry's expression fell. "That long? Bollocks."

Severus' sentiments entirely, but he tried to make light of the disappointment. "Well, it's not every day a man dies and is brought violently back to life, you realise. I should probably wait a while before I undertake any magical form of travel." His lips quirked. "And no, I am not going to travel by aeroplane, instead."

Harry didn't smile at the joke. In fact, he looked deeply, deeply shocked. Like his thoughts had hit a wall and then started again with a jolt. When he glanced up, his gaze was almost stricken, but somewhere deep inside it, there was a glimmer of hope.

No . . . what he looked like most was a man afraid to hope.

"I . . . oh, my God. You died?"

Severus nodded, the motion diffident. He'd been through this with Poppy already. "My heart stopped, as you know, and for a few moments, my magic was entirely missing. That's the generally accepted definition of death in wizarding Britain."

Harry's mouth opened and closed like he was trying to figure out what to say.

"I'm hardly the first wizard brought back, Harry," Severus explained, in case that was what had him looking so shocked. "That potion she administered to start my heart, it's in common use--"

"No, no . . ." Harry cleared his throat, then drew his wand and cast a series of privacy charms. Then he turned to Severus, his green eyes about as vulnerable as Severus had ever seen. "You said, you said that only death could end Podentes."

"Oh. Yes, of course." Several feelings collided inside Severus, then. Pride, because he was impressed that Harry had thought of that before he himself had. Relief, because some large part of him did want Harry to be set free. But also . . . fear, because he'd lose Harry, wouldn't he, if death had ended the enchantment?

Why would Harry choose to be with him, when Harry would have the whole world at his feet? The whole world to choose from?

Harry started rubbing his hands together. "Oh, I can't believe this. I was ready, you know, to keep on just like before. I'd accepted it, but now, to know that it's goneand I'm free--"

Fear clenched Severus' heart until he thought it would stop again. And this time, it wasn't fear for himself. "No, you can't assume that. It's dangerous. If you should break the contract and the spell still is in force--"

Harry's hands abruptly stilled. "Right, yes. Of course. We have to test it somehow, find out . . . well, I suppose you could cast Compulsio so we could make sure, but that's a pretty demanding spell, isn't it--"

"A bit beyond me at the moment, yes." Severus didn't want to do this, didn't want to know. And yet, he did, because Harry had to know, one way or the other. "Would you light the candle on my night table? It was a gift from Albus and has a rather pleasant scent."

"Oh, sure." Harry flicked his wand and said the spell, but nothing happened.

Severus closed his eyes on the sudden rush of pain that shot straight through him. Pain . . . and something shameful, too. Relief. Because it seemed he wouldn't have to face his worst fear, after all.

Instead, Harry would have to face his.

"That's odd," said Harry, trying it again. And again.

"I'm stopping you," said Severus, his voice rough. Knowing that Harry shouldn't be alone for this, not even in spirit, he opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. "You're still . . ."

Harry swallowed, pressing his lips tightly together as he pocketed his wand. It took a moment before he could speak, and then, his voice was as rough as Severus' had been. "A slave, right. Your slave. Yeah."

"I'm sorry," said Severus, reaching out a hand.

Harry took it, but he hesitated first. "Are you? I thought . . . I thought you didn't mind having me around, so much. Not any longer."

Oh, for Merlin's sake. "I'm sorry for your sake, of course. For mine, I do like having you around, as you put it."

Harry gave a stiff nod, like he was deeply, deeply dismayed and determined not to show it.

"It's all right to be disappointed," said Severus, though that small, selfish part of him was still flooding with relief, no matter that Harry could hardly feel the same. He did his best to push the feeling away, to see the matter through Harry's eyes. "Or angry, even. If you ask me, you've every reason to be. You've done more than anyone has a right to ask, and you deserve to have your life back."

"No, I'm not angry." Harry ran his other hand through his hair, mussing it. "I just . . . I'd accepted everything, Severus. And then, to have that one moment when I thought things might change, and then to have it snatched away . . . " Harry's jaw clenched. Obviously, he was more upset than he was willing to admit.

Seeing the pain the other man was in, the pain he was fighting back, seeing his essential strength, his sheer nobility . . . a yawing need opened up inside Severus. A need to make this right for Harry, no matter what that took. "Things can change," he said quickly, squeezing Harry's fingers. "A different job, a different place to live if you like . . . anything you need. We'll work it out. I promise, Harry. I promise you that."

By the time he'd finished speaking, Harry was looking resigned. Or bemused, perhaps. "You don't need to promise any longer, Severus. I know we'll work it out. I never once thought otherwise."

"Harry--"

"It's all right, really," he said, shrugging as he let go of Severus' hand. "I told you I'd already got used to the idea. You don't have to worry that I'll do something stupid, like I talked about that once. I want to live. And life with you, Severus . . . it's a good life."

A good life. But not the best life. Not the life Harry necessarily wanted. Hearing what Harry had meant, but hadn't said, only made Severus feel worse. How could he have secretly rejoiced that Harry was still bound to him? How could he have been that selfish?

But the truth was, some part of him still was, even as he exclaimed, "I did in fact die. You should have been set free! I wonder what went wrong. I can't see how your being a strong wizard would affect this aspect of the spell."

"I don't think it would," said Harry, sighing. "I think the problem is that you didn't really die. Your heart stopped, sure, but real death, true death . . . the Muggles on the telly call it brain death, I think."

"We aren't Muggles, and neither were the wizards who constructed this spell."

"Yeah, but think about it. Death is permanent, so if anything can bring you back, how can you be fully dead? I think you weren't. The spell thinks you weren't." Harry swallowed, looking away for a brief moment. "And Severus . . . I didn't want you dead, you know. So . . . s'all right."

I didn't want you dead.

Not quite what Severus wanted to hear. "Harry--"

"I was going to sit with you some more," interrupted Harry, "and read to you or something, but I think I need to be alone. Go flying or something. I . . . I'll come by later, all right?"

With that, he was gone, and Severus was left to stare at the door, slowly closing behind him.



 



 

Thursday, December 31, 1998 ---- 9:20 a.m.

"Quidditch section for you," said Severus, passing it across the table.

Harry took it, but frowned. It looked to him like Severus was having a hard time sitting in a chair. He was holding himself stiffly, as though he might slide off the moment he relaxed. "You shouldn't have got up for breakfast. Poppy only let you come down here last night because I promised to take good care of you."

"No need. I'm fine. You can go flying again, if you wish."

For once, that had no appeal at all. Harry had flown yesterday for hours, after he'd found out that he was still enslaved, after all. He didn't know why the idea should bother him, so much. He had accepted it, already. He hadn't gone into that battle dreaming he might be earning his freedom. He'd known when he'd invoked that the binding would be for life, and in the months since, he'd learned to live with that.

By fits and starts, sometimes, but it had all worked out in the end. He'd been happy with Severus, really.

But then, to think for one brilliant, shining moment that he could be free again, after all, able to do whatever he wanted with his life, go where he wanted, live where he wanted . . .

It had been like his heart had blazed to life inside him, bathing him in light and energy and perfect, perfect joy.

And then that light had all gone out, leaving him in . . .well, not darkness. Life with Severus was good, and it would go on being good. Hell, it could only get better from here on out, now that he didn't have the threat of Voldemort hanging over him.

But not to be able to choose . . . that bothered him, even if he'd accepted long ago that what was, was, just as Severus always said.

"No flying," said Harry, sighing. "Though I guess I should start figuring out the new practise schedule for the teams. I told them I wanted to coach in the mornings, before classes start. That way, when I'm done in Defence, the rest of the day can be mine. Or ours, I mean."

"Harry--"

Whatever he had been going to say was interrupted by a knock on the upstairs door. Harry grimaced. He'd loved seeing Ron and Hermione the day before, but he really didn't want to talk about the battle to anybody besides Severus. Maybe he should, though. Maybe if he did, he would start feeling like it had been real.

Right now, it all seemed sort of like a dream. Was Voldemort gone, really? So hard to believe, when Harry had lived with his spectre ever since he'd found out he was a wizard. Of course, he was gone; Harry knew that. Severus' Dark Mark had disappeared completely, and the scar on Harry's forehead was fading, so much now that he had to look closely at the mirror to even spot it.

"I'll get that," said Harry, before Severus could stand. "You . . . well, you should be in bed, if you ask me."

Severus carefully lifted a slice of toast to his lips, and didn't answer.

Sighing, Harry went upstairs and pulled open the door. "Oh . . . hallo, Headmaster."

"We have a bit of a situation, I'm afraid," said Albus, shaking his head. "I'd like to speak with you and Severus, together."

A bit of a situation. "If you're here to tell me that that git isn't dead after all--"

"He's dead, never to return." Albus' gaze flicked toward Harry's fringe. "You're living proof."

"And Severus," said Harry.

"Yes, you're in this together, as I said."

"Come on down."

When they reached the table, Severus tried to stand, but Albus shook his head. "No, no, you should be resting, I understand."

"What's the situation you mentioned?" asked Harry.

The headmaster sat down himself, and began to stroke his long beard. "I'm sorry that it's come to this. I know that you and Harry may have preferred more time to consider your options, but I'm afraid that a young clerk at the Ministry has rather fouled that."

"The Ministry," said Harry, a bad feeling beginning to crawl through him.

"Yes, you see, Harry's been charged with illegal spell use--"

Harry shot to his feet, that bad feeling almost making his hair stand on end, by then. "You said I wouldn't have to stand trial!"

"You won't," said Severus in a dark voice. "How could they possibly make you?"

"I'm not using crossed powers ever again, not after seeing what they did to you!"

"Boys, boys," said Albus calmly, a little bit of a smile playing about his mouth, "please do let me continue. Harry won't be standing trial, no. But in order to clear their records, the Ministry needed to charge him formally, then declare the spell use justified."

"Charge him formally," said Severus slowly. "I see."

"What?" Harry looked from Albus to Severus and back.

"The charge refuses to stick," said Albus, hands clasped, eyes intense. "Your name keeps falling off the parchment. They don't understand what is happening. Rumours are beginning to fly about, that after killing Voldemort, you've become so powerful that the Ministry is nothing to you. That you're interfering with its internal workings."

"Why would . . ." It suddenly came to him. Cambiare Podentes, of course. The declaration of slavery. Harry had renounced his status as a person; he'd agreed to become chattel. Property.

And you couldn’t charge property with wrongdoing, could you? A table couldn't stand trial. Or a pet . . .

The law was just for citizens and visitors in wizarding Britain, and Harry wasn't either, any longer.

"I guess we'd better cut this off before word gets out and it becomes a real panic," he said, sighing as he turned to Severus. "How do we do it?"

Severus took a moment to think about that. "We could release a statement, but unless you speak personally to the press, the Prophet is bound to think the statement a fraud. Particularly after Albus' ruse."

Harry nodded. "Yeah, and they'll keep printing rubbish. Probably try to stir up a froth against me."

Albus' voice was very soft. "Very wise, Harry. From what Kingsley said, the Minister was disgruntled that you didn't see him yesterday. No matter that the Aurors have told him you needed to recover from the battle."

"Scrimgeour just wants to use me to boost his popularity. Of course I didn't want to see him. Probably unavoidable, though, in the long run . . ." Harry stood up, rigid with determination. If he'd been set free, then maybe all of this could somehow be avoided, but as it was . . . well, it had to be faced, sooner or later.

And just like with Voldemort, Harry wanted it over. The moment he'd got those crossed powers working as they should, he hadn't been able to wait one moment more. Though now, he was grateful that Severus had stopped him from going with the stand-on-street-corners plan. That really hadn't been the best approach.

Now, though, Voldemort was dead and there was no more strategic use in keeping their binding a secret. If it could stay a secret forever, that would be better, but that probably wasn't possible. So . . . time to get it over with.

"All right, get the reporters here. From every publication that wants to send someone. I wanted to give the Quibbler a whole set of exclusives but I'd rather put theProphet and Witch Weekly and the wireless or whoever else in the position of having to print what I say, for once, to keep up with the competition. You think . . . three o'clock would work, Severus?"

He added that last bit because this was one of those life-altering decisions he had to watch out for. And also, because it was Severus' life, too. Besides, the other man was still feeling rough.

"Three o'clock would be fine," Severus said. "Do you want help drafting a statement?"

"No, I think better on my feet. Though I wouldn't mind talking over what they might ask."

"I shall begin sending the owls," said Albus, standing. "And I must commend you both, though I still don't feel I have the words. Perhaps . . . perhaps we should cancel classes, in celebration. For an additional week." His gaze softened further, though that was hardly possible. "But first, I'm afraid, the truth must come out."

Once he was gone, Harry looked to where Severus was still sitting. It wasn't like him not to see the headmaster out, or at least stand up as the man left, which told Harry how very weak he must be feeling.

"All right, bed for you," he said firmly, determined not to take no for an answer. "I'll bring in your breakfast, and some lunch later, so by three you'll look your best for the press. You're going to get your picture on the front pages, you know."

Severus grumbled, but he must have thought Harry right, since he didn't make any sort of real protest.

Harry brought their food through as he'd said, and started picking Severus' brain as to the best way to handle the questions soon to come.

 

 
 

 

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