DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Although only two weeks had passed since he left Hogwarts for good, here he was returning once more, trudging up the rutted lane that ran from Hogsmeade to the castle gates. Harry had chosen to walk, as he wanted time to think. The last two weeks had been a blur of interviews and appearances, well-wishers and autograph seekers, gawkers and promoters. He was weary of the whole business and glad to be rid of it, if only for a few days. There was still Ministry protection hovering somewhere nearby, but he could abide that. He needed time to think. He had to do something to take control of his life before it was too late—he just didn't know what.
It had all just happened too quickly. Being the Boy-Who-Lived had not prepared him to become the Boy-Who-Defeated-Voldemort. The Boy-Who-Lived had earned his celebrity passively, but the Harry of two weeks ago had actively earned the badge of hero. Knowing that this time he deserved the accolades had not made the intrusion into his privacy any more bearable.
The battle had occurred on his eighteenth birthday, and was staged, fittingly, just outside Hogwarts gates. The progression of it was almost shocking in its predictability, from the expected breach of the castle wards, to the hallways littered with dead and wounded, to the climactic denouement where one of them would be left standing. Of course, who that would be had not been so predictable, but Harry was grimly pleased with the outcome.
As he walked, he thought of the huge debt he owed to the many people who had prepared him for that final moment, from his parents and friends, to his professors and mentors. They all had a piece of him, had all forged a part of him, that had made him able to be the last man standing. Professors Lupin and Snape, especially in the past several years, had spent countless hours in teaching him to use his mind and body to the best of his ability. They had worked tirelessly to ensure that, in the end, his ability would not be found lacking. And when the end did come, they had stood in awe and watched as ability and destiny had come together, like a thunderclap, in a slight, black-haired warrior who had won the day, and the war. They had, as occasion required, been demanding and firm, but also patient and understanding. Well, one of them had been understanding, but it had been enough. And covering it all was the benevolent spirit that was Albus Dumbldore. Benevolent--yet something else.
Harry had been aware of this other side of the Headmaster since his fifth year. It had irritated, even infuriated him at times, but particularly over the past year he had come to recognize this facet of the man, and grudgingly to admire it. It was single-mindedness. Dedication to a purpose that could include, yes, benevolence, but also embraced ruthlessness, dispassion, and manipulation. This was a man who in order to achieve the greater good had been willing to subvert the means to the end. People had been hurt and sacrificed in the process, and Harry had by no means escaped the grinding jaws of Albus Dumbledore's master plan. But in spite of it all, he loved the old man who, he'd been told hours before, now lay dying inside the castle walls. Having been grievously injured in the battle, he had initially rallied, but was now succumbing to his injuries and the ravages of an old age that he had for so long held at bay.
Professor Snape had been brief and to the point. "He is dying today, and your presence is required." Harry had no other inclination but to immediately obey.
Snape, he thought, Now there is a piece of work. Although Harry's life had been spared on more than one occasion by the man's actions, at best they had tolerated each other with a forced civility, at worst they had on several memorable occasions come to near physical blows, and had once even managed to hex each other simultaneously. It was true that, in spite of this, they held a begrudging respect for each other, especially as the circumstances of the past year had forced them to spend more time together than either of them would have liked.
Harry's attitude, his adolescent nonchalance, his casual assumption that he could take chances without endangering others - all these had provoked the Potions Master to almost verbal castration of the boy on numerous occasions. Snape's arrogance, aloofness, and seeming indifference to the personal pain of others - these things, in turn, drove Harry to intentionally bait and fuel the man's hostility. Most of the time they maintained a fragile stand-off, for the Headmaster's sake, who had become increasingly distressed with their persistent sniping and feuding. Harry knew that he and Snape would be on their best behavior today. They both cared deeply for the old man, but once he was gone, all bets would be off. With Harry gone from Hogwarts and Voldemort out of the picture, there would be little reason for them to even cross paths.
Walking through the now deserted castle, Harry swallowed down the nostalgia as he made his way to the revolving staircase. He imagined that returning would always feel like coming home, unless something in his future claimed that place in his affections.
He was surprised to find the Headmaster's office overflowing. The entire staff was here, as well as a few people that Harry did not know. Self-conscious, he insinuated himself into a chair in the corner where Snape then noticed him. The man caught and held his eye as he made his way over. Harry stood as he approached.
"So like you, Potter, to keep a dying man waiting," he said without preamble.
"I came as quickly as I could. I didn't have the advantage of living under the same roof, as you do, Professor." He stressed the man's title, enjoying driving home the point that he no longer was required to address him as such.
"Do make an effort to control your tongue when we go in there, Potter. For once in your life, try to think of someone besides yourself."
Harry missed a beat. "What do you mean, when we go in there?" he asked suspiciously.
Snape obviously had a problem with this too. He shrugged, avoiding Harry's eyes. "He's asked to see us together, just the two of us. Everyone one else has been in. We've been waiting for you," he accused.
Harry felt a twinge of remorse. He shouldn't have walked, then.
Minerva McGonagall had just emerged from the old man's private chambers. Catching their eyes, she motioned them over. Drawing them aside, she said, "Good, you're both here." Her eyes were dry, but red-rimmed, as she sternly admonished them. "You're the last to go in. Need I remind you that this is the time to put your petty bickering aside? I can't imagine why he'd want to put himself through the trial of dealing with the two of you together." She sighed. "But he was adamant on that point."
Snape had stiffened, then squaring his shoulders, replied, "I assure you, Minerva. We are both adults." He raised an eyebrow at Harry in challenge.
"He's right, Professor," Harry conceded, returning the look.
"Well, come along then," she sniffed. "I know he's been holding on just for the two of you. It speaks volumes on how much you both mean to him."
She opened the door quietly and stood aside to let them pass.
There was a chair placed on either side of the bed where Albus Dumbledore sat propped up by pillows. Harry had to struggle to hide his reaction at the sight of the man. His face was grey, making it seem like there was no line where skin ended and hair began. And the man seemed...diminished, shrunken in size. Only the twinkling blue eyes remained unchanged, and as Harry fought the constricting sensation in his throat, the old man waved them both to take a chair.
"Severus, Harry, just in time, I think, with little time to spare." Snape shifted uncomfortably in his chair, shooting Harry an accusing look which Dumbledore did not fail to notice.
"Now Severus, Harry had a ways to come. You can make allowances for that." Snape inclined his head slightly. The Headmaster reached out his gnarled hands which they both took without hesitation. For a moment he looked at each of them in turn. Seemingly satisfied with their presence, he began.
"I've said my goodbyes to everyone but you two. I've saved the best for last." The blue eyes gleamed in the firelight. "Of all the crusaders in this war, you two have been my bright and shining stars. Both of you, struggling against almost insurmountable odds, have managed to secure a victory for the benefit of the entire Wizarding world, despite the terrible price you both paid. I've spoken to you each privately on this matter before, so I'll not repeat myself." He paused, his exhaustion evident. Harry could not take his eyes off the old man, and gently caressed the fragile hand he held in his own, while Snape clutched the hand that held his firmly, his black eyes glittering.
"I never found the time to have children of my own, perhaps because I never found a woman who would put up with me." One corner of his mouth turned up slightly. "But, in truth, all the students who have lived within these walls were my children for a time. Yet of all of them, I have come to consider the two of you as sons: sons of whom I am most proud, of whom I have indeed always been proud. Had nature chosen to give me sons, I couldn't have chosen any better. It's been a privilege to have you as friends." He stopped for a moment, and seemed to summon strength from deep inside. "Despite anything you may have been tempted to believe in the past, I've loved you as sons."
Harry could not help himself. Tears spilled over and tracked down his cheeks. Dumbledore smiled at him and chided gently, "Not all tears are an evil, Harry, and I'm touched that the sentiment is returned. I've been afraid that at times you doubted my treatment of you."
Harry nodded, bringing a hand up to brush away the tears.
"That being said, I have a request to make of you both." He eyed each of them in turn, then continued. "A deathbed request that I expect you to honor. You may consider it the rambling, sentimental favor asked by a dying man, but I will ask it nonetheless, and when you give me your word, I expect you will keep it."
Sensing that this required some response, Harry answered, "Of course, Professor," at the same time that Snape murmured similar words. If either of them heard the other, they did not acknowledge it.
Dumbledore chuckled. "I see that I should've feigned dying in the past, as that's what it's taken to get the two of you to agree without persuasion." Harry and Snape glanced at each other quickly, then refocused their attention on the Headmaster.
"Every year, the Wizarding world, from this year forward, will come together to celebrate the fall of Voldemort on July 31st. I'm sure there will be parades and lavish festivities, perhaps even fireworks!" His eyes gleamed in pleasure at the thought of it. "I daresay I'll not be too far off the mark if I venture a guess that neither of you, given your experiences and private natures, will want to take part in these public celebrations." He was not surprised when they both shook their heads. "So, this is my request. I ask that both of you, no matter where your lives may have taken you, spend that day *together*. Spend it together, just the two of you, in the same room, from midnight to midnight on the thirty-first of July each year, in lieu of the other celebrations set to mark the occasion. I will leave it to you both to decide the particulars, as long as you adhere to these few conditions that I have set."
Harry's mind was spinning. As he heard the sharp intake of Snape's breath, he realized that he had been holding his own. He exhaled slowly, as he cast a furtive glance in the Potions Master's direction. All color had drained out of the man's face as he struggled for words.
"Albus," he faltered, "for how long?"
Harry noticed that neither of them had dared to ask why.
"Oh, I don't know, Severus. That detail will sort itself out in time. This is not a legal contract, you know, simply a dying man's last request." The blue eyes twinkled with mischief now. "I have set some things in motion, and if you agree to do as I ask, you will both be notified when the magical obligation has been fulfilled."
Something seemed to settle in the old man's face as he realized that this final task was almost completed. "Well, what say the two of you? It's not a written contract, but mind you, your word will be binding."
Harry cut his eyes to Snape, expecting to see anger there, but was surprised when he saw only sadness...and resignation.
Taking a breath, he squeezed the hand he held and looked into the waiting blue eyes. "I promise, Professor. I'll honor your request." Now the eyes swiveled to the older man, who took a moment longer than Harry before saying, "Of course, Albus. You have my word." The Headmaster nodded at him solemnly, then sank further back into the pillows.
They stayed with him for some time, chatting softly when he seemed to momentarily strengthen, sitting quietly when he dozed off.
Suddenly the eyes flickered open, wide with amazement, and they heard him speak for the last time. "Ah. Now for the great adventure." Then the eyes were still.
When it was obvious that he was gone, Harry began to cry silently, watching as Snape leaned over to close the eyes with a hand. They sat awhile longer with him, both lost in their memories of the man.
Harry became aware that a hand had rested on his shoulder, then Snape said softly, "Potter. Come."
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