Something rough and scratchy scraped over his lips. Severus's nose twitched, tickled by something. Already beginning to scowl, he opened his eyes. The wretched Kneazle had evidently decided to wash his face. Her rough little tongue lapped at his skin like wet sandpaper.

"Fiend," he grumbled.

Then he blinked, his vision expanding to include the crowd of people gaping at him.

He sat up, one hand on the kitten, the other wiping his unpleasantly damp face. As he took in the ruin of the hospital wing, he remembered.

The Hundred Year Sleep.

And he had woken up… to Fiend?

He looked down at her. Her golden eyes were watching him solemnly, her front paws placed on his chest as she leaned up toward his face, evidently wanting another kiss.

Taking into consideration the fact that she had just saved his life, he decided to indulge her, and kissed her lightly on the nose.

"Has the world gone mad?" George Weasley asked hoarsely.

The gobsmacked expressions on every single face were entirely worth his effort. Perhaps, he contemplated, he should show affection more often. His relationship with Fiend seemed to utterly flabbergast everyone who observed it.

He took the opportunity to glance around at them all. Minerva was alive, bandaged, but alive. No one else seemed harmed.

"Where are Lestrange and the Healer?" he asked, as coolly as if he hadn't just been on his deathbed.

"Lestrange is - er - dead," Potter said, with a less-than-subtle glance at Alice Longbottom. "The Healer is on her way to the Ministry for a trial."

"Now," Madam Pomfrey said, leaving Minerva's side to come, to Severus's exasperation, to his. "Let's have a look at you."

"I'm fine," Severus said.

"You were - er - injured," Potter pointed out.

"There is no need to mince words, Potter. I am well aware of what happened." He stroked Fiend's head pointedly. A few people looked guilty, particularly the Longbottoms and Minerva. The youngest Weasley boy suddenly went rigid.

"Hang on," he said.

Potter and the Granger girl both winced.

"This is what happened to me, isn't it?" he said, glaring between the two of them. "Well? Isn't it?"

"Er… yeah." Potter didn't quite meet the boy's eyes.

"But - but -" Weasley gave him a disturbed look. "But you were the one - when I woke up - you didn't -"

Potter cleared his throat. Weasley, looking nauseated and confused, rounded on the Granger girl. "But why didn't you?"

Severus watched in amusement as the girl's eyes went wide with alarm. "I - er - I just - well -"

"Fascinating though this is," he said, deciding to help the poor creature out, "surely there are matters of greater concern?"

Everyone stared at him. "Like what?"

Severus opened his mouth, then shut it. He frowned. There really wasn't anything he could think of.

"Over," Frank said, smiling slightly at his expression.

"Yes," Mr. Weasley said, with a relieved sigh. "It is over."

"Miss Granger has yet to return my books," he said, grasping at straws.

"Well, that's dire," the Weasley girl muttered. Everyone laughed, although the Granger girl looked embarrassed.

"There really doesn't seem to be anything wrong with you," Madam Pomfrey said, frowning down at him. "Still -"

"If you drug me again, I will hex you," Severus warned. In his lap, Fiend hissed a little.

"Better watch out," George Weasley muttered. "Or he'll set his kitten on you."

Everyone laughed at that. Severus scowled, standing up and sweeping Fiend into his arms. "If it truly is over, then you will excuse me. I have a cactus to tend to."

No one quite seemed to know what to say to this, even Madam Pomfrey, and he managed to billow out of the ward without anyone stopping him. He was almost at the end of the corridor when he heard someone's shoes slapping against the stone behind him.

"Yes, Longbottom?" he said, watching the boy approach.

"Just - er - I'm sorry," he said, panting a little from the run.

"Sorry? For what?"

"For - well." He blushed. "For not being able to lift the curse. Sir."

Severus stared at him. The boy kept getting redder.

"Don't be absurd, Longbottom. I assure you, I do not love you."

He hadn't expected the pain that slashed across the boy's face, or the defiant clench of his jaw that followed.

"No, sir. Of course not."

Severus rolled his eyes, shifting Fiend in his arms. "You gave me this absurd Kneazle, did you not?"

Longbottom opened his mouth, closed it, reddened again. "Well… yeah."

Severus gave him a long look. "Then that is enough."

They looked at each other for a long moment. Then the boy extended his hand. Severus took it.

"I hope I see you again, sir."

Severus released his hand, frowning. "Bizarrely, Longbottom… the feeling is mutual."

Neville returned to the hospital wing only slowly. He half-wished he hadn't followed Snape out - what had he been thinking? Of course Snape didn't expect him to be able to lift the curse. And of course Snape wouldn't have been able to lift the curse for him. It would have been disturbing if he could have, in fact.

So then why did Neville feel so uncomfortable?

Was it just that he pitied Snape? That he didn't want him to feel alone?

Or that he, Neville, didn't want to feel alone?

It was all too confusing. He trodded back into the hospital wing, frowning as the new rush of voices swelled around him.

"- knew he was mental -"

"- cactus was from Neville -"

"- didn't seem too surprised about the curse -"

And, above all, Ron's voice plaintively demanded, "Seriously, Hermione, why didn't you break the curse?"

Neville cringed at the thought of hearing that conversation, so, like Snape, he redirected. "There really are some things we should deal with," he said.

Everyone stared at him. Unlike with Snape, though, he didn't turn red.

"Professor McGonagall, we need to know where the Lestranges took you so we can send someone to make sure they didn't leave anything dangerous lying around. And for all we know they had other prisoners."

Everyone flinched.

"I know Lestrange was the last Death Eater on the loose, but we didn't know about the Healer, and there could be others we don't know about."

"The Aurors will question the Healer about that," Mr. Weasley said hastily.

"But she might not know, either," Neville said, frowning. "We already know Voldemort didn't trust anyone with everything. Snape had no idea about the Healer, and Voldemort trusted him more than anyone at the end."

"But then how can we find them?"

Neville frowned. "We might not be able to. But Hogwarts needs better wards. Right now anyone can just walk in -"

"There are wards," McGonagall said. "But they are not at full strength."

"How can we strengthen them?" Bill Weasley asked.

"I'm afraid," she said, frowning, "that until Hogwarts has not only a headmistress but four Heads of House, the wards cannot be fully restored. At present only Professors Sprout and Flitwick have remained as Head of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, respectively. Professor Slughorn has resumed his retirement and I have not yet found a replacement for him - or for myself. There are several staff vacancies that need to be filled - Transfiguration, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Muggle Studies, and Professors Babbling and Vector have just informed me they will not be returning next term, so the Ancient Runes and Arithmancy posts will need to be filled as well."

The others gaped at her. "But that's half the staff!" Hermione exclaimed weakly.

"Indeed." Professor McGonagall looked tired and mildly irritated. "The defenses of Hogwarts depend upon the pillars of strength within the school - in other words, on the teachers, particularly those who have followed in the founders' footsteps, which is to say, the Heads of House. Until that strength is restored, I'm afraid the school's natural defenses are limited."

"Then we have to set up other wards in the meantime," Neville said. "Hogwarts is too important to let Death Eaters or any other Dark wizards break in like this." He gestured to the demolished outer wall as well as to McGonagall. "Even without Voldemort, they could destroy everything."

There was a murmur of agreement.

"I'll see to the wards," Bill said. "I'll talk to Kingsley, he might be able to spare some of the Ministry's Wardens to help -"

"I can help, too," George said. He was still more subdued than he had been, but he grinned slightly as he added, "Fred and I developed quite a few booby traps, you know - we hadn't quite perfected most of them, but the only person who could suffer from that is the one breaking in, so…"

Bill and Ron both grinned.

"I might be able to help resolve some of your staffing issues, Minerva," Mr. Weasley said. "I can think of several people who had to leave the Ministry last year who're looking for work now, and some of them might be qualified. I know there's at least one decent Arithmancer…"

"Thank you, Arthur," McGonagall said. "And as soon as Madam Pomfrey declares me fit, I shall take the Aurors to the house where the Lestranges imprisoned me."

"I'll come," Frank said quietly.

Beside him, Alice shuddered. "I won't."

There was a slightly uncomfortable silence. Then Bill said, "I could use your help with the warding, Alice. If I remember correctly, you had some experience with warding during the last war?"

Neville watched his mum nod. She still looked pale, and she kept casting Neville uncertain glances. Quietly, Neville said, "Today, I think we should just go home."

"Of course," Bill said hastily. "And we can celebrate - Lestrange might or might not have been the last of the Death Eaters, but either way, knowing he's not a threat anymore is more than enough cause for celebration."

There was a murmur of agreement at that. Ginny grinned. "Sounds like we should have a party."

"You will not be having a party here, Miss Weasley," Madam Pomfrey said sternly.

Everyone laughed, but filed out quickly as her stern look sharpened. McGonagall looked grateful at their departure. As they left, Neville heard her sigh, "Dumbledore really should have recruited a better balance of the Houses into the Order. Gryffindors are so loud…"

"So," Ginny said, eyeing Harry. "Party at Grimmauld Place?"

"Sounds good to me," he said, grinning back.

Ron was still scowling at Hermione. He looked about ready to raise the subject of the Hundred Year Sleep again, so Neville said, "I think Snape really was serious about those books, Hermione. You should probably get them back to him sooner rather than later."

Hermione looked a little daunted at this, so Neville cast a pointed glance at Ron, who was too busy frowning at Hermione to notice.

"Oh!" Hermione said, catching on. "Oh, er, of course. I'll ask Kreacher where to take them."

"Why can't Kreacher take them himself?" Ron asked grumpily.

"Because Snape'd flay him alive," Harry said, obviously catching on as well. "You probably should take them right away, Hermione."

"Yes," she said, trying to look depressed at the prospect. "Yes, I think I should."

Ron made an annoyed noise, but didn't argue. As the Weasleys and Harry and Hermione trudged off across the grounds, Neville and his parents slowed.

"I'm not sure I'm up for a party," Alice said quietly.

"No," Frank agreed.

"No," Neville echoed. "I'd rather just spend time with the two of you."

They smiled at him, wrapping their arms around him from either side and wandering slowly toward the gate, supporting each other the whole way.

Snape had just finished dripping the carefully measured drops of water into the Mimbulus mimbletonia when he heard a knock at the door. Fiend, perking up immediately, dashed to the door before turning to stare at him impatiently. He rolled his eyes, approaching slowly and rather reluctantly.

No doubt the Gryffindors had devised some other crisis in the mere hour he'd been gone. Couldn't they at least have waited until he'd had a nap?

Yet, when he opened the door, he found to his surprised amusement that it was Miss Granger, clutching his books and looking about as nervous as when she'd taken her O.W.L.s.

"Miss Granger," he greeted. "I see you have finally decided to return my possessions."

She bit her lip. "Er… yes, sir. Here you are."

She held the books out, and he took them. To his surprise (and the rapid evaporation of his amusement), she didn't promptly leave.

"Is there some reason you're still here?" he asked cuttingly.

"Er… well, yes. You see, the others are having a party and I'm, er…"

"Hiding from Mr. Weasley?"

She blushed, but nodded.

"And how is that my concern?"

"Well, you see, sir, I was hoping we could… er… discuss your books." She said the last three words in such a breathless rush it took him a few seconds to puzzle them out.

When he did, he could only stare at her, half-mocking, half-incredulous. "You wish to discuss my Dark Arts books."

"Yes, sir." She frowned. "They were very disturbing. And, well…"


She scowled, but didn't deny it. "In a horrible way," she grudgingly admitted.

"Yes," he said, smirking.

"Why do you like them?" she blurted suddenly. "The Dark Arts."

"Why have you chosen to harrass me?" he countered. "You can just as easily avoid your little friend by ensconcing yourself in a library."

Her scowl returned, much more pronounced than before. Her bushy hair seemed to bristle. "I don't spend all of my time at the library!" she exclaimed, crossing her arms. "Reading is not my only ability!"

"No. You also excel at regurgitating information and breaking the rules."

She snorted. It was a very delicate sort of snort, the kind of sound Fiend might have made. He suppressed a surge of amusement.

"You're one to talk about breaking rules! Those are your Dark Arts books!"

He narrowed his eyes at her. She gulped in a very gratifying way. "Sir," she added in a whisper.

"Why are you here?" he asked, feigning boredom. In fact, he was rather curious for an answer.

She teetered, clearly debating how to answer him. Finally, she deflated. "I'm avoiding the party."

"That is not my concern." He moved to close the door.

"And - and I don't understand what Ekrizdis meant." She flushed scarlet, as if not understanding were a source of serious shame. "When he said that 'possibilities recoil from each other, too entwined to drift apart, but forever separated -'"

"'- by the gates of reality,'" Severus finished. "As always, you regurgitate perfectly, Miss Granger."

She frowned. "But what does he mean? That whole section about possibilities - he goes on and on - and I just didn't understand."

Severus considered mocking her for it, but decided to take pity on her. "No one does."

"What do you mean?"

He did mock her, then. "I was already using single-syllable words, Miss Granger, I don't know how I can make it any simpler for you."

She flushed. "I've read that quote in other books. People wouldn't use it if it didn't mean anything."

He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "It is poetry. Its meaning is meant to be ambiguous."

She looked torn between surprise that he would willingly pronounce a word as frivolous as "poetry" and disgust with the same word herself.

"But what are the gates of reality?"

"A metaphor, no doubt. Your inability to grasp that not everything is literal -" He froze suddenly, too startled by his recollection to even finish insulting her.

And, after all, maybe she was right.

What was it that eerie old man had told Frank Longbottom? There were three gates, of death, of time, and the third -

"Of worlds," he muttered.

"What?" Miss Granger asked, confused.

"Come in," he said suddenly. Then, remembering that his sitting room was also his bedroom and that she was a former student, he commanded, "No, don't."

She stared at him, off-balance and bewildered.

"Never mind," he said, shaking himself. "I wish to be alone."

"But -"

"I wish to think."

"We could talk about it," she said, sounding very disgruntled.

"I could as easily consult my books. I have never received the impression that you are capable of saying anything that has not been written by someone else first."

She didn't flinch, as she would have while she was his student. Instead she huffed and rolled her eyes. "Because you gave me so many opportunities to express original thought in your classroom."

That actually stung. He was a little impressed. "Fine," he snapped. "If you are capable of setting foot in an establishment that does not lease out books then I will meet you for tea next Wednesday at two in the afternoon at the Rivers Coffeehouse in Cokeworth."

Her eyes widened at this flood of information, but he slammed the door in her face before she could answer. Fiend looked up at him and mewed. Absently, he bent down to stroke her ears, then straightened. He wondered if Minerva would be well enough to join them by Wednesday. Perhaps he should invite Frank Longbottom as well…

He paused halfway through the thought, considering. Frank Longbottom deserved to move on with his life. He deserved to enjoy the time with his wife and child that had been denied to him for so many years.

And Minerva would be too busy with her headmistress duties to indulge Severus in this mystery, if she even wanted to see him at all. After everything, he would not be surprised if she didn't.

Even the Longbottom boy, who had expressed a wish to see him, would not be crossing his path any time soon. They simply had too little in common. Severus could not imagine a situation in which they would see each other again, unless some new crisis befell the magical world.

Of course, there was a very, very small chance the existence of a gate to other realities might cause problems for them. After all, if there were other realities, then the Dark Lord might still be out there in some of them.

He felt again that strange sensation from the hospital wing, of searching for something wrong, of grasping at straws. For several moments, he simply stood there, trying to understand why he would be so desperate to believe the war wasn't over.

Was it because he hadn't expected to survive? Because he didn't know what to do with himself now that he had? His project of saving the Longbottoms was at an end. His projects of saving Potter, the Order, the world…

Ekrizdis's gates would be an intriguing project. And it would give him an excuse to reach out to the others.

He frowned. Was that it? That he needed an excuse?

He thought again of the people in the hospital wing, staring at him in complete bafflement as his Kneazle kitten, the only creature in the world that cared for him, woke him from the cursed sleep. An hour ago, it had amused him. Now…

Now he felt a wave of loneliness and, even more embarrassingly, insecurity flood through him. If ever he had needed proof that he was unloved…

He had told Longbottom Fiend was enough, but was she? In the moment Lestrange had cast the curse on him, he had known very well that no human would be able to lift it. He had regretted that, regretted everything. And he had wanted…

What? Friends? He sneered at himself. And yet…

And yet, in that moment, he did not want to be alone.