Author's Note

Harry Potter belongs to J. , and so does his universe, unless I should happen to awaken one morning to find my closet full of robes and a wand on my nightstand. I am only borrowing, there is no money to be made here.

I've discovered this pairing late, after a large number of very talented authors have been playing in this sandbox for several years now. I have the rare privilege of following in their footsteps and their work has influenced mine, primarily the common concept of the marriage law. There is one writer in particular to whom I owe a great debt, and that is the wonderfully talented SGCbearcub. I am in her debt second only to Rowling herself. I have taken from her pages the elemental marriage, Hermione's status, and the complex web of honor and duty which lies at the core of her pureblood wizarding society. I hope that I have taken these ideas and made them at least somewhat my own. In any case, I humbly give all the credit for these foundations of my story where credit is due, and hope that she will consider me a grateful beggar rather than a villainous thief. I do, however, claim sole ownership of all errors to be found here.

This story veers seriously AU of canon sometime following HBP and before DH, and contains spoilers, starting in the next paragraph. It is rated M for good reason. If you should not be here, please find a story suitable for your age and remember me when you turn 18. Childhood is fleeting. Stories will still be here. The pairing is SSHG.

Our tale begins shortly before the last battle and takes up in the middle of things. I may later write prequels set during this time. In the event that I do not, what you should know is this. (LAST WARNING: SPOILERS!) Albus Dumbledore, knowing that he was dying from the effects of Slytherin's ring and the poison he ingested to get to the locket, decided to use his death where he felt it would do the most good. Severus Snape took Dumbledore's life because Dumbledore required it of him. All in good time the truth came out but Kingsley Shacklebolt was not quick to believe anything good of Snape. There is still a great deal of bad feeling between the two men.

Following her parents' murders, Hermione tricked Snape into first getting caught up in a marriage law bond with her, and then an elemental marriage (thank you SGCbearcub.)

Harry and Ron fled Hogwarts immediately following Dumbledore's funeral and have been fugitives from the Death Eaters ever since. They have been having their own adventures destroying horcruxes, as well as otherwise making life difficult for Voldemort. But as I said earlier, those may be stories for another day.

As this story begins, Hermione and Severus' marriage is an established fact. Hermione was really over 18 when they married, thanks to her use of her time-turner, and the marriage law has made a complete hash of the very necessary rules preventing teachers from having relationships with students in any case. I hope that I have sufficiently warned off everyone who might be upset by the contents of this story. If not, understand that it contains violence, strong language, mature concepts, character deaths and some non-graphic sex.

I hope you enjoy reading as much as I have enjoyed writing.

A late spring thunderstorm poured down on London, periodically lighting the windows and rattling the shutters of #12 Grimmauld Place. The paintings were quiet, for once, and so was everyone else. The air crackled with that nervous energy common to all warriors who know they are very near the start of a battle. Nymphadora Tonks said, "I don't think they're coming tonight."

Ginny Weasley replied, "Harry said he was, in that note he sent Hermione. They got the last horcrux except Nagini. He's coming."

"Who's that?" Both women reached for their wands, but almost immediately relaxed. It was a group from Hogwarts.

Ginny whispered, "I still can't get used to that!"


"Hermione and Snape!"

"Shhh, they'll hear you! You don't want points off a week before summer break, do you?"

Ginny shut up, but she wasn't sure she had ever accepted that her old friend Hermione Granger was now Madame Snape. She had been there when Hermione had learned of her parents' deaths, and she had seen something irrevocably change. But that her friend had deliberately entangled Snape in a Marriage Law union-then moved heaven and earth to prove he had only killed Dumbledore because their former headmaster had forced him to do it-Ginny wasn't sure anything that had happened the last year was real. Dumbledore wasn't supposed to die. Her boyfriend and her brother weren't supposed to be out Merlin knew where doing Merlin knew what. Her mother wasn't supposed to age before her eyes every time they got word of another new murder.

Hermione asked, "Are we the first ones here?"

"Mum and Dad are somewhere, and so is Remus." Ginny replied. She got up to take their wet cloaks.

The storm showed no sign of clearing as the Order assembled by twos and threes. Hermione caught up with Tonks, because she saw Ginny all the time at Hogwarts but really only got to talk to Tonks at Order meetings. As usual, Snape and McGonagall were talking about school business.

The Aurors were the last to arrive, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody and Ginny's brother Bill. This last greeted his sister by yanking her braid. She gave him a very adult look that reminded him of their mother. "What are you, five?"

Bill Weasley only grinned, completely unrepentant, and Ginny found herself returning the grin in spite of herself. Bill was like that.

Moody went over by the fireplace with McGonagall and Snape, after a hello to his partner Tonks. Ever since it had been proven to Moody's satisfaction that the potions master had not been at fault for Dumbledore's death, Moody always seemed to be on hand whenever Snape and Kingsley Shacklebolt were in the same room. Oh, not that Snape and Moody couldn't have their disagreements-rather entertaining to listen to, if you could pull it off without getting caught. The thing was, Moody understood that sometimes dark times required dark measures. Just because he'd never been caught performing an Unforgivable didn't mean he'd never done it, on the side of the angels. Ginny was veteran enough to understand how that was possible.

Kingsley Shacklebolt, however, had a much more black and white view of right and wrong than the more pragmatic Alastor Moody. He had never really accepted Snape, had made no secret of the fact that he thought Snape should have let his Unbreakable Vow kill him rather than take Dumbledore's life. Everyone else understood that Shacklebolt was being an idiot. Several of them had told him so. For that matter Dumbledore's ghost had told him so. At the same time, though, it was Shacklebolt's unwavering sense of right and wrong that made him such an asset to the Order.

When Kingsley came in, Hermione used the pretext of bringing out a tea tray to place herself near her husband. If the discussion got hot and either man lost his temper, and Merlin knew that was all too likely, her help was likely to be needed to separate them. Before Moody separated them with a boot up someone's arse.

Shacklebolt said, "For the record, I still think bringing Harry out of hiding now is a bad idea. I don't think he's ready to duel He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named yet. He could lose and then where will we be?"

Snape was not one to back down from a challenge, even when it would have showed greater common sense to let someone else answer. "There comes a point where delay will work to Voldemort's advantage. Potter isn't protected by Lily's blessing any longer. As long as Potter is on the run, he is on the defensive. When I could report on Voldemort's plans there was little chance Potter would have been taken by surprise. Now, if we want any chance of choosing the battlefield we need to act."

Minerva laid an gently restraining hand on Shacklebolt's arm. "He's right, Kingsley, and you know it. We've been all through this a thousand times. If we don't do something quickly, then how do we know Voldemort can't make more horcruxes? We could be back where we were a year ago. We can't fight a war of attrition with him, we've lost too many already. If we don't act now, we may never be able to."

At that, the door opened and Harry and Ron walked in.

After the round of handshakes, hugs and kisses, things got down to business. Harry was different than Ginny remembered. A boy had left Hogwarts. A young man had returned, taller, filled out with the wiry muscles of a runner. They had been living rough, his boots were scuffed and his dark blue pants were well-worn. He carried his wand in a wrist sheath and his hair had been cut close enough to stay out of his way. He still wore those round glasses, but the bright green eyes behind them were harder, colder. Ginny gave him an anxious once-over. He looked well enough.

Likewise, Ron had matured greatly over the last year. His hair was longer, tied back with a black string. He stood as tall as his brothers now.

The two of them had great news. They had found out about an old LeStrange property that hadn't yet been found and raided by the Ministry. They had observed several Death Eaters entering and leaving.

The decision was made to make a lightning raid on the place, intending to hit just past dawn. Of course if Harry got a chance at Voldemort he would take it, but Nagini was the objective of this battle. They would only get one shot at one or the other of them, and there was no sense killing Voldemort until the snake Nagini was destroyed.

That, and depriving the Dark Lord of one of his places of refuge. Not to mention, as Moody had said with a toothy grin, the services of a few Death Eaters.

They also had bad news. Voldemort had dragons with him.

Ginny waited to find out which room Harry was taking before she went to her own room. She wasn't planning on sleeping, but her brothers didn't need to know that.

Harry Potter waited for the crowd to thin out before he and Ron took the chance to talk to Hermione and Snape alone. Harry had a hard look in his eyes as he turned to Snape. "I was wrong about you. I won't bother apologizing, it isn't enough. Can you still work with me after all I've done? Because if you can't, I've made some very reliable contacts while I was away. You and Hermione can disappear, and I'll be keeping Voldemort a bit too busy to bother looking for you."

It would have been a lie to say they weren't tempted to accept that offer. They could leave Britain behind, go somewhere that Voldemort had never heard of, and live out their lives in peace. But looking at each other, they silently agreed that there would be no cowardly retreat. Honor and duty were everything. Hermione felt like she was watching the last lifeboat leave. But they had known what was coming. She wouldn't falter now.

"Albus should have told you what he had planned," Snape replied. "I don't blame you for accepting the evidence of your own eyes."

Hermione nodded. "We're with you all the way, Harry. What's past is gone."

Ron looked at her and nodded, gave her a smile that was full of regrets. She was right about that. What was past was gone. His gentle bookworm was a memory.

Later that night, Ginny tapped at Harry's door. When he opened it, she slipped inside and came into his arms. "I've missed you so much, Harry. Pretending I didn't, that I was happy over our supposed breakup, was the hardest thing I've ever done."

He kissed her. "We'll only have to pretend for a little while longer," he promised.

Ginny dropped her robe, leaving no doubt that Harry wasn't the only one who had grown up over the last year. "I mean to be with you for the rest of my life. Starting now."

Harry thought about her parents, and her brothers. He thought about all the reasons this was probably a bad idea. But they weren't kids sneaking a snog in the astronomy tower late at night. They were warriors and in the morning they were going to beard Voldemort in his den. They were old enough to know they might not come back, and that was the real loss of innocence. He locked the door and spelled off the light.

Both of them were virgins, so there was some initial fumbling and they both found themselves laughing. Like every young couple before them, though, they learned that Mother Nature knew what She was doing. The initial pain was brief, and after that, passion took over. Finally they fell asleep holding each other.

Hermione lay awake in the darkness beside her husband. "Hermione, I want you to hang back from the main fighting tomorrow," Snape said.

"And why do you think I would agree to do that?"

"Because you are too valuable an asset to be risked prematurely, and you know it."

Hermione hesitated, then nodded. There was no room for false modesty, and none for illusions that either of them or their potential child would survive the end game-for soon after their elemental marriage, Hermione had discovered that she was pregnant. They would not be able to kill the Dark Lord, but they could sell their lives dearly and hurt him very badly before they died, leaving him to face Harry injured and with his energy depleted. That was understood between themselves, but for the sake of the others they must maintain the polite fiction of a happily ever after, and they had told no one else about the baby. To make sure Voldemort would fight them first, they had to be seen tomorrow, and they had to anger the Dark Lord enough to get caught up in a duel with them when next they met. "There's always a chance it will all come down to it tomorrow," she said. "I think he'll apparate out when we kill Nagini, but he might just summon his army and have done with it."

"Do you have unfinished business?"

She laughed. "Everyone I have to say goodbye to is right here in this room. There's nothing left unsaid to anyone else still living."

He heard the silent admission that there was plenty left unsaid to the departed, and that was certainly true of them both. Their marriage had not been based on love, but rather on honor, compassion, justice. Those were good things, but a nineteen year old young woman on the eve of battle deserved more than he could give her. "I will not object if you make your peace with Weasley. He loves you. I'm sure he would be happy to be the other man for one night at least, and I would wager that you would rather spend tonight with him rather than here."

She winced, unseen in the darkness. "That is generous of you," she said, and she meant it. "No. It would only be cruel to go back to him now when I can't offer him any kind of a future. I knew there wouldn't be any going back to Ron and taking up where we left off. I'm…no longer a woman who manages gentleness easily. It will be easier for him to say goodbye if he can keep his memories of the girl he once loved. And he isn't the boy I remember. I don't know what he and Harry have done to survive, and I don't want to know. It's better this way."

"That is wisdom better learned late than never. Entanglements in this game only provide hostages to fate, Granger."

She laughed. "Tell me how to avoid becoming entangled, then. If you are saying that you would rather be alone, though, I will respect that."

"No, Hermione, you know that I am a selfish man. I will not have you here if you would rather be somewhere else. But if it is your choice to stay then I will not nobly refuse you."

His kiss was not gentle. Hermione was content with that.

They gathered around the large dining table in the predawn light, eating quickly while Harry sketched out what they knew of the safehouse. It was a small rural cottage with only three exits, a door and two windows. There was almost certainly something underground, but they had no way to know what. They let the Aurors plan the entrance, since that was what they were trained to do. Bill Weasley would go first, because he was a curse breaker and he was certain that the building would be warded. Once he got them to the door, things would get interesting. Shacklebolt gave the younger members of the group a little more direction than he would their elders. "Make sure of your targets. You can't expect them to be conveniently wearing their please-hex-me-now Death Eater costumes. They'll most likely be wearing ordinary robes like ours. Remember that friendly fire ISN'T. Got it, Neville, Luna?"

"Yes, sir."

"Once I kick that door, all hell is going to break loose. It will be exactly like the raid on Hogwarts, only confined to a smaller area and we're the ones breaking in this time. They'll be throwing Unforgiveables like rice at a wedding. Every one of you has one favorite spell that puts your enemy out of the fight, use it and don't hold back. The objective is to stop them casting straight away, and leave them in some condition for us to pick them up afterwards. Dead or alive, I don't care. I don't want to see any cases of buck fever in there because it will get you killed. Is that understood? Ginny?"

"Yes, sir."

"Harry, no heroics. We bloody well need you around to take out Voldemort. Until that's done you are not expendable, no matter who you see getting hurt. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sir. I won't put anyone else in danger keeping me out of trouble."

"Did you recognize anyone you saw in there?"

Harry nodded. "We saw Goyle's dad a few times, and probably Bellatrix LeStrange. It was dark though." He buckled the Sword of Gryffindor around his waist and set his foot on a bench to fasten the strap around his leg. Molly stopped him. "Let Ginny do that, it's good luck for a lady to gird her suitor for war."

People laughed and Harry turned red in the face, but he gave Ginny a quick kiss for luck after she fastened the buckle. "I won't argue with all the luck we can get," he said.

"Goyle's a brute but he throws a truly vicious cruciatus, and he uses it to disable opponents so he can kick their heads in later," Snape said. "Bellatrix is as dangerous as anyone we could face except for the Dark Lord himself. You may have heard that she is insane, but that only comes into play once she has a helpless captive to play with. She's quick, uses a variety of spells so that it's very difficult to defend against her, and she uses the people under her command intelligently. We can expect a well-thought-out retreat into the tunnels if Bella is in command. If she is there, taking her out of the fight quickly by any means necessary would be to our advantage."

Moody said, "I'd suggest having a core group of Harry, Ron, Ginny, Molly, Hermione and Severus at the rear. Let the rest of us mix it up on the front line. You half dozen hang back where you can see what's going on, and take out whatever targets of opportunity come your way. If they target Harry, you've got the firepower to defend him, even against LeStrange and a few of her closest friends. Do not let them take Molly out, a good healer is worth a dozen reinforcements as far as keeping a bit of bad luck from putting one of us out of action is concerned. Bill, you have an eye out in case you're needed to break a curse on someone, as well."

"Sir," Bill acknowledged.

Snape didn't like that. It went against his plans to get Voldemort's attention. But until they reached the Dark Lord it was probably the best solution. Either he or Minerva would have to stay with Harry, and she was best used on the front line. She could shift forms from hard-to-hit house cat to formidable witch in the blink of an eye and come up casting something extremely nasty. The Death Eaters knew his dueling style after better than twenty years on the inside. Minerva had plenty of surprises to show them.

Shacklebolt said, "If anyone is having second thoughts about this fool's errand, now is the time to say so. And I for one won't blame you a bit if you do."

Predictably, nobody volunteered to stay behind and guard the headquarters. They apparated to a staging point in an abandoned barn about a quarter mile from the Death Eaters' safehouse and approached stealthily along a hedgerow, with Bill and Moody leading the way. They bypassed several wards without bringing them down, which would have alerted the people inside the house. The rain silenced their passage and gave them some concealment.

Hermione found herself breathing faster and having to rein in the urge to rush the house. It was finally time to pay someone back for her parents' deaths and her magic crackled right below the surface, ready to be unleashed.

"Steady," Snape told her quietly. "Keep your wits about you in there."

"I intend to. And you watch yourself. Remember we will need you too, at the last."

He nodded.

Bill and Moody crept right up to the front door and Bill went to work on it. Moody took out his glass eye and held it up to the corner of one of the windows. He made a couple hand signals to Shacklebolt, who translated that there were three in the cottage. Minerva shifted and prowled through the unmown grass, and leapt up onto the rain barrel to check it out for herself. Several more of them worked their way up to positions as near the house as they could get.

Shacklebolt kicked the door and they poured into the building, taking down the three lookouts before they knew what was happening. It was Crabbe, the younger Goyle, and some blonde woman that no one recognized off hand. They left the three well bound and recovering from stunners, and they searched the house.

Bill found a trap door hidden under a glamour which made it appear to simply be part of the floor. He unraveled a particularly nasty acid curse and opened the hatch. Instantly the Aurors present fired a volley of stunners down the hole to take out any sentries, they bagged another one and hefted him up to join his friends, to get him out of the way. One by one they dropped into a narrow, low tunnel that forced them to go one at a time. The air smelled of mold and decay, and the timbers holding the place up looked anything but reliable. Bill was at the front again, which scared Molly half to death because they had to go single file. Likely only Moody, who was following directly behind him, could back him up if something went bad.

Aside from unraveling curses and hexes as they went along, though, they got through the tunnel without any trouble. It appeared that they had the stupendously good luck to have taken out the sentries before any of them could warn their comrades.

The tunnel ended in a door. Bill got them through it and Shacklebolt's promise that they would see all hell break loose came true seconds later. The door opened into a large cavern.

Bellatrix had taken Snape's position at Voldemort's right hand. Instantly curses and countercurses started flying. The air quickly took on an acrid stench. Ron took a cruciatus for his mother, and Ginny retaliated with a cutting charm that took Goyle's head half off. He was dead before he hit the ground and Ginny had no idea there would be so much blood. She fell to her knees beside her mother and brother and tried not to retch.

Snape moved to cover the Weasleys, he wasn't sure if Ginny would be able to recover from her first kill. Hermione moved up beside him, covering their other flank and looking for a clear target.

Severus got the clear shot of his life and yelled, "Tom! You always did like a damp cold hole in the ground!" He followed that with an incindius that lit Voldemort and everything around him on fire. The Dark Lord got a shield up that turned most of it. He responded with a killing curse, but Snape was already moving. The deadly green beam harmlessly impacted only stone. Molly screamed at the top of her lungs, the avada kadavra had shot right over her head and only missed her by a foot.

The effects of the cruciatus had worn off enough for Ron to see straight. He shook his head hard-and saw something moving low to the ground, escaping the flames. "Harry, there!"

"Got it. Cover me, I need to get closer."

Hermione said, "Don't worry, we'll get their attention. What say we give LeStrange something besides Harry to think about."

Snape pulled a potion bottle from a pocket in his cloak and threw it unerringly to shatter next to LeStrange. A thick gas that glowed a sickly green billowed out. Le Strange replied with a cutting charm that laid his arm open to the bones from wrist to shoulder, but the gas clung to her as she tried to dive out of it. She went down with her hands to her throat, choking horribly until she lay still. It was enough of a show to keep the enemy attention on her, or else making sure Snape didn't throw anything else.

Molly took the expedient route and kicked Severus' feet out from under him, so that she could get at his arm to stop the deadly bleeding. Ron got to his feet to help Hermione cover them. He got in on the light show act with a crystal shield.

Harry had ducked aside and hidden under his invisibility cloak, to creep up on his target. Nagini reared up and hissed as he dropped the cloak. His sword rang from its sheath and he attacked. The snake was mortally wounded, but in its death throes it managed to bite Harry on the leg right above his boot. The anti-poison charms that Harry had put up activated. He swore and nearly fell as they burned the poison out of his leg.

Voldemort roared his fury. There was a loud crack as he apparated, followed by his remaining Death Eaters.

Snape halted Molly's attention to his injured arm. "It will do, Madame Weasley. See to Harry."

After one last quick scan to be sure the bleeding wouldn't start again the instant her back was turned, Molly went to Harry.

Moody said, "Hey, Severus, I think something went wrong with your potion. Bella's still alive."

"Nothing of the sort, Alastor. It is keyed to dissipate as soon as the target stops struggling. Now you have her to question, though I doubt that you will get more out of her than comments on your parentage. She is far too much the fanatic."

"She's out of the way, that's what really matters. He-Who...fuckin' Voldemort wouldn't have gone anywhere she knows about."

Snape held his arm close to his chest and hissed as Hermione tried to see it.

"Let me help, Severus."

It didn't get past Moody that he acquiesced. She drew her wand down the injury, following Molly's work. The wound sealed cleanly, leaving a scar but no impairment that Snape could detect. "Thank you, Granger."

"You're welcome."

Moody asked, "What was the point in you attacking Voldemort? Were you trying to paint a bloody huge target on yourself?"

"We meant to do just that," Snape replied. "Potter may be the Chosen One who must strike the final blow, but we intend to even the odds a bit first."

Moody nodded. He wanted to object to a plan that was sure suicide, but the fact was they were all willing to lay down their lives in the next battle and call it a good bargain if they took the Dark Lord with them. "All right, then."

"I am so glad to meet with your approval."

"D'you always have to be such a git?"

"What, and disappoint everyone?"

Moody could see the merriment dancing in Hermione's eyes. He blustered to hide the way his heart clenched at the thought of these two so casually bartering their lives away to give Harry a better chance.

They regrouped at Grimmauld Place. Shacklebolt tried to start something about Snape's use of poison, but it was Hermione who snapped back at him. "I'll remind you that bitch planned the murders of my parents. If it had been up to me, I'd have given her to you in pieces, not coughing her head off but alive."

"While the Muggle casualties are regrettable-"

Snape's patience snapped. "Regrettable? Muggles they may have been, but tread carefully when you speak of my kin."

Moody grabbed Shacklebolt's arm and propelled him out of the room. "Kingsley, that's bloody fuckin' enough. This is a war. You can't tie our hands behind our backs and expect us to win it. If you can't get your head out of your arse on your own, I can give you a little help. You'll get it through your damn thick skull someday that there always are going to have to be a few of us black hearts around to do what damn well needs done! All so the likes of you can say your prayers and sleep safe in your beds at night. Maybe when you aren't feeling quite so holier than thou, you can say a prayer or two for us, because maybe we just might need a few while we're out there looking out for you."

Moody's voice trailed off as the two men left. Hermione wondered if Shacklebolt realized that Moody had probably just saved his life.

Snape said, "He had NO right to insult you to my face!"

"Merlin's ghost, Snape, he wants to be able to say you started it! Let it go. We don't have time to bother with him anymore."

He calmed himself with an effort. It was one thing to take offense to an insult to one's family. His Lady merely dismissed Shacklebolt and his slight as beneath her. "Let's go home."

"Give me a moment to let Harry know where to find us."

Soon afterwards they walked together out past the wards, to where they could apparate to Hogwarts.

The sun had come out and spring was in full bloom. The grounds were achingly beautiful. Hermione thought the flowers had never smelled sweeter when their day was almost ended, nor had the light ever danced brighter on the mirror-black surface of the lake. She held every memory in her heart as they walked up to the castle gate. But Snape did not climb the steps. Instead they took a stone path past Sprout's greenhouses through the trees to the lake shore, where a white marble monument stood.

After a moment where there had been two, there were three.

Hermione greeted Dumbledore's ghost with a smile. For all the pain and confusion that the old headmaster had left in his wake, the fact was that she loved him dearly.

Severus said, "It's done. Nagini is dead."

Dumbledore seemed to draw a heavy breath. "There's nothing else for it then."

"All that's left to be seen is whether we find him before he acts," Snape said in a voice colder than the depths of the black lake.

"It's too late now, but I was wrong, Severus. I abused the sacred trust of your oath to me, and I was too proud to listen when you tried to warn me that my motives were not pure enough for the spell to ever work."

"Albus, you were poisoned from the moment you put on that damned ring. You weren't thinking clearly. All obligations between us are now discharged. I forgive you freely and without reservation. Now be at peace so that we can also in the hours left to us!"

Albus bowed his head for a moment. There was immense power in that, power that crossed the veil and released the shackles of karma and obligation. Clearly Dumbledore had not expected to have that bill stamped paid in full-nor did he feel that he deserved it.

"Hermione, you have suffered greatly, more than most of us will ever truly understand. That was in no small part my fault. Yet you chose justice over vengeance, and acquitted yourself with the honor that I failed to display, restoring my own honor even as you made the truth about Severus' actions known. You are your parents' pride and joy, and dare I say mine as well. Do you know the destiny that awaits you?"

"Lady of Light," she said. Her voice trembled, and well it might.

Dumbledore had one last gift-his blessing. "May the gods who have blessed your marriage grant you both long lives of peace and prosperity, as well as all the happiness that has been so far denied you."

Severus said, "You set us on this path, Albus. Did you think it could ever end in anything but fire and blood?"

"I know I failed Tom and you, but that is on my soul. Your destiny is in your hands and the gods'. You will come through this if an old man's prayers are of any avail."

Hermione could not bear his sorrow. "As Severus said, all is forgiven. Whatever is going to happen, will. I'm not afraid."

Snape's arm circled her waist. He had long ago lost faith in anything except his own will. Now he had faith in her. Maybe that would be enough. If not, there would be plenty of time to decide whose fault everything was once they joined the castle ghosts.

Harry held Ginny close. "I'll never forget the first man I killed. He would have killed me if I hadn't but I still got sick every time I thought about it for a week."

"I orphaned the Goyle twins today, Harry, how do I live with that?"

"No matter how much we wish it could be different, he brought it on himself. You did what you had to do."

"And I will again, when the time comes. But for now, Harry, help me forget it."

He bent to kiss her. "I love you, Ginny."

It seemed like the whole world held its breath waiting for the clash between Light and Dark.