Ginny kissed her daughter goodnight and made her way down the gloomy upstairs corridor toward the staircase. As usual, she avoided looking directly at the line of stuffed house-elf heads along the walls. She much preferred the house at Godric's Hollow to this mausoleum. She and Harry had improved Twelve Grimmauld Place immeasurably in the sixteen years of their marriage, but it still had an edgy feel to it, little pockets of darkness that persisted in the face of cleansing spells and new paint. The stuffed elves had resisted removal, even though the derelict family tree tapestry had finally been pried and charmed off the drawing room wall and the portrait of Mrs. Black in the front hall had been tamed with threats and blandishments so that she no longer cursed their guests. Still the elf-heads stubbornly remained. Besides, Kreacher liked seeing his ancestors there on the wall.
Ginny started down the stairs, huffing a little at the thought of Kreacher and his territorial attitudes. It was not that she objected to having all the housework done and the regular, delectable meals served like clockwork. Let Hermione occupy her free time with reform schemes; to a pureblood like Ginny, the system of house elf servitude seemed perfectly normal. Not that the Weasleys had ever had house elves—except for Mum and me, she thought, with a thread of bitterness as thin but pervasive as the drop of wormwood in a Firewhisky Sour.
Two steps from the bottom she stopped, caught by the tone of Harry's voice coming from the room the family used as a parlour. It wasn't loud, or sharp, but something in it held a thrum of urgency she'd heard once before. She had been coming down the cellar steps at Godric's Hollow while they were still reconstructing the house. Harry had turned to her from below and spoken only her name, but in a tone that moved her instincts and her Seeker's reflexes to turn and snatch three-year-old Lily as she started to fall over the side to the stone-flagged floor below. She'd done it without thinking, without even realizing what she'd done till it was over. Now, hearing that note in Harry's voice again brought her to his side with no recollection of any of the steps in between.
He was sitting on the hearthrug, but the person who'd been fire-calling him had disappeared. One hand was over his eyes, the other held his glasses so tightly the frames threatened to snap. She crouched beside him, hand on his shoulder. "Harry?"
He dropped his hand and turned to look at her. His face was mottled as though he'd been crying, though his eyes were dry and there was a look in them—of panic and despair and crushing responsibility—that she hadn't seen there since the days after the fall of Voldemort, when in the midst of the victory celebrations all he could hear was the suffering of the wounded and the weeping of mourners. Her heart gave a lurch. "The boys?" she whispered. "My parents?"
He pressed her hand with his free one. "No, no," he said, "no one in the family. Everyone's… everyone is fine." Then, "That was Minerva. Professor Snape is dying."
Ginny felt a wave of cold as the blood sank out of her face. She forced herself not to clutch his shoulder as she said carefully, "Harry, Snape—Professor Snape," (it had always been "Professor" for him since the war, even in the midst of his nightmares, as though to make up for the years he'd denied the man his title) "he's… Harry, he's been dead for years. He died in the Shrieking Shack, you told me about it, remember? Listen, love, Hannah Abbot told you to call on her if you started having problems again. Let me owl her for an appointment—"
"No, you don't understand. I mean, he's alive. He's been alive all this time. Well, of course he has, he hasn't risen from the… Ginny, we never went back for his body, I never went back, and by the time I thought to ask he was—"
"You had a few other things on your mind at the time, if you'll remember—"
"Minerva said they've had him in some cottage in Scotland since the war, recovering from the snake bite first, then meeting secretly with Ministry representatives to clear him of murdering Dumbledore and mop up the Death Eater stuff, and they've been trying for years to get him to let them start—what was the word she used?—'reintegrating' him when this happened."
She stared at him, trying to make sense of the spate of information and to reconcile it with the anguish on his face. Guilt, yes, guilt went with being Harry Potter, she was used to that, but fear? "You said he was dying, though?"
He dropped his forehead onto her breast. "It's so stupid, Ginny, so bloody random and stupid, after all he's been through. He came up to London to get his potions license renewed at the Ministry and some drunken Muggle in a lorry ploughed into a crowd at a zebra crossing. Everyone else jumped out of the way, but Professor Snape—I suppose he's slower than he was, maybe preoccupied—he was hit full on and they don't expect him to survive." His voice had a reedy note of fear she'd hoped never to hear there again.
He rose to his feet and started to pace, picking up objects at random and putting them down again, pulling aside the window curtains and dropping them again without looking out, tripping on a footstool and stumbling on as though he hadn't seen it.
Ginny stood up and felt her muscles and her mind knit into a unified focus, the familiar crisis mode that took over when in the last minutes of a game the Snitch was in view and her opponent hadn't seen it yet, or when she had to keep her father from disintegrating in the wake of Fred's death, or when young James was failing at potions and tried to refuse to go back to Hogwarts. "Where is he, St. Mungo's?" she asked briskly.
"What? No, they Apparated him to Hogwarts; Minerva insisted, and suspended the wards to bring him in. Where are you going?"
"Aberforth will give us a room at the Hogshead, I'm sure. Kreacher can bring us a bag there. I was just going to ask Nigellus's portrait to let Minerva know we're on our way, and I'll Floo Lily to the Burrow."
"But—your game, we were supposed to see the Harpies tonight, and you were looking forward to—"
"For Merlin's sake, Harry, I'm not even their manager any more. They'll do fine without us there. You need to be at Hogwarts, and I need to be with you."
Harry set off on foot for the school as soon as they arrived in Hogsmeade by portkey. Ginny settled them into their room, finding Aberforth as gruff and unforthcoming as ever, then walked the familiar path up to the castle, where the news of the legendary Professor Snape's return, and the appearance of the famous Harry Potter, had already spread throughout the school. Ginny went to greet Headmistress McGonagall, then checked in on her sons—Al uncertain and a little clingy in the watery green gloom of the Slytherin common room, James bracing and optimistic by the Gryffindor fire.
By the time she made her way to the Hospital Wing it was in night mode, shadowy and still. She came into the long ward with memories overlaying the vacant beds along the walls like a palimpsest: herself lying there after Quidditch accidents or visiting Harry in the wake of his all-too-frequent injuries or standing helpless over Fred's lifeless body. She pressed down thoughts of the days she herself spent here after the destruction of Riddle's diary, when the foundations of her world were shaken and her own family seemed to have the faces of strangers, their worried smiles veiling an imagined menace. Those days were long past, she told herself firmly; she'd won the game. Voldemort was gone and she was a normal wife with a normal family.
But there lay Snape, like a message in a bottle, like the objects Muggles put in time capsules in the cornerstones of buildings, long and lean and dark, those piercing eyes shuttered and the jutting nose as pathetic and faintly risible in the passive face as the upturned toes of the unregarding dead. At first she couldn't see Harry at all, then her eyes adjusted to the gloom and what had looked like a hollow in the covers on Snape's far side resolved itself into her husband's dark head bent over the lifeless hand. His lips were pressed to Snape's knuckles. She stopped, while the solid pieces of her world, of the person she knew she was and the partner she thought she knew, began to shift against each other and splinter the perfect sphere of the life she had crafted.
Poppy Pomfrey glided up behind her and put a hand on her arm. Ginny turned and followed the Healer into the infirmary office. Poppy closed the door behind them. "His worst injuries are almost healed," she said wearily, "I think. Though it was a near thing. But he hasn't been taking care of himself; he's weak and malnourished, and I can't bring him back to consciousness. I'm hoping Harry's being here will help."
"Yes, that's Harry," Ginny said bitterly. "Always here to help." She turned from Poppy's puzzled face and went back into the ward. Harry was still kneeling by Snape's bed, but his head was up now, face naked and vulnerable without his glasses, peering at Ginny through the shadows.
She crossed behind him to sit on the next bed, dropping her hand to brush his hair as she passed. "Still no change?" Ginny whispered.
"No," he said aloud. "I can't get through. All I can do is keep talking to him, keep hoping for a response." He turned to look at her. "I can't leave him, Ginny. Poppy says I can stay the night. Would you mind terribly? I'm sure they can find a bed for you, too, here or elsewhere in the castle."
"No, I'll go back to Hogsmeade for the night," Ginny said, suddenly desperate to escape the dim infirmary and its smells and echoes and the sight of the dark, unconscious figure with her husband on his knees beside him. "I hope he—" she searched for a word that might express exactly what she hoped, but Harry had already turned back and was focused on that still, ungiving face.
She fled back to the village and up to their room, hurrying till she was almost running at the end, frantic for privacy, as though she were going to be sick. When the door closed behind her she cast a silencing charm and began methodically to throw everything breakable she could put her hands on against the wall.
When she arrived at the Hospital Wing the next day, after a tedious hour spent casting Reparo on all the things she'd smashed the night before, the sun was streaming in through the long windows. Snape was propped up on pillows and his eyes were open. Harry was on a chair next to his bed.
As she entered, she heard Snape talking in a voice roughened and threadbare but still retaining his characteristic velvet malice. "Enough of this, Potter. I did not remove myself from the wizarding world only to be hauled back so I might be subjected to your maunderings. I require rest and silence; I do not require your adolescent hero-worship."
Ginny felt a surge of defensive fury, but Harry only laughed. "Greasy git," he said. "Glad to see you're feeling better."
"Unobservant as always, Potter. It has been many years since my tenure as potions master required me to use a protectant gel against the frequent mishaps caused by imbecilic students. And I will feel 'better' when I am allowed to recuperate in solitude. I am sure Mrs. Potter will agree that your energies are more constructively utilised elsewhere."
"Professor Snape," said Ginny, coming forward, "I see your powers of observation are as acute as ever, at least. As to my husband's energies, your long absence may have obscured the fact that he is, in fact, an adult, not an adolescent, and how he spends his energy is his own decision. And it's Ms. Weasley, incidentally." She finished rather breathlessly and stood at the foot of his bed, pressing her slightly quaking knees against the iron foot rail. Snape was watching her with narrowed eyes and Harry was gaping. She had the uneasy feeling she'd betrayed more of her inner turmoil than she'd intended with that little speech.
They were all saved from responding to it by the arrival of Poppy with Snape's morning potions. "And if you two will please excuse us," she said, "I need to examine the professor's abdomen where the internal bleeding was the worst."
As Snape protested that he hoped he could be trusted to know the state of his own abdomen, thank you very much, Ginny said, "Harry, let's go to breakfast. The boys are eager to see you." With some reluctance, he allowed himself to be herded out of the infirmary. Ginny glanced back as they left; just as Poppy waved concealing screens around the patient, Snape sent her an unfathomable stare from those hooded black eyes.
Headmistress McGonagall had ordered places to be set for Harry and Ginny at the staff table in the Great Hall. They spent breakfast chatting politely and refraining from glancing toward James at the Gryffindor table or Albus over at Slytherin lest they embarrass them by their very parental existence. The boys joined them willingly enough afterwards, though, in the teachers' lounge beyond the head table.
"I haven't been in here since the Triwizard Tournament," Harry remarked, gazing around. James and Al rolled their eyes at each other. "OK, OK," their father laughed. "No reminiscences of ancient history, I promise."
"How is Professor Snape?" James asked. "They're saying he'll never wake up," he went on with the ghoulish glee of a teenager who'd never known serious loss.
"I heard," Al put in, "that if he does wake up, he'll have the mind of a three-year-old."
"Well, in that case you and he could be best friends, brat," James said.
"At least I have friends, bully," Al shot back, and they went into a mock scuffle.
"Enough, boys," Harry said. "For your information, Professor Snape is alive and awake, and his mind seems to be as sharp as ever; at least his temper is as bad as it ever was."
"So you and Mum will be leaving today?" Albus said hopefully. His anxiety of the night before seemed to have vanished with the coming of the sun.
"Yes—" Ginny started, but Harry cut across her.
"Actually, I think I'll stay on for a bit, just to see him on his feet again. Mum could go on home, of course, but I was thinking I'd hang about here at least till the Quidditch Cup match in two weeks."
"And 'Mum,' of course, has no interest in Quidditch whatever," Ginny put in acidly. "If you're here, I'm here, Harry."
"Oh, of course, dear," he said quickly. "I just thought—but no, that would be brilliant if you stayed on too. It's only that Lily—"
"Professor Flitwick was saying at breakfast that there's a spare bed in Ravenclaw if we wanted Lily to join us. I think he's hoping to bag a Potter for his House. So we'll all be one big happy family, yes Harry? Now, boys, it's time you got to class."
James and Al gave their parents their customary brief kisses on the cheek and plunged into the stream of students in the corridor outside the room, leaving Ginny and Harry alone together. She looked at him; his eyes met hers, then skittered away. "It's a beautiful day," she said. "I was thinking of walking around the lake."
"Good idea," Harry said in a tone he tried to make casual. "Have a good walk. I'm just going to, er, see what's going on upstairs."
Ginny walked down to the lake and stared at the giant squid for a while, stopped in on Madame Hooch to discuss Gryffindor's prospects in the upcoming Quidditch finals, then went into Hogsmeade to arrange for Lily to join them. Then she sat in the corner of the Three Broomsticks downing two pints of bitter and three bites of a ploughman's lunch before trudging back to Hogwarts.
Once in the castle, she ensconced herself in an uninhabited corner of the library and stared at the same page of a book on the goblin wars for the rest of the afternoon while her earlier conversation with her husband replayed itself again and again in her head.
"I know you're grateful to him, Harry, for all he did in the war, but he still treats you like dirt," she'd said before he left the staff lounge.
"That's just his way. I'm used to it."
"Used to it!" she'd exclaimed as Harry's indulgent tone forced illumination on her. "You like it, don't you?"
"Don't be daft, Ginny. But you have to admit, he's dead sexy when he talks like that—or when he talks at all, yeah?" Harry's ironic smile faded as he took in Ginny's expression. He'd tried to shrug off the comment with an uneasy chuckle, then turned on his heel and left the room.
Now Ginny came to herself with a start; it was too dark in the library to see the page she'd been failing to read. She got up stiffly, as though she'd aged thirty years in an afternoon, and started down to the Great Hall.
Harry managed to tear himself from Snape's side long enough to join her for dinner, but he was distracted and disappeared back to the Hospital Wing as soon as he decently could. Ginny went down to Hogsmeade and retrieved Lily from the Hogshead, where she'd arrived by portkey from the Burrow and was busy charming Aberforth out of his chronic bad temper. Ginny got her daughter settled into Ravenclaw and made the circuit of the castle to say goodnight to her sons.
After chatting with some of the staff in the lounge—looking up every time someone appeared in the doorway, hoping to see her husband—Ginny wandered down to Hagrid's and suffered through a gallon of strong tea, a plate of inedible rock cakes, and some clumsy attempts at social chat from the aging gamekeeper. She took a roundabout route back up to the castle, pausing at Dumbledore's tomb, glowing ghostly in the moonlight, and revisiting spots that had figured in the Battle. By the time she got back to the ward it was late.
She looked for Harry beside the bed, but his chair was empty. Then she saw his head, next to Snape's—but where was his body? Oh. Oh, there it was, stretched out beside Snape's attenuated form, outside the counterpane except for one arm stretched behind Snape's neck. She traced the line of it down under Snape's covers to where it continued across the older man's breast.
She stared for a long moment, then spelled the duvet from the next bed up and over Harry, not coming closer or using her hands except to flick her wand.
That night in the room at the Hogshead, Ginny—who prided herself on not being a weepy sort of woman—cried till dawn.
Ginny stood looking down through the window of the headmistress's office at the tableau on the grass below—Snape in a bath chair, legs covered in a blanket, head tilted back in the sun, eyes closed: Harry beside him, reading aloud.
"I don't know what I'm going to do, Minerva," she said. She turned back into the room and sat, taking McGonagall's proffered teacup with a nod. "It's been almost a month, and Harry is more wound up in Snape than ever. He's taken a leave of absence from the Ministry, for the first time in his life. Snape abuses him and he beams. I speak to him and he looks at me like someone he used to know. He hasn't slept in our room in Hogsmeade since we got here. And the few times we've been alone, if I touch him he… something is shifting, like when the tide of a game changes and you know you're going to lose unless you can think of some brilliant play."
"Ginevra, surely not?" Minerva said. "I know this is a difficult time, but I don't think there's reason to talk of winning and losing here. Of course Harry is affected by all this, it's only natural that he should—"
"I didn't say it wasn't natural, I said in fact it felt inevitable."
"Harry is fond of Severus, loves him in fact; we've all known that since he was a boy. But he's been married to you for—what is it now, sixteen years? You are his true love."
"Well, I'd have thought so till this happened. Though there was always something… But this, what's going on now, is new. I grew up with six brothers and a loving father, Minerva. I know what affection between straight men looks like. This isn't that. I also grew up knowing that my brother Charlie preferred men. If I'd suspected that was the case with Harry, I never would have married him. But I would swear that what we've had is genuine, that Harry wanted me, wanted to be with me."
"I wish I could advise you, Ginevra," Minerva said. "I'm afraid I have neither the experience nor the wisdom to deal with such a situation. Albus would have had both, of course…" Both women looked involuntarily to the portrait of Dumbledore. Ginny thought she saw a slit of blue below his closed eyelids, but the painted figure snuffled as though deep in sleep and she knew she'd get nothing from him on the subject.
"What will you do?" the headmistress asked.
Ginny set her teacup down on the desk with sudden decision. "I think I need to speak to my mother. May I use your Floo?"
Stepping out of the fireplace into the familiar kitchen of the Burrow, Ginny felt the fabric of her childhood, shabby and beloved, envelop her like a cloak. Suddenly unsteady, she half fell into a chair at the table and put her head down on her arms. Something pushed gently at her hand. "Mum," she said into the table, "not every one of life's troubles can be solved with a cup of tea." Then she remembered the troubles her mother had faced with no greater shield than a teapot and raised her head to apologise.
But the cup at her hand was filled with firewhisky. She raised her eyebrows. "How did you know I'd be needing this?"
Her mother canted her head toward the clock on the wall. The hand marked "Ginny" was poised halfway between "Home" and "Mortal Danger." "It's Snape, isn't it?" Molly said. "As soon as I heard he was back, I knew there'd be trouble."
"Did you, Mum? Why didn't I know that?"
"Well, you were just a girl, weren't you, and in love. You were too naïve to read what we adults could see: the way Harry's eyes followed that man whenever he was in the room, swanning about in his black robes like the queen of the sodding night-fairies."
Ginny choked on her firewhisky. "It's not funny, Mummy."
"Of course it is, Ginger-sweet. If you can't laugh now and again you'll not get through this."
"How will I get through it, any road? I could compete with some Ministry bint with blonde curls and a Glamoured bosom, but I don't know how to compete with this."
"I don't think you can compete with it. You need to stop thinking in terms of opposing teams for once and think about the goal, and how you're going to get to it."
"I don't understand. My goal is what it's always been, what I thought we'd got—to have a solid marriage and a happy family, like you and Dad."
Molly sighed, tracing patterns in the worn deal table with her firewhisky mug. "Did you know I have a degree in arithmancy?" she said.
"You—what? You have a—why is this the first I'm hearing of it? I'm a Certified Wizard Accountant, for Merlin's sake! Didn't you think that was something I'd like to know?" Ginny sputtered, trying to bring her attention off her own troubles and onto what her mother was telling her, and why she chose this moment to bring it up.
"I don't like talking of it, actually. Though I have enjoyed watching how good you are with numbers. I was happy when you left the Harpies and started your accounting business. I always half hoped you'd follow in my footsteps and do what I couldn't, but you were never interested in the divination aspect. You only enjoyed the mathematics; I liked the combination. I was offered a post at the Ministry, in fact."
"Why didn't you take it?"
"I met your dad, and he didn't want me to. As you know, your Granny Weasley was a cold, distant sort of woman, and with his father dying so young Arthur never had much of a family life. He had a picture in his mind of what his family was going to be like, and it was so important to him. In those days, of course, it was considered normal for women—witch or Muggle—to stay at home. And we loved each other so much."
"You gave up your career for Dad?" Ginny said wonderingly. This new perspective on her mother combined with the firewhisky in the middle of the day made her head spin.
Molly wagged a finger at her. "Don't get carried away now. I wasn't some sacrificial virgin without an opinion in this situation. Your father gave up a lot, too."
"What did he give up?"
"Do you think he wanted seven children? On his salary? That was what I got out of the bargain. If I was going to spend my life in this house, it was going to be a house full of kids."
Ginny's mouth fell open in dismay as the implications of that started to sink in. Molly, watching her face, shook her head. "Don't misunderstand, Ginny. He loves you all to distraction. And actually, you particularly were his idea, so to speak. 'Let's try for a girl,' he said to me when Ron was weaned, and no one was more thrilled than he was when you appeared. And I don't mean, either, that this was all set out like a contract. Sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn't have been better if it had: if we'd each known exactly what to expect from the other. But life isn't usually that cut and dried, and marriage certainly isn't. Just whenever I started feeling restless and wanting to spread my wings a little, I'd have another baby and Daddy would add more hours to his work week."
"And you have no regrets?"
"Of course I have regrets, Chick. There's no one past the age of reason who doesn't have regrets. But I've never repented of my decision; I've never wanted to take it back. Oh, I tell a lie—there were nights when you'd all be driving me spare and your father was tired and cross and this house closed in on me till I felt like a badger in a trap and I'd cheerfully have consigned the pack of you to Azkaban or worse. But when it came to it, there was really no place I'd rather have been than here, and no one I wanted to be with more than you lot and my Arthur."
Ginny pondered while the clock ticked and the Aga purred. "So you're telling me," she said slowly, "that I need to come to some sort of compromise with Harry? Over Severus Snape?"
"I'm not telling you what you need to do. I'm telling you to think about what you want most in life, and what you're willing to do to get it—and keep it. You're the seventh child of a seventh child; you're a gifted witch; you're my daughter. You'll think of something."
For the next few days, Ginny spent hours in the Hogwarts library again—but now she buried herself in research.
In the evenings she joined Harry and Snape in the potions master's old rooms in the dungeons, where he was chafing under the restrictions of the final stages of his recuperation. She never felt at home there, and the men clearly wished her away, but she knew that if she ceded this ground she might never regain a foothold.
She noticed that they avoided speaking of the past or of the future, and Harry never mentioned his children or his life with Ginny. Seeking to deflect this momentum away from their family, she brought the children down to meet Snape after dinner one night. The boys had heard tales of the redoubtable Professor Snape, and were a little nervous, but Lily greeted him with uncomplicated delight at seeing "Daddy's friend" looking so well.
Her eyes widened at the look in his when he heard her name. "Did you know my Granny Lily, sir?" she asked.
"I did, indeed," Snape answered. "I met her when she was smaller than you are now."
"Will you tell me stories about her?"
"Perhaps one day. Not tonight."
"All right," she said peaceably.
James stepped forward. "I'm James Sirius Potter, sir. Did you know my dad's father and godfather as well?"
Ginny held her breath, but Snape said only, "Yes, I did. Not so long as I knew Lily, though." He turned to Al. "And this is?"
"I'm sure you know the people I'm named for, sir. I'm Albus Severus Potter."
Snape looked thunderstruck. "Is this true?" he said, turning on Harry as though he'd been mortally insulted.
"Of course it's true, Sev."
"Don't call me Sev," Snape hissed. "What on earth possessed you to saddle an innocent child with my name?"
Al was watching him keenly, head a little on one side. "I don't mind having an unusual name, sir. My friend Scorpius Malfoy has one, and he's only named for a constellation. My dad says I'm named for the wisest man he ever knew and the bravest man he ever knew. I suppose the brave one would be you, Professor Snape?"
Ginny waited for some cutting remark to wound her child, upon which she planned to claw Snape's eyes out, but it seemed the years had—if not mellowed him, at least tempered his habitual ire. In fact, looking at his eyes she fancied she spotted a suspicious gleam of moisture there, then dismissed the notion as incredible. He hadn't been that ill.
Snape sank into a chair. "Is that what your father says?"
"Yes, sir. But it's what everyone else says, too. At least, everyone in my House."
"The Gryffindors call me brave?"
"I'm Slytherin, Professor. Like you."
"But Gryffindors do call you brave, sir," James put in. "At least, they'd better while I'm around. You saved my dad's life—more than once."
Severus pinched the bridge of his prominent nose. "I think I'm getting a headache," he said. "Potter, would you—?"
"On condition you remember to call me Harry," he said, smiling down on Snape's shaggy, greying head.
"All right, off you go, you three," Ginny said. The children kissed their parents good night and trooped off while Harry got the headache potion out of Snape's storage cabinet and Ginny poured out three mugs of mulled butterbeer that had been keeping warm in the fireplace.
The three of them made polite conversation for an hour or so—at least, they conversed and Snape made a visible effort to keep his razor tongue in check. His voice had lost that scratchy quality and regained its distinctive honeyed menace, Ginny noticed. Then Harry at last left the room to use the loo.
Ginny turned to Snape with what she had been burning to say all evening, but he forestalled her. "Mrs.… Ms. Weasley," he said, "I want you to know that I will be returning to my house at Spinner's End at the end of the week. I am grateful to you for your forbearance this past month. I believe it would be in the best interests of all concerned if I were to resume my previous—"
"Don't give me that shite, Snape," she interrupted rudely. His eyes widened as she stood and crossed the hearth to lean over him. "You're not throwing a crup among the kneazles and then running away because you don't want to deal with the mess. This is your mess as well as ours, and you're sticking around till we've worked this out. But I swear to you by Merlin's left teat, Severus Snape," she lowered her face closer to his, "if you hurt him I will kill you so thoroughly that this time you never come back." His affronted glare turned to astonishment and then to speculation.
As Harry came back into the room she stood upright and said brightly, "And do call me Ginny, Severus. Oh, Harry, I've just been inviting Severus to come finish getting well at Godric's Hollow, but he has some notion about Spinner's End…."
Harry and Snape were soon deep in conversation about the logistics of the move, but whenever Ginny looked up from staring into the fire she found Snape's eyes on her.
As it happened, they decided to go first to Grimmauld Place at the end of that week. Harry had paperwork accumulated during his leave of absence that was easier to do at the Ministry than from a distance.
Ginny had business in the city, too: seeing some long-neglected clients and keeping an appointment with her sister-in-law Hermione Granger at Hermione's chambers in Westminster. They spent the afternoon conferring and searching old legal references. At one point Hermione chuckled, "Ron's head is going to explode when he hears about this."
"I think mine already has," Ginny said. "I wonder whether I haven't lost my mind. But I have to do something drastic, 'Mione, before this situation careens completely out of control, if it hasn't already. Last night in Snape's sitting room they were holding hands—in front of the children. Jamie didn't know where to look. And I think Snape actually enjoyed noticing that."
Hermione shook her head sympathetically. "He is a difficult man, I well remember. But I wouldn't have expected his predilection for being a right bastard to take the form of affectionate gestures. How did the other children take it?"
"Al's besotted with Snape and didn't seem to mind. Lily didn't notice a thing; she was rattling on about hoping she'd be Sorted into Ravenclaw, and how happy she was we're letting her stay there the extra couple of nights till the end of term. And then, oh Hermione, listen to this, she says to us, 'Mum and Dad, you'll have to have another baby so we can have a Hufflepuff in the family, too.'"
"You may say so. Any other time I would have laughed it off, but last night there was a silence that made my ears ring. Then darling Al pipes up, 'Professor Snape, my Head-of-House Professor Zabini says you're the greatest potions master since Salazar Slytherin himself. Is that true?' And Snape says, in that chocolaty snarl of his, 'Yes, it is. Now bugger off.'" Hermione snorted and Ginny had to laugh a little, too. Then she shook her head ruefully. "Honestly, I must be mental, even contemplating this."
"Well, you were a Seeker, like Harry, Ginny," Hermione said, stacking the papers on her desk. "But you were also a Chaser—hitting the Quaffle into the goal time and again, freeing the Seeker to capture the Snitch. Maybe that's what you're doing now. And you've always been a fighter; you'll come through." She came around her desk to give Ginny a hug. "Fancy a bit of supper? There's a decent caff around the corner—"
"Only on condition we don't talk of Severus Bloody Snape any more. How's your family? Is my brother making your life a living hell as usual?"
"Too right," laughed Hermione, putting her cloak on. "No one knows what I suffer. But buy me a drink and I'll try to give you an idea.…"
That night, pleasantly lit from her evening with Hermione, vaguely wondering which room they should give Severus, Ginny walked into the Grimmauld Place parlour thinking about bed linens. A step into the room, she stopped as though hit with an Immobilisation spell.
Snape sat in the big wing-backed armchair Harry usually used. And Harry, Harry was curled in his lap, cuddled closely and confidingly as a child seeking comfort, but it was Severus who was weeping, head cradled on Harry's shoulder, exposing the marks on his neck where the great snake had struck. Harry was stroking his long hair and murmuring into his ear, words Ginny wasn't aware of registering at the time, but later that night they all came back to her, burning: "My saviour," Harry was saying, "my teacher, my master, my prince," and that hand she knew so well stroking, stroking the silver-shot black hair, "don't be afraid, my darling, my heart."
Ginny wheeled blindly out of the room; she stumbled on the stairway going down to the kitchen and heard a sudden silence behind her. After a few minutes, Harry's footsteps came halfway down the stairs. "Ginny?" he said tentatively.
She put her wand to her throat with a wordless Vocare spell to make her voice strong and even. "I'm making chamomile tea, Harry. Would you and Severus like some?"
There was a silence, then, "Yes, thank you. Thank you, Ginny. We'll come down to you. Thank you."
She never did fix up a room for Snape; she resolutely avoided thinking about where he and Harry spent the night. She herself lay on the slippery horsehair sofa in the formal drawing room they seldom used, listening to the rustle of doxies in the draperies and planning her next move.
In the morning they traveled on to Godric's Hollow for the summer holidays. The children would arrive tomorrow. She spent the day airing out their rooms and taking dust sheets off the furniture.
Harry, restless and on edge, went out to ride his broom for an hour after supper. Kreacher had as usual stayed at Grimmauld Place, so Severus had made their meal: an excellent lamb stew, deftly assembled by the former potions master. Ginny complimented him on it as she set off the washing-up charms.
"It was self-defense," Severus said. "Harry only seems to know how to cook breakfast, and I wouldn't subject a defenseless lamb to your tender ministrations, having sampled your notion of pot-au-feu at luncheon."
Ginny was learning to like his sardonic sense of humour, and laughed. "Is that what you call it? I call it leftover roast beef from the deep freeze, tarted up with gravy from a tin." Snape shuddered. Ginny flicked her wand to start the dishes drying themselves. "Cookery doesn't interest me; I don't mind if I never touch another saucepan," she said. "Be my guest."
"I am your guest," he said. She turned at the bitterness of his tone and looked at him as he sat at the table, eyes on his fine, slender hands.
"Severus—" she began.
"No, let me speak," he said. She leant back against the draining board and waited. The silence stretched on.
Finally she said, "Well, I'm certainly glad we've had this little talk, Severus."
"I am sorry," he said. "It is difficult for me."
"It's difficult for you, is it?"
He looked up at that. "I know it is so for Harry and the children as well, and for you especially," he said, "but perhaps most difficult for me because I am a bitter, lonely, scarred old man and you are—"
"What am I?"
"A good woman. A good wife. A… a good partner for Harry. I could wish you were a minx or a harridan, but I have seen that it is not so."
"Oh, Severus," she sighed, sitting across from him. "Did you really think that Harry would choose to spend his life with—what did you say?—a 'minx or a harridan'? Let's give him credit for being some judge of character, after all he's had to deal with. His life has depended more than once on his being able to read people correctly, as I'm sure you remember. Mind you, in spite of everything, he's loved you for as long as I've known him. He was able to see your—your true nature through that smokescreen you set up to keep everyone at a distance, so I've always known you were more than a 'bitter old man.' I just never foresaw that his love for you would—take this turn."
He had pulled back a little, eyebrows drawn down. "Loved me for— Surely you're mistaken. He loathed me for years, years in which I treated him like—"
"In which you treated him the way the only family he'd ever known treated him. Abuse was the air he breathed. He was drawn to you like a wand to its master."
"He was Albus Dumbledore's tool, not mine," he said without rancor.
"Dumbledore used you both: one of the many things you and Harry have in common. And you both adored Dumbledore and wanted his approval, and you both had miserable childhoods, and you both have always, always felt unworthy of happiness. Of course he loved you. And now you're both scarred, and you've both come back from the dead—well, I suppose you weren't dead in quite the way he was, but—"
"I was, in point of fact," he said, looking away.
"You were? You mean you—what, you went to some ethereal King's Cross and saw Dumbledore?"
He turned those deep eyes back on her. "No, for me it was not King's Cross Station but the beech tree by the lake at Hogwarts. And Dumbledore was not there; for better or worse, I have no unfinished business with Albus."
"But you did see someone?" Ginny swallowed. "Lily?"
"Alas, no. Whatever force guides these experiences evidently determined I had no business with Harry's mother, either."
"James Potter. Senior."
"Indeed." His mouth quirked at her expression.
She spoke carefully, watching his face. "Severus, I don't mean to pry, but I must ask. Was it—did he—? That is, could Harry's father and you—" she floundered to a stop.
He looked at her gravely for a moment, then inclined his head. " We—how can I put this without perishing from embarrassment?" He took a breath. "Forgivenesses were asked, and exchanged." He swallowed. "Tears were shed."
"Harry knows this?" she breathed.
He nodded. "I was charged with a message for him, that his father was sorry he had disappointed him."
"Please do not call me that."
They were silent for a moment, then Severus cleared his throat. "May I ask what you are thinking?"
"Me? I'm thinking that I understand why Harry says you're the bravest man he ever knew. And—"
"I'm a little ashamed to say it, since it's so self-centered, but I was thinking that—for you to tell me this must mean that you—well, you don't hate me or despise me. You must trust me at least a little."
"I neither hate nor despise you, Ginevra. And I do trust you. I trust your judgement, where Harry is concerned." Severus raised an elegant hand to his brow, long fingers shading his eyes. "Please believe that I truly do… love him. If you ask me to, if you think it best for him, I will find a way to leave him without hurting him."
"Thank you for the offer, Severus, and I won't pretend part of me doesn't want to take you up on it, but that's not possible, I'm afraid."
He dropped the shielding hand. "He needs you. I have come to realise he needs what you have to offer: home, family, wife; he could never be happy without you."
"I agree. And I, sir, have come to realise he needs you as well. He needs your fire, your passion, the snarky abrasive tragic romance of you." She ignored Snape's grimace and went on, "He's not just Happy-Families Harry, he's Black-Knight Harry. He's 'Dumbledore's man through and through,' and he's the man who's looked through the Dark Lord's eyes and felt his lust for power in his own flesh. I thought I could wean him away from that side of him, make it wither away, but part of me has known it was still there, along with the considerate husband and the doting father. He's Slytherin as well as Gryffindor, and he needs us both."
Severus was speechless for a moment, then he said, "And the practical application of this insight?"
Ginny gathered herself together and made her move. "A Tripartite Bond."
"What?" This was from Harry, frozen in the act of hanging his broom in the back door vestibule.
"Sit down, Harry, and listen to me, both of you."
"I am afraid there's little point to this," said Severus quickly. "I appreciate your desire to resolve this situation, and your generosity in suggesting this… arrangement, Ginevra—but I am—that is, I am not—you are, of course, a most attractive—I do not wish to be unkind, but I have no desire to—"
Harry was staring at Severus as though he had started speaking Mermish, but Ginny suddenly realised what he was trying to say.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Severus. I don't propose that you sleep with me!"
"Do you not? But you spoke of a Triune Bond—"
"No, I said a Tripartite Bond. Don't tell me I've actually discovered a bit of wizarding lore unknown to the great Professor Snape?"
"Will one of you at least please explain to me what this argument is even about?" Harry expostulated.
Ginny turned to him as he sat down beside Severus. "Hermione has been helping me look into this. Harry, a Triune Bond is when three people form a bond, obviously. It's not that uncommon in our world; it's done when all three are in love with each other. A Tripartite Bond is rarer—Hermione can't find a reference to one being pledged more recently than the seventeenth century. It means that two people form a bond with a third, in this case you. Severus and I would each be bonded to you, but not to each other."
"So you would, what, share me out like a… a pumpkin pasty?"
Severus involuntarily licked his lips, then turned a violent magenta when he saw Ginny watching him. She giggled a little hysterically and said, "Not exactly. More like a bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, where Severus gets all the toffees and I get the—what? Tripe? Liver? No, that's not quite it either."
She got herself in hand, seeing that Severus was about to leave the table in a snit, and spoke more seriously. "See here, Severus. I understand that you're a proud man, and a private man. I don't mean to try to—to domesticate you like a house cat. But you do need a home, and I want this to be your home. The bonding ceremony includes a formal contract in which we agree on the financial aspect and the domestic arrangements: what belongs to whom, what each of us is bringing to the household."
She closed her eyes. "As far as Harry's personal relationship with either of us goes, that will be between each of us and him. I don't contemplate our all jumping into bed together, to speak plainly. I don't expect or want to know what the two of you get up to on your own. And I expect the same courtesy to obtain if Harry chooses to spend time with me. But what that time will be, how often or when or—" she gulped—"or even if, well, that remains to be seen and is outside the terms of the formal contract." She stopped talking and opened her eyes.
Harry looked simply gobsmacked, though a little gleam was starting to sparkle in his eyes. Severus looked suspicious. "Why would you even agree to such an accommodation," he said, "much less propose it?"
"Because I love Harry." She pressed her lips together, shook her head, then went on, "No, that's too easy. You've been honest with me tonight; I'll try to return the favour."
She took a breath. "Right, here goes. I've always known in my heart that I am not at the center of Harry's life the way he is of mine. I had to know it when he was off with Ron and Hermione for months, hunting horcruxes, with never a word to me. And the night the war ended, he went off in private with them and left me sitting with Mum."
She put a hand across the table to press Harry's arm and keep him from speaking till she was finished. "I know he loves me, and he loves our children more than his own life, but I have sensed an absence, a place at the core of his being that was unfilled and seemed unfillable. Since your return, I've realised that the empty place is the exact size and shape of Severus Snape. You are his center. For him to be whole, he needs you in his heart. In his arms. And yes, in his bed. As he needs me. And I want to be with him enough to be able to live with that, and I think you do, too."
There. She'd made the play; the Snitch was in her reach. Or she had scored a goal that would let Harry capture it, and win the game for all of them.
She and Severus stared at each other in silence till Harry shifted in his seat. "Does what I think play any part in this decision?"
"No," they both said in unison.
"Story of my life," he said gloomily, and after a beat they were all howling with laughter. The sight of Severus helplessly holding his sides while hooting at the ceiling set Ginny off again just as she had started to calm down; Harry was hopping around the kitchen pounding on the worktop and thumping his fists on the cupboards.
Finally they stopped from sheer exhaustion. Ginny pushed herself up from the table. "Well, think about it, gents," she said. "I'm going to bed. In my bedroom. I really don't care to know where you're going." She went up the back stairs to the sound of their renewed laughter behind her, shut herself in the bedroom she had shared with Harry so many years, threw herself onto the double bed, and alternated laughing and crying for an hour or so before she fell asleep in her clothes.
The children arrived by portkey from King's Cross the next day. "Gryffindor won the House Cup!" James exclaimed as they dropped the sweet wrapper they'd been holding and ran toward their parents. "And I'm to be Head Boy next term!"
"Ah, yes," came Severus's silky venom before Ginny or Harry had a chance to speak. "Always a celebrity Potter at Hogwarts." All three children turned in surprise.
"Professor," Al protested, "my brother's not a braggart!"
"And he's not my father, either, Severus, any more than I was," Harry said quietly.
But Severus was looking at young Lily, whose green eyes were luminous with disillusionment and hurt feelings, and it was to those eyes he said, "My apologies, James. That was uncalled for."
He turned and stalked into the house—amazing how he could sweep out of a scene even without his billowing robes—leaving the children mollified but puzzled.
Still, they took the news that Professor Snape was to live with them (the adults had agreed not to mention the Tripartite Bond scheme quite yet) with equanimity and moved on to their own concerns. James wanted to talk Quidditch with Ginny, Albus wanted to discuss with Harry a tiff he was having with Scorpius Malfoy—Ginny had her own ideas about where that was leading—and Lily asked Severus to help her make a salve for a wounded gnome she'd found in the garden with such sweet confidence in his good will that he had no choice but to fall in with her plan.
By the time they sat down to the savoury casserole Severus had concocted for their supper, Ginny was starting to be optimistic about this scheme again. Severus, though, was sarcastic and out of sorts.
At the end of the evening, Severus watched the three children give their parents good-night kisses with evident distaste. "However this experiment develops," he said sourly, "I put you on notice that I shall not be participating in this American-style excess of sentimental display."
"Best of British luck with that, Sev," Harry said cheerily as he slung Lily over his shoulder and carried her up the stairs, her delighted squeals drowning Severus's automatic, "Don't call me Sev."
"It's nothing to do with national traits, Severus," said Ginny. "It's to do with the fact that Harry spent ten of the most formative years of his life receiving not one expression of affection, physical or verbal, from a single human being. My family aren't promiscuous kissers either, but they've had to get used to Harry bussing everyone in sight as soon as we arrive at the Burrow. I've come to like it, actually."
"Hmph," Severus snorted. "And what of his being drawn to my particular flavour of so-called abuse?"
"Think of it as a potion, if that helps: two drams of abuse tempered by a gill of affection."
Severus snorted again and retreated behind his book. Ginny shook her head and went back to her accounts.
Ginny stood in the garden at Godric's Hollow with the afternoon sun striking fire from her scarlet robes and glowing on Harry, beside her in gold. Snape, in midnight green, was at Harry's other side. Hermione, in her black barrister's robes, stood before them, reading the Tripartite Bond rite.
Around them clustered most of the Hogwarts staff, the whole Weasley clan, a collection of wizarding neighbours, a few special guests like Teddy and Andromeda, and a clutch of friends of the Potter children, including Scorpius Malfoy beside his father Draco. Even Dudley Dursley was there, lurking uneasily on the fringe of the crowd with his nervous wife and two stolid Muggle children. Reporters and photographers from the Prophet and the Quibbler craned from behind the invited guests, quills scribbling, flashbulbs popping.
Harry had balked at such a public display, saying he'd had enough of the limelight already to last a lifetime. But Ginny had repeated something her mother said when she'd heard of the plan: "This is an important event in our community, Harry. We should treat it as such, and not relegate it to some hole-in-corner hugger-mugger in a Ministry office."
Surprisingly, Severus had sided with her. "I have lived most of my life in the shadows," he'd said. "I wish to begin this new venture in the full light of day, without equivocation or evasion. Let no one be in doubt, ever again, as to where my loyalties lie."
So here they stood, handfast before their world.
Beyond them lay a long table piled with refreshments. Kreacher had come from Grimmauld Place for the occasion and produced, among other treats, a panoply of treacle tarts to please Harry, a heap of Snitch-shaped ginger nuts in Ginny's honour, and—to her secret amusement—for Severus, a pyramid of chocolate fairy cakes to delight the heart of the average ten-year-old. She'd caught the man filching one from the platter earlier when she'd called him to read the bonding contracts.
Now, the contracts had been signed and the simple vows exchanged. Hermione said, "Ginevra Molly Weasley, Harry James Potter is your spouse." Ginny kissed Harry on the mouth as they took each other's right hand. Hermione tapped her wand on their joined hands and a sparkling braid of ruby and gold appeared, twined around their hands, and sank into their flesh with a tingle and a faint hint of music.
"Severus Tobias Snape, Harry James Potter is your spouse." Severus kissed Harry on the mouth; the cord that appeared around their hands under Hermione's wand was of gold and emerald. Severus's dark eyes widened at the sensation of the magical bond sinking in.
"Severus Snape, this is your sister; Ginevra Weasley, this is your brother." Severus and Ginny kissed each other on each cheek, hands on each other's shoulders. Ginny felt a flush of warmth at every point of contact. Judging from Severus's faint smile, he felt it, too.
"The Tripartite Bond is accomplished. Let these two be bound to their spouse in love and to each other in fellowship forever," Hermione announced. Ginny and Severus each put a hand on Harry's shoulders and turned to face the crowd.
The guests broke into applause as Harry twined his arms around both their waists and lifted them off the ground. Severus, predictably, was outraged. This was rather more of a public display than he had bargained for. "Put me down immediately, Potter," he growled under cover of the cheering and good wishes.
"Ah, ah, you called me Potter, Sev. Just for that, I'm dancing with Ginny first." And he swept her onto the platform they'd magicked up that morning, to the strains of the small orchestra Professor Flitwick had organised. They waltzed smoothly; they'd always been perfectly suited as dance partners.
"Can I spend the night with you tonight?" he murmured into her ear.
She tilted her head back to look at him. "Harry, I don't want you to—"
"I don't mean to sleep with you," he said hastily. "I mean, I do mean to sleep with you, but that's all I mean. I mean, for now. I mean to say, I don't know what—"
"Harry, stop. I would like to have you with me tonight, no demands, no strings. I miss you. Will Severus be all right with that?"
"It was his suggestion. I didn't know how to broach it, to tell you the truth. But I've been missing you, too. I do love you so much, you know that, right? And not only because you've given me a gift I had no right to expect. Your generosity is just a part of it, incredible as it is. It's who you are: my beautiful, brave, brilliant wife. There's never been a luckier man in the history of the world than me. My Guinevere, I don't know exactly what will happen between us, but I do know that as long as I live, where you are is home."
Ginny put her head on her husband's shoulder and gave herself over to the music.
The last of the guests had gone, the fancy robes were folded away, and the clearing up was as done as it was going to get that day. Harry had forcibly Apparated Kreacher back to Grimmauld Place; the old elf was tottering with exhaustion. Ginny collapsed on the sofa to contemplate the unquenchable energy of her offspring, who were letting off steam from a long day of emotional tension, formal ritual, and company behaviour. Severus was standing in the doorway to the passage, looking as if he didn't know where to put himself.
Harry came in from resetting the house's wards to night security just as Lily and Albus, with James in hot pursuit, thundered past in a chase that had already taken them around the circuit of the ground floor three times. "Bring it down, kids," Harry said mildly. "It's almost bedtime."
They ignored him, racing through the kitchen, out its far door, and back down the passage as though they'd all reverted to earlier childhood and shed the constraints of adolescent dignity. As they careened into the sitting room again, jostling past Severus, Al called breathlessly, "Stop, Jamie, Dad said stop."
"Yeah, just because you're losing," James puffed, reaching for his brother's shirttail. He missed, tripped over a hassock, and fell into Lily, who went down with a bump against the bookcase and came up rubbing her head, eyes bright with sudden tears.
Harry helped her to her feet, patting her back. Ginny jumped up, took her daughter's chin, and examined her pupils with the experience born of fifteen years of motherhood and twenty-five years of Quidditch, seeing no sign of concussion or other serious damage. Al crowded up, still half laughing and flushed from the game, to say, "All right, Lils?"
As she nodded tentatively, James succeeded in disentangling himself from the hassock. "Sorry, Lily," he said, starting toward her, "I didn't mean to—"
Severus's voice cut across his, low but sharp and furious. "James Sirius Potter, that was a selfish, immature, careless display of arrogant disregard for others and disobedience and generally uncivilised behaviour. Go to your room at once."
They all, including Severus, froze in place. Severus half opened his mouth, then closed it again with a snap and continued to bend a ferocious glower on James. James stood facing him, shoulders back, two bright spots of colour on his cheeks. Harry looked terrified. Ginny drew into that game-deciding focus as she calculated the next play.
But her Gryffindor son moved before she had a chance. "Very well, sir," he said evenly. "But my obedience has a price."
"A price? What insolence is this?"
"Only this, sir. If you're going to act as though you are my father, I'm going to act as though I am your son." He stepped forward slowly and deliberately, took Severus's shoulders, and kissed him firmly on the cheek. "I'm sorry I made you angry. Good night."
Ginny felt the tension drain out of her in the ensuing flurry of kisses and good nights: the Snitch was caught, the game won. Harry followed the children upstairs, no doubt to have a final word with James. She looked at Severus, still standing in the doorway, looking as though someone had Stunned him.
"Welcome to the family, Sev," she said.