When they made him drink his own potion, he did not scream.
Under _Imperio_, and held for good measure by three of Lucius' goons, Severus could only swallow the bitter grey slime. Shudder as it slid down his throat and went to work in his stomach. In that small part of his mind not waltzing in the fluffy dreamland of Lucius' curse, his innate time-sense began ticking.
_Seventy-one hours, fifty-nine minutes, and forty-two seconds._
"Your reward, cousin," Malfoy Senior hissed in his ear lovingly. "For betraying our Lord. For betraying me. For taking my son away from me, and letting him die on a battlefield while he fought _for Albus_! You crafted this dainty for our Lord twenty years ago. He was very pleased with the tests. I never saw them. Tell me how long you will still be _human_, traitor."
"Seventy-one hours, fifty-nine minutes, and three seconds," Severus slurred. The part him consulting his internal clock just wished all of him could be sinking, dazzled, into the warm sweet fog of the Imperius curse.
"Crush the vial in your bare hand," Lucius said. The vial was pure quartz. Obedient to his master, Severus crushed it, only dimly feeling the shards driving into the fragile bones of his left hand.
"Show me your hand," Lucius gloated.
Severus turned his palm over, and extended the hand. Blood slicked the crystal shards jutting from his flesh. Lucius delicately pulled one from Severus' skin. "It's too late for us, I know. They'll find this on me. I hope some bastard Auror cuts his finger with it, the dose should be enough to - "
A blast of sparkling energy hit him in the back, and the Master of Malfoy fell at Severus's feet. The goons quickly followed. Severus was aware of activity around him in the darkened basement, shouts and curses, people stumbling into him. He bore it with calm silence, waiting for another order. The _Imperio_ should have terminated with Lucius' death or decommission, he thought vaguely.
_Oh,_ he realised. _I'm in shock. I've taken poison. If I could only try to vomit?_
Alas, young bitter genius that he'd been, he'd added digestive enzymes and muscle-relaxants to the mix, to speed assimilation and prevent a victim from hacking up the potion. Its subtle poison had already mingled with the blood pulsing up his left arm.
Wandlight close to his face made him blink. "Hey," said someone. "This one's still vertical. Get the Aurors!"
"Don't hurt him, damn you! He's one of ours. Professor?" came a worried young voice. "Professor Snape? Look at me! It's over. We've _won_!"
Severus focused on Harry Potter's enormous green eyes, feeling an odd pride. The indesctructible scamp had done it again, utterly destroying Voldemort in a duel that had lasted two hours. Severus had wanted to laugh, when Lucius told him about it. Far from exhausted, Potter seemed bursting with fiercely-protective energy, snapping out commands to the Ministry Aurors who mopped up the last defenses of Malfoy Manor. The lad had proven his status as a full wizard today, never mind that he still had a Potions exam to pass for his finals.
_I might still have time to give it to him_, Severus thought.
"Come on, Professor, we'll get you back to Hogwarts and Madam Pomphrey." Potter ducked under Severus' good arm, and coaxed him up the stairs.
Pain came back to him abruptly, a cold wave sweeping along his veins. He groaned, and Potter gasped. He did not want to lose any time to unconsciousness, but Potter's gentle voice and kindly wand-work took away that decision.
Severus woke to find Albus Dumbledore sitting by the infirmary bed. Severus consulted his time-sense and winced.
The Headmaster looked up from his reading, with a grin that didn't quite reach his bright blue eyes. "My dear boy! How are you feeling?"
"Sixty-five hours, fourteen minutes, and twenty-seven seconds," Severus said automatically. He sat up. Pomphrey had done something to heal his hand, or else Potter was a hell of a lot better at emergency medi-wizard spells than expected. Someone had also, considerately, left Severus his shirt and trousers. "Please, Albus, for Merlin's sake, I hope no one else touched those splinters from my hand. Who took care of me?"
"I beg your pardon?" said Albus. "Harry first, then Poppy. What is wrong?"
"Don't play the fool, you cunning old bastard," Severus snarled. "You _know_."
"I know Lucius made you drink something. Harry saw it, as he brought in the ambush team. What was it?"
"Voldemort never gave it a name. In some fit of juvenile black humour, I called it 'First Kiss'."
Albus paled. "Severus?"
"Isolate both Potter and Madam Pomphrey immediately, feed them a kudzu-infusion to accelerate the process, and make your silly Phoenix cry on them wherever they might have touched that potion. It was made for ingestion, but it might show residual dermal action. You will know the treatment is unsuccessful, if grey skin manifests around the target area within two hours. I would then suggest amputation, if possible." Severus found he could stand up. He looked for his boots, and found them carefully cleaned, under a pile of fresh robes. "We've won. Give the children their celebration. Albus, I'd appreciate it if - if this development is not mentioned beyond our company. Does Poppy know?"
"Madam Pomphrey believes you to be suffering from torture and the stress of the last two weeks. Are you certain, Severus? We could find no trace of a poison. And Fawkes -- "
"I made it, remember? I drank it. And your phoenix is so weakened by his moult that he cannot help me, now. Am I cleared to leave this charming room?"
Albus looked away from the fizzing golden orb of a summoning-spell he'd just dispatched out the door. "Where are you going, my boy?"
"To my Potions classroom, to assemble the ingredients for my last work. Send Potter down, if he turns out clean. He can help me."
"An antidote?" The Headmaster asked hopefully.
Severus snorted. "I believe Potter missed his Potions exam, when some dolt of a Dark Lord attacked Hogsmeade last week."
He fueled the burner with chunks of white amber and exceedingly rare mallorn-charcoal. Nearby on the marble potions table waited a platinum cauldron, a bronze scale and measuring cups, and forty-nine ingredients laid out more-or-less in order. He hoped Poppy and the lad were safe.
The wine went in first, two cups of pale golden Mosel from Germany. Steam hissed as liquid struck the hot cauldron and roiled around, almost like droplets of quicksilver. At the same time, Severus said in a strong voice: "_Gaudio Exsultans_."
"Professor?" Potter's touseled dark head peered around the door. "Why are you out of the infirmary? Madam Pomphrey and I just had to - "
Severus slit the pomegranate open with a platinum knife, ignoring the way dark red juice ran down his healed hand. "I know, Mr. Potter. Precautionary measures. As you are technically a graduate in all but my class, you need no longer call me 'Professor'."
"Well, it'd sound bloody odd to call you 'Mr. Snape', after all we've been through together on Order business," Potter chuckled. "Bargain? I'll call you Severus, if you call me Harry."
"I'll call you a dawdling prat, if you don't get over here and start separating these pomegranate seeds!" Severus washed his hands in a porcelain bowl, then added three flakes of sea-salt to the wine already bubbling in the cauldron. "_Gaudio Triumphans_," he whispered into the steam, making a neat, graceful arc with his seldom-used wand.
"Ah, Potions finals. What are we making?"
Severus eyed Potter - Harry - as the young man began deftly separating translucent garnet seeds from their pithy white membranes. "Remember my speeches from the first class-days of each year?"
Harry groaned. "Yes. The poetry of potions."
"Today, if your memory holds, you will learn how to bottle Bliss."
Severus shook his head. "Not a fake chemical copy, but the emotion itself. The action of this potion is permanent, graven so deeply into the body's structure that it grafts into the mind itself, and possibly the soul. In short, Harry, whoever drinks this potion will be perpetually _happy_."
"Wow. Blithering, slobbering, giggling happy?"
"If taken by a normal individual under already-positive conditions, yes, it does result in a slightly giddy personality."
"Fred and George would love this. How many seeds?"
"Twelve, for now. We'll add more in sequence, for every seven ingredients. Now grind a quarter-ounce of the Yucatan chocolate in that green pestle, powder-fine. This potion has another use, Harry. One which Albus Dumbledore knows all too well."
There wasn't any gentle way to say it, Severus realised. "It is a remedy for despair. You will need to take it, when the draught is complete."
"Whatever for? We've won! Voldemort's dead, and you're here, and - oh. Oh, god. What did Malfoy make you _drink_?"
"One of my own discoveries, from when I was an eager young Death-Eater out to prove my genius. A slow poison with a particularly nasty twist."
"Is this the antidote?" Harry was suddenly a Potion-teacher's dream, all alert attention and careful movements.
"No, Harry. It's just Bliss."
The young man's mouth set in a bleak line. "How long? What will happen to you?"
Severus gulped. This, too, he could not spare Harry. "I have sixty-two hours and ten seconds left of my humanity. An hour or two before that time, however, the physical manifestations should appear. My voice will change to a whisper. My skin will chill and turn dead grey. My eyes will become lightless black pits - "
Harry's hand faltered on the elegant jade mortar and pestle. "Severus? That sounds like -- "
" - A Dementor, Mr. Potter?" Severus asked with his old sarcasm. "You are correct. Some among them have been in existence since time began. But some were human-born, souls so twisted by despair that they _became_ its embodiments. Voldemort set me the challenge when I was young and careless, and eager to prove myself worthy of his notice. It was such an academic problem," the dark smooth voice murmured. "How to rob and rape a sentient creature so deeply of its innate joy in life that the victim did not die, but turned into a predator itself. With the rarest, darkest ingredients, I made two vials of a potion that I believed would achieve my goal. No other potion master could match it, though many later tried. When I returned to be a spy in his ranks, Voldemort commanded me to create more of the stuff. I refused. He understood that I would rather die. He called me weak, and accepted that he was left with only two samples. He used one to poison Minister Fudge's predecessor, along with a wizard he knew was one of Albus' spies. The other vial? Well. Now we know that Lucius had it."
"Maybe you were mistaken when you thought -- " Harry began.
"I know the scent of every tincture and potion I've ever made," said Severus quietly, grinding dragonfly-wings into an iridescent powder. "I know this one. And I know there is no antidote, no palliative. I must kill myself, and soon, or become a Dementor." The black gaze lifted to fix upon Harry. "Voldemort and I both thought that a Dementor created thusly would be a powerful tool, in that it would preferably hunt those it had loved most in life. Minister Hargreave destroyed his entire family, before wardens from Azkaban managed to contain him."
"I don't want you to die!"
"I wouldn't, Potter. That's the unique horror of the curse. You would know it was me. Even if you shipped me off to Azkaban, you'd think that some part of me still existed, and you'd try to save it. And the closer I was to you, or Albus, or anyone from Hogwarts', the more I would try to drain you. Thus," Severus paused, to shake the powder into the cauldron. "Thus I must end my own life before the potion takes effect. Albus and Fawkes will dispose safely of my body."
"Damn you," whispered Harry. "How can you be so calm?"
"I am already damned by my own hubris. Do _not_ stop grinding that chocolate. It's still lumpier than Hagrid's oatmeal."
"I waited for you. All this spring, I waited. Because you had to be the honourable one who wouldn't shag his student. At least - "
"You cannot touch me now, Harry. The poison didn't reach you, in Malfoy's basement. I won't take a second chance." Severus marveled inwardly at the steadiness of his voice.
"I won't drink this shite!"
"You will. And you will help me kill myself, and stop the curse before it truly begins. I will not become more of a monster than I am now."
"Selfish bastard. I'll come with you."
"I will not leave you to commit suicide, Harry." Severus momentarily abandoned his cauldron-stirring, made an aborted gesture toward Harry's face. He stopped two inches away. "The world needs you. With this, you can find new happiness."
"It'll be a hoax, and I'll know it."
"No, no, it will be real. Part of you. A gift you can pass on, so that in times of danger you'll always be a calm island. You'll never judge anyone rashly. Hurt minds and bodies will instinctively know they can trust you. Ask Albus!"
"He's just - happy." Harry's voice trailed off. He glared unsteadily up at the Potions-master, though his hands still plied the mortar and pestle.
"Give me that chocolate. At least you've learned to work while having histrionics, now. Separate nine asphodel petals, and drop them into the little bowl of rose-oil. Pay _attention_."
"I'm dropping them, I'm dropping them!"
Severus sifted fresh chocolate-powder into the cauldron. "A century ago, our Headmaster fought a madman named Grindelwald. Dumbledore had the chance to defeat his adversary in a trap, but the Dark Lord took with him seven hostages. Among them were Dumbledore's wife and two children. Albus was devastated in the aftermath, unable to function. Hogwarts' Potion-master at that time was one Sylbe Weatherwax, a very ancient Slytherin of some renown. She brewed Bliss and a painless-death poison, and gave Albus a choice. He took the Bliss."
Wordlessly, Harry pushed the bowl of rose-oil and asphodel toward Severus, withdrawing his hand as Severus reached. The two men blinked at each other, then Harry looked away. "I'm sorry."
"You're not a coward, Harry," Severus said instantly, reading the shame on that beloved face. "You're young, and you've discovered you want to live a little longer."
"I wanted you there with me."
"If I'm a ghost, I'll haunt you on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Let forty-two drops of this _primavera_ elixir fall into the cauldron."
"What does that do?"
"Makes it taste like clover blossom and new-mown grass, I believe. Will you take the potion, Harry?"
"Only if you will, too."
Severus smiled. "I'd already planned on it. I've had little enough joy in my life. I want, just once, to know what unadulterated happiness feels like." His gaze didn't drift from the cauldron, as he chanted "Gaudio Invictus."
"Oof. Oh, my."
"Sit down, Severus. Are you hurting?"
"A little. M'tired. So cold."
"You're swaying. Sit down. There's only three things left to add. Talk me through them."
Severus sank gratefully into the chair Harry had pulled up next to the Potions table. He closed his eyes. "Moly. Two leaves, chopped. Stirred widdershins."
"Powdered dandelion seed, dusted across the surface."
"Almost there, Harry. Are the goblets ready?"
"Right here. Carved red oak. It can't be glass or something else?"
"Sylbe's notes were specific, once I'd deciphered her unique take on spelling. Hold the vial of virgin's tears over the cauldron."
Harry's voice caught on a sob. "That ingredient was easy enough to obtain."
"Comedian. Breathe out, I don't want your hand to shake. Have the jade stirring rod ready, but not touching the mixture. Pour, and stir widdershins again."
Harry poured, stirred, then shied from the golden light pulsing up from the cauldron. He had to squint against the glow.
"Bloody hell, Severus, it _was_ a green mess. Now it looks like late afternoon sunlight!"
"Wait for it to dim. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. _Decant!_"
Harry poured the glittering potion into a forked funnel and thence simultaneously into the two goblets. Severus opened his eyes and whispered "_Gaudio Aeternus!_"
After the new starburst of light faded, and Harry blinked away the purple-and-orange spots in his vision, the young wizard snagged the steaming goblets. He eyed one sturdy arm of Severus' chair longingly. Severus shook his head.
Harry sat on the floor at his feet, instead. Offered the remaining goblet to his one-time nemesis. The potion inside was cooling rapidly down to a liquid amber radiance.
"A toast might be in order," Harry muttered, no longer trying to staunch his tears.
"I cannot think of one that wouldn't make me throw up," whispered Severus.
"Here's to sarky gits, then."
"And here's to impertinent brats."
The classroom was silent for several minutes after that.
"How do you feel?" Harry whispered, awestruck.
Severus sighed. "The cold is much less. I feel - lighter and cleaner, somehow. Well-scrubbed. You?"
Harry thought for a moment. "Like I've had a good cry. Weak and washed-clean. But you're right. My god, how horrible to feel this good. What if I crack a joke?"
"Then you'll just be following Gryffindor guidelines. And I shall be Slytherin, and top it with a worse one. Harry, do you have those dragonhide gloves from Hagrid? Put them on, and help me walk."
"The lake shore is congenial this time of evening. I want to see sunset and the stars, before I lock myself away down here. Hmm. Do you remember a way out that doesn't go past five hundred revelling students and faculty? I have a wish for privacy."
"I've got just the route for us. It'd help, if you gave me back the Marauder's map."
"Albus has it," Severus grinned. "I never could make the sodding thing work. I must rely upon your memory."
"Then you _know_ you're doomed."
The route took them stumbling through several tunnels and ultimately into a grove of aspens in the garden.
"Hell," whispered Severus. "I knew there was a party. This is madness."
Apparently, the celebration had concentrated outside Hogwarts, in a milling mass of students, parents, watchful and triumphant Aurors, and what seemed to be most of wizarding Britain. Late sunlight slanted down in bars through the mild air. Owls floated and dove, carrying messages or simply playing in mid-air. Harry watched them wistfully, missing his own dear Hedwig. She'd been one of the first casualties of the Battle of Hogsmeade.
"I've brought my invisibility cloak," he said, settling it over them both. They could just barely fit, without brushing against each other. "I see quieter groups out by the lake. Mourners scattering ashes."
"Then they'll leave us alone. Find me someplace barren where nothing grows."
When the two men reached a far stretch of sandy shoreline, Severus sagged abruptly to his knees. "Here is good," he gasped, becoming partially visible as he slumped away from the magical cloak. His hands and face were visibly greyer.
"Professor!" Harry blurted, shrugging out of the cloak and steadying the Potions-master with his gloved hands. "Time?"
Severus reached for the inexorable countdown he'd managed to ignore while they made the potion. "Fifty-eight hours, thirty-seven minutes, and - twenty seconds."
"Bong, bong, bong," Harry muttered. "I'm not leaving you out here for two more days!" he finished with an appalled snort.
"What a noise. You sound like one of Hagrid's 'wee beasties'," said Severus, leaning carefully against him. "I told you, I'll go back inside later. Relax into the potion. Let it cushion you, for now."
"What are you thinking?"
Severus gave a soft laugh. "That you're very warm, Harry Potter. I'd have liked a couple of decades to get used to that. But this isn't bad. We very nearly didn't have _anything_. I never had time to ask, before -- how long have you not hated me?"
"A couple of years, now. Ever since I began to understand what you were doing for Albus, and me. I felt guilty, and tried to be nicer to you."
"It was disconcerting," said Severus. "I thought for certain Voldemort had caught you and sent an imposter Potter to class."
"Then I just started liking you for _you_," said Harry, putting his head on Severus' shoulder for a moment, before Severus shrugged him away. Harry sighed at the loss of contact, but didn't complain. "There weren't any pedestals or honour-guards, with you. None of that Boy-Who-Lived nonsense."
"I'll expect you to live up to that, you know. The 'Living' part," Severus whispered, then broke off as footsteps crunched over the sand toward them.
"Ah, there you are, gentlemen," sighed Albus Dumbledore. "Mind if Fawkes and I join you? It's a lovely evening. We brought our own blanket."
"Meddler," said Severus, though the insult was gentled by his slight grin.
"Hullo, Fawkes," said Harry, holding out his fingertips to the phoenix. Fawkes sniffed them and sneezed, his once-magnificent head shaking bedraggled plumes. "He's almost ready, isn't he?"
"Aye." Albus scratched the phoenix's neck fondly. Harry noticed that the Headmaster's blue eyes glittered oddly in the sunlight. Tears, or laughter. Or both.
"Fortuitous of him," said Severus, easing his thin body full-length on the sand.
"Fawkes has a gift to know when and where he is needed," Dumbledore said calmly.
"You know what I require."
"Yes, my child. Have you thought how - "
Severus smiled. "I think the Killing Curse would be most effective, Albus."
"No!" Harry snarled, seeing the Headmaster's wizened hand bring out a wand.
"Harry." Once again, Severus nearly reached out to the younger man. "Given with love, it is painless and swift. Do you think either of us could manage a knife, at this moment? Or that you might trust any poison I brought?"
"Then it should be me," Harry said, some part of him marveling that he could even speak. "If it's love, is it still Unforgivable?"
Albus chuckled. "A question the pundits shall be wrangling for centuries after us, I'm afraid. Under the circumstances, I believe we shall all be forgiven."
"Sir?" Severus' voice might almost have been that of a pardoned student, shaky and whispering in hope.
_Whispering_. Harry shuddered at the sound.
"Harry and I will perform the spell together, for efficacy. It will also help temper the guilt he will undoubtedly feel, in the days to come."
"I'm sorry, Harry," said Severus, forcing his voice to a normal timbre. "Set out the goblets."
"I wanted more time with you," Harry began stubbornly.
"It wouldn't be with _me_. Burn them."
With a wand-flick, Harry ignited the two oaken goblets. They burned with little smoke and a flame nearly transparent in the twilight.
Albus sprinkled frankincense on the flames. The resin sparked and crackled, sending up its own silken threads of smoke. "The spell, again," said the Headmaster.
"_Gaudio Exsultans_," the three men said together. "_Gaudio Triumphans. Gaudio Invictus. Gaudio Aeternus!_"
His black hair fraying into the sand, Severus Snape looked straight up into the sky and smiled.
Harry found good reason to be glad of the Bliss potion. It made looking at Severus's new expression bearable. The Professor's soft grin was joy itself, wrapped up with love, wonder, discovery, and a bittersweet awareness of _self_ and loss that was so beautiful Harry found himself grinning back through his own tears.
"So that's what they hunger for," Severus muttered dreamily. Then the joy did not leave his face, precisely, but it sharpened hard as a knife as he half-rolled to face Harry. His hunger was gloriously compelling. "Dear Merlin," Severus murmured. "I would be the only Dementor who truly _knows_ what it is taking. What love is, and hope. And the only Dementor who would retain enough self-awareness to use every Slytherin tool at his command! Albus, oh, gods. I was wrong about the time. I don't have two days. It must be _now!_"
Wand out, his hand shaking, Harry looked at the handsome black-eyed stranger smiling back him. He wanted to sink into Severus' arms. Taste the warmth they both craved, and the kisses they had never shared.
Fawkes shrilled a warning cry, as Albus clamped a stern hand on Harry's shoulder. "Mr. Potter, if you love him, _say the words_!"
As one, two voices said "_Avada Kedravra!_" One of them might have been Harry's, but the young man couldn't tell. Green light flared from two wands. For an instant, Harry thought he saw _Severus_ again, and not the incipient Dementor.
An ugly, rail-thin wizard worn down by harsh years of bitter effort, secrecy, pain, and dishonour. Lifted up again by love, relief, and pure joy. He was more beautiful than the Dementor had been, and so much more fragile. A creature whose entire existence was bound into one static moment between the two curses.
The blue-tinged lips moved, silently mouthing _I love you_.
Then green light faded into the blue-purple of advancing twilight. There was a man's husk on the barren sand, grey-skinned, with black soulless pits for eyes. So dead it did not even twitch. And so utterly different than Severus that Harry could look at it without much pain.
Albus had disregarded one of his Potions-master's wishes. There was, after all, a funeral.
Probably before Harry had come down to help create Severus' last potion, the Headmaster had arranged this moment. One long-overdue honour, meant as much to gently chastise the living as to speed a dead man's soul on its way.
While Harry had been wrestling with the strange combination of grief and Bliss, the parties in the garden changed tone - and direction. Quietly, with a minimum of fuss, the celebrating wizards and witches walked to the lakeshore. Each carried a branch or two of dry, aromatic wood: cinnamon and camphor, aloe and sandalwood, cedar and apple. By now, deep in the moonless evening, the pyre was almost complete.
Fawkes was a miserable heap of frizzy feathers and awkward legs, swaying so much on Albus' shoulder that the Headmaster finally set his shuddering familiar on the ground. The bird's milky eyes surveyed the nearly- complete pyre. He sniffed the air, and croaked demandingly as a raven.
"Soon," Harry said, kneeling to soothe the bird with a gentle pat on its snaky neck. "We've got the last branches on now."
Somewhere inside the top third of that twenty-foot-high interwoven structure, Severus's body was entombed. Shrouded in white spider-silk and a large Slytherin banner, all of the cocoon soaked in rare oils and resins. Poppy and Minerva had not directly touched the body, using levitation instead to wrap and arrange it.
Details, Harry noted dully. He didn't think the unfinished Dementor's curse would last past death, but Albus was wise not to take any chances. And if Severus couldn't appreciate the outpouring of ritual for his sake, Harry could. Even Ron was civil, though that might have been as much for lost Hermione's sake as for Harry.
People grieved. This ceremony simply gave them a focal point.
When Fawkes crawled up the splintery slope like a bedraggled bat, Harry remembered a potion shining like afternoon sunlight inside two oak goblets.
When the fire was lit from a thousand wands, including his own, Harry remembered the first time he'd seen the stern and frightening Professor. Then the first time he'd seen _Severus_, the brave and complicated and desperately lonely man.
Fawkes screamed, a sound of pain and fierce defiance.
The pyre exploded up into a hundred-foot cyclone of red flame and starry, drifting sparks. Harry closed his eyes and sagged into the memory of being held by thin, strong, sympathetic arms -- the first time Severus had seen _him_ and not The Boy Who Lived.
Unfamiliar arms caught him this time, held him upright. Something too sweet to be a properly-bitter Awakening potion cloyed in his nose.
He sneezed it away, following Severus as far as he could, into healing sleep and the triumphant song of a reborn Phoenix.
March 21, 2003