The cake had long been eaten and the half-moon shone brightly. The quiet rustling of everyone gathering their things could be heard drifting over the lush hills of Bell Point. The cottage windows glowed from afar, a golden light spilling out into the night, banishing the darkness. A sleepy warmth pervaded the atmosphere, the lingering heat of a hot summer day drifting into the night. Off in the distance the moon shone on the gently rippling surface of the ocean, and as Harry walked with Remus to the apparition point, where following goodbyes, the Weasleys had disappeared only moments earlier, he sighed with contentment.
"Happy Birthday, Harry," Remus said with a smile, his expression tired, but happy.
"Thanks for coming, Remus," Harry said, his heart feeling so full it might burst. He wasn't quite sure how to say how he felt, but Remus seemed to understand.
"You deserve this, Harry," he told him softly, his eyes gesturing to the cottage and its sweeping hills, to Hermione and Severus who were folding a tablecloth by the light from candles within the coloured jars.
Harry looked at his feet, unable to conceal the huge grin on his face. He was surprised to feel Remus ruffle his hair affectionately.
"You're so much like Lily - humble as can be," Remus said with the ghost of a laugh. "Goodbye, Harry. I'll visit soon, I promise."
"Okay," Harry said. "Even though Severus is here?"
"Oh, I don't mind him," said Remus. "I don't think he minds me much either. It's my furry friend he doesn't like."
He winked, his joke about his condition surprising Harry, who laughed. Remus gave Harry a short one armed hug before walking out of the wards. For a moment his shadowy form - tattered robes swirling about him - stood in the light of the moon, the rippling water beneath the rocky point shining, and then he was gone.
He was about to walk away when he heard another pop. Thinking that perhaps Remus had forgotten something, he turned back around. To his surprise Professor Dumbledore stood before him.
"Ah, Harry," said Dumbledore. "Happy Birthday."
"What's your favourite kind of jam?" Harry asked quickly, doing what Severus had been drilling him and Hermione to do when anyone arrived.
"Raspberry," said Dumbledore smoothly. "And your patronus?"
"Wonderful," said Dumbledore, sweeping down off the rocky landscape and falling in step beside Harry.
"What are you doing here?" Harry inquired, although not rudely. "You haven't shown up for any of my other birthdays, so it has to be more than just that."
"Well deducted," said Professor Dumbledore, sounding a little sad for a moment upon consideration of what Harry had said. "At the moment, yes, I do have an ulterior motive, although a good one in this case. I hope I am not too late to visit? I would have come earlier, but I've been in council with some of the Order, discussing how to work out the problem of your relatives."
"Oh, no, Remus just left," said Harry. "Have you decided what you're doing yet?"
"We haven't come to any conclusions just yet, Harry," said Dumbledore. "It is tricky. We cannot go through legal channels for fear of it getting out, but we cannot simply let them walk away without some justice done for the way they have mistreated you."
"Don't hurt them badly," Harry said, "I know I've said it before, but please don't."
"No, I would not do that," said Dumbledore, sincerely, Harry thought. "I merely wish to find a way for them to understand how terrible a crime it was for them to commit, acting as they did."
Harry just shrugged.
"Is Severus still awake?"
"I have a simple matter to discuss with him."
Harry looked around. Severus was sitting on the porch now, eyes closed and resting his legs up against the railing and tipping back in the rocking chair that sat there.
Hermione was blowing out the candles one by one, taking the jars inside. She waved to Professor Dumbledore, set at ease by his cheerful expression.
"Ah, Severus," said Dumbledore. "How are you?"
Hermione gave Harry a look that said "come inside they want to talk", so Harry went up the steps and followed her inside, telling Dumbledore it was nice to see him.
"I'm well, thank you," Severus said as the screen door shut and Hermione and Harry had left.
He took his legs from the railing. Dumbledore had dragged a small chair over to where Severus was, and he sat contentedly upon it, looking out onto the gentle roll of the sea.
"All the details have almost been smoothed over," said Dumbledore. "The Order should have all the paperwork done for Harry soon - we believe the Dursleys will sign over guardianship of Harry fairly easily."
"Good," said Severus, a few lines on his face disappearing with the good news. He had feared Dumbledore had come with grim tidings - for it seemed that happened all too often these days. Severus was immensely relieved that Harry would soon be out of there for good.
Both contented with this thought, they fell into a comfortable silence, the only sound that of the light breeze flowing through the trees and the gentle slap of water on the shoreline.
"This place has a magic all its own, don't you think?" said Dumbledore at last in a low, soft voice.
Severus stared out at the beam of moonlight Dumbledore had his eyes transfixed upon, where it seemed to lead off in a silver path to whatever lay beyond the ocean.
"Yes," Severus said, his voice soft, his mind and body relaxed. "I will miss it."
Dumbledore was silent for a moment, and then he turned away from the sea and stared instead at Severus.
"Severus, have I ever thanked you for all of the things you have done for me?"
"What?" Severus said, tearing his eyes from the scene of beauty before him and looking at Dumbledore.
"You have risked everything, Severus, and oftentimes with so little to show for it. You have done everything I have asked - you have kept Harry safe. You have gone into situations unimaginable, seen sights that some of us wouldn't even dream of and that would haunt those who did see them until their dying days. I want to thank you for that. I want to tell you how much it has meant to me over the years - how much it has meant to the light too. Without you we would never have gotten so far."
Severus sat in shock. He hardly knew what to say. Had he ever been thanked? It had been a thankless job, spying on the Dark Lord, going into a world of darkness all those nights, not knowing if you would return. He had never expected to be thanked.
"I ... no ... I do not know if you have, exactly," muttered Severus. "Well, not like that."
"I am sorry, I am so sorry that you had to sacrifice so much," said Dumbledore, his words coming out almost breathlessly. He looked away, as though in shame, and Severus was surprised to see the glisten of tears in his eyes.
"I - I knew the risks," Severus said, his heart heavy. "I could have stopped if I had wanted to, there are ways."
"But you didn't, and that is why I feel I owe everything to you, Severus." Dumbledore reached into his pocket, and he drew from it something, although his hand remained clasped around it. He was silent a moment before continuing. "You have been shunted from one place to the next too many times in your life - back in school, when I was too much a fool to see you properly, to help you before it was too late - to this day in society for the mistakes made by a frightened young boy of long ago. You deserve more than that."
Severus watched in surprise as Dumbledore lifted his closed hand, took Severus' hand in the free one, and set a small, cool object in his palm. As soon as he took his hand away, Severus opened his.
It was a key, old fashioned and dull coloured.
Severus thought he knew, but he asked anyway.
"What is it for?" he asked, his voice low and scratching.
"You never have to leave Bell Point, Severus," said Dumbledore softly. "It is your home now. It is your place to recover in, your place to live, your place to share with your new family. This is my thank you for everything you gave up, and I fear it does not cover the sacrifices you made."
"Albus," said Severus, hardly knowing what to say. "But the Order, I thought it needed Bell Point -"
"That's not important," said Dumbledore. "There are other safe houses. This is yours now."
Severus hardly knew what to say, and now that his words had run out he stared at the key in his hand. Dumbledore grasped his shoulder for a moment and said goodnight. He walked down to the point, and with a smile and a wave he was gone, leaving Severus standing on the porch in the moonlight, tears streaking down his face despite his best intentions.
Harry and Hermione were overjoyed by the news. The prospect of a whole summer ahead of them, years even, spent at Bell Point seemed to bring a kind of life to the two that nothing else had since the deaths of Sirius, and Hermione's parents. Severus was so grateful for this, and those summer days were the best he had known yet. He went on long walks with Harry and Hermione, swam and practised his spell-work every second he could, until he was able to do most of the simple spells he had learned in his early years at Hogwarts, although only with his left.
Bell Point became a rather busy place from time to time, for the Weasleys were always welcome and Lupin dropped by a fair bit to visit with Harry. The paperwork did work out for Harry not long after his birthday, and to celebrate they all went to the Burrow for an evening of Fred and George's fireworks and homemade ice cream. Although Severus did not say so, he much preferred "Weasleys' Wildfire Whiz-bangs" when they were chasing Umbridge all over Hell and half-acre, but they were nice outdoors too.
It was perhaps the best, and therefore shortest summer Severus had ever had, and it seemed like no time before the final week of vacation arrived, signalling the time to return to the bustle of activity and work. Severus had been searching through papers and sending out resumes to numerous places, hoping for some job that he could do without trouble, but so far, his luck had been fruitless. Too many knew what he had done - too many believed him to be a traitor. Severus should have known not to expect anything different, for he had known a very long time that his past would always haunt him. Thankfully he had been writing papers for various Potions journals, which really didn't care who wrote the article as long as they knew what they were talking about and had the credentials to prove it. These provided an irregular source of income, but thanks to the key that now rested safely in the (repaired) drawer of his desk, they got by just fine.
Yet, despite all the blessings he had been given over the summer, Severus' heart ached as he thought of sending Hermione and Harry off to Hogwarts. And then that day came, and he watched as they waved sadly behind them, Harry looking more heartbroken than Severus ever imagined he could considering he was going to a place he had always said was his home.
A month passed. Owls came, and owls went, and Severus wrote steadily into October, the silence of the cottage peaceful and yet sad. He watched the leaves turn from green to red and gold. He watched them turn to brown and fall, and the skies go from blue to grey. He watched the fog and mist roll in from the ocean, and all the while he worked himself as hard as he could, doing spellwork and even attempting the odd potion. Severus made good progress, but he still was not what he used to be. He was on his way, but not at the destination he needed to reach to return to teaching. He never thought he would be sorry when the day came that he was no longer a Professor. And yet, he was. Just as he was sure he would never grow to love two meddlesome teenagers the way he had the two that wrote him long letters every week, the same two he had taken to sending (he swore he never would do this, but then again he'd sworn a lot of things before everything changed) packages in the mail with the occasional small surprise - a little yarn for Hermione here and some hot chocolate mix for Harry there.
The only thing that kept him going some nights in that empty house was the knowledge that they would be coming home, that his family would return for Christmas to the little cottage by the sea. It was like a candle in the darkness, and he was so engrossed with this idea one morning that he was quite surprised when a letter from Albus Dumbledore came through the window by owl. It had been a few weeks since he'd written.
Once he got over the surprise he expected the usual fare within the envelope. He was quite wrong.
Harry sat by the fire in the Gryffindor common room, reading over some class notes. There was a tapping on the window, and he looked up tiredly, hoping that it was Hedwig with some mail for him so that he had an excuse not to study. The owl was not familiar, and he felt his heart sink. He opened the window for it anyway, and yet, despite its unfamiliarity, it landed in front of him and stuck out its leg.
"For me?" muttered Harry, confused, wondering as well why it hadn't come at breakfast. Perhaps it was urgent.
Harry was surprised to see a sealed muggle envelope, as well as a small scroll attached. The scroll said, Open First in the elegant script Harry was quite sure was Professor Dumbledore's handwriting.
Dear Harry, it said. This letter just came for me today - I had to have it sent by muggle post due to the nature of my request and the distance it travelled. I hope that in some small way this is in part consolation for what your relatives did. I only wish we could have brought them to true justice and had the world know what they did, but alas, I know that is not what you want, nor what should be announced despite how much they deserve to be scorned upon. Thus, a different arrangement was made, and I assure you they shall never harm you again for they are quite out of reach.
It was signed in Professor Dumbledore's loopy handwriting. Looking around the mostly empty common room (most people were still at dinner, but Harry had been quick because he wanted the common room to himself for a while), he decided he would go up into his dorm to open the letter alone.
He sunk down on his four poster and slit the envelope with trembling fingers. It had stamps and postmarks all over it, but he didn't bother to read these. Shaking, Harry pulled from the envelope a stiff, shining piece of card-stock. It was a postcard, in fact, and splashed across the front in a bold font, pictures of wolves and stylized totem poles behind it, said Greetings from Barrow Alaska!
"What?" Harry spat, confused. He turned the postcard over, and attached to it was a small picture of the three Dursleys, looking extraordinarily grumpy in their jackets. It was signed by all three Dursleys, and at the bottom of the postcard Harry noticed a small typed note, part of the post card.
Did you know that, due to its position on the globe, it is dark twenty four hours a day from November to January in Barrow Alaska?
Harry hardly knew how to react. At first he was horrified, and then he burst out laughing, the less sympathetic part of him winning over as an immense sense of relief flooded over him. They were far away now, and they could not hurt him.
He sunk down on his bed, laughing so hard that he didn't noticed Hermione come sprinting into his dormitory.
"Harry! I have great - what are you laughing for?" Hermione asked, panting, her eyes alight.
Harry wheezed a little and tossed the postcard at her.
Hermione looked stricken when she read it, but upon Harry's continued gale of laughter, her lip twitched.
"That was very creative of Dumbledore, you know," she said when Harry had managed to gasp out what the small scroll had mentioned.
"It's genius!" Harry said, wiping his eyes and thinking that he was going to find the largest bag of sherbet lemons he could for Professor Dumbledore. "I couldn't be happier."
"Actually ..." said Hermione, her face lighting up once more, "I beg to differ."
"Aw, come on Hermione, nothing you could say would be better than this," Harry said, still chortling as he waved the post card, now safely in his hands once more.
"Then I'll show you," said Hermione briskly. "Come on, then."
Harry stared at her curiously as her eyes sparkled and her lips quirked in a smile.
"You'll love it," she said, grabbing Harry's arm and dragging him down the staircase.
"I swear, if it's something to do with Spew ..." Harry muttered.
For once, Hermione didn't even chastise him for his comment regarding S.P.E.W.
It was then that Harry began to wonder.
Hermione dragged him down past the Great Hall and from corridor to corridor, and for a moment Harry got excited, thinking that perhaps ... just maybe, Severus was back. But they passed the main staircase down to the dungeons, and turned left instead, going along a winding passage with smaller classrooms than were in the larger halls.
When at last Harry felt he'd questioned the silent Hermione more than he could bear, she led him to a closed classroom door.
Harry opened his mouth to ask, but she pressed a finger to her lips.
"Shh," she said, giggling a little as a look crossed her face that clearly told Harry You'll see.
She rapped on the door, which Harry noted had a small sign on it that said Arithmancy
"Come on in - I am just writing up Monday's lesson -" called a muffled voice through the door.
Harry frowned. Had Hermione taken him to see Professor Vector? Why would she do that?
Hermione pushed open the door. The classroom was narrow, but deep. Harry glanced around the room for a second, distracted by the complicated measuring devices and charts filled with equations upon the walls.
"Harry!" Hermione said, prodding him so that he ceased to examine a strange sort of slide rule that had some funny knobs and was resting on a desk beside him.
Harry looked up, and it was then that the figure turned around, a piece of chalk held in his left hand, his robes billowing as he did so. Words failed Harry, but before he knew what he was doing he was running down the aisle and had thrown his arms around Severus, who, beaming, returned the embrace.
"How - what, what are you ..." Harry began, shocked to the core. Hermione, who had taken a seat on the surface of the front desk, grinned.
"Professor Vector's taking the rest of the year off," said Severus, trying not to look too pleased. "Her sister is ill, and she wants to be there for her. Albus remembered that I was good in Arithmancy ... and as this class is mostly writing, he thought I would do well."
"Isn't it wonderful?" Hermione said. "Well, not for Professor Vector, that's terrible, but at least some good came of it!"
Harry just grinned as Hermione let her mouth run away as she rambled on about how grateful she was.
That night (the next day being a Saturday), the three of them went for a walk on the Hogwarts grounds. It was a bit chilly, and they pulled their cloaks tight, but up above the sky was cloudless and the stars were just starting to come out. The three of them journeyed down to the lake, where they sat on the wide flat stones that lay upon the shoreline, Severus in the middle, and Hermione and Harry on either side of him. Together they stared out at the glittering expanse of water. It made Harry ache for Bell Point a little, something he wasn't quite used to. Perhaps it was the water that had drawn the three of them, and how much it reminded them of home.
"I'm so happy," said Harry quietly over the sound of lake slapping the shoreline.
"I am too," muttered Severus after a moment, a small smile on his face.
"Me too," whispered Hermione at last, sounding almost surprised.
Silence fell between the three. It grew darker out, dark enough so that they could not be seen from the castle if anyone had looked, and that was the way they liked it, for it was just the three of them. When the cold set in Severus draped his arms around both of them, and he pulled them close to his sides. Hermione did what she seldom let herself do, and let her head rest on Severus' shoulder, and Harry, who had never known such quiet bliss as this, did as well. They remained this way for quite some time, until at long last they walked up to the castle, and as the night became its darkest, the stars grew ever brighter.
Those stars would shine brighter still as the hours left of the night grew fewer and the three who were once so lost lay in their beds in different parts of the castle, in different dreams. And while they were separate for the time being, one thing reached beyond stone walls and far off corridors, and that was that no matter the distance between them - whether they were at Bell Point, or Hogwarts, or goodness knew where else - every day, and always, they would be a family. And to all those who have experienced life without one and tasted the aching fear that all the loneliness in the world belongs to you and you alone, this was the kind of thought that would fight every kind of darkness, again and again.