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*


In London, an unobtrusive court led off Fleet Street, and in that court, a round sign hung over a dark, panelled door, declaring it to be “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – Rebuilt 1667”. Harry worked there; if you went at the right time of day it wasn’t hard to find him, hurrying to and fro across the creaky wooden floors and past the dark oaken booths and tables. Sometimes he stumbled against a corner of a table, rattling the crockery (“Oops ... er, sorry, ma’am!”) Usually that happened because he forgot his glasses in his hurry to smack the alarm into silence and pull a fresh T-shirt over his head. He never had time at lunch to get his glasses from his flat: not after spending all morning staring, bleary-eyed and nearsighted, at the Uni lecturers and scribbling down nonsense. Anyway, he didn’t bump into things often enough to get his manager angry, just enough to earn a few stern glances once in a while.

 

Harry usually worked in the Chop Room: where long ago Charles Dickens habitually dined at the largest table, and where even longer ago Samuel Johnson had dined often enough to have his own chair and, years later, a portrait on the wall. Opposite that historic table, there was a row of smaller tables and benches that were rather less popular with the tourists. But in an inn as historic as the Cheshire Cheese, ‘less popular’ was a relative term.

Even the quietest table, the one in the corner, had its regular visitors, like the old man who always sat on the furthest bench from the door. Like most regulars, he was a creature of habit: he always ordered either the ploughman’s lunch (£5.75), or the soup of the day (£3.50), or simply a pot of tea (£1.55). He never ordered more than five or six quid’s worth and didn’t leave much of a tip, but Harry didn’t mind. The old man never left crumbs or spills for Harry to clean up, and most of the time he blended into the background quietly with his bony fingers curled around a hot cup of tea and his hair hanging black and stringy round his face. Unless his plate was empty, Harry didn’t notice him at all.

Until the time he did. The old man was reading a book over lunch; that was nothing new, but as it happened, for once Harry had remembered his glasses that morning. Harry was surprised to recognise the book from just a glimpse of its cover: Evgeny Onegin. Harry’s literature assignment was due tomorrow and he didn’t have a copy yet. He wasn’t rude enough to bother a customer, but he hoped the old man would remain in the corner, reading, until four: when Harry’s shift would end, and he’d be free to follow him out the door and ask.

The old man stayed, turning pages and sipping slowly at his tea, making it last. And so, when he left, Harry followed, into the alleyway and onto Fleet Street. He hadn’t really planned to take so much trouble about finding this one book, but the deadline was tomorrow and the library hadn’t had any copies returned any of the other times he’d asked, and he was out of money for the month so he couldn’t afford to buy a copy. Harry was really rather desperate: desperate enough to keep following, if not quite enough to stop the old man in the middle of the street.

This is so bloody awkward, Harry thought. How the hell am I supposed to ask a complete stranger for a favour? As Harry continued to trail along after him, his mind churned with entreaties and explanations, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say that didn’t sound completely mental. So he just kept thinking, kept walking, all the way to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, too absorbed in his own embarrassment and desperation to really notice the path covered with dry brown leaves as it wound amid the bare-branched trees. Until the man abruptly sat down on a bench and pulled the book out of his pocket, settling down to resume reading. All at once, Harry found himself staring down at a total stranger, and he still couldn’t think of anything sensible to say. Did I really follow him this far?

“Um. Hello. I, er. Saw your book and I thought...” Harry swallowed. “Can I borrow it? Please? Not to keep, just a loan. Not for long. I’ll give it back, promise. S’just, I’ve got to read it for a class. And the library’s out of copies.”

The man arched an eyebrow; he looked unimpressed. Seeing him for the first time under the sunlight of the last warm day of November, Harry realised he wasn’t quite as old as Harry had thought: middle aged, no more. “Might I suggest another library?” he enunciated sternly.

“Er.” Harry looked away; he hadn’t thought of that.

“The essay is due tomorrow, I presume?”

Bloody git! Harry hated people who pretended to read minds, especially if they did it in such an insulting way, but he needed that book. “Yes. You don’t have to... maybe if you could just tell me how it ends...”

Amusement quirked the man’s mouth for a moment. “No.”

“...then I’ll stop bothering you.” Harry blinked. “What? Why not?”

“I won’t allow my opinion of Onegin to be plagiarised in some last-minute shoddy excuse for a paper.”

Harry squinted. The man scowled; it made his beaky nose stick out even further. Even his nose looked offended. “D’you teach Lit then?”

“I do not. Don’t make assumptions merely because I can recognise irresponsible behaviour and own a work of classic literature.”

“Um, sorry.”

“Apology accepted. And it’s Chemistry, not Literature. Former Professor.”

Ha! I was right, he was a teacher, Harry smirked inwardly, but whatever he does for a crust now, he’s still an utter git. I bet he was sacked ‘cause he failed half his class every term! But outwardly, all Harry did was nod: safest not to tease. “Oh.”

The man didn’t give him another look; he seemed to be fully immersed in his reading.

“Er. Sorry to bother you. I’ll, I’ll just go.”

After he’d made three leaf-rustling steps onto the footpath, Harry heard an abrupt “Wait.” Maybe he’s had a change of heart, Harry thought, if he’s even got one to change. “I’m finished. You may borrow it.”

Harry cautiously came closer and reached for the book, subconsciously expecting a trap: that the book – or the man – would bite him or do something else nasty. He was oddly disappointed when that didn’t happen. “Thank you!”

“The address is inside the back cover. I trust you to return it, when you’ve finished your essay.” The man looked up. No, Harry thought, he’s definitely not that old after all: somewhere in his forties. There were almost no wrinkles around his eyes, just tired, deep shadows.

*

At midnight, when all the lines started to blur together and Harry found himself reading the same stanza for the fifth time, he flipped the rest of the pages idly, merely glancing at the text until he discovered the address written in narrow, angular handwriting in faded black ink. Severus Snape, it said above it. Severus? Harry wondered, What the hell sort of name is that? Poor sod! Still, I suppose it’s not his fault his parents were obsessed with Romans. He’s sure as hell got the nose to match.

*

Three days later, Harry set out to find Severus’ flat. He’d never ventured that far north of Camden Lock Market, and after a good hour of searching through the labyrinth of streets, he finally tracked down the right one. It ran parallel to the train tracks coming from King’s Cross, and ended at a block of flats: a brick building that looked positively ancient. He climbed up the dingy, echoing stairwell, hearing bits and pieces of arguments and conversations behind the closed doors – not all of them English: they sounded Polish or Russian. The air was stale with old cigarette smoke. On the third floor he spluttered and batted away a large moth; its wings fluttered wildly against his chin and mouth and made him sneeze and spit out the taste of wing dust for a good ten seconds afterwards. At last the correct number was right in front of him and Harry was glad he didn’t have to climb the narrow stairs any further.

As Harry knocked on the battered door, he felt awkward as hell, with his hair in disarray, his worn trainers and his jumper sleeves frayed and too short. I hope he’s not at home, Harry thought, That way, I could just drop the book in the mailbox with a thank you note, and leave. He kicked himself mentally. Why the hell didn’t I think of that in the first place? Maybe it’s not too late to do that.

Then it was too late because the door squeaked and swung open.

“What do you want?”

Harry blinked and held the Onegin in front of him like a shield and tried to get his eyesight adjusted to the darkness of the flat. Luckily, it was the same man from the Cheshire Cheese and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Harry twisted the book anxiously in his hands, then turned it over so that the title was visible, just in case. “Er. Here’s your book.”

“I see,” The reply sounded a bit surprised. Did he think I wouldn’t bring it back? Harry thought as he held out the book silently. But the man didn’t take it; instead he glanced up the stairwell – where high-pitched, accented voices and descending footsteps could be heard coming closer – before he frowned and stepped aside. “Come in.”

Harry hesitated and glanced up as well. “What? What’s the matter?”

“Now!” Severus insisted. The second Harry was in the flat the door slammed shut behind him, effectively cutting off the source of the noise. Harry jumped at the bang. “Gossiping old bats,” Severus muttered in place of explanation, or apology.

Harry just blinked. He’d never had any trouble with his neighbours. The lady in the flat to the left sometimes gave him a stern look if he turned up the telly after hours, and the newlyweds in the flat to the right were too busy yelling at each other to even notice him. Severus’ neighbours seemed like they had too much time on their hands. Either that or the man was paranoid, which was more likely.

Severus Snape led him through a narrow corridor, past a doorway showing a dark room with loads of books and candles on the floor, and on into the kitchen. It was like stepping into a different world, a world years older than Harry. A train passed and Harry blinked at the rattle of glass in the window pane. Papers covered in red marks were scattered all over a scratched old kitchen table. The air was savoury with the steam from some sort of stew, bubbling in a pot on the stove; a ladle and a still-steaming bowlful of the same stew sat on the edge of the table. Harry took a deeper sniff, trying to decide what was in it. That broke the silence.

Severus had been standing in the middle of the kitchen with a lost look in his eyes, but at the sound of that sniff he raised an amused eyebrow. “Hungry?”

What kind of question was that? “Er...”

“Did you eat anything today? Here,” he took out a second bowl, ladling out some more of the stew.

“You don’t have to feed me!”

“Nonsense. I have more than enough. It’s my chance to offer you food, for a change.”

Severus brushed aside the scattered papers and pulled a second chair from under the rickety table. Since he put it like that, Harry couldn’t really refuse the strained hospitality. It seemed awkward to turn it down, especially since he knew the offer wouldn’t be repeated. He sat down. The stew tasted horrible: bland and overcooked, not enough salt and hardly any spices; but Harry thought it’d be rude of him to say anything. Besides, he was hungry.

He emptied the bowl in no time. Severus sat across from him, eating his own stew at a much more leisurely pace as he made occasional corrections on a sheet of paper. They didn’t talk and it seemed awkward not to, but it seemed even more awkward to ask him anything.

“What are they?” Harry asked anyway, nodding at the papers. “For school?”

“For publication. Articles,” Severus replied without looking up, “I’m on the editorial boards of some research journals.”

Afterwards Severus took Onegin into the candlelit room to put it back in its place on the tall shelves. Harry tagged along after him. The room looked as if Severus had raided a library. There was a couch and a leather chair and what looked like the corner of a bed hidden behind a row of bookshelves, but mostly it was filled with books and newspapers and magazines.

“Wow,” Harry breathed, standing in the doorway to stare around in shock. The shock was mostly at the candles scattered everywhere amid the disarray, the candles that had evidently been burning for hours. How the hell does he manage not to burn the place down?

Severus must have misinterpreted Harry’s cry, because his expression softened and he regarded Harry with something akin to pride. Harry noticed that look, and to keep it there he played along, moving carefully through the candle-cluttered room toward the crowded shelves. He skimmed the rows, reading a few titles as he ran his fingers softly along the spines of thick tomes. The subject matter seemed completely random: Nomenclature of Inogranic Chemistry was directly above Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

When Harry was escorted to the door, he paused on the threshold. It didn’t feel right to walk away without at least saying something. He’d turned in the essay on time and the stew wasn’t that horrible. If Severus had been a co-worker or a fellow student, it would’ve been much easier to express his appreciation. “Thanks,” Harry muttered anyway. And added before he had time to change his mind, “Can I buy you a beer? Sometime.”

“No, thank you.” Severus looked surprised. “I don’t drink,” he said with the same wince Harry said ‘M’trying to quit,’ when someone offered him a cigarette.

“Oh. Me neither.” Harry shrugged. “Not often anyway.” And that was all he could say, really.

“Wait,” Severus stopped him. “What’s your name?”

And so Harry stuck his hand out and told him.

Severus’ grip was firm and steady, squeezing quickly and letting go. “Harry,” he repeated, and somehow, even though it was just a common name, it sounded official and serious when he said it, like his first grade English teacher’s ‘Mis-ter Potter’. “You’re welcome to return if you’d like to borrow any more books.”

So Harry did.

*

Harry was just as ordinary as his name. Dark, short hair perpetually sticking up every which way, glasses, inquiring eyes paler than they should be for his complexion; all enthusiasm and awkwardness and sudden smiles and more curiosity than was good for him. Severus never expected him to come back.

Therefore he was surprised at the tentative knock on the door three days later, surprised to see Harry standing there and grinning from ear to ear.

He was even more surprised at the constant stream of questions that came out of Harry’s mouth. He really should dedicate that curiosity of his to more useful things, Severus mused, like studies or reading. Of all people, I’m hardly worth all that energy.

“So, you live alone?” Harry asked, poking around Severus’ flat. It wasn’t much of a flat, just a bedsit really. One room separated into two by the bookshelves, a tiny bathroom and a narrow corridor in between leading to the kitchen.

“Yes.”

“Any family?”

“No. My mother was the last; she passed away last spring.”

Harry winced, sympathetic and embarrassed. “M’sorry.”

“Don’t be.” More than the funeral, he remembered himself the afternoon he heard the news, sitting in his empty Chemistry classroom, head in hands; and a week later, walking away from it all without looking back. The classroom door had slammed shut behind him and the corridor was empty at that late hour. He sent his resignation notice in the mail shortly afterwards. Even months later, sometimes he still wondered if the school had ever received it; they’d certainly never replied. He found it strange that he never missed the place at all. Although he’d spent years teaching there, after months of not seeing it he still despised it.

“What was she like?” Harry asked.

“People said I looked like her. She wanted me to teach.” An image flashed through Severus’ mind. He was five. His distant aunt or cousin or something or other was bending over him, cooing and trying to coax a response out of him with sweets. “What are we going to be when we grow up, precious?” Severus hated sweets and he hated adults who thought children could only understand childish simpering. “A teacher,” his mum answered for him at once. There was never any argument about that, not with Mum.

“Right, you taught Chemistry, didn’t you?” the brat grinned. “I hated Chem at school; all that lab work. We had a terrible teacher.”

“Where did you go to school?” Severus asked. He hoped that Harry hadn’t been part of the inevitable, ever-changing gang of bullies, thugs, and layabouts that had lurked in the back of his classroom every year. That would just be too awkward.

“St. Brutus’ Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys,” Harry answered, and chuckled when Severus raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Not really, but s’what my aunt and uncle told everyone. I sort of liked the name so I started saying it too.”

“You have a strange sense of humour,” Severus observed dryly.

“Yeah, I reckon,” Harry beamed. Severus had to recall his own words, just to make sure that he did say ‘strange’ and that he didn’t compliment him by mistake.

“What about your parents?” he asked, trying to shift the attention from himself.

“Died in a car crash when I was small,” Harry shrugged. “I don’t remember them. I lived with my aunt’s family till I came here.”

Severus hmphed and decided not to say anything else about Harry being an orphan. I hope he’ll return the favour and not ask any more questions about my family, Severus thought. I probably shouldn’t worry anyway. Harry’s already satisfied his curiosity; he’ll be out of my life in no time.

Severus was surprised at how much he disliked the thought of Harry being gone. He tried to chase it out of his mind like an annoying insect buzzing in his ear. I really shouldn’t care at all, he told himself. What do Harry and I have in common? Nothing but a mutual dislike of Chemistry classes.

*

So Severus doesn’t have any family either, like me, Harry thought. Don’t reckon my aunt and uncle really count as family. It’s not as though I’ve ever been back to Surrey since I turned sixteen. Most of the time not having family doesn’t matter, not really. Who needs family when you’ve got friends? Friends are a thousand times better ‘cause you can pick people you really like to be your friends, but family, well... Sometimes you get stuck with arseholes like the Dursleys for family. I’m well off out of that lot. Harry looked around the room and smiled to himself, as he sat cross-legged in the middle of Severus’ floor, surrounded by stacks of dusty books. Aunt Petunia might be family but she’d never let me rearrange her things like this. And no way in hell would Uncle Vernon have ever said I’m welcome to come back and read his books any time I like!

He dug up a tome of Shakespeare’s sonnets and started paging through it, mumbling under his breath whatever lines caught his eye. “Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts ... Hm. Or In the old age black was not counted fair. Hmph. If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head ... Huh. Definitely not that one.” He needed to find something to read in class by tomorrow. He flipped another couple of pages and was ready to give up on Shakespeare when he noticed Severus standing in the doorway, staring at him with a truly pained expression.

“Give. Me. That.” Severus covered the distance between them in three long strides and plucked the book from Harry’s grasp with a grand sweeping gesture.

Harry winced and let go of it at once, wondering What’d I do? Can I fix it?

There was a twist of a smile on Severus’ face even as he gave Harry a mildly exasperated look.

All right, Harry thought, maybe he won’t kick me out ... this time.

Severus stepped back, eyeing the book with the relieved expression of a man who’d just rescued a family album from the hands of a three-year-old with a crayon. He flipped a page and read aloud, his voice deep and his eyes dark and gleaming.

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun ...”

‘Read’, Harry soon realised, was an understatement. When Severus read, he put his heart and soul into each line, bringing the archaic words to life. Harry’s teacher had always urged them to ‘feel the poetry’, although Harry never really knew what that meant before now. He picked just the right sonnet for his voice, Harry thought. He really suits it. He sounds cynical and strong, mocking all those rubbishy romantic poets, as though he’s already lived what they can only try and imagine.

Harry had never heard someone create such an impact with simple words and phrases: the same ones Harry had read, although he knew he could never speak like that, not in a million years. He could only listen to the cultured cadences of Severus’ velvety voice. Until the concluding lines.

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare,” There was such yearning in Severus’ voice as he read the line. Briefly he glanced down to look at Harry, and the corners of his mouth twitched upward when he saw his audience’s reaction. “As any she belied with false compare.”

Silence rang in Harry’s ears. He had no words. He simply stared, unable to take his eyes off Severus. I shouldn’t be so shocked, Harry thought, but just when I think I know him, he goes and does something like this and it’s bloody brilliant!

Severus snapped the book closed and offered it back to Harry with a triumphant flourish.

Harry could only blink. “Wow!” he finally managed. “You should be teaching our Lit class! Are you sure you taught Chem?”

“Yes, I taught Chemistry,” Severus parried, his lips twisting into a satisfied smirk, “But I read literature.”

Harry shifted a stack of books on his lap and they slid apart all over the floor, the dust and the smell of old paper and ink tickling Harry’s nostrils. He took a deep breath and tried to say something important in return, like how good Severus was at reading said literature, but instead he breathed in too much dust and sneezed twice.

“I always knew you’d find Great Literature something to sneeze at.” Severus hmphed. “Impossible brat.” And then he went on about how literature was the field ‘widely disparaged by those proud of their ignorance’.

He makes it sound like witchcraft or something, Harry thought, tuning him out after a while. Instead Harry kept hearing the way Severus referred to him: impossible brat. It almost sounded affectionate.

Harry decided to read Chaucer instead for the assignment. He knew he’d never manage to read Shakespeare with Severus’ intensity.

*

Having a stray Uni student proved to be more trouble than Severus expected. Harry tracked in mud from outside and left his mittens or his hat in odd places for Severus to find – a few minutes after Harry left his flat – and to hold out wordlessly when Harry remembered and ran back up the stairs for them. Every time Harry left, Severus grumpily eyed the disarray Harry had caused amid his books and papers, but all the same he never mentioned it the next time Harry showed up at his door.

Severus realised early on that his idea to turn Harry into a connoisseur of classic literature was a lost cause. Harry liked reading, but apart from Lit assignments he only read what he wanted to, from Grimm’s tales to comics in the newspaper to the diagrams in Severus’ recent stack of articles, and ignored or yawned through the rest. After a week or two Severus gave up trying to fill the gaps in Harry’s education, and instead listened to Harry natter about his day, the customers at the Cheshire Cheese, or the lecturers at Uni. Harry never ran out of things to say and Severus unexpectedly found himself willing to listen.

It was seldom that he found someone who didn’t make him want to put arsenic in their tea after a few minutes of listening to them talk. The time spent rearranging his belongings back into order or making an occasional cup of tea (poison-free every time) was a small price to pay in exchange for that.

*

Harry hurried down the familiar road from the tube station to Severus’ block of flats. He raised his collar and lowered his head, hoping the collar would help shield his ears. The wind seemed determined to turn him into an icicle. For the millionth time he wished he hadn’t quit smoking. He glanced longingly at the cig ads in an off-licence window, but instead he shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and kept on walking, making faces to spite the weather. To take his mind off the cold, he tried thinking about the hot cuppa he’d have as soon as he got in. They talked a lot over tea nowadays. Severus made it dark, a deep warm colour, so dark Harry could see his own reflection in the cup. Severus would wrap both of his hands around the cup and bask in that scarce warmth until even his eyes didn’t look so dark any more. They looked warm, the colour of his tea.

Harry hoped Severus had the kettle on already, and started walking faster. Soon he’d be inside, and he wouldn’t be cold anymore. Just imagining it, he could feel warmth spreading inside him, as if he’d already drunk a hot cuppa with Severus, sitting together at the rickety table in the comfortable quiet of his kitchen. When he visited Severus, Harry never ran out of things to say, or to do.

*

“That would end with a checkmate in two moves.”

“Fine then.” Harry muttered and surveyed the board again.

“And that one would cost you your queen.”

“You’re doing it again!” Harry cried, ready to sweep the figures off the board in frustration.

“What?” Severus was a picture of calm, the git.

“Trying to read my mind! Stop it!”

“It’s not difficult to tell what you’re thinking. You have remarkably expressive eyes,” Severus drawled as he slid his bishop to take Harry’s pawn.

“Oh,” Harry looked down and tried to hide his embarrassment by cleaning his glasses on his sleeve. Concentrate, he told himself. It’s not that hard. But the figures on the board didn’t make sense; every time Harry thought he’d worked out the right move, the pieces seemed to have shifted, just a bit, and ruined his plan. He narrowed his eyes and tried to remember the last time they’d done that. “Oi! Hang about, wasn’t your bishop over there?”

“Which bishop?” Severus’ tone was so distinctly bored and nonchalant, that it doubled Harry’s suspicion.

“That one!” Harry pointed out the stray piece that should’ve been right next to Severus’ king.

“It took your rook. Three moves ago.”

Harry furrowed his brow and tried to recall the move. “No it didn’t!”

“Yes it did,” Severus deadpanned.

“Bollocks it did!”

Severus arched an indifferent eyebrow. “It’s not my fault you can’t keep track of the moves.”

“Oh, don’t give me that! You cheated! At chess! I can’t believe it! If it was something like cards I could understand it, maybe, but you just don’t cheat at chess!”

He expected Severus to deny it or get angry but Severus merely smirked. “Prove it!”

You bastard! “That’s it, we’re starting over!”

“Fine,” Severus frowned, glancing at the clock. “But don’t tell me you haven’t thought of moving my pawn back a square when it was about to reach the back of the board.”

Harry glared. He really hated it when Severus pretended to read his mind. Either Severus was really good at it or Harry was more transparent than he wanted to believe. “But I didn’t, did I?” he groused as he started setting up the new game.

*

The clock in the corner showed ten past one by the time Harry managed his first hard-won stalemate. He yawned and stretched and tried to get rid of a crick in his neck by twisting it, and only then did it dawn on him how late it was. “Oh sodding hell, I’ve got class at eight tomorrow!”

“Pity,” Severus drawled, still sounding put out ever since his dispute of the validity of the last score didn’t turn out the way he wanted. “I do hope you manage to catch a train back. Must be freezing outside, and it’s raining already. You really ought to carry an umbrella with you. I’d lend you mine, only I don’t give my things to someone who accuses me of cheating.”

Harry hadn’t brought an umbrella. He hadn’t even worn his warmer coat, but Harry didn’t care about that at the moment. He was too busy cursing inwardly at Severus: him and his bloody-minded petty stubbornness and his childish urge to win at any cost.

He was still grumbling, even after he’d curled up on Severus’ couch, along with a flat, lumpy pillow and a grey woollen blanket that had been tossed his way. His eyelids were heavy and his thoughts kept swimming and mixing up in his brain, like all the chess moves and the fastest tube route from here to Uni, that he’d have to take next morning.

He kept waking up during the night. He wasn’t used to the noise of the trains: so sudden and startling, rattling the window glass and cutting the fragile silence of the room into shreds. The light was still on in the kitchen, and Harry wondered exactly when Severus managed to sleep. Sometimes he heard the rustling of a newspaper, or uneasy, quiet footsteps: in the kitchen, in the corridor. Once, in that blurry state between sleep and wakefulness, he thought he heard Severus at the doorway, but when he looked it was empty, and the kitchen light was still on, spilling a rectangle of dull yellow glow across the floor. Harry was determined to stay awake until Severus turned off the light and stopped doing whatever he was doing, but the next time he opened his eyes it was morning already and Severus’ bed in the corner behind the bookshelves looked just as untouched and empty as it had always been. That explains a lot then, Harry thought, he’s a robot! He just sticks three fingers in the kitchen socket and recharges his batteries overnight.

Severus wasn’t in the kitchen when Harry looked there, although he did find bread and butter set out on the table next to a freshly brewed pot of coffee.

When Harry left he wondered if he should lock the door, or find out where Severus went first. Then he heard Severus’ voice a few flights of stairs above talking to someone: a woman with a high-pitched voice. They weren’t speaking English. It sounded like Russian or Polish. Harry thought about going up and asking Severus where he learned to speak it – rather fluently it seemed – but then he glanced at his watch and ran downstairs instead, taking two steps at a time. He arrived just in time for the end of his eight o’clock lecture, and his teacher gave him a glare that rivalled one he’d got from Severus last week, when Harry’d accidentally knocked over a stack of his newspapers.

*

Clock

Harry thought he saw a familiar black-clad back emerging from the alley into the crowds of Fleet Street: Severus, leaving. I knew I should’ve come to work earlier today! Harry thought, too frantic to wait for the traffic lights; he jumped out in front of an oncoming lorry and sprinted across the street. By the time the angry driver honked his horn at Harry, he was already on the other side. He searched the crowded footpath frantically for another glimpse of black coat and black hair. Where’d he go?

A hand gripped his shoulder and dragged him a foot away from the road and onto the footpath. “Idiot!” Severus hissed in his ear. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“Hi,” Harry smiled sheepishly. “Good to see you too.” He straightened out his jacket and tried to pretend that nothing was amiss and he dodged traffic like that on his way to work every morning.

Severus hmphed. “How are you,” he asked, his expression still stern. “Apart from playing lorryador?”

Harry spluttered surprised laughter; Severus’ annoyed mask was cracked by the smallest possible smirk. “Good,” Harry grinned up at Severus. “Loads better now, thanks.”

Severus eyebrow twitched. “Oh? That’s ... good.”

“Er. Look,” Harry sobered abruptly, glancing at a large clock a block away, “I’ve got work in three minutes. Sorry.”

Severus’ expression went neutral, indifferent. “Of course. Go.”

“I’m really sorry!” Harry repeated. I knew I should’ve showed up earlier today, he thought miserably, then I would’ve had a chance to sit down and ask him about Russian or Polish, or whatever it was, while he ate. He wouldn’t’ve minded.

Then Severus asked “What time do you finish working?” and Harry smiled.

“Five.”

“Then, unless you have anything else planned ...”

“Great!” Harry chirped, “See you then.”

It was settled. Harry was only a minute late for his shift and that really was as good as ‘on time’. Or perhaps it was just his blissful smile that spared him from a talk with the manager.

*

Waterloo Bridge was five minutes’ walk away. Harry dragged Severus there: down Fleet Street, past the shop fronts on the Strand, and onto the riverbank. It was dark and windy and he was frozen to the bone and blinded by the lights of the bridge against the black sky, but even with the lights there was still all that water and all that dark space underneath and that tremendous sense of depth and the heart-stopping feeling he always got when he was standing on the edge: as if he’d slipped and fallen over the rail, and kept falling, diving through the air but never quite reaching the dark water below. The rush of it always sent his blood racing. Harry reckoned that was why he loved this place so. Every time he saw it, it was always different, whether at night or in the daytime. But this particular time it was dark and mysterious with the black water breathing cold air at him and yellow electric highlights dancing on the waves and the scattered reflections of city lights stretching along the riverbank. The railing vibrated ever so slightly when the cars zoomed by and Harry wondered whether, if he could somehow climb down underneath the bridge, he’d hear the waves echo.

“Brilliant, innit?” Harry grinned. “It’s even better in the daytime. D’you want to come back tomorrow? Or I can come to your flat.”

Severus stared pensively at his folded hands on the railing. “Harry, don’t you have other things to do? I don’t want to take up all of your time.”

“What things?”

“Whatever people your age do. Hang about with friends, take your girl out.”

“I don’t have a girl right now,” Harry shrugged and watched a sliver of the moon appear in a cloud gap, low above the horizon. “The last one I asked out left me after the second date.”

“I see.”

“They’re always like that,” Harry waved his hands, drawing vague shapes in the air, “Second date and wham! They either leave you, or they want commitment and then they leave you; y’know?”

Severus shook his head. “Not particularly.”

“Oh,” Harry said. Adding anything else to that ‘oh’ was rather difficult, even when Severus looked away, down at the river. Sometimes, Harry thought, he’s just as hard to work out as trying to see past the Thames’ surface into its depths. He gathered his scattered thoughts and tried again, murmuring diffidently, “Have you ever been serious about someone?”

Severus gave him a level look. “I am almost invariably serious around everyone.”

Harry snorted. “Y’know what I mean!” He thought he saw a slow, sly smirk but it was too dark to tell for sure.

“Perhaps… What I don’t know is why you’re suddenly so interested in the topic.”

Harry shrugged. “Just ‘cause. I never had any luck. Did you?”

Severus moved his head in a gesture so small it might just as easily have been a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

Harry made a guess anyway. “You didn’t?”

“Not ... long enough to learn the finer points of commitment.”

Know what you mean, Harry thought, I never had a chance to learn those either. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s something I’m doing wrong. If it’s the glasses, the way I dress, or talk, if I’m too clumsy, or something.”

When Severus answered, his voice was soft and low, his face shadowed by the long strips of black hair hanging down the sides. “If you start changing yourself to suit the world’s expectations you’ll never stop. You’re fine just being who you are. If others don’t see that, it’s their loss.”

Harry listened to him speak, latching onto the sound of Severus’ voice, deep and intense, and for a moment it was Shakespeare all over again and it made Harry think of the black, icy river below, and all the dark, empty spaces in the world and how they could be filled with just the sound of one particular voice, resonating through them.

“What?” Severus glanced sidelong at him.

Harry jumped. I should probably stop staring. “Nothing. It’s just ... that’s the best advice I’ve had in ages. Thanks.”

Severus arched an eyebrow at that. “There is something you could change,” he added, tentatively.

“What?”

“Try to eat better meals, and get more sleep. You don’t look rested.”

Harry laughed then, thinking I must really look a mess today, if even he noticed.

*

Before his exam week Harry didn’t get out of his flat for three days in a row. On Tuesday night he decided that if he had to read another page of rubbish, he’d throw his textbooks out the window, ten storeys up. Or maybe throw himself instead. On Wednesday he went to see Severus, an hour earlier than usual.

Severus greeted him with a worried look. “Anything happened?”

“Not a lot,” Harry shrugged. “Why d’you ask?”

“No reason,” Severus shook his head. “Come in.”

Harry nodded. It felt awkward not to see Severus on Monday like he usually did. Severus narrowed his eyes at him. Harry blinked and hoped Severus hadn’t noticed his bloodshot eyes and the shadows underneath them.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing!” Harry exploded. “M’fine!” He realised too late that he must’ve sounded like a berk. “Chess game?” he asked then, trying to make his voice calm and mature.

Severus raised an eyebrow and remained standing in the doorway, blocking it.

Harry gave in. “S’just exam week,” he sighed, “Nothing serious.” He hoped that’d be the end of that.

But it wasn’t. “Nothing serious?” Severus frowned. “You should be at home with your books and your notes! Have you had time to study?”

I’m sick of studying! Harry frowned. “Not today. Just one exam left.”

“Which one is it? Literature? Do you know what books are on it? Let me see if I have them here. If not ...”

“Look, I’ll be fine. I’ve got my textbook. Just ...” stop worrying so much! Harry wanted to say but stopped himself; in a way, it was rather nice that Severus was worrying. Instead Harry adjusted the book bag on his shoulder and slipped past and into the flat, before Severus could change his mind and lock Harry out.

I just need to sit down and close my eyes for a second, Harry convinced himself, crashing onto the couch while Severus looked for some book or other that was supposed to help. Just a couple of minutes, he thought, staring at the now familiar wall of books and the unlit candles scattered here and there.

The next thing he remembered was being woken up with a tentative nudge on his shoulder. A strong smell of coffee was coming from the kitchen and the clock showed four. Still half asleep he chugged two cups of coffee, scalding hot and bitter. Afterwards Severus handed him his book bag and sent him home with strict instructions to study before the exam.

Harry never knew he could memorise things so well if he did his reading before noon. One of the questions on the exam asked about Shakespearean sonnets. Harry chose Sonnet #130 and wrote half a page more than required.

*

Harry spent that year’s Christmas alone. He certainly didn’t want to see the Dursleys. Severus and he never actually talked about it, but the man probably had other plans, other friends. Harry didn’t want to intrude. He didn’t want to meet anyone else for Christmas either. So he celebrated it alone in his flat as usual: he’d done that since he turned sixteen and first came to London, only this time it didn’t seem quite right.

He awoke on Christmas day from a dream of Severus.

Severus was dressed all in black, like a vicar or a priest. He had a quill and was writing something on a parchment scroll. It made Harry think of the monks who spent years rewriting old texts in cramped, angular handwriting: very much like the way Severus wrote, now he thought of it. Severus looked up and stared at Harry. He continued staring, silently, and Harry couldn’t look away from that dark gaze. “What?” he finally asked. “Have I got something on my face?”

Severus smiled, that lopsided, wry half-smile of his that wouldn’t really be a smile on anyone else’s lips. “Remarkably expressive eyes,” he murmured. Harry could see his mouth never moved, but his soft voice was clear inside Harry’s mind all the same.

Harry woke up panting, his heart pounding as if from a nightmare or from the other kind of dreams that sent his blood racing, though he wasn’t aroused, just overwhelmed by the clarity and the strangeness of it all. Severus’ deep voice, breathed somehow into his mind, more intimate than a whisper to his ear, kept Harry awake for the longest time.

Harry leaned on the windowsill and looked outside: an old habit during his infrequent bouts of insomnia. Far below he could hear the rush and hiss of traffic. The council housing estate he lived in, Ampthill Square Estate, was pretty close to the city centre: three grey concrete towers with bright trim, blue, yellow, and red. Harry had lived in the red one for the past two years.

Harry thought he was rather normal. He went out with girls, got dumped after a few dates, kept chatting up the cute, freckled girl next door. He never had a chance with her, of course, but Ginny was a good sport, she just flashed him a smile and never really chased him away. But that was before he met Severus. And it seemed like Severus did something to him, affected him in some way – by a single word, a glance, by making Harry dream – and Harry felt different, reacted differently to the strangest things. Sometimes when Severus looked at him, his eyes dark in his harsh-planed face, Harry could almost hear that deep voice in the back of his mind, whispering something frantic and intense on and on, saying words Harry couldn’t quite comprehend yet.

*

He wondered sometimes if Severus could read his fortune by looking in Harry’s eyes, the way gypsies saw it in the lines on people’s palms. He didn’t want to picture Severus as the lonely monk from his dream, so instead he thought of him as a gypsy, in a world where girls with hair and eyes as dark as Severus’ wore colourful skirts and shiny coin jewellery, and danced round fires to guitar music: wild rhythms or weeping ballads. A world where Harry could replay the darker music of Severus’ voice in his mind as much as he wanted, where his growing interest in an older man would attract no notice. A world where the card tricks were so elaborate they seemed real, and magic was as commonplace as love.

*


Harry had to work on Boxing Day to make up for the days he missed during the exams. He grumbled about having to wake up early; he still hadn’t caught up on his sleep. It was a miserable morning, cold and windy, and he skipped breakfast in favour of shaving and digging out a clean shirt from the pile of clothes on the floor.

Around eleven he found Severus in the empty Chop Room, sitting at his usual booth by the fireplace, the one with a large bowl with a grinning red lion – just as bright as the fire – on a shelf above it.

All at once, Harry’s day was vastly improved. He smiled and rushed to get his order: coffee, making sure to add milk and sugar. He knew that, unlike his tea, Severus didn’t like his coffee black.

Harry took his break early and spent it in the corner booth with Severus, finally eating his late breakfast as the smiling lion looked on. That fangy grin never failed to cheer him up, though to be honest Harry didn’t need cheering up today, not with Severus here.

“So,” he managed to ask between mouthfuls. “How was your Christmas?”

“Same old,” Severus shrugged.

“Oh, don’t give me that! Where’d you go? Who’d you see?”

“I stayed home.”

“Alone?” Suddenly Harry felt like a complete prat for not at least suggesting that Severus spend Christmas with him.

Severus arched an eyebrow. “Of course.”

Silly bugger! “You should’ve told me! I’d’ve come over.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, surely you had plans.” Severus narrowed his eyes and conducted a thorough examination of the plain white mug in his hands.

“No, actually. I didn’t,” Harry confessed. “Listen, on New Year’s Eve ... I can be there at seven, with takeaway. Is Chinese all right?” he mumbled all in one breath.

Severus was silent for the longest time, probably trying to figure out what Harry just said. Harry wondered if he should repeat it, just to be sure. “It’s acceptable,” Severus said at last.

“Great,” Harry exclaimed. “Perfect.” He traded a victorious grin with the lion on the bowl.

Harry couldn’t quite tell, but he thought that the still full mug in front of Severus’ face hid a smile. “And when you bring me another mug of coffee you might want to make sure it’s hot, or at least lukewarm.”

“What?” Harry blinked. “Oh, damn.” He ducked his head to hide his face, almost as red by now as the lion’s. “I’m an idiot. Hang about, I’ll get you another one.”

When he reached for the mug, their fingers unexpectedly brushed on the handle. Severus’ hand startled back, like a panicked bird about to flap off. Should’ve known he wouldn’t like being touched, Harry thought, noticing a flicker of something in Severus’ composed expression.

“Finish your meal first.” Now, when Severus looked at Harry, it was with mild amusement. “I’m in no hurry.”

So Harry did because his break was nearly over. Severus disappeared before Harry had a chance to bring the bill; he’d left behind on the table the exact amount he owed (and no tip, not that Harry expected one). Harry collected the coins and began counting the hours till New Year.

 

*

Back in the kitchen a co-worker misinterpreted Harry’s absentminded grin and dishevelled hair and snorted, elbowing him as he went by. “Finally got lucky, eh mate?”

“No!” Harry protested, “S’not that.” It really isn’t, he thought. It’s just, I got to see Severus for breakfast and I’ll see him again for New Year’s and exams are over and life is great and not everything has to be about a girl!

“Yeah, right,” the co-worker smirked. “Who is she?”

“M’serious,” Harry said earnestly. “There’s no one.”

But he couldn’t lie to himself as easily. There was Severus: his voice and his eyes in Harry’s dreams, and the fact that Harry always seemed to either grin like an idiot or forget the most ordinary tasks every time he saw him. There was absolutely no hiding that.

*

However, that throwaway question continued to nag at Harry all day, refusing to leave him in peace no matter how many times he tried to chase it away. And the more it lingered, the nastier it got.

Here, does this make me a poof? Harry wondered uneasily. Can’t be. S’not as though I go round fancying blokes all the time. Anyway, how bloody thick would I have to be, to have been a nance all these years and not even know it? What next? Am I gonna wake up one morning and realise out of the blue I’m a raving faggot? Many more dreams like that last one and who knows what’ll happen!

Harry’s smile faded soon enough under the cloud of such thoughts, and when he got off his shift that night, instead of going home – or to Severus’ place, but that was something he shied away from thinking about – he stopped off at the local instead.

There’s nothing wrong with me, Harry thought, I’ve just been working too bloody hard lately. Nothing a pint or two won’t fix.

*

Harry slurped at the frothy head and took a deep swig from his ...fourth? Fifth? How many pints does this make it? Sod it, Harry thought, before adding hastily: No not sod, Fuck it! He squinted; his glasses needed cleaning, things looked a bit blurry. But who the fuck cares? He snorted and took another hearty gulp, his squint changing to a scowl. M’fine. FINE. Just having some pints. Down the pub. Like blokes do. Normal blokes. Watching footy on the telly and having fun. Like a normal bloody bloke.

Except...

‘Cept it’s not really much fun, is it? Shit. S’not even ‘cause I’m here alone, Harry thought, looking around the pub. Loads of blokes drink alone. But even they’re having fun: watching the telly, cheering or slagging off at the game, and when the fuck did footy get so bloody boring? This is bollocks! Harry’s thoughts were as final as the thud of the pint pot as he abruptly slammed it down. I could drink till I pass out and when I woke up I’d still know I’d rather’ve been at his place. All the footy ever played isn’t half as much fun as one game of chess with that cheating old bastard and I’m NOT a poof and this is all his fucking fault!

Just then, the bartender called for last rounds, and timing like that was such an obvious omen that Harry moved at once. He untangled his legs from the barstool’s with rather more than his usual clumsiness, and marched out of the pub and down the street, the light of battle and booze in his eyes.

*

BANG BANG BANG of his fist on that familiar front door, battering it a bit more, until he heard the click of the lock and saw Severus. Skinny old git, wearing something grey and long – a nightshirt, like Wee Willie Winkie forfucksake! A laugh was startled out of Harry; he was shocked to hear it sounded more than half like a sob.

Concern crossed that beaky face. “Harry? Are you all right?”

No I’m bloody not! Harry thought. That’s what started it all in the first place! He fell through Severus’ doorway and gripped his shoulders, slurring “Wha’d y’do t’me?” Dark eyes widened and Severus would’ve jumped back, but Harry gripped the points of his shoulders so hard he could feel the bones.

“You’re in no state...” Severus spoke calmly, but Harry was fed up with calm words, fed up with everything.

“You utter prick!” Harry spat. “S’all your fault.”

“Let go. Harry! What’s wrong with you?”

“‘Wrong?’” Harry cried. “Oh, there’s loads’v things wrong.” Harry had to release him, he needed his hands free: only waving his whole arms was emphatic enough. “Ever since I met you there’s been something wrong. The way you talk’s wrong, the way you look at me’s wrong. The way I keep thinking about you’s wrong. The way you won’t stay outta my dreams’s wrong. An’ now you stand there’n act all innocent like y’don’t notice a bloody thing. What’d you do to me? God! I want you, you bastard, and I fucking shouldn’t! M’not a screaming queen and you can’t make me one.”

Dead silence. Severus stared at him. “Is that all you’re worried about?” he asked dryly at last. His tone was so matter-of-fact after the rant that had gone before that in itself it was a breath of normality, clearing a little of the fog from Harry’s brain.

“‘All?’” Harry echoed again, but in a quieter voice, as the outrage – and the Dutch courage – began to evaporate from his system. “S’bloody enough, innit?”

“Afraid you’ll suddenly start mincing and lisping and wearing lilac and lace? Is that it?” The dryly sarcastic tones made Harry’s fears seem ludicrously unlikely. Severus continued in a softer voice, his expression grave, “Harry. Think. When have I ever made you do anything you didn’t want to do?”

The question made Harry feel small. Really small and really sorry. “I... I dunno.”

There it was again, that crooked almost-smile, the one from his dream. Severus took a step closer, and asked in a bass rumble deeper than most men could manage, “Tell me, do I strike you as any sort of ‘screaming queen’?”

Ohhh, that voice. It went straight to Harry’s head – both of them – in a way that alcohol couldn’t match and couldn’t quench. Harry felt his trousers growing tighter and knew if he tried to say anything it’d come out as an ‘eep’. So he just gulped, and shook his head.

“Good. Because I’m not.”

Oh fuck! The embarrassment was so intense Harry physically cringed. He’s not even bent! I was wrong all along! Oh God! I’ve just made an utter tit of myself!

But Severus leaned in even closer and Harry glanced up and froze, forgetting even his embarrassment. Warm breath fanned Harry’s ear as Severus whispered “Nevertheless...” His hands stroked gently down Harry’s body and completed that sentence without speech.

“You see?” Severus murmured, and up close his voice was even better, dark and rich, and the brush of lips on his ear made Harry tingle with goosebumps all over and fuck, what those hands were doing to him felt so good, slipping inside his shirt and stroking his skin and oh, when did his nipples get so sensitive?

“Yeah,” Harry panted, “ohgodmore...” The slow, teasing touch felt absolutely brilliant. His knees went weak, and he buried his face in a stubbled throat and leaned against a hard chest as they rumbled with a voice that, word by word, drove him wild.

“If I’ve survived all these years, without developing a limp wrist,” Severus demonstrated his wrist’s firmness when the hand trailing down Harry’s flat stomach slipped inside his baggy trousers and pants in one deft slide, “you’ll be fine.” Fingers curled around his aching hard-on, warm and strong and holding him just right. “Just fine,” Everything felt so good already but with every stroke, every touch, it felt even better: keener and fiercer and Severus knew everything, all the best ways to pull and twist and rub, and yes, yes, yes, in his hands Harry’d be a damnsight better than fine. He’d be. Fucking. Perfect!

*

Severus sat for a while by the couch, watching Harry smile as he slept the sleep of the sated. But Severus’ mind kept straying from that enticing sight to another night a few years ago. He’d lived alone then, just as he did now. His mother was still alive. He was still teaching, a despised and useless endeavour. And as a direct result of that last fact, he was also drinking, always too often and always too much.

Harry shouldn’t overindulge like this, he thought. It never did anything good for me.

He’d been staggering home from a pub he’d frequented at the time: The World’s End, on Camden High Street, above a dance club called The Underworld. The place was a fitting summary of his life to date. As always the name of the pub prompted an ironic smirk from him as he read the mirror image of the letters in the window on his way out. He stumbled out onto the street and started walking, not particularly caring about where he was going. That was almost a fatal mistake. A car cut a corner too sharp but he was too drunk to notice it in time. Only chance saved him from meeting it head on and putting his face through its windshield. The driver had honked and swerved around the corner again without stopping, leaving Severus on the edge of the footpath, shaken and terrified and alone once more.



Photo taken by Prologi@LJ
Photo by prologi

The encounter sobered him up, in more ways than one. Seized by the impulse of the moment, he gave the rest of his drinking money to a homeless old man in the Tube station, who’d smiled at him as if he were a favourite son, and insisted on giving him a marble in return. It was the exact colour of methylene blue, and somehow it reminded him of all the bearable parts of Chemistry: the research, the writing, the parts that didn’t involve dealing with thuggish students. So he kept it, that night and afterwards. He’d roll it in his fingertips when the nervousness and the solitude bit hardest, and it gave his hands something to do other than reach for the cash and the keys, gave him something else to think about other than walking out of the flat and heading for a pub.

He surfaced from the memories, tucking the blanket a little closer around Harry, before returning to his own bed. But even after he settled there he remained very much awake, silently listening to Harry’s soft snores in the dark. This was the first night when the thought of a methylene blue marble wasn’t enough to keep at bay his anxiety at having made a drastic mistake. It was the first time he’d felt the need to surrender so easily – as he’d already surrendered earlier to Harry’s too-bright eyes, his distress and confusion and arousal – and let his hands reach elsewhere instead.

*

Harry woke up wondering who he’d pissed off enough to make them stuff a sweaty sock in his mouth and hit his head with a hammer all night. It would’ve been nice to hit whoever-it-was back, but the trouble with that idea was he’d have to actually move. When he pried his eyes open and the world swam more or less into focus, the dark blodge in front of him turned out to be Severus holding out his glasses and some red pills on the palm of his hand. Those hands... the memory of last night came crashing down on Harry, and for a second he thought his brain might explode. It didn’t; it just sat there, heavy and swollen and pressing on the inside of his skull in tune with his frantic heartbeat.

“What happened?” Harry fumbled on his glasses and blinked blearily up at Severus, “I don’t remember much,” He winced at the light coming through the windows and hoped that lightning wouldn’t strike him dead right this minute for lying so shamelessly; almost as much as he hoped that the blush he felt heating his cheeks wasn’t too noticeable.

Severus’ mouth narrowed into a sneer. “There wasn’t much worth remembering. I’d appreciate it if in future you reconsidered any drunken impulses to pound on my door in the wee small hours.”

“Sorry,” Harry groaned. “Dunno what I was doing. Probably thought I was going home. Er, can we just pretend last night never happened?”

A shadow of something flickered across Severus’ harsh face, but the next instant his neutral, casual expression was back as he handed Harry a glass of water and the pills. As Harry swallowed them Severus arched an eyebrow and drawled “What last night?”

Harry’s headache disappeared half an hour after he left Severus’ flat, but he couldn’t help thinking he didn’t deserve the relief.

*

The next day there was a familiar knock on Severus’ door, but he didn’t get up to answer it. He sat in his chair tense and still, his arms crossed defensively and fingers clutching hard enough to bruise, until Harry called his name, once, twice, gave knocking another try and finally gave up. Hopefully he thinks I wasn’t home, Severus thought, listening to the sounds of Harry walking away, until the roar of a train drowned them out.

It’s easier this way, Severus told himself. Harry would’ve left sooner or later. No one’s ever tolerated my company this long without an ulterior motive. Harry doesn’t seem to have one, but he deserves someone who can look him in the face in the morning, and tell him the truth about what happened the night before.

In any case, Severus thought, I’m too old for him; it never would’ve worked out. He’s just a few years out of boyhood, a student just a bit older than the nitwits I’ve struggled with for years. He’s nothing extraordinary. Or maybe he is, Severus chided himself. Either way, unlike me, he has his whole life still in front of him, and I doubt it’s a life that would’ve involved me for long. How hard can it be for me to put a stop to these ridiculous meetings?

*

Harry wondered for the hundredth time why Severus wasn’t home yesterday. His momentary relief at not finding him home had been quickly replaced by worried guesses at what might’ve happened, and that worry hadn’t left his mind since. What if Severus doesn’t want anything to do with me now? Harry wondered. He’d shrugged off the night before so easily in the morning. Yeah, and after the way I yelled at him, I can’t blame him one little bit. What the bloody hell was I thinking?

When he walked into the Chop Room and glanced at the corner table Harry froze. Severus drummed his fingers on the tabletop. Above him the red lion gave Harry its usual raffish grin.

Harry ran his fingers through his messy hair and let out an uncertain “Hi?”

Severus arched an eyebrow, looking more irritable this morning than all the mornings Harry had ever seen him, including that awful last morning. “The coffee had better be hot this time.”

Harry smiled, wider than the lion.

*

On the last morning of the year, Severus rearranged his books and moved his newspapers into a corner. He rinsed and set out the crockery and cutlery on the kitchen table: the festive ones his mother had used, the ones that usually sat forgotten in the cupboard. He wondered why he bothered to set the table: more than likely Harry’d end up plonking the cartons of Chinese food on the table and eating straight out of them with chopsticks. Fool, he chastised himself. Don’t get used to this. Harry will grow tired of this routine and leave before long.

Harry was late. It really was an infuriating habit. Severus never could tolerate it during his lectures.

He pretended to read for an hour but stopped on the same page he began. Then he gave up on reading and watched the sunlight dim in the window as the purple shadows extended from the neighbouring buildings and the outside grew completely dark. He pretended for a while that he wasn’t watching for Harry to appear round the corner of the street. He kept glancing at the window until he couldn’t possibly see anything at all in the alley below. He continued to listen then, for a familiar pattern of footsteps bounding up the stairs, for a knock on the door.

After a half-hour of this, he detoured to the front door and stood a while in front of it until at last he threw it one heavy, menacing glare, called himself an idiot and went back to the kitchen. He only stayed there long enough to adjust the cutlery perpendicular to the edge of the table and went back to his room. He began rearranging the books on the shelves and almost dropped a water glass he’d forgotten to take back to the kitchen yesterday. He caught it at the last second, absolutely furious with himself.

Carelessness was Harry’s trait: he went about dropping glasses and leaving things in constant disarray. He broke things by accident; he was an accident himself. His hair stuck out in odd directions and his eyes shone and wandered and his gaze drifted off to nowhere as he grinned absentmindedly at yet another visitor and then walked into the table without looking. Severus wondered sometimes how Harry ever managed to keep his job.

By nine thirty Severus went back to the kitchen. He put away the crockery and cutlery and only then realised that he hadn’t eaten yet. But he wasn’t hungry. He decided to skip supper altogether: he didn’t have much appetite at the moment anyway.

By ten o’clock Severus told himself to stop waiting, to forget about it. Only when he went to bed did the nightmarish images start: Harry, mugged, or hit by some drunk driver cutting a corner too sharp. Don’t be foolish, he chided himself sternly. Most likely he went out with his friends – someone his own age, just as I urged him to – and forgot all about this prior appointment. Young people aren’t reliable.

Then Severus wondered with a stab of guilt, What if he’s finally remembered what happened that night? I never should have given in to the confusion and pleading in those eyes. He hmphed. I bloody well never should’ve let him borrow Evgeny Onegin in the first place.

But the image of Harry lying bleeding in the street refused to be dismissed so easily. What if he’s hurt? What if he needs help? By midnight, after two hours of twisting and turning in his narrow bed Severus finally got up and found his way by feel to the phone in the kitchen, and only then realised that he didn’t know Harry’s number or even his last name.

He didn’t sleep at all that night.

*

At six o’clock in the evening there was a knock on Severus’ door: the familiar, silly shave-and-a-haircut sequence. He lunged for the doorknob and tried not to look as relieved as he felt. Harry was standing in the hallway, grinning widely, as usual. His fringe was wet and icy and so was the front of his bright red jumper and his unbuttoned coat. Severus resisted the urge to shout ‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ in his face, grab him by the arms, and pull him into the flat.

Harry stared at him with an utterly blissful expression, as if he hadn’t just showed up twenty-four hours late without so much as a word of apology. “For auld lang syne, my friend, for auld lang syne,” he howled instead of an explanation, completely mangling the tune. “Well, I’m late but I’m finally here. Got any Scotch?”

Presumptuous prick! Severus scowled. I wonder how many doors he knocked on last night with the same line: as popular as he would’ve been as a First Foot, it was probably plenty. I should teach the whelp a lesson, bad luck or no bad luck. He can’t just show up out of the blue after worrying me sick and expect me to welcome him in with open arms! Who the hell does he think he is?

Severus slammed the door.

When he opened it, a silent and infuriatingly long minute later, Harry was gone.

Severus leapt down the stairs with a recklessness he’d never attempted before in his life, taking mere seconds to reach the ground floor and rush outside.

He spotted Harry’s red jumper right away, near the entrance to the flats. Harry was slumped against a grimy brick wall, not bothering to brush the icy raindrops from his glasses or his face. Severus asked himself yet again why he of all people got stuck with the chore of dealing with a scruffy adolescent with the manners of a wet, scraggy stray, who’d no doubt track mud inside on his trainers and drip rainwater on the floor. The question only reinforced the urge to shake Harry, shout at him for being an idiot without even the sense to come in out of the rain, and drag him inside, somewhere dry and warm before he caught his bloody death.

Harry looked up when Severus halted just a few steps away. The utter misery in his expression was a powerful combination with the dejection in every line of his stance. “They made me work on New Year’s,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t’ve answered the phone at all, or I should’ve told them I was sick or something, only they were shortstaffed and no one else was there to pick up the shift.”

Severus pictured Harry fibbing just to get out of work. Ha! The wretch wouldn’t be able to lie to save his life, even on the phone. “Silly sod. It’s all right,” he murmured, feeling a stab of guilt at his harsh reception.

“I’d’ve rung you,” Harry continued, “only I don’t know your number. I looked and looked, but it’s not listed anywhere and...”

“Well of course not!” Severus interrupted haughtily, “You never know who might c...” He fell silent, before he made himself look even more of a paranoid prat.

“It started raining just as I got out of the tube station,” Harry added. “S’why I didn’t bring a brolly.”

Severus took in the sight of Harry’s clothes clinging to him with the rain, his wet hair trailing into mournful, hopeful eyes. Try as he might, Severus couldn’t convince himself that it was only the chill of the rain on his own skin that made him shiver. “So I gathered,” he murmured softly. “Come back in.”

“You’re not mad at me?” Harry asked in a very small voice.

No. “Not anymore.”

The answering smile lit up Harry’s whole face. “Right, well, hang on a bit; reckon I’ll need some water first, to go with all that scotch you’ll ply me with.” He turned his head up and opened his mouth like a baby bird, catching raindrops on his tongue.

Severus watched that open mouth, and imagined it doing something rather different. Daft little showoff, Severus thought fondly. Doesn’t he know how many chemicals there are in London rainwater nowadays?

Harry grinned and turned so fast for the door he almost slipped and fell on a strip of mud starting to turn to ice. Severus steadied him by the shoulders before his hand reached out of its own accord, nudging Harry’s glasses back straight. His thumb moved gently, brushing the icy fringe out of Harry’s eyes, just over his eyebrow.

Harry’s breathing hitched a bit at the touch, and Severus felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe altogether.

“Well, there’s something to be said for the rain,” Severus said, simply to break the tension between them, “it keeps your hair flat.”

That earned him a smile. “In the middle of all this bloody wet, how d’you manage to sound that dry?”

“Speaking of all this wet,” Severus replied, “Let’s get you in the warm and out of these...” he banished the rest of that thought before it could run away with the last of his reason. “...dry you off.” he finished awkwardly.

“Absolutely,” Harry nodded and his hands were on Severus’ shoulders, his eyes wide behind the rain-beaded lenses. Water streamed down his forehead and cheeks, dripped from the tip of his nose and his chin. His expression was tense, his skin wet and cold, his hair so soft, tangling in Severus’ fingers, his breath warm against his wrist as he murmured “Sev’rus.”

It was so natural, inevitable, to bend his head that last little distance, and warm Harry’s wet, chilled lips with his own. At first, Severus was tentative, too cautious to allow himself more than a slight brush of lips: nothing so light and simple should create such yearning tightness in his throat, such a physical ache deep in his chest. Then Harry gripped his shoulders harder and leaned up, crushing their mouths together. Hands slid around the back of Severus’ neck, shielding him from the wet drips of his hair, keeping him in place as Harry held on, his mouth awkward and frantic against Severus’. It wasn’t the cold that made him gasp for breath when they broke apart.

As they panted, plumes of white streaming away from them in the rain, a laugh and a catcall from somewhere above them broke the silence. Severus looked up. A cigarette glowed on the fifth floor balcony of the neighbouring building.

“Shall we?” Severus inclined his head to the entrance to the flats.

“Let’s!” Harry grinned at him like a soggy but unrepentant imp.

Together, they hurried inside, leaving the street to the night and the rain.

*


As they climbed the staircase, the absence of the rain only made Severus all the more conscious of the chill of his damp clothing; how much worse must poor sodden Harry have felt? But the drenching didn’t seem to have dampened Harry’s spirits at all, not now that he’d been asked back. As they came to a halt outside his flat, Severus blinked at a plastic bag of food cartons sitting in the hallway by his door. Judging by the scent that had had time to escape, Harry had remembered to bring takeaway after all; evidently he’d left it there after he’d been shut out.

Harry blinked from Severus to the bag, before picking it up. “What’s the matter?” he asked, still a little tentative. “It’s Chinese, is that all right?”

“It’s fine,” Severus hoped it was only the greater warmth indoors that made his face feel hot. “I just didn’t notice it there on my way out.” He cleared his throat as he opened the door, before admitting, “I suspect I left in too much of a hurry to see it.”

The way Harry smiled at him, wet body brushing against his as he slipped past Severus and inside, more than made up for any embarrassment.

After locking the front door, Severus headed straight for the bathroom; he could hear Harry hurrying down the hallway and dumping the bag of takeaway on the kitchen counter. Severus found his second towel – fortunately clean – and held it out to Harry as he appeared in the bathroom doorway. “Get dried off before you catch pneumonia,” he ordered, “And hang your wet things on the rack over the radiator.”

Harry nodded, so quickly it was almost a shiver; his fingers brushed Severus’ as he came into the bathroom and took the towel.

Severus moved to the very corner, shrugged out of his damp coat, and followed his own advice: grabbed his used towel and rapidly wiped the worst of the wet off his face and neck and out of his hair. Harry had scruffled his hair with his towel, making it stick up wildly in all directions. He smiled, lopsided and shy, and shook his head like a shaggy pup, and Severus suddenly found himself not caring if they were, in fact, going to hell in a handbasket. He couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and running his fingers through that irrepressible mop of hair; his hand drifted naturally to rest on the back of Harry’s neck, fingertips tracing patterns on damp skin.

“Er. Did anyone ever tell you you’re really distracting when you do that?”

Severus shook his head, and drew breath to say, ‘I’ve never done that to anyone else’, but realisation blindsided him, and he was startled to find himself saying instead, “I’ve never wanted to do that to anyone before.” He turned away, abruptly flustered, and determined to behave like a reasonable host: which at the moment meant refraining from simply jumping Harry in the bathroom – even if the self-restraint killed him, which it bloody well might – and letting him get dry in peace.

On his way out Severus glared critically at his own towel-rumpled hair in the mirror. The brat’s rubbing off on me already, he thought, anxious anticipation coiling tighter in him, as he headed for the sitting-room part of his bedsit. Impatient with the long, damp strands of hair hanging in his eyes, he clawed them back off his face and combed them flat in a single hasty rake of his fingers. It took him forever to find the matchbox in the dark room; his heart sped almost painfully as he struck a light.

 

*

Harry paused in the doorway, watching Severus light the candles – more than a dozen of them – scattered amid all the books on the shelves. The shadows came to life with the flicker of tiny flames, and the room turned mysterious, otherwordly in that warm and shifting light. As if he wasn’t in an old flat at all, but in the chambers of the solitary monk from his dream; or of some medieval sorcerer, with his books and his scrolls. Someone who could cast a spell, with just a word in that deep voice, or a single glance from those dark eyes.

*

Severus looked up from the last candle, and there was Harry, framed in the doorway, silhouetted by the brighter light from the hall. Watching from the threshold, as hesitant as a wild bird poised for flight, and wearing only the towel, wrapped tight around his waist.

Somewhere, Severus thought, someone – God, Fate, that smoker on the balcony outside – is either laughing at me or smiling on me, and I wish I knew which. As he drank in the sight of all that bared skin – pink from a vigorous towelling, or was it a blush? – he felt as lightheaded as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his groin; he was going hard with a speed that hadn’t happened in years. Focus! he berated himself, He obviously hasn’t done this before and ogling him is only going to make him even more self-conscious. Stop staring. Now, dammit! Talk to him, you besotted old sod, he seems to like that.

But Harry beat him to it, stammering “I, er. My gear was pretty much all wet, sort of thing, so I, um.” A wave of one arm in a vaguely bathroom-wards direction, “I hung it all up.”

“So I see.” Severus allowed himself one more appreciative glance, this time leavened with amusement, before adding “Sit down; make yourself at home.”

This bit of encouragement seemed to be all Harry needed; with a grin and an “Okay,” he plopped down on the couch, lounging about on it as if he owned the place. Not that Severus was about to object: he was too captivated by the movement of wiry sinew under sleek young skin. He hastened to sit down beside Harry before the imp sprawled any further and took up the entire couch.

When Severus joined him, Harry sat up straighter, shifted closer; as he moved he tugged his glasses off and dropped them carelessly onto a tall stack of books that doubled as a makeshift end-table.

Severus gave a rueful little nod at that. Of course he doesn’t particularly want to look at me.

Harry noticed the change in his expression with worrying ease: perhaps Severus wasn’t nearly as much of an enigma as he would have liked. “S’alright, I don’t need ‘em anyway.”

When Severus raised a dubious eyebrow, Harry shook his head. “I don’t, honestly,” he assured him. “You’re close enough. I can see you. Just ... hold still.” A palm cupped the point of Severus’ shoulder and skimmed upward. Harry’s fingertips softly traced the line of his jaw, turning his face to catch the candlelight, for all the world as if he were some sort of rare statue instead of a desperately plain middle-aged man.

Vaguely unsettled by this scrutiny, Severus fell back on familiar teasing. “Are you drunk?” he inquired in his driest voice.

Harry snorted. “Haven’t had a drop all day.”

“Which would be why you showed up at my door to commit ‘Auld Lang Syne’-icide and demand Scotch.”

“It’s a tradition!”

“Of course!” Severus had plenty to say about such traditions and people who used them as an excuse to...

“Stay still,” Harry murmured, his other hand slipping into Severus’ hair, stroking strands away from his face. With those glasses off, Severus thought, his eyes really are striking: one last glimpse of summer’s green two seasons too late. “Yeah, there,” Harry whispered, as if a louder voice would disturb something fragile and precious. “Perfect.”

There was nothing ‘perfect’ at all about a big-nosed old bugger like him: at least Severus hadn’t forgotten that much when he’d lost the rest of his sanity. “You're hallucinating,” he grumbled, “Clearly you’ve overdosed on acid rain.”

With a low chuckle Harry breathed “Shhh...” and pressed his fingertips gently against Severus’ mouth. Severus’ gaze grew heavy lidded with plans, and his lips curved into a lopsided smirk under Harry’s touch. He returned it, pressing soft, nipping kisses to Harry’s fingers and the palm of his hand. Harry’s breathing caught; his face was naked and vulnerable without the heavy-rimmed glasses, and his eyes were so green and so wide and shining with startled pleasure, and then his hand was gone and he lunged at Severus hard enough to push him back into the couch, and they were kissing and it was hungry and clumsy and hot. Their front teeth clicked as Severus fumbled for an angle that got his nose out of the way, until Harry’s fingers slid into his lank hair and held him still. Severus’ tongue was met with a warm and suckling welcome as Harry “mmm”ed and shifted closer, all knees and elbows and tented towel, awkward and determined to climb onto Severus’ lap and inside his skin. Severus gasped against Harry’s eager mouth and collapsed sideways, stretching out on the couch; Harry followed him down, plastering himself along Severus’ body.

Yes... much better... Severus felt starved, right down to his pores: for touch, for warmth, for Harry. He reached to pull Harry closer, chilled fingers spread across the width of his shoulders, as if holding them out to a fire, warming them with the intense, impulsive energy that seemed to fill Harry’s every move. His hands felt magnetised to Harry’s skin, restless and roaming and impossible to lift away. They slipped down the broad V of Harry’s back until his fingers dipped under the edge of the towel. Harry sighed and lifted his hips, encouraging the towel to fall away. Severus’ hands slid that last bit lower and finally stopped as if moulded there. The muscled curves fit perfectly into the arc of Severus’ splayed fingers; he purred wordless appreciation and rubbed in slow circles.

He parted his knees and Harry wriggled closer, his weight settling between them. His erection nudged against Severus’ shaft, hot and swollen under two layers of cloth. Severus’ breath caught and his hips hitched upward into that teasing pressure, chaotic and maddening and never enough. He arched up again, higher, frustrated, as Harry – propped on his hands over him – searched, hips circling, for that perfect angle. Harry gasped and pressed their groins together, harder still, then pulled back and did it again; Severus guided him into a steady rhythm with a greedy, kneading grip on his arse. He couldn’t look away from Harry as he rocked wildly above him: bright, disjointed images to treasure. Severus wanted to remember everything: that tousled head flung back, eyes squeezed shut, lip bitten in concentration; the feel of hard planes of muscle under sweat-damp skin. Severus peeled one hand off Harry’s arse with an effort and slid it between their bodies, closing his fist around that hot, veined length and green eyes snapped so wide, staring down at him in shock as Harry came with a cry. Oh God, Severus knew if he was only a bit younger – or a bit more naked – he too might’ve come, from that sight alone and not from merely physical stimulation.

As it was, he welcomed the weight of Harry’s collapsing body, wrapping his arms and twining his legs around Harry, holding him close as his breathing slowed. And all the while Severus’ own trapped cock throbbed, still hard with an urgency that almost rivalled Harry’s own. Brought to the very brink of coming in his pants like a teenager: overwhelmed by the feel of a firm arse clenching under his hand, a hard cock spurting at his first touch, and more than anything else, by Harry’s face, flushed with lust, and Harry’s eyes, stunned by sudden bliss.

It didn’t take long for his irrepressible new lover to return to himself. He lifted his head to beam at Severus, eyes gleaming through a bed-head that was already becoming impossible, and this was before they even made it to bed. But then Harry shifted and that instinctive, shamelessly sunny smile clouded over. Severus desperately hoped it was only a wince at the sensation of come or of fabric on an orgasm-sensitised cock. But Harry’s first, softly murmured “M’sorry” tightened Severus’ anxiety to a knot in his throat.

“What for?” he asked carefully.

“Um. This.” Harry turned away, tousled hair hiding his eyes as he glanced down at their bodies. He gestured shyly and continued before Severus could choke out further questions: “I’ve already – I’m like this – and you haven’t even...”

The relief hit Severus with an impact so powerful it relaxed him in an afterglow almost as intense as the climax the imp was worrying about. “Hush,” he interrupted softly, as one hand lifted to stroke Harry’s tangled fringe out of his eyes, “It’s all right.”

“It is?” Harry almost squeaked.

The startlement in Harry’s eyes widened Severus’ smile as he wondered, Can he really be worried that I mightn’t want to? With him?

Severus nodded deliberately, layering his gaze and voice with promises, as he murmured, “Come with me.” Now it was his turn to press a silencing fingertip to Harry’s lips. “...To bed.” he insisted. Some of us are getting a bit old for rolling about on couches all night.

“Oh. Right.” There was that grin again, breaking free like the sunlight from a cloud, as Harry reared up and bounced to his feet.

If Severus followed a little more slowly, it was only so he could give the view the admiration it deserved.

*

The bed was tucked away in a corner of the room. It was certainly nothing much to look at: narrow, plain, thinly padded – just like its owner, really – yet as Harry rounded the dividing wall of bookcases and glanced down at it, his expression was alight with anticipation; a look that took Severus’ breath away when Harry turned around.

Harry reached for him, unselfconscious, fingers fumbling a little with the buttons of Severus’ shirt. Severus captured Harry’s hands between his, stilling them, drawing them away from his clothes. He silenced Harry’s “What? No! I wanna see you...” by climbing onto the bed and over to its far side, holding onto Harry’s hands all the while, tugging Harry down with him, until they were both stretched out, lying together on a bed that had never before accommodated two.

Severus was on his side, leaning back against the wall and propped up on one elbow: a position which provided him with a truly delectable view of the young man beside him. “Whatever for?” he replied, with a hint of a wry smile. “I’m nothing much to look at.” He stretched out a hand, and Harry’s protesting “But...” was followed only by a gasp as Severus brushed a fingertip across Harry’s nipple, teasing it to a peak. Severus poured all the smoulder of his feelings into his voice, as he purred, deep and slow and deliberate, “But you’re amazingly sexual.”

Harry’s breathing turned ragged, and that vivid gaze was fixed on Severus’ face, pupils wide with what Severus realised with a shiver, was lust: pure and open and impossible to fake.

Severus hadn’t been fishing for compliments: he’d accepted long ago that he was an ugly sod, but for some reason Harry liked his voice, and he certainly wasn’t above using any advantage he could. So he rolled up to kneel beside Harry, and let his hands and his eyes roam where they would, and tried to pour everything he was thinking into sultry, seductive speech. It didn’t turn out quite as he’d intended: instead, his feelings overwhelmed his thoughts, until all he was left with was the truth.

“I want you so much. I’ve wanted to touch you for ages.”

And so he did. He slid his palms up Harry’s forearms, paused to knead at the muscles of his upper arms and shoulders, feeling them flex under his fingers and release their tension as Harry responded with a gasp and a slow writhe on the bed.

“Your body. Your skin...” He brought his voice down to a velvety murmur and accompanied it by the slow caress of fingertips, following the sleek, taut contours of chest muscle. “I want to stroke you all over, just to see how you’ll react. I want to find out everything. What makes you shiver, what makes you moan.” A tiny answering whimper was threaded among Harry’s panting breaths. Severus looked up into those darkening, heavy-lidded eyes and was lost. “Let me?”

Harry’s whole expression was alight with sensual absorption as he breathed “Ohyes...”

Severus bent lower until his hair brushed across Harry’s skin, leaving gooseflesh in its wake. Severus drew a deep breath, drunk on the rich, humid scents of sweat and semen and warm flesh. “You’re burning hot.” He exhaled the words across flushed skin, sliding open-mouthed down the line of sinew between shoulder and neck and only just stopping himself in time from biting down. Who knows how he’d react to that. Too soon for such adventures, for now. Perhaps later. He smiled then, glorying in the idea that there might be a later.

He celebrated that thought by pressing a kiss into the warm dimple at the base of Harry’s throat. “Love your taste.” He kept his mouth deliberately close to Harry’s skin, whispering. “Do you taste this good everywhere?” He began to find out, his lips closing around the taut peak of Harry’s nipple, kissing and suckling and teasing with flicks of his tongue and the delicate pressure of the very edges of his teeth.

Harry arched desperately up into Severus’ touch. His hands were wound tightly in the sheets, his legs shamelessly spread apart.

“Oh yes... So responsive.” He stroked one fingertip, feather-light, between Harry’s balls, across that tender skin stretched tight, and smiled as Harry’s cock leapt, pleading for his touch.

So he granted it. “So hard.” As Severus’ fingertip trailed up Harry’s shaft, finding the wetness at its tip, spreading it over the flushed glans with delicate swirls, tension rippled outward through Harry’s whole body, taut as a strung bow. Severus smiled. That’s it.

He marvelled at the sight before him: Harry completely lost in need, quivering on the brink, mesmerised by Severus’ words, by the slightest of touches. “Yes,” he breathed, “So very hard. So long and so thick and So. Fucking. Hard,” he rumbled, smoky-deep, punctuating every word with the pressure of his fingers as he batted Harry’s insistent hands away. Somehow, he continued to speak, though Harry had him nearly incoherent with need in turn. “You want to come, don’t you? You want me to touch you, and I will, oh, I will. My hands, my mouth, anything you want. Later. You don’t even need my mouth on you now. Now, you’re going to come, and oh, you’ll come so hard. Just from this. Oh yes, Harry. Yes!”

*

Harry curled around the bony body lying next to him. He felt so warm, warm all over, radiating heat like a bed of coals. He vaguely remembered reaching for Severus and being stopped, and then Severus drove him absolutely mad with every touch of his hand, never quite where Harry wanted it to be but close enough to make him want more, and there were all sorts of interesting things in between, and then all thought faded before Severus’ murmur, fallen into that bass note that resonated right through Harry’s body and straight to his cock.

“You’re impossible, y’know that?” he murmured to the angular shoulder under his lips. “Are you going to attack me like this every time I want to touch you?”

It was rather unfair, really, what with him like this and Severus still mostly clothed, so Harry reached out and tried to remedy the situation by prying one, two buttons of the man’s shirt loose from their buttonholes. “S’my turn. Please?”

Severus’ hands took over and stopped him. “You don’t have to.”

“Daft git,” Harry smiled; he wasn’t about to get distracted again. “‘Course I don’t have to. I want to.”

That questioning eyebrow rose.

Harry tried to reassure Severus, as well as himself. “I know what I’m doing. I read a book.”

A book?” Severus smirked archly, “I feel reassured already.”

“Well. Not the whole book, really,” Harry admitted, playing along. “But I tried! Only, it was a bit... distracting.”

Severus gave him a dubious look. “Just what kind of book was it?”

What kind? Does he even have to ask? “A good one,” Harry grinned cheekily, “with loads of pictures.”

“So, you didn’t actually read a book at all, you just ogled it.”

Brilliant! Harry thought, Should’ve realised long ago that teasing me would keep him distracted while I got his kit off. But outwardly Harry just grinned and slid Severus’ shirt off his shoulders, proceeding to peel the rest of the man’s clothing off, layer by layer. Severus shifted his weight slightly to help here and there, watching Harry mutely all the while, with wide, dark, serious eyes.

He’s so tense. Harry ran his fingertips along Severus’ collarbones and down his sides, where he could count every rib. Across his belly, concave between narrow, sharp-crested hipbones, down wiry thighs and back up to his erection, heavy and hot against Harry’s hand. A fleeting touch of Harry’s knuckles and then his fingertips. Severus gasped and his muscles locked tight, as if clamping down on the urge to thrust.

“Yeah, still perfect.” Harry breathed.

Severus hmphed derisively at that, and Harry frowned. It’s not right, he thought. He shouldn’t put himself down all the time.

“Are you rubbishing my taste in men?” Harry teased.

“Don’t you mean ‘man’, singular?” Severus parried, “Or have you done this with other men, after all?”

It was Harry’s turn to snerk. “No, just the one.” he replied, unashamed. “And, to change my mind like this, that ‘one’s gotta be pretty damn special.”

“I’m...” But Harry cut the disclaimer short with another glancing stroke along Severus’ cock, and a quiet, determined, “Shut it. You are special.”

That earned him The Eyebrow, though Severus did remain silent.

“You are!” Harry insisted, as if Severus had replied aloud. And when the dubious expression still lingered on Severus’ face, despite all of Harry’s words, Harry decided he’d have to remove it without words instead.

He craned up, and felt that doubtful frown smooth away beneath his lips as he brushed them across Severus’ brow. He nuzzled into the hair that framed Severus’ forehead in two sleek, thick falls. No worries he’ll go bald, anyway. Harry smiled at the thought of having Severus long enough to be relieved at avoiding baldness. One hand lifted to comb tenderly through the hanging strands – heavy, a little oily after a long day, still slightly damp from the rain – as Harry kissed his way down the soaring line of Severus’ cheekbone, pausing to softly lip and suckle away the tension he remembered lingering about that thin mouth.

Harry shifted a little lower, mouthing at the delicate arch of collarbone, as his fingers stroked through the sparse, coarse hairs on Severus’ chest. His fingers strayed across a nipple then returned to rub and tweak at it.

Severus’ breathing caught audibly; a twitch of tension passed through his whole body. Kneeling where he was, Harry could just see one of Severus’ hands flick in midair: a flinching movement like a bird, startled into flight. He’d seen that twitch once before: at work, when their hands touched on the coffee mug. Wow. Just how sensitive is he?

Harry shifted a little lower, fingertips combing along the line of dark hair that ran down from Severus’ navel, broadening to the base of his cock. He smiled when that hollow belly tightened and the flushed cock twitched at the teasing. Severus was all man, rawboned and gaunt, so far outside his limited experience, and Harry couldn’t help indulging his curiosity, with every touch, every stroke, every kiss. However, his efforts to find Severus’ sensitive spots were doomed to failure: it seemed that Harry couldn’t touch him anywhere without drawing some sort of reaction – even if Severus’ usual reaction was an attempt to hold a reaction back.

We’ll see about that, Harry thought, sliding further down still, until he was kneeling by Severus’ hips. He gave Severus a wicked smile before leaning over Severus’ straining cock. He deliberately pressed the flat of his tongue to its base, right down at the curve of his balls, and licked slowly, wetly, up its full length, ending with a final, teasing flick of his tonguetip, swiping the wetness from Severus’ glans. Interesting, Harry thought as he licked his lips teasingly and glanced up at Severus. Tastes like mine, only not. And at least going down this time, for once I won’t be groping round sight unseen and picking quite so many hairs off my tongue. Warmed by the look of wide-eyed, shocked delight Severus gave him, Harry bent his head again and did his inexperienced best to lick Severus into letting go and believing that Harry wanted him.

Severus was still mostly silent, but Harry took his a-rhythmic, hoarse breathing and the tightening of his hands against Harry’s shoulder and neck as a sign that Harry was doing it right. It should feel more awkward than this, doing this, to another bloke... with another... no, he corrected himself, with Severus, but it doesn’t. It feels comfortable. Harry revelled in the way Severus’ fingers kneaded and clutched at his shoulder, the way his breathing was threaded through with the quietest possible moans...

Until Severus’ grip tightened that bit further and he pulled Harry up and into a licking, lip-twisting kiss, purring at the taste of his precome on Harry’s tongue. Then Severus wrapped a hand round Harry’s wrist and pushed it down between their bodies. It was the first time Severus had ever asked for anything, and Harry gave Severus just what he wanted: faster and harder...

“I remember what happened that night.” Harry murmured, “Your hands, on me. Like this.” He demonstrated with a firm grip.

“Knew it.” Severus smirked.

Harry kissed it away and matched it with a smirk of his own. “Did you always want me? Ever since we met?” Oh yeah, that worked, Harry thought as Severus’ eyes went wide.

“Brat! You- ohh,” Whatever Severus had started to say was lost in a long, low moan. Dark eyes flickered and closed as his head rolled back; precome welled from his cock in a wet surge.

It really wouldn’t do for Severus to snap at Harry and distract himself at a time like this, so Harry pumped faster, rubbing and pressing with his other hand where Severus’ balls had drawn up tight into his body. Now, it was Harry’s turn to tease. “Did you think of me doing this to you?” he whispered against Severus’ mouth. “Is this how you imagined me? Is this how you like it?”

At first Severus answered with actions rather than words: pushing into Harry’s grip until strained, urgent gasps at last became fractured words. “H...Harry, yesss!”

It was so strange, so wonderful, to see Severus like this. Naked, emotionally as well as physically, his constant self-restraint overwhelmed, helpless with pleasure. Coming at Harry’s touch, crying Harry’s name. The fact that he of all people could bring someone as reserved, as controlled as Severus to this abandoned openness was utterly brilliant; Harry’s senses swam with the power of that knowledge. He felt stronger in ways he’d never expected before. In that moment, his old fear that loving a man somehow made him less of a real man himself died for good, and in its wake protectiveness arose.

“S’alright,” he murmured, slowing his strokes as Severus writhed and shuddered and pulsed come into his hand, “I’ve got you.” As the tension eased slowly from the lanky body in his arms, Harry smiled, brushing tangled hair away from Severus’ face, “M’not gonna let go.”

Severus’ gaze locked with his, and Harry thought of a bridge and falling into the dark, but instead of the river there were Severus’ endless eyes. In that moment, he could hear again that deep, intense voice whispering words over and over into his mind; only, this time, Harry thought he knew what it was trying to tell him. Harry gave in and fell, at least this little distance, losing himself in a lazy, unhurried kiss.

When they eased apart, Harry murmured “You weren’t how I imagined you at all.” He felt somehow as though he’d confessed a secret.

“Oh.” The sound was as flat as a disclaimer, but Harry knew enough to catch the flash of worry on Severus’ harsh-planed face.

Daft git! “You’re better.” He smiled and stretched out on top of Severus. Peaceful. Calm. He sighed out his happiness, as Severus’ bony hand slipped gently into his hair and cupped the back of his head.

*

He vaguely remembered Severus getting up a little while later and blowing the candles out one by one before sliding back into bed next to him and drawing the covers up over them both. Severus’ hair smelled like candle smoke.

Harry was thirsty and his throat was hoarse, but he didn’t want to move or open his eyes, so he reached across and draped his arm over a thin waist and burrowed his cold nose between a bony shoulder and the pillow, and wriggled deeper under the covers and closer to Severus’ warmth. He fell asleep then, in an unfamiliar bed, beneath the comforting weight of Severus’ forearm over his shoulder.

He was freezing when he woke up.

No one ever told him that sleeping naked would be this bloody cold. He heard Severus’ snores beside him on the flat pillow and felt around him for a blanket. He squinted. The black curtains in the window were outlined in a hazy grey. The greedy sod had his back to Harry and had the blanket wrapped around him like a cloak. Harry pulled and poked until he managed to get a hold of at least a third. He wriggled underneath and draped his arm over the snoring git. Severus felt warm and comfortable and Harry burrowed closer to that warmth. Not a robot after all, he grinned as he fought against a yawn. Then he slept, lulled by the sound of a morning train fading far into the distance.

*

Severus woke up alone. But the memory of a second person in his bed – snuffling and snuggling, restless as a puppy, arms and legs sprawled over him all night – was quite genuine, he was sure of it. There was a sound of running water from the bathroom. On his way to the kitchen he glared at the faint line of light under the door. The splashing continued for quite a while.

At last, the bathroom door opened and Harry emerged from clouds of steam, with a towel low around his hips. Severus almost dropped the kettle he’d been about to put on for coffee.

“Toast?” Harry chirped cheerfully, nodding at the bread on the counter. “I like mine dark. Almost smoky.”

Severus narrowed his eyes at this nonsense. “Do you really?” he drawled.

Harry’s eyes went glassy for a moment. Then he blinked and a slow smile curved his lips. “Yeah! That sort of smoky.” He padded into the kitchen – no respect for the curtains drawn wide open – and slid his arms, still wet and hot from the shower, around Severus’ waist. “mmMornin’, Sev’rus,” he murmured, nuzzling his ear. “Any plans for today?”

“Nothing that...” It really was getting hard – difficult, it was getting difficult – to keep a train of thought these days, as difficult as avoiding all the unwelcome attention: especially when Severus had to admit that it wasn’t unwelcome after all.

“Brilliant, ‘cause I was thinking maybe...” Harry draped himself over Severus’ back, nudging him with a hopeful erection by way of an ever-so-subtle hint.

“Just so you know,” Severus shifted his weight from foot to foot, partially in vague embarrassment, but mostly wondering whether he could coax another of those beguiling twitches out of Harry’s cock, “I don’t make a habit of doing all this with... well, with anyone, really,” and where the hell did that little confession come from? Severus wondered, even more embarrassed, “...but especially not with anyone your age.”

“Good!” Harry beamed. “Don’t you start doing this with anyone else, either. ‘Cause I don’t want to share you with anyone, my own age or not.” Harry’s hands gripped his own and guided them down to Harry’s waist until Severus felt the edges of the towel. “Here. Hang onto it,” Harry whispered, between pressing kisses into his neck, “It’s slipping.”

“Harry!” Severus gasped, but what Harry did next drove whatever he’d meant to say right out of his mind.

*

After a delightfully delayed breakfast, Harry slung his bag over his shoulder and headed out. He returned that afternoon, his smile undimmed by the day at Uni. He kicked his trainers across the hallway and tugged the obnoxiously red mittens off with his teeth. Severus looked up from yet another article he had to finish reviewing by the tenth, and pretended he wasn’t interested at all in Harry’s whereabouts (no matter how much his morning behaviour had indicated otherwise).

“Here, got something for you,” Harry handed Severus a folded printout.

Marks! Severus swiftly realised. His eyebrows rose as he read. The whelp passed all of his courses. He even did well in most of them: against all odds, Severus thought, since he’s been too busy bothering me to pay attention to his studies half the time. But that’s not the point, Severus scolded himself. The point is I’m with someone who has marks, and a book bag, and exams, and red mittens that he chucks wherever he likes when he takes them off. My life’s never been more ironic, and what with one thing and another I’ve seen a bloody lot of irony.

The next morning, on his way to the bathroom Severus tripped over Harry’s bag in the middle of the floor. He spent his shower having a satisfying grumble under his breath about Harry constantly leaving his things underfoot. When he got out of the shower, he glared from the new towel slung over the doorknob to Harry’s toothbrush and razor left on the edge of the sink. He didn’t even remember Harry bringing any of them in. They’d seemed to simply appear one day or another, along with the scattered collection of Harry’s textbooks and notes and bright yellow and orange highlighters, and Harry’s shirt hanging off the back of his armchair. Were there no limits to this reckless imposition on his privacy?

By the time he emerged from the bathroom, the bag had been kicked under the bed along with Harry’s trainers, and the books had been stowed away on his shelves. Harry, half-undressed still, was eyeing the shelves critically; there was a determined look in his eyes that boded no good at all. Severus hoped that whatever Harry was getting determined about didn’t involve trying to reorganise his books. He strode over and stationed himself between Harry and the shelves, and hoped that his stern glare and forbiddingly folded arms would discourage any further innovations.

They didn’t, so Severus had to unfold his arms and resort to his most sure-fire method of distracting the brat from any nefarious book-shuffling schemes.

After Harry’s failed attempt at rearranging his books, they walked on eggshells around each other until the eleventh. That afternoon Harry told Severus off for not mentioning that his birthday was on the ninth, and a right old telling-off it was, too: Harry yelling at him like mad, with a glint in his eyes and his hands waving about and his hair bristling angrily around his face. Severus had a most invigorating yell right back, of course. After all, he had plenty of things to yell about too: Harry leaving Severus’ books – and his own – in disarray, rearranging Severus’ things and leaving takeaway on the counter overnight and never locking the door properly and breaking his favourite coffee mug.

Harry listened to it all, with an expression that wavered from outrage to outright gobsmack and then, with a shrug and an, “Oh, well, there’s always next year,” Harry pounced. He silenced Severus the only way he knew how, and did his best (which was very, very good indeed) to make up for the lack of belated birthday present with sheer eagerness. Severus was rendered speechless – either by Harry’s intent to be with him next year or by being pounced – he wasn’t sure which, but either way he certainly wasn’t about to object.

They didn’t get out of bed until evening.

It set the pace for the rest of the winter.

*

“Wanna go to the zoo?” Harry asked him one morning, a couple of months later. “Or the museum. I don’t mind which.”

Madness! Severus thought. Bloody lunacy, and just in season, too. Look at what happened on the Ides of March! I know my history; Mum wasn’t obsessed with Romans for nothing. Who else but an obsessive would’ve made me memorise Julius Caesar when I was eleven?

“C’mon,” Harry replied to his dubious look with a cheerful nudge of one elbow to his poorly-padded ribs, “Buy you dinner after!”

Severus refused to go anywhere until they discussed the details of the trip further and he found them satisfactory. They compromised and went to the zoo after all; Severus chose the restaurant. As Harry admired an enormous boa constrictor, Severus prevented himself from acknowledging any double meanings in Harry’s enthusiasm by thinking instead about how well he was coping with Harry’s spontaneous invasion into his life.

Much later they returned home: Harry’s red mittens tucked into the pocket of Severus’ coat and Severus’ spare key in Harry’s hand. The mittens had been left in Severus’ pocket before, but Harry’s key was a more recent development: today’s, in fact. Severus was quite satisfied with the way that discussion had gone; he couldn’t even bring himself to complain about the garish keychain Harry attached the key to.

“Best day ever,” Harry beamed at him. “Magic!”

“Magic?” Severus hmphed. “No such thing.”

“You sound like my aunt. Cheer up!” Harry craned up and whispered then, his mouth soft and persuasive against Severus’, “Course there is. Somewhere.”

For ages Severus hadn’t bothered to look at trees for signs of approaching spring, but the colour of Harry’s eyes reminded him of the time he used to do just that. Many springs had come and gone without Severus’ notice, but Harry was here and now, in his arms and his home and his life, making Severus notice the seasons again, and slowly making him believe that his incredible good luck mightn’t run out after all. What was a mere belief in magic in comparison to the on-going challenge of convincing himself that Harry would still want to be with him tomorrow?

Perhaps magic, Severus thought, is like this unrepentant green-eyed imp: something that went unnoticed for so long right under my nose, just because I never expected to find it. “Yes,” he murmured into Harry’s lips. “I suppose there just might be.”



The full text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #130:


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

A recording of Alan Rickman reading the sonnet can be found here at BritBitsandClips.com.

The Cheshire Cheese is an actual place in London. Here is their website.

The World’s End is a pub in Camden located next to The Underworld.

Here are the panoramas of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Waterloo Bridge (north and south.)

Thank you to Prologi for letting us use her photo of The World’s End.