He had a legitimate and unremarkable reason for speaking the name of the Half-Blood Prince. After a few years, he even overcame his tendency to blush when he called his son by his middle name. Most people assumed that it reminded him of Parseltongue. Perhaps Ginny suspected otherwise, but by then she had become a master of the art of turning a blind eye.
Ginny went on to have a third child, little Lily, the planned and longed-for daughter to complete their family. This was a family brimming with love; enough love, perhaps, to seal over the cracks in a marriage built on one side of affection and expectations and on the other, of a grand romantic passion. Harry had his cosy family, Molly had her grandchildren and her heroic surrogate son, Ginny had her Chosen One. James had his grandfather's looks and confidence without the arrogance, Lily had her grandmother's red hair, green eyes and charm, and Albus Severus had the names of - well, basically, the names of a cold-hearted manipulator and an ugly bastard. Perhaps his soul had a lot of bad Karma to work off.
Harry took Al shopping to Tesco. Lily was still too young to be allowed loose in a supermarket; her magic was strong and unpredictable, and her self-control not yet up to the task of curbing her tongue when confronted with Muggles en masse. James wanted to play Quidditch, as usual, but Al was happy to explore the world of instant noodles and Cadbury's chocolate, washing powder and plastic Jedi Knights.
They were shopping for gifts. Harry had found over the years that pure-bloods like the Weasleys were actually quite easy to please. An electrical gadget for Arthur, Twinings tea for Molly, a funny book for George, really good coffee for Fleur (Ze English do know how to make le cafe noir after all! Merci beaucoup!), a Filofax for Percy and Thornton's chocolates for everyone else, with one glaring exception.
"I never know what to get for your Auntie Hermione," Harry said.
"You always get her book tokens," Al said helpfully. "She hates them."
"Thanks for that, Al."
"She never gets anything girlie," his son explained. "She says she does have a life outside the Ministry library."
"She really tells you this stuff, does she?"
Al grinned. There were advantages to being small and quiet and polite. If this Potter hadn't ended up in Slytherin, Harry would have eaten his Quidditch leathers. "Okay, what do you suggest? A new nightie? Lipstick?"
"She buys those herself, Dad."
"Something really frivolous, then. See if you can find some chocolate scented foam bath or something."
Al was still young enough to giggle as he scampered off to investigate the bath products. Harry steered the trolley to the coffee aisle, looking for Fleur's gift. It seemed that every time he bought coffee, the variety of products increased exponentially. What the hell was an instant decaf skinny Mocha latte? He shook his head and made for the rich-roast beans. Kenyan? Columbian? Or something made from the droppings of a tropical animal?
It happened again as he reached to place a couple of vacuum-sealed packs into the trolley. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man carrying a wire basket. Of medium height and slender build, he had straggly black hair that swung forward to obscure his face, so all Harry saw of his features was the curved hook of his nose.
Every few months, he saw someone who reminded him of Snape, and the scab would tear loose from the old emotional wound and it would throb, with all its mingled loss and regret and guilt. The guilt was by far the worst of it. Harry remembered Sirius telling him that he, Harry, was a good person, and Harry had believed him even though Sirius had hardly been a paragon of forgiveness and brotherly love. How easy for Sirius to love the child who had so resembled his best friend and fellow bully. How much more admirable would Sirius have been, if he had made an effort to get along with Snape. So the young Harry, all self-righteous and full of his own importance, had followed his godfather's example and dismissed the terrible risks that Snape had taken on his behalf. Harry had made little effort to learn from Snape, had been just as arrogant and disrespectful as the Marauders at their worst, and left the man lying in his own blood with no attempt to save his life.
Harry sometimes felt that there was a heavy weight inside his chest; a tombstone engraved with the name of Severus Snape, which he must carry with him in penance until he died. Even more subtle and complex than Snape's love for Lily, his feelings for the Half-Blood Prince went entirely unshared. At least Dumbledore had known of Snape's regret and affection. When Harry first tried to explain his feelings for Snape, Ron shrugged, Hermione watched him worriedly and Ginny stared at him in mute incomprehension. He never mentioned Snape again, except in passing, off-hand like everyone else, or when he spoke his son's middle name, or in the rare and precious dreams in which Snape lived and sneered. So seldom did he dare to speak the Parseltongue hiss of Severus Snape's name, that it was accompanied by a hot little jolt of guilt all of its own. Snape was something forbidden, disapproved of, never to be discussed in depth, like the tiny frisson of arousal that Harry felt when he noticed the flex of a leather jacket across masculine shoulders, or the outline of a cock in tight jeans, or the casual stretch of shorts over the arse of a fit Muggle jogger or footballer.
Harry Potter loved Ginny Weasley. This was one of the Great Truths of the Wizarding world, and he believed it. He had great affection for his wife, not least for her tolerance, and he liked her as a person. He loved his kids, and he loved her for making them possible. Whether that was enough to sustain a marriage throughout the long lives of a wizard and witch, he did not know. The question was becoming irrelevant. Soon, one of his children would ask him, "Mummy isn't going to get better, is she?" and he would not know what to say.
And that was another link to Snape. Someone had found a reference to a potion that, while not a cure could possibly extend Ginny's life by decades, but no-one seemed able to brew it. Even Horace Slughorn had tried; "For Mrs. Harry Potter? Of course! No problem, old chap!" He was fat and lazy but Snape himself had acknowledged that the old wizard had the talent to brew many of the most difficult potions. Slughorn had failed as sadly as the St Mungo's apothecaries. Everyone had agreed that Snape, or at least the heroic Snape of golden posthumous reputation, would have been able to do it. Had he not brewed the most esoteric potions for the Dark Lord? Had he not supplied the Hogwarts' infirmary with everything for decades? Had he not brewed Wolfsbane potions and held at bay the curse that Dumbledore had acquired from the ring of Slytherin?
In the coffee aisle of Tesco, Harry reached for a pack from the top shelf simply so he could catch another glimpse of the random Muggle who looked enough like Snape to make his heart skip, and braced himself for the inevitable disappointment that must follow.
"Hey, Dad, what about this?" Al frowned. "Why are you getting toffee-flavoured cappuccino?"
"I wasn't concentrating," Harry said, replacing the package on the shelf. He smiled and nodded at the selection of bath oils as Al placed them in the trolley. The dark-haired Muggle turned out of the aisle and out of sight.
"What did you get for Mum?"
"I haven't decided yet," he said, but in truth he had forgotten. "What do you think?"
"Biscuits," said Al, "those really nice biscuits made with almonds."
Lily would have suggested them because she loved them too, but Al did not have much of a sweet tooth. Al's generous nature was a constant low-level reminder of Harry's own selfishness as a young teen.
"Go and find them, then, and choose yourself a packet of crisps or something. I'll get the lager for your uncles."
"Okay! I'll meet you at the tills."
Soon, Al would be too grown up to come food shopping with his father. He would not be another James, posing in his Quidditch uniform and eyeing the girls, and Harry doubted that Al's rebellious stage would be as loud and annoying as his brother's. Finally, James was starting to realise that he had interests in common with his father. They went to Quidditch matches together, flew together, helped George to test out his products and had a laugh over a butterbeer. In contrast, Albus was studious and intense. He got on well with Percy and Hermione. He rarely broke the rules. Harry worried about him. Occasionally, he wondered if his son was gay, and hoped that Al would have the courage to confide in the father who had never had the balls to face up to his own bisexuality.
Harry pushed the trolley to the beer aisle, loaded on a couple of six-packs of lager and steered towards the line of tills at the exit. Al was already there, waving with the unselfconsciousness of a boy yet to reach puberty and the terrible obligation to appear cool at all costs. In front of him, unloading his wire basket onto the conveyor belt, was the man who looked like Snape.
Harry's immediate inclination was to go to the far end of the line and pretend that he had not noticed Al, but he had become so used to denying his own whims that he did not even break stride.
"I got smoked paprika flavour," Al said, waving his packet of crisps and dropping them into the trolley, "and those biscotti things for Mum. Why don't they just call them biscuits? What does 'biscotti' mean?"
Harry glanced at the man ahead. His purchases were ordinary: eggs and milk, a fresh chicken and a punnet of pears. His fingers were thin, and between the first and second fingers of the right hand was a yellowish stain, as if he was a heavy smoker, or perhaps he wielded a stirring rod as deftly and accurately as a quill.
"I think 'biscotti' must be Italian," Harry said, and he saw the man freeze for the tiniest instant. Perhaps he was Italian, with that black hair and the sallow complexion that results when an olive skin is deprived of the strong Mediterranean sun. Harry's self-control slipped, and he breathed "Snape?" and felt Al's puzzlement.
The man did not turn, did not react at all, except to lean down and place his empty basket in the stand and begin packing his groceries into an ordinary hessian shopping bag, like a normal person, like a Muggle, like Severus Snape in total control of a new identity.
Al was tugging at Harry's sleeve and he looked down into the boy's concerned face.
"Where do you want to go next?" he asked, and Al's expression brightened.
"You're as bad as your Aunt."
Al bounced on his toes. "Please?"
"If you like."
"Won't we be late for lunch?"
"Not if we're quick."
"Are you going to," he leaned in close and whispered, "shrink the shopping?"
The man paid in cash. Harry hoped to hear him speak, but he only nodded at the young woman operating the till and strode away. Harry felt the moment slipping from his grasp. His conscious mind knew that he was no more likely to meet Severus Snape in Tesco than he was to encounter Albus Dumbledore, yet his heart so desperately wanted to double-check, to hear his voice or look into his face. He watched the man leave and then, like a ray of sunlight stabbing down from an otherwise stormy sky, there came a tiny chance of redemption. The man looked ahead through the window of the shop and Harry saw him reflected in the glass. He saw the narrow face, black eyes and scowl of Severus Snape.
Harry got himself, his son and his shopping home completely on automatic pilot. He recalled nothing of the bookshop, or of charming the shopping to weigh no more than a bag of feathers, or of walking to the park where he could find a secluded spot behind a thick stand of conifers, from which he could Apparate Al home.
Ginny was having one of her better days; she was watching James demonstrate his latest Quidditch moves and coaching him on his Wronski feint above the orchard.
"Try not to bring your head up as you come out of it!" she called.
"I won't be able to keep my eye on the Snitch, Mum."
"But you will escape whiplash if you miscalculate," Harry said.
James rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, it's all about avoiding risks, right? Like you do, Dad, you're so famous for it."
Ginny smiled at James and turned to Harry. Something changed in her eyes, as it always did; the open and uncomplicated affection that she showed to her children became cooler and more restrained. She was careful about showing her feelings for Harry, because she had come to realise that they were not fully reciprocated. She was a strong and intelligent witch; she had settled for what she had, but her pride would not allow the world to see how she adored him. He often thought that she deserved more and wished that he could bring himself to feign passion for her.
"Hello!" cried Al, "We come bearing gifts!"
James had to swoop around the boundary of the garden and orchard a couple of times to demonstrate how unaffected he was by the very idea. Lily bounded out of the house, the family owl flapping wildly on her shoulder, hugged her father and squealed over the chocolates and nail polish that Al had brought her. Harry would never have thought of nail polish. How had Al known that a ten-year-old tom-boy desperately wanted bright fuchsia toe-nails?
"Ron's been called back to work," Ginny said as they strolled to the house. "He said he'll only be an hour, so Hermione's bringing a roast chicken and we'll have it with salad, so nothing will spoil if he's late."
"It's the Warner case. We're expecting a break-through when Magi-forensics pull their finger out and actually send us some results."
"Shall I set the table?" Lily asked.
"No underage magic," her mother warned.
"She wants something," Al predicted. His sister stuck out her tongue.
"My deductive powers have already reasoned that Gooseberry brought a message from Rose," Harry said. "Evil is being plotted." Gooseberry hooted in agreement.
"Da-ad! Rose says she's going to visit Angharad Powys next weekend," Lily said.
"Angharad's Blodwen's sister!"
"Blodwen is my best friend in the world!"
"I thought that was Valerie?" Harry said.
"That was last week," Ginny told him, trying hard not to laugh. Lily pouted.
"Don't be silly, Mum! Val's all right. It's just I like Blodwen better."
"Only because the Powys family keep flying ponies," Al said and dodged the punch that Lily aimed at his shoulder.
"You had a fight with Geraint Powys, you git!"
"Al?" Ginny demanded, "is this true? You got in a fight?"
"It wasn't a fight," Al muttered, staring down at his feet, "not really. He just shouted names and I shouted back."
"James said you tried to hex him!"
"James wasn't even there! Powys called me a foul, cheating Slytherin. Professor Oates put us both in detention even though he started it."
"You shouldn't have retaliated," Ginny told him. Al shrugged.
"He won't do it again."
"What did you do?" Lily asked curiously and Al gave a positively evil little smirk.
"I had to scrub cauldrons and he got sent to polish the trophies. Someone hexed the silver polish." He examined his fingernails. "Only a bit. Just so that the trophies tarnished again in twelve hours, in a pattern."
"What sort of pattern?" Lily demanded. "Was it words?"
"Not really. It just read 'Slytherins are gits' in block capitals."
"’Slytherins are gits’? But you're a Slytherin, you should have made it write 'Gryffindors are gits!'"
"And be put into detention again? No fear. He got double detention with Mr Clapshott because no-one believed I would insult my own house."
"And what did you get?" Harry asked.
"Professor Sinistra told me I was a cunning Slytherin and gave me ten house points for a very complicated time-delayed charm and five points for style."
Ginny snorted. "I'm glad to hear that the inter-house cooperation initiative is working out so well."
"Yeah," said Harry, and just because he could, he added, "Professor Snape would have been proud," and everyone laughed.
Harry realised that Hermione was watching him; her way of letting him know that she was available if he wanted to talk. She always knew when something was troubling him and anything confided to Hermione would remain just between the two of them.
Although Hermione and Ginny were friends, Hermione had made it clear to Harry that she was his surrogate sister, the only person close to him who sensed that the tensions in his marriage went deeper than Ginny's failing magical core. Hermione was on his side, because Ginny had her entire family on hers and he had only her. After all, Hermione was in a similar situation; her relations were all Muggles. Outside of the Weasley clan, she only had Harry.
After a short game of garden Quidditch, Harry organised a raucous gob-stones tournament so that Ginny could join in, and no-one was surprised when he was knocked out in the first round. Hermione had not wanted to play, so they wandered up the orchard and sat on the seat beneath the old plum tree.
"I took Al to Tesco today," Harry said. She nodded encouragingly. "I saw Snape, in the coffee aisle."
Hermione did not sigh, or look exasperatedly at him. He was an assistant Chief Auror, she a senior Unspeakable; professionally, they were equals, and he could see her donning the invisible mantle of her research persona.
"Have you examined the memory?"
He raised his wand and summoned the Pensieve from his study; it sailed sedately down the garden past the others.
"Oh Merlin, they're talking shop again!" Rose exclaimed and got spat in the face by a gob-stone for her inattention.
"We could carry on a mad, passionate affair in front of their noses if we wanted to," Hermione said lightly, "but try to be furtive about anything and they'd be all over us."
Harry shook his head. "Not much gets past Al."
Hermione's eyebrows went up and she nodded slowly.
"True. He's a very noticing child. Bit of an anomaly really, I wonder where those genes came from?"
"My Slytherin side. It obviously went deeper than the bit Voldemort left in my scar."
Harry raised his wand to his temple and concentrated, selecting the memory and pulling it free to float down into the shining silver of the Pensieve.
"Note his reaction when he first heard my voice, and again when I whispered his name."
Hermione stuck her head into the bowl and Harry sat back and waited. When she sat up again, her brown eyes were wide and her cheeks flushed.
"Oh my word."
"He certainly looked how you'd expect Snape to look after all these years. I agree with you; he was controlling his shock when he recognised your voice, and he was very careful to keep his back to you. An innocent Muggle wouldn't have cared if you'd seen his profile and would probably have looked straight at you if he'd thought you were speaking to him. It doesn't guarantee that this is Snape, though, Harry. You do realise that?"
"I know you're not an idiot." She touched his sleeve lightly. "I know how much you have invested in this emotionally. I do, too. I was the one with the first-aid kit who just let him bleed out in that foul Shack."
"Will you help me look for him?"
"Of course I will."
"Keep it quiet, though." She looked at him and Harry felt his face heating up. "If it is Snape, if I could get him to brew the potion for Ginny... I don't want to raise false hopes."
"Oh Harry," she breathed as her eyes brimmed with tears, and Harry felt like a complete shit because the idea of asking Snape to brew the potion had only just occurred to him.
"If we assume that he's living as a Muggle, he would most likely use his local supermarket." Hermione steepled her fingers and stared into space. "I'll begin by searching in a twenty mile radius of Cottlesford."
Harry settled into the chair in front of Hermione's desk, happy to let her brain work on the puzzle.
"I might have spooked him, though, and he'll move on."
"Not so easy if he's gone truly Muggle, with a job and a house and maybe even a family. If he's living mostly Muggle, but supplementing with low-level magic – Apparating for example – it'll be much more difficult to pin him down."
"I'm sure Snape knows exactly how much magic he can get away with without alerting the Ministry, Hermione."
"Mm, and I think he'll be reluctant to give it up completely. He was just so very good at it. I wonder if we can track him down by his wand."
"He'll have got another one, probably from abroad. He wouldn't even risk the black market if he wanted to disappear completely."
"But why not live somewhere else in the world where no-one gave a toss who he was?"
"Because he's English," Harry said slowly. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, if I was him. I might travel first, and get a new wand and go to places where I could work magic, but I'd come back in the end. He was prepared to die to make Britain safe, he'd live here."
The sympathy in her eyes made him want to squirm.
"I'll see if I can find any traces on the Internet. I doubt if he'll use anything obvious as an alias, but it's worth a try."
"He wouldn't expect us to bother looking."
"True. I'll start with Severus Snape and Tobias Prince and permutations like Severin and Snipe and Toby." Her expression changed slightly, becoming harder and more business-like. "I'll see what I can do and keep you posted. Also, I've still got that little problem with the lights in the sky over the Mendips, can you check if anyone's been flying illegally near Cheddar? I won't bother investigating until we've ruled out the obvious flying carpets or Quidditch idiots with lanterns. Hello Ian, have you got the report from the Wizengamot?"
"Yes, Madam Weasley." The department junior clerk dumped a pile of scrolls into Hermione's in-box, recognised Harry, blushed, muttered, "Hello Mr Potter," and scuttled out again. Harry returned to his office, trying not to nurse the tremulous, rosy little glow of hope that lightened the weight in his chest.
"This might interest you," Hermione remarked, dropping two rolled parchments onto Harry's blotter. "Here's the breakdown of the Mendip sightings, I think we've got a Chimera problem. You may need to call in the Obliviators."
"Sounds like fun," Ron drawled, from where he lounged with his feet on his desk. "Charlie'll be interested if it really is a Chimera. I wonder where it came from?"
"The Muggles like exploring the caves, they probably disturbed it," Hermione told him. "Are you going to contact Charlie? I won't tell our lot straight away if he wants to be involved, give him the chance to Floo back."
"Okay." Ron swung his feet to the floor. "Are we cooking tonight or shall I get fish and chips?"
"Ron Weasley, I don't know why you're not the size of a dragon."
"More for you to hold onto," he said, leering.
"Oh, very well. I'll have plaice, please."
"And mushy peas?"
"They're a part of your Muggle heritage. I like them, even if they do look like troll snot."
Hermione rolled her eyes and marched off towards the department of Mysteries. Harry glanced at the scrolls and tossed the one with the details of the Chimera sightings to Ron, who unrolled it and started dictating notes to his quill for Charlie. Harry slid the second parchment into his filing cabinet. His palms were sweating and there was a hot, shivery sensation low down in his belly.
He opened the scroll when Ron went to lunch, having sent the rest of his team out on surveillance. Hermione had drawn up a list of names with notes in her small, precise handwriting.
I've excluded everyone whose age is outside a ten-year range either side of the subject's age, and anyone who married, had children or was doing anything obvious in the Muggle world in the years when he was at Hogwarts. Of course, he might call himself 'Jack Brown', in which case we have a problem! We have to start somewhere, though.
Harry quickly read down the list of names. There were a number of Snapes and Snipes, Princes and Kings, but no actual Severus. There was Stephens and Stevens, a Sefton Prince, a Severin ap Rees and a Stefan Prince. There were two Toby Princes, a Tobias Snipe and an Eilus S. Prince.
As Harry stared at the last name, a note appeared next to it in Hermione's writing. I wondered about this one; if he hated his father, he might use a masculine version of his mother's name.
"Is Hermione the only person in the world who uses semi-colons in a scribbled note?" Harry asked aloud, and realised that she had caught that particular habit from the man who had written in red ink all over her homework, with counter-arguments that included sub-clauses and appendices. He grinned, closed his eyes and stabbed at the list of names with a finger. "All right, Severus Snape, I'm coming to find you."
Harry knew the value of avoiding routine. He randomised his searches, and wherever possible, would look for one of his targets while carrying out another duty. He was able to eliminate an electrician called Sefton Prince while on his way to apprehend a suspect, and Severin ap Rees, a sheep farmer, when coming back from interviewing a curse victim. Sometimes he Apparated beneath his invisibility cloak to an address from Hermione's list, checked out the inhabitants and returned home within ten minutes.
He had not yet completed what he and Hermione regarded as their A-list when he heard from her next. A neatly folded paper aeroplane in the pale green that signified the Department of Mysteries nudged the side of his head while he was in the gents. He washed his hands, cast a drying charm and unfolded the note.
Harry, I found Snape's old home. It was number 50, Spinner’s End, Leeds. It was sold six months after he died, via a Muggle estate agent, to a young couple with a baby. The seller was Snape's closest relative, Michael Rogers. He was the son of Snape's mother's younger sister. However, I've been unable to find any record of him, or of Eileen's sister, in either the Muggle or Wizarding worlds. I suspect that 'Michael Rogers' was Snape. He may have kept the name (nicely nondescript), but more likely changed it again once he had the money. The house had been stripped before the new owners moved in. The area is being gentrified and the neighbours all arrived recently. Sorry this is another dead end, but it does fit our theory. Love, H.
He Incendio-ed the note and pulled the much-folded A-list from his pocket. Ten down, eight to go, including Stefan Prince – who appeared to be out of the country on business – and Eilus S. Prince. Harry had a funny feeling about Eilus. He thought Hermione was right; Snape would want to hold onto his mother's Wizarding heritage rather than his patronymic. He was waiting until the time was right before following up on that particular clue.
A parcel arrived between two eagle owls. They set it down on Harry's desk, demanded their treats and flew off out of the owl flap. Ron looked up from his paperwork.
"Potions," Harry said, glancing at the sender's logo. "For Ginny. Nutrient supplements and stuff."
"Why did they deliver here, then, instead of home?"
"Didn't want her disturbed on a bad day; didn't want her to have to stay in and wait for them if she felt up to visiting your Mum or her friends on a good day."
Ron nodded approvingly and went back to sucking the end of his quill and scowling at his report, as if he could glare it into suddenly making sense. Harry slipped a tiny vial of golden potion into his pocket and placed the rest with his briefcase, ready to take home.
His chance came on the following Saturday. Being the last weekend of the summer break from Hogwarts, James and Al met up with George, Angelina, Ron and Hermione, who took them with their own children to buy their school supplies. Never one to miss an opportunity to spend money, Lily accompanied her brothers to Diagon Alley. Ginny was feeling achy and tired and just wanted to listen to the Quidditch on the radio, so Harry muttered something about working on a case for a couple of hours. Ginny nodded and gave him that look, the one that said that she saw through his excuses but wasn't going to make a big deal of it.
He Apparated to Shotsbury St Quentin, a market town in nearby Somerset. The late summer sunlight glowed upon trees that were just starting to turn golden at the edges, and on the pale buildings of Cotswold limestone. The voices around Harry carried the long, sleepy vowels of the West Country. Not pretty enough to be on the main tourist route, the town had its quota of butchers and bakers, Sainsbury and Asda, banks and solicitors. It also had a library, gift of a Victorian benefactor, with pretentious columns and plinths and a statue of a snooty-looking woman draped in a sheet and holding an open book and a torch.
Harry took the vial of Felix Felicis from his pocket, uncorked it and took a little sip. It was like drinking the distilled essence of sunshine. He replaced the tiny bottle and pushed open the door to the library.
Light and airy, the interior bore only a small resemblance to the library at Hogwarts. A group of teenagers huddled around the public computers while children ran back and forth waving toys and picture books. A few older people read magazines and newspapers, and a harassed-looking woman attempted to strap a screaming toddler into a stroller while admonishing two older children to hurry up and choose their video games, or else. Harry imagined Madam Pince trying to bring order to this chaos.
Two women were checking in books, CDs and videos while a youngish man stood at the out desk, fiddling with the date stamp. He was plump and blond and bored-looking, giving the impression that he had drifted into working here because he hadn't found anything else he would rather do. Harry thought about asking if Eilus Prince was at work, but then it seemed sensible to wander across to the checking-in desk.
"Where's Sev?" one of the library assistants asked, looking at the queue.
Harry's stomach gave a slow, queasy roll.
"Shelving," her companion replied. "You know our Seb, can't stand the place looking untidy."
Oh, she had said 'Seb', he must have misheard the first woman. He knew that he needed to find Seb at all costs, though. He quietly walked across to the row of tall bookshelves.
The man had his back to him. Of medium height and smallish build but with masculine width to his shoulders, stringy black hair, wearing a plain dark grey jumper and trousers, he was unremarkable to anyone who had never met Snape. He had a wheeled wooden library stand and was pushing it slowly along the aisle as he neatly slotted the books back into their allocated places.
"Excuse me," Harry said, as his heart beat like a snare drum in his chest. The man lifted his head but did not turn around. Even facing away from Harry, he suddenly radiated a dark intensity that made the hairs lift on the back of Harry's neck. "Where I can find the books on witchcraft?"
He had settled on the question before even entering the library. If this was not Snape, he would not have embarrassed either of them; he would simply be directed to information on Wicca and Druids or sixteenth century witch trials.
The librarian turned slowly, as if he wore invisible robes that flared around his legs. He folded his arms. Darkness and light pulsed around the edges of Harry's vision for a moment and then cleared, leaving him staring into Severus Snape's cold black eyes.
"I believe that you will find 'witchcraft' somewhere in between 'mortal peril and damnation of the soul' and 'denouncing thy neighbour as a witch'." His voice had barely altered, just a subtle burr to it, velvet instead of silk.
"What about 'reconciliation', 'forgiveness of sins' and 'receiving your just desserts'?"
Felix gave Harry a little nudge and he glanced down, to the dark tip of wood just visible at the cuff of Snape's sleeve. He allowed his own wand to slide down from his wrist holster so that Snape could see it nestling in his hand. "Don't, please. Obliviate me and you'll only have Hermione turning up in a day or two."
The scowl had not changed a bit.
"Of course, how could you possibly find me without the brains of the outfit directing you?"
"We each have our strengths and weaknesses; the trick is to recognise and work with them."
"You'll have to try harder than that, Mr Potter." Snape tipped back his head and sneered at Harry down his nose. He was magnificent. Harry wanted to throw his arms around him, but Felix had a better idea.
"Can I buy you lunch?"
The flicker in the black eyes came and went so swiftly that he could have imagined it, but he recognised that even Snape might be thrown off-balance by this encounter.
"Do you believe that we have anything to talk about?"
"What's happened in the Wizarding world since you left," Harry said, counting off on his fingers, "the Order of Merlin first class awarded posthumously to one Severus Snape, whether you really want to spend the rest of your life as a Muggle librarian, whether I can help you if you don't, or even if you do. Whether you just want to be left in peace, because if you do, I shall Obliviate Hermione and then allow you to Obliviate me. The fact that you still carry a wand is rather significant, don't you think?"
"Lunch," Snape said, "in an hour and a half. I'll meet you in the public bar of the Old White Horse Inn."
"Brilliant," Harry breathed. Felix suggested that he back away in case Snape changed his mind about Obliviation, and a black glare indicted that Felix might have a point.
Harry sipped his pint and tried not to make it obvious that he was watching both the clock and the door. He was fairly sure that Snape would keep his word, so he had not taken any more of the luck potion, opting to save it for when he might really need it. At exactly half past twelve, a group of men in biker's leathers came in and Harry only saw the slim figure slipping in behind them because he was looking for it. Snape went to the bar, waiting his turn to buy a drink, and Harry got up to join him.
"I promised to buy," Harry said. Snape gave him a sly, sideways glance.
"In that case, I'll have a pint of the best bitter, the smoked trout pate and a medium-rare fillet steak."
Harry ordered the soup of the day, slow-roast lamb shank and a half of lager for himself, and took the drinks back to where Snape had settled himself at the table.
"I do hope you don't intend to abscond without paying; the landlord is a friend of mine."
"I already paid by card," Harry said.
"Slum it among the Muggles often, do you, Potter?"
Harry shrugged. "Yeah, I do. Got a problem with that? My cousin and his wife and kids are Muggles."
"The fat bullying one whom I recall seeing in your memories?"
"That's the one, except that he's discovered he's brilliant with computers, got a good job, slimmed down, grew up, married a nice girl and turned into a decent bloke. That sometimes happens, you know. People start out bad and turn good."
Snape made a small sound remarkably like a snort and something softened around his eyes.
"Enough, Potter, I don't need a sermon from you."
"What shall I call you? Did I hear the women in the library call you 'Seb' or is your name Eilus?"
"Eilius Sebastian Prince, known as Sebastian or Seb. You may call me 'Mr Prince'."
Harry stretched out his legs under the table.
"Certainly. When you call me 'Mr Potter', I'll be happy to."
Snape clicked his tongue in mild disappointment.
"Come along, where's the infamous Potter temper? You should be yelling or taking a swing at me by now."
"It's really weird," Harry said, "this growing-up thing. All of a sudden, not only do you find you've got self-control, but you realise people who you used to think were evil gits are actually very funny. Not that I've noticed Lucius Malfoy causing many laughs, mind you."
"And how is dear Lucius?" Snape asked, so casually that Harry stifled a chuckle.
"He's well, still causing trouble at Hogwarts and throwing his weight around the Ministry. Narcissa's okay, she's reconciled with Andromeda, and Draco's married and got a son, Scorpius."
"Whom did he marry?"
"One of the Greengrass girls, the youngest one."
"Astoria. She'll suit him, I think." Snape ran his thumbs up and down the sides of his pint glass, gazing into the dark, golden-brown liquid. "Is Minerva still running Hogwarts?"
"Yes, although she's hoping to retire very soon. Neville Longbottom teaches, you know."
"Herbology, I presume?"
"Potions." Snape simply continued to stare into his beer. "Yeah, Herbology of course, he's really good at it. He took over when Pomona Sprout retired. Filius Flitwick retired at the same time. Madam Hooch is still there, so're Hagrid and Professor Vector. Aurora Sinistra is head of Slytherin."
Snape nodded. "She took over when I... moved on."
"Do you miss it?" Snape slowly raised his head, one eyebrow tilted. Harry shrugged. "Hogwarts, I mean, not teaching. It was your home for so long."
"No more than I miss being a part of the Wizarding world."
Harry did not need Felix Felicis to interpret the flat, unemotional delivery of that statement. This was Severus Snape, one of the most powerful wizards alive, a man whose Occlumency was legendary. Even if Snape cared about something, you’d never know, because he hid it too well.
"Do you want to come back?"
"That depends," Snape said delicately, "upon what you are offering. I have a home here, a job, friends, respect and security. Do you expect me to lightly give all that up upon your whim?"
"I'm offering you a choice," Harry replied. "It's a long time since you've been free to choose your place in the Wizarding world."
"Harry Potter, speaking for the entire world. My, how your ego has grown, Mr Potter."
Harry the Auror had learned the value of silence; he sipped his beer and waited. He had experience with people who lashed out when they felt uncomfortable, most of them young or insecure rather than criminally inclined. He had long ago come to recognise Snape's defence mechanisms.
A pair of waitresses came to put cutlery and their first course on the table; Harry thanked them and sniffed appreciatively at his spiced butternut squash soup.
"They do a good roast parsnip soup, too," Snape offered, flicking open his napkin and picking up a triangle of toast. "How do I know that I wouldn't be thrown into Azkaban the moment I set foot in Diagon Alley?"
"I'll arrange a private meeting between you and Kingsley to discuss your situation. You've been exonerated, you know."
"Only because I was safely dead. I shall not return to live as a pauper in Knockturn Alley, either."
"Of course not. What do you want to do, brew potions? Research?"
"You have a very limited view of my capabilities, Potter."
"I never expected to find you working in a library surrounded by screaming kids, that's very true."
"I appear to have a flair for organisation and dealing with bureaucracy. Running a small, local library is child's play compared with running Hogwarts, as you might imagine."
"Do you want to stay here, then?"
"The question is irrelevant," Snape said, spreading pate onto toast and taking a precise bite. He chewed, swallowed and added, "In its infinite wisdom, the local council intends to close the library within the next six months to save money. I have already begun seeking alternative employment."
In his jacket pocket, Harry tightened his fingers around the little golden vial.
"Whatever you want," he said softly, "I'll do my best to get you sorted with something you'll be happy with."
"I owe you - we all owe you."
"What if I said that I will settle for nothing less than my old position?"
"I always thought you hated teaching."
Snape bared his uneven teeth in a very nasty little smirk.
"My last job, Potter. What if I wish to return to Hogwarts as headmaster?"
"I'll do my best."
Snape cocked his head.
"You must want something. I do not believe even the golden boy of Gryffindor can hand out the headmastership without an enormous amount of grovelling, pulling of strings or granting of favours. I know the way the Wizarding world works and I doubt it has altered that much since my estrangement."
"A potion," Harry told him. "I need you to brew a potion."
Snape sat back with a look of satisfaction on his angular face.
"It must be something special if your know-it-all friend and your legions of admirers are unable to conjure it for you. What is it?"
Harry took out his wallet, removed a square of parchment the size of a postage stamp and placed it upon his knee beneath the table. He glanced around to ensure that no-one was watching and wordlessly expanded the parchment to its proper size, then handed it across the table.
He watched Snape's dark eyes rapidly scan the lines of cramped text. Snape was frowning by the time he reached the bottom of the page.
"Has anyone attempted this?"
"Yes. They all failed, including Horace Slughorn."
Snape nodded thoughtfully.
"Yes, although Horace would have been my best bet for success; he is familiar with the Second Codex of Galen, to which this refers on a couple of points... Well, Potter, I would expect nothing less than the Headmastership of Hogwarts, including a pay rise, and my Order of Merlin First Class presented by the Minister himself in exchange for this."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Potter, you are supposed to bargain. Who is this for? Obviously not you," he waved the parchment irritably. "A Weasley?"
Snape went still for a moment, and then said quietly, "I cannot promise that I will succeed, but I shall make the attempt. If you wish me to begin immediately, you will need to find me somewhere to work; I refuse to return to Hogwarts or appear in public until I have a guarantee of freedom."
"Of course," Harry said.
Harry looked from Hermione to Ron.
"I want you to keep this a secret," he said. "Just between the three of us."
Ron looked perplexed while Hermione stifled a little gasp.
"Harry, did you...?"
"Yeah, I found him." He turned to his best friend. "Snape."
"He's alive?" Ron looked from Harry to his wife, who shrugged. "You knew and you didn't tell me?"
"She didn't know, we just suspected. I've only just got proof and that's why we're telling you now, Ron. I promised him not to make anything public until I've spoken to Kingsley and made sure that he's never going to be arrested for what he did in the war. I especially don't want any other Weasleys to know."
"What about Ginny?"
"Especially not Ginny, not yet."
Ron looked thunderous for a moment before his brow cleared. His blue eyes widened.
"You mean he agreed to brew the potion? Bloody hell, Harry! What did you have to promise him for that?"
"Headmaster of Hogwarts."
There was silence for a long moment before Hermione said softly, "Oh, Harry." She shook her head once.
"I know. I've never asked for a single thing that I haven't earned, have I? I worked my way up by sheer hard graft; you two never asked me to throw my weight around and demand anything just because I'm the Chosen One, and neither have my wife and kids."
"What a bloody awful choice to have to make," Ron said bitterly, "lose your integrity to save the love of your life. I'm sorry, mate."
Hermione said nothing, but she looked at Harry long and thoughtfully, and he wondered if even he knew whether he was calling in his debts for Ginny or for Snape or for himself.
Snape scowled at the workstation set up in the basement at number twelve, Grimmauld Place. If it had been anyone else, Harry would have wondered what was wrong, but as this was Snape, he suspected that the man was annoyed because he was unable to find anything to criticise. Harry had asked Hermione to go through the instructions for the potion and make a list of all the equipment and ingredients required, and then had double checked with Slughorn, who still felt guilty over his failure to complete the potion.
"Not that you'll find anyone who can brew it, I fear," the old wizard had told Harry sadly.
"You never know, sir. Do you know if anyone could possibly have made it? Would Professor Snape have succeeded, do you think?"
Horace's jowls wobbled as he sipped his mead.
"I really don't know. Severus was a dab hand at ambiguous potions, mind you; a dab hand. He had an instinct - far more even than you had, my boy, and that's saying something! My brightest pupil, Severus, such a shame. Such a waste."
Harry had thanked him and picked up Hermione's list, with its annotations in Slughorn's rather shaky hand.
Snape peered into the set of pewter cauldrons, turned the smallest one upside-down and spun on one heel to face Harry.
"Where did you get these?"
"You stole them? I thought you were supposed to uphold the law, Potter."
"Hardly," Harry said equably, "and I'm merely returning them to their rightful owner."
"So now the whole of Hogwarts knows."
"Only Minerva, and I have her word that she'll tell no-one else until after you've sorted everything with Kingsley. She burst into tears," Harry said. Snape snorted.
"Foolish, emotional old Gryffindor," he muttered but he turned away as if he did not wish his expression to be seen.
"Yeah," said Harry, "we're renowned for it. Is there anything else you'll need?"
"The occasional sandwich and mug of tea would not go amiss," Snape said, lifting a jar of slimy organs to the light and examining it critically.
"Dimple," Harry said. Snape merely lifted an eyebrow. A small elf popped into the centre of the room.
"I await your directions," she informed them haughtily, folding her arms. She wore a smart little uniform with a logo on the corner of the apron and she had an earring in one bat-like ear.
"This is Dimple, she's from the freed house-elves' cooperative. I requested her because she used to work for an apothecary."
"That's right," Dimple agreed.
"Everything that takes place here will be completely confidential, including Professor Snape's presence."
The elf rolled her eyes.
"Polyjuice, is it? You wouldn't believe the weird stuff that's covered by that client confidentiality clause. Okay, you're the boss; just don't expect me to get involved in anything kinky. Interspecies cooperation only stretches so far."
"You can start by brewing the tea," Snape growled.
"What did you request an apothecary elf for, in that case?" Dimple muttered as she pattered to the rear of the room and snapped her fingers at the kettle.
"Then you will shred four ounces of copperhead skin into pieces exactly an eighth of an inch thick and half an inch long, and skin and dice six shrivelfigs into standard, quarter inch pieces – without magic."
"Memoriam Perpetuum potion," the elf stated, "that's more like it."
"Elf," Snape said in the smooth, silky voice that had always threatened awful punishments, "unless you can control your unnecessary, flippant comments, you may find that I have a use for elf parts in the next potion."
"Oooh," squeaked Dimple, "I like this one! I bet you're a riot at parties!"
"Excuse me for interrupting," Harry said, "but why do you need Memoriam Perpetuum?"
He thought for a moment that Snape was going to throw something at him.
"Because it is twenty years since I last attempted to brew anything more complex than Dreamless Sleep! Now go away, Potter, before I change my mind about the entire enterprise."
Harry left them to it.
"Mr Potter, do come in." Harry suppressed an inclination to shiver at the sound of Lucius Malfoy's unctuous voice and strode into the drawing room of Malfoy Manor. Malfoy's practised smile did not reach his cold grey eyes.
"Potter," Draco said, from the sofa that he shared with his wife.
"Draco," Harry said in response. "Mrs Malfoy, Mrs Malfoy, Mr Malfoy." Narcissa and Astoria both nodded politely, if warily. Draco kept his expression carefully blank.
"So," Lucius remarked, leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece and looking every inch the patriarch, "what can we do for you, Mr Potter? I assume that this is not in the nature of an Auror raid, as you are here out of uniform and unaccompanied by your - goons, is that the term? - and it must be seven years since the last one."
"Eight," Narcissa said, putting aside her book and crossing her elegant ankles.
"Eight, my my, how time flies."
"Yes, it does," Harry agreed. "I'm here as a fellow member of the board of governors of Hogwarts."
"Ah," Lucius purred, "time, as experienced in particular by our dear friend, the Headmistress, simply hurtles past. The lady assures me that she expects to retire at the end of the academic year."
"I'm glad we're on the same wavelength, Mr Malfoy."
Draco made a sound that, had it been just a little louder, might have been identified as a snort. His father clicked his tongue.
"I have always desired only what is best for the school and its students."
"As have I," Harry agreed. Since they had rarely, if ever, agreed on anything, this made Lucius' lips quirk into a faint sneer.
"If you are here to dissuade me from supporting Aurora Sinistra's application," Lucius said, "I must inform you that I have no intention whatsoever of backing a compromise candidate." He waved a languid hand at his son. "Yes, I know, but one must be blunt when dealing with Gryffindors, Draco. It is the only way."
"I appreciate it," Harry replied. He sensed that agreeing with the wizard was actually getting up his nose more effectively than arguing with him; a strategy that had not occurred to Harry before. "But I must warn you that she won't be offered the job. She may even withdraw her application before it reaches the interview stage."
Lucius narrowed his eyes.
"Indeed? I sincerely hope not. I will do my very best to ensure that a Slytherin gains a position of influence at Hogwarts despite any pressure that you may bring to bear, Mr Potter."
"Fair enough." Harry shrugged. "I'm here in a friendly capacity, Mr Malfoy; I've come to tell you that another candidate will be submitting his application, and once that's widely known, Professor Sinistra will withdraw."
"Hardly," Lucius said in a low voice. He caressed the head of the cane leaning against the side of the fireplace. "I have no doubt that your Gryffindor candidate will put up a strong fight - how could he not, with the Chosen One's backing? - but at the very least, Aurora deserves to be considered for the position of deputy."
"The candidate isn't a Gryffindor."
"A compromise," Draco sneered. "A Ravenclaw, I hope? Please don't tell me we'll be lumbered with an elf-hugging Hufflepuff?"
"When Professor Dumbledore was Headmaster, he made Minerva his deputy despite the fact that they're from the same house," Harry said, "and that wasn't fair. The head and deputy should be from different houses and I'm going to push for a change in the rules to ensure that in future. My preferred candidate is another Slytherin and I'd like you two to vote for him."
Lucius managed to control his shock after a second; it took Draco a little longer. Narcissa raised a perfect eyebrow.
"I find that rather hard to believe," Lucius said. "Who in Merlin's name is it?"
"None of the other Slytherin Professors have the experience or the gravitas to carry the position," Narcissa stated.
"Come on, Potter, tell us who your pet Slytherin is and we might come to some arrangement," Draco said, "although I rather doubt it."
"He's working in a Muggle library at the moment," Harry said wickedly.
Astoria suddenly gave a little 'humph'. When everyone turned to look at her, she shook her head so that her long blond hair rippled.
"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding in the least contrite, "but I don't know you, Mr Potter."
"We've hardly met," she explained, "we were in different years in school and we've only met in formal situations."
The Malfoys were all watching her, as if they were accustomed to her rambling but were still interested in hearing her conclusion.
"That's true," Harry agreed politely.
She sat back and folded her hands in her lap, looking pleased with herself.
"You've defied expectations all your life and you're doing it again, aren't you, at our expense?"
"I'm afraid so," he agreed. "Are you related to Luna Lovegood, by any chance?"
"Our mothers were cousins," she said. "And you, Mr Potter, are being surprisingly Slytherin. I'm not sure what kneazle you're about to pull out of your hat, but you have a look of someone who knows that they've already won. Please, go ahead."
"You'll be delighted," Harry told her. She had wide, guileless blue eyes and he wondered when the Malfoys had realised that an incisive mind lay behind them.
"A Muggle librarian?" she whispered, then her expression changed. "A half-blood? I do hope that this is not a very nasty prank, Mr Potter."
Harry shook his head. "I'm not that cruel, Mrs Malfoy. May I invite him through your Floo?"
She squealed and clapped her hands over her mouth, while her husband and parents in law regarded her with varying degrees of exasperation – tempered, in Draco's case, with fondness.
Lucius withdrew his wand from his cane, pointed it at the fireplace and made a complex series of flourishes that Harry recognised, opening the wards on the Floo. He then indicated the beautiful Chinese porcelain dish that held the Floo powder.
"Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place," Harry stated, tossed in a pinch of powder, drew a breath and stuck his face into the flames. "You're invited to join me at Malfoy Manor."
When he withdrew, spelled away the ash from his hair and stood up, Harry couldn't help his smug grin.
"Our candidate for the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts," he said with a flourish.
The flames billowed high and green, and through them stepped a slim man in black robes.
Narcissa screamed. So, Harry suspected, did Draco, because Astoria certainly didn't; she was punching the air in a very unladylike manner. Lucius rocked back on his heels, and then his wand flashed as he threw a series of identification spells at the wizard standing on his hearthrug, some of them rather Darker than Harry would have liked. Snape stood still, allowing Lucius to satisfy himself that the unexpected guest really was his old friend.
"You bastard," Lucius said eventually, and his voice quivered, "you absolute, ruddy bastard! We mourned you!"
"I'm sorry," Snape said quietly. Then he staggered as Draco embraced him and almost knocked him off his feet. Harry seized a handful of Floo powder and Flooed home. Whatever his attitude towards the Malfoys, he thought that Snape deserved to reconcile with his old friends in private.
His last view as the green flames whirled him away was of Snape's hands on Draco's back, of Draco's blond head buried in Snape's shoulder, and Lucius reaching to seize Snape's arm and pull them both into a three-way hug. The sight ignited something hot in his chest, something almost like resentment.
Kingsley Shacklebolt was a little thicker around the middle, and there were a few grey hairs in his eyebrows, but he was still the same competent, intelligent wizard with the deceptively slow voice that he had been when he had first come to power.
"Severus Snape," he said thoughtfully, "Ah, yes, I did wonder. The Shack burning to the ground before we could collect your body was a hint, but we had bigger problems to deal with at the time, and once the true extent of your work on the side of the Light became clear, I thought it only fair to leave you in peace, dead or alive. How did you do it? Just out of interest?"
"Fawkes," Snape said succinctly.
"Dumbledore's dead hand directing us, even now. So, what may I do for you?"
"A full pardon."
The Minister nodded.
"Yes, that should be no problem. I shall put a proposal before the next meeting of the Wizengamot."
There was just a twitch to suggest that Kingsley was surprised.
"Really? I always imagined that you couldn't wait to leave."
"Hogwarts needs a new Headmaster and I have the experience to run the place in a satisfactory manner."
"Severus," Kingsley said quietly, "you never actually resigned."
Harry realised that he had been holding his breath and let it out with a gasp. Snape's black eyes met Kingsley's dark brown ones and something passed between them, a meeting of equals.
When Harry peered into the basement, Dimple and Snape seemed to be working together in an almost eerie harmony. Lit only by a single lamp and the ruddy fires that heated the row of cauldrons, the room looked like the laboratory of a mad scientist from a gothic horror film.
"How is it going?" Harry asked quietly, when Snape stopped stirring and leaned back against the bench to consult his notes.
Snape glanced up at him through a screen of lank hair then nodded at a cardboard box in the corner of the room.
"I have prepared an assortment of medical potions for the Hogwarts Mediwitch." Harry realised that he had never heard Professor Snape, his teacher, use that tone of voice with him at Hogwarts. This must have been how he spoke to his fellow teachers, as an equal: informative and devoid of acrimony. "Having become sufficiently reacquainted with the techniques required, I shall begin the base for your wife's potion tomorrow morning."
"That's great," Harry said. "Is there anything else you need?"
Snape shook his head, making the loose strands of hair swing about his face.
"I may need to substitute for ingredients as the potion progresses; if so, I will inform you. You do realise that once she begins to take the potion, I must monitor her condition and adjust the dosage, possibly even re-brew, if there are any adverse reactions?"
"Yeah. I'll need to tell her when you get to that stage."
"If I get to that stage."
Harry stared into the black eyes that gazed back with a hint of something he could not quite identify; a subtle challenge, perhaps.
"Would Felix Felicis help?"
"If you wish me to delay for another month while I track down the components and brew the potion, then yes, no doubt it would help."
Harry removed the little vial that he had carried in his robe pocket for the last few weeks and held it up. Snape sneered, "A gift from one of your admirers, I assume," but he did not refuse when Harry placed the vial in his hand.
As Harry retreated up the stairs, he wondered what had caused Snape to revert to type. Was it because Harry had made a sensible suggestion that Snape had not thought of himself, or because Snape could only bring himself to be polite to him for a certain length of time or a finite number of sentences? Maybe it was because Harry had found someone else who could brew Felix, that most temperamental of luck potions.
Or – and here Harry felt a delicious frisson run down his spine – was it because Snape didn't like speaking of Ginny?
Lately, Harry's feelings had become horribly tangled. His reluctant and deeply repressed attraction to a certain type of sinewy, dark-haired man, combined with his long-held admiration for the Half-Blood Prince, had crashed together to bring disturbing dreams that spilled over into his waking fantasies. How could he think of Snape in this way, while his lovely wife was dying from an affliction that sapped her magic and her life-force inch by painful inch?
When he held Ginny in his arms, he was filled with affection for her. He wanted to protect her, make her better and see her smile.
When he fantasised about Snape grabbing him by the front of his shirt and slamming him back against the wall, forcing his tongue into Harry's mouth and rubbing Harry's cock through his trousers with a potion-stained hand, Harry came so hard that his vision sparkled black and white around the edges.
How ironic that finding Snape might result in his marriage lasting another thirty years.
"The base is ready," Dimple said laconically. "Professor Snape says that's the first hurdle; we're leaving it to mature for twenty-four hours and then he'll start on the series of additions."
"The other elves I've met seem to struggle with the English language," Harry remarked, "but you don't. You speak it perfectly."
The elf rolled her bulbous eyes.
"Elves in slavery aren't encouraged to better themselves," Dimple informed him, "and quite frankly, we do the 'Master mustn't be angry with Dimple! Dimple is a good elf!' crap in order to lull you all into a sense of false security. When the revolution comes, the Goblin wars will seem like a picnic in the park in comparison; or at least, they would, if we could be arsed to actually revolt."
"Merlin," Harry said faintly. "I didn't realise you were a communist elf." Dimple shrugged.
"A socialist, actually. I'm not impressed with the Muggle communist experiments, to be honest. But someone's got to run the country and elves seem in the main to be content to let wizards and witches do it. We have dreams of taking over the holiday islands of Lyonesse and Ys, but frankly, there's only so much time you can spend lazing on the beach eating ice cream or playing Wizarding bingo before your brain dissolves and leaks out of your ears."
She pattered off back to the basement, humming something that sounded suspiciously like The Red Flag.
Harry lay staring at the ceiling, Ginny's long red hair falling softly across his shoulder. Sirius had been wrong. Harry concluded that Harry Potter must be a bad person, for only a bad person would wish his wife to feel so ill that she would prefer to sleep alone. Usually he took comfort in her warm, undemanding presence, but tonight he wanted to relive a moment in time over and over, and his cock ached for the touch of his hand. Ginny, alas, was a light sleeper, and although she would most likely pretend not to notice, he could not face her knowing expression over the breakfast table.
He had gone to Grimmauld Place and visited the basement, aware that the potion was at a very tricky stage. He was prepared to retreat again if necessary.
Dimple was nowhere to be seen, and Snape was leaning his back against the workbench, his arms crossed, watching the row of bubbling cauldrons. Clad only in a plain, white shirt, black jeans and black leather boots, his hair tied on the back of his neck with a piece of twine, he appeared both relaxed and competent. The glowing fires highlighted his cheekbones, the arch of his nose, the faint scars on his throat in the V of his open collar and the curve of his jaw. He turned his head as Harry came down the stairs and a strand of hair pulled loose and drew a delicate line across his cheek. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows leaving his forearms pale and bare, with just a smudge where the Dark Mark had faded.
Harry forced himself not to stare. Here was Snape, in jeans that fit snugly across the hips, across his flat, narrow belly and around his arse, and a cotton shirt that was darkened with sweat and was open just enough to display a few black hairs on his chest.
"Tomorrow," Snape said, "we shall discover whether your touching faith is vindicated, or whether I am no better than the rest."
"Where's Dimple?" Harry asked at random, because he felt knocked off-balance by this unexpected view of Snape the physical being.
"She is allowed to sleep," Snape drawled. "Her contract demands that she be allowed ten hours off in every twenty-four in order to sleep, bathe, and carry out any other mysterious obligations necessary for the adequate functioning of a house elf. I shall retire to bed myself shortly, once cauldron number eight has come to the boil and number three has cooled to the appropriate viscosity to permit a stasis charm."
"When shall I come back?"
"This is your house, Potter."
"No, I mean, when will you know? When will I be able to ask without interrupting you at a delicate moment?"
"There will be few moments that will not be delicate," Snape said mildly. "In fact, the entire process will be balanced upon the edge of a knife. I hope to walk the narrow line between poisoning us with toxic fumes and blowing the place up." He pushed his hand into his pocket and drew out the vial of Felix Felicis, tossing it into the air so that it glinted as golden as a Snitch. He caught it in his palm and replaced it. "I should know by six o'clock."
"I'll call in after work," Harry said breathlessly, and he turned and scrambled away up the stairs.
That was the moment, the few seconds that replayed across the wide screen of his memory again and again, when Snape shoved his hand into the pocket of his jeans and the fabric pulled tight and curved over the fullness of his erect cock.
Unable to concentrate, Harry dithered over his paperwork all day, forcing himself to actually achieve something even if it was only getting his filing up to date. At ten to six, he threw down his quill and Apparated to number twelve, Grimmauld Place.
The house was still standing, and was silent. Harry did not know if this was an ominous sign or not. He went to the head of the basement stairs and peered down.
Snape leaned over a cauldron, his feet planted square and arm moving with sinuous grace as he stirred the contents in a complex pattern. Dimple stood on a stool next to him, a pipette in either hand, each filled with coloured liquid.
"Red," Snape said and she tilted one pipette and allowed a single drop of the red liquid to fall into the cauldron. A small burst of white steam billowed up. "Red." This time, the steam was pale peach. "Yellow." There appeared to be no reaction when she dripped the yellow potion in. Snape continued to stir, staring fixedly into the cauldron. "Red."
A gentle drift of orange steam floated up from the cauldron and Snape stopped stirring, lifting out his stirring rod and placing it precisely on the workbench. He pulled his wand from his belt and pointed it down into the cauldron, whispering under his breath. Harry edged closer. There was a soft fizzing sound and the orange steam thickened. Dimple put down her pipettes.
"Now," said Snape and Dimple snapped her fingers, instantly dowsing the flames beneath the cauldron. Snape drew back his wand and cast into the potion, which flared red, reflecting from his face as if he stared into the fires of hell, then it dimmed and went out. Snape let out a long breath and replaced his wand. "You can stop hovering, Potter."
"Is it finished?" Harry whispered.
Snape picked up a clean stirring rod, dipped it into the cauldron, raised it to his nose and sniffed delicately. Then he opened his mouth and touched it to the tip of his tongue.
"Yes," he said, "it is complete."
Dimple seized a ladle and began scooping up the potion, pouring it accurately into a row of empty bottles that stood ready. The potion was a deep plum colour and smelled sharp and medicinal, with overtones of hot metal and pepper.
"You may go when you have bottled the potion," Snape told the elf. "You have been helpful."
"Yeah, thanks a lot, Dimple," Harry said enthusiastically.
"The invoice will be owled to you in the morning," she squeaked. "Thank you for employing a member of the house elf cooperative, where service comes first, last and everywhere in between. Crap motto, I know, but what can you expect from a bunch of misfits who couldn't organise a piss-up in a butterbeer factory?"
"Come up to the living room and have a drink," Harry said to Snape. Rather to his surprise, Snape nodded and followed him up the stairs. "Did you use all the Felix?"
"Yes. I doubt we would have succeeded without it. I avoided catastrophe thanks to what appeared at the time to be a momentary impulse. The inventor of this potion was most likely certifiably insane."
"Or high on Felix Felicis."
"The two are not mutually exclusive."
Harry walked into the living room and turned. Snape was closer than he had expected; he found himself staring into dark eyes. They were not black after all, merely the darkest possible shade of brown, like espresso. Harry needed to say something, to break this suspended moment, because he was sure that he would regret it if he didn't. Snape would think him odd, that wretched Potter boy being an idiot again, or even worse, Snape might accuse him of winding him up, acting like his father, leading him on only to make a fool of him...
Harry was close enough to smell the faint, bright aroma of Felix on Snape's breath. If it had been the other way around, if he, Harry, had been the one to take the luck potion, then he would know what to do next. He would dare to follow his whim, to lean close as Snape was leaning close, to raise his hand to touch the side of that sallow, ascetic face. To do as Snape was doing now, sliding his fingers across Harry's cheek, into the thick mop of his hair, tilting his head back, breathing golden potential into his mouth. Perhaps Snape had only recently taken the potion to deal with the delicate finale of the brewing process. How else to explain the tiny possibilities that exploded out from the touch of his tongue, its damp velvet stroking against Harry's lips? Harry seized his chance, reached around to clasp Snape's wiry frame in his arms, his heart drumming so hard that he could feel his own pulse in his throat like a trapped bird.
Had Snape used Legilimency on him? Or was it Felix, who dived down into Harry's hidden hopes and seized them and brought them into the golden candlelit night? Snape shoved him back against the wall and kissed him; possessive kisses that were nothing, nothing like Ginny's tender caresses. Ginny cajoled and tempted; Snape demanded and took, and it was glorious.
Snape thrust one slender leg between Harry's thighs and there was his cock, pressing against Harry's hip, hot and hard. This was so much better than his fantasies, so much more real. Harry was overwhelmed by the solidity of Snape, all bone and sinew, as spare and powerful as a Thestral. He smelled of fresh male sweat and the scent that Harry would always associate with the dungeon classroom: herbs, organic chemicals and a faint underlying tang of blood and exotic body parts. Body parts, oh God, yes, he wanted the scent of Snape's body; he wanted to inhale it, taste it and drown in it.
Barely aware of what he was doing, Harry sank down onto his heels, tugging at the stiff zipper of Snape's jeans. Snape let out a little hiss of surprise and then his hands settled on Harry's head, the fingertips forming an intricate pattern of pressure points on his scalp.
Snape's cock sprang free. How did one do this? Was there an etiquette that Harry did not know, a polite way of sucking another wizard off, or should he just be himself and go for it? He did not want to speak, for by speaking he would make this precious, fragile moment too real. Besides, he did not have the words to pin Snape down. The man could change his mind at any instant, whirl away and leave Harry bereft and frustrated.
Harry grasped the base of Snape's cock, where the coarse black hairs sprang like fine wires, and inhaled the hot animal scent of him, and on an impulse, rubbed his lips against the silken foreskin and spongy head. Snape groaned, a guttural sound deep in his throat, and his legs gave a small, spasmodic jerk. Harry seized his hips to hold him still and applied himself to learning what Snape liked.
For such a severe task master, Snape was remarkably easy to please, or else Harry had found something other than Quidditch at which to instantly excel. Snape whimpered as Harry ran his tongue up and down the big vein, as he mouthed the balls gently in their wrinkled sac, and as he finally took the end into his mouth and sucked. Despite Harry's grip on his pelvis, Snape thrust against the roof of Harry's mouth. Harry looked up at Snape's face.
His mouth was open and his eyes shut, as if he was in exquisite agony. It seemed impossible that he could look like this, his self-control gone, his emotions let loose and that analytical brain undone. Then Snape grunted something and pulled back, so that the end of his cock popped free, and Harry watched as it jerked and shot pearly strands of semen into his face.
Snape stared down at him, chest heaving, and Harry grinned back and licked a drop of bitter, salty come from his lower lip. Then Snape grabbed his shoulders, yanking until Harry had to scramble to his feet or risk ending up on his arse. As soon as they were face to face again, Snape reached down to Harry's trousers and unzipped him.
Snape had only to wrap his hand around Harry's cock and squeeze, then rub his thumb over the end, and Harry was coming so hard it nearly hurt, bending in the middle with the force of his climax.
They leaned upon one another, panting as if they had each sprinted a mile, Harry's face marked with Snape's spunk and Snape holding Harry's in his cupped hand, like something precious.
Harry was loath to risk making a fool of himself by saying the wrong thing. As his breathing slowed, his circulation re-established its more usual rhythm and the blood returned to his brain. The weight of what he had done settled over him in a cloud.
Snape seemed to quiver like a cat coming in from the rain. Harry had the impression that he was shaking off everything that just happened between them, trying to regain the everyday tone of their previous relationship. He almost expected lines or a detention. Snape flicked his fingers and the come vanished, both from his hand and Harry's face, and then he zipped himself up with the nonchalant air of a man who had simply made use of the gentlemen's rest room at his local pub, nodded once and turned on the spot.
The crack of Apparation roused Harry from his stupor, but by then, it was too late. He was left with one hand in the air and Snape's name on his lips, where he could no longer even taste the salt of his sweat or the musk of his body.
After a sleepless night, it was hard to dissemble when Ginny took her place at the breakfast table, picked up the newspaper and gasped, "Oh Merlin! Snape!"
"What?" Harry asked, clutching his teaspoon so hard that he felt it start to bend.
"Snape's alive! He walked into Hogwarts last night and told everyone that he was re-applying for the post of Headmaster! Isn't that amazing?"
"I, er, yes, I suppose so."
Ginny groped for the toast-rack and butter-dish, hardly looking away from the Daily Prophet as she prepared her toast and marmalade. Harry saw the moment that realisation hit her. She lowered the paper and stared at him out of wide eyes.
"Harry, do you think Snape would attempt the potion?"
"Yes. He would, I mean, he has."
"I knew he was alive, I found him," Harry explained, stirring his tea and reaching for the cereal, to keep his hands busy and give himself a reason for not looking into her face. "I didn't tell you or your family because you'd be so devastated if he refused to try or if he failed. He made the potion and it appears to be fine. That doesn't guarantee it'll work, Gin."
"Oh, Harry," she whispered, her eyes brimming. "Oh my God." She was silent for a while, obviously struggling to assimilate the information, and then her gaze sharpened. "What did he want from you?"
"What?" A brief, hectic vision of Snape staring down at Harry on his knees flitted through Harry's brain.
"He's a Slytherin – he wouldn't just do it, especially not for me. What was his price?"
Ginny gaped, then snapped her mouth shut and frowned.
"But Hogwarts is hardly yours to give."
"I got Kingsley to agree to arrange a full pardon for everything he had to do in the war and I'll make sure everyone knows that I'm backing Snape's application. I went to see the Malfoys and I'm sure that Lucius will swing the Slytherins and Ravenclaws on the governors over to Snape. Besides, as Kingsley pointed out, Snape never actually resigned the post. It wasn't as difficult as all that, really."
"So where's the potion? What do I have to do?"
"I'm not sure," Harry said quickly, "he only finished it yesterday evening. I'll owl him and find out."
Before he could compose a note expressing an appropriate level of gratitude without fawning, with perhaps a hint that he would like to see Snape again (oh yes, how he wanted to see him, not to mention hear and feel and smell and taste him!) there was a startling crack and a strange elf appeared in the middle of kitchen. He wore a starched tea-towel emblazoned with the Hogwarts crest and carried a bottle of plum-coloured potion.
"Trotwood brings best wishes from Professor Snape," he said, holding out the potion. "Professor says that Mrs Potter must drink exactly one tablespoon every eight hours. After six doses, Trotwood will come back and asks Mrs Potter to allow three drops of her blood to be put into a vial, for Professor Sir to test if the potion is working."
"Thank you, Trotwood," Ginny said in a choked voice, and took the bottle as carefully as if she was handling her firstborn. Harry echoed her thanks and the elf Disapparated.
"I can barely believe it," Ginny murmured, cradling the bottle in both hands. "Harry, summon a clean tablespoon, will you? And cast a timing spell for me."
Her magic was so weak that even minor domestic charms were beyond her abilities now. Harry watched as she swallowed the first dose and pulled a face. "Horrible, tastes like burned, sweaty socks with cumin and mouldy lemons."
"How do you know what burned, sweaty socks taste like?"
"I'm using my imagination. Will you go and thank Snape for me?"
"I'm sure it would be better coming from you," Harry said quickly. "I did thank him when he told me he'd finished it; he'll think it's odd if I go and say it all again. Besides, he never liked me."
She looked at him rather quizzically but then shrugged.
"I just thought you might want to. You know, you always had a thing for the Half-Blood Prince."
"Yeah," Harry said, "but that was a long time ago."
She laughed and gave his hand a squeeze.
"It was, wasn't it? Has he changed much?"
"No. He's still the same greasy git."
All the time, the tension wound tighter in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to see Snape but dreaded the knowing gleam in those dark eyes, or the sneer, or the off-hand remark that would drop him even more deeply in the shit than comments about werewolves had done for Remus. Harry realised, quite suddenly and irrevocably, that he had left himself wide open to blackmail.
Minerva McGonagall called an emergency meeting of the Hogwarts board of governors. Harry walked into the meeting room with a strange mixture of disappointment and relief as he realised that Snape was not there. Both Draco and Lucius nodded politely and Harry nodded back. Neville, who was present as one of the two professors representing the Hogwarts staff on the board, hurried over to take a seat next to Harry.
"Is it true, you're backing Snape?"
Neville frowned for a while and then folded his arms.
"Okay. I'm a bit surprised you didn't support Amherst because he's such a strong candidate, but I kind of get it."
Harry looked at his friend, suppressing a quiver of anxiety in his gut.
"After what he did, Snape deserves another chance, even if he is totally biased. We can always sack him if he's too awful."
Harry tried to disguise his relief. Of course dear Neville wouldn't have any idea of the complex web of obligations and uncertainties that now bound Harry and Snape together.
"Yeah, that's right. I think he'd actually be really good at planning and handling details and dealing with the Ministry," Harry offered.
"Don't really fancy him as my boss but if he stays holed up in his office like he did last time, it might not be so bad. D'you think Amherst would agree to be his deputy? He was a Ravenclaw so they might get on okay. It'll seem odd not having a lion at the helm."
"Time for a change," purred an oily voice as Lucius Malfoy slid into the seat opposite. "After all, with Dippet, Dumbledore and McGonagall, you Gryffindors have had a straight run for an awfully long time, if you disregard Severus' all too brief turn."
"That's true," Harry said quickly, before Neville could translate his growing frown into words. "But you might find Professor Snape harder to keep under your thumb than you think."
"Typical Gryffindors, always suspecting the worst of us. I expect Severus to act in the best interests of the school, of course, with equal concern for the students of every house."
Fortunately the Headmistress called the meeting to order and directed a couple of elves to serve coffee, tea and pumpkin juice.
"No doubt you all know why we're here," she said, nodding at the elves as they bowed and trotted out, closing the door. "Frankly, we're in a rather peculiar situation. We had three candidates shortlisted for the position of Head of Hogwarts: Professor Janvier, who is currently Head of Senior Studies at Beauxbatons, Dr Amherst, who runs his own private tutoring company – an ex-Ravenclaw with a superb academic record – and our own Professor Aurora Sinistra, Head of Slytherin. The next stage would have been to invite the three candidates to meet you all and then conduct formal interviews; however, as you can imagine, Severus Snape's application has thrown everything into the air. Aurora tells me that she’s withdrawn her application; Professor Janvier wishes to make a complaint, saying that Severus' submission is too late; Dr Amherst is clearly waiting to see what happens next. How do you, the governors, feel about this?"
"The blighter should have applied by the deadline like everyone else!" exclaimed a stout, elderly wizard with a shock of white hair like a dandelion clock. "Stuff and nonsense!"
There was a murmur of agreement around the table.
"However, if we all want what is best for Hogwarts," Lucius said smoothly, "surely we need to appoint the strongest candidate? Even if there is a minor technical hitch?"
"Should have applied at the start."
"I believe Severus was living as a Muggle; he didn't even know Professor McGonagall was intending to retire," Draco remarked. "It was hardly his fault."
"Oh yes, make excuses for him, you Slytherins are all the same —"
"And you Gryffindors would never make a simple allowance for a member of your own house, of course —"
McGonagall banged her fist on the table and glared.
"Really, ladies and gentlemen, can we stop behaving like first years? Do enough of you support Severus' application to make it worth our while to look into how to handle the situation?"
Lucius Malfoy's cold gaze turned to Harry and he raised a slim, blond eyebrow.
Harry mostly kept his mouth shut at these meetings, unless there was something he felt strongly about. When he had first joined the board, he had overheard an old witch muttering to her friend about "overblown celebrities throwing their weight about" and determined to give them no cause to complain. Oddly, his reticence seemed to have earned him a reputation for solemnity and thoughtfulness that he felt he did not deserve. Now, he leaned forwards and said, "Excuse me, Headmistress?"
Minerva McGonagall looked at him over the top of her spectacles.
"Yes, Mr Potter?"
"I thought Professor Snape wasn't applying for the position, he was actually asking for his old job back. He never resigned, did he?"
"But he walked away from the place, that's the same thing!" Dandelion-clock said very loudly.
"Does the school consider that he walked away?" Harry asked.
"What do you mean, Mr Potter?"
"When Dolores Umbridge attempted to oust Professor Dumbledore, the school didn't let her into the Headmaster's office. Does Hogwarts allow Professor Snape into the office?"
"Good question," Neville said, taking Harry slightly by surprise. "We should be able to trust Hogwarts castle to do what's best for the school, shouldn't we?"
"Shall we find out?" McGonagall clapped her hands and an elf popped into the middle of the room. "Timpy, please ask Professor Snape to meet us at the base of the staircase to my office."
Harry tried very hard to relax, to banter with Neville and chat with the other governors, as they waited for Snape. When he finally appeared, it was only natural to look at him with curiosity, like everyone else.
The hem of Snape's black robes billowed as he strode along the stone corridor and then settled around his feet when he halted. He showed no indications of surprise or anxiety. Aside from his hair being tied back at the nape of his neck, he could have stepped straight out of the dungeon classroom of Harry's youth. The effects of the additional two decades were small: a few more lines bracketing his mouth and a subtle deepening of his eyes, but both were offset by evidence of a more relaxed lifestyle. His skin-tone was healthier and he had gained a little weight, smoothing the angularity of his face and body.
"Headmistress, ladies and gentlemen," Snape said, inclining his head in acknowledgement. Harry heard Neville draw in his breath at the voice from his past.
"Mr Potter has a question for you, Professor Snape," McGonagall told him. She knew very well that the Malfoys would pick up on her use of Snape's title; Harry saw her eyes gleaming as she glanced at them. Harry's mouth went dry. He forced himself to turn to Snape and nod casually.
"Professor Snape, we want to know if the castle still accepts you as its Headmaster. Are you still able to open the door to the Head's office?"
Harry had the feeling that Snape was surprised, although he gave no overt sign. He walked towards the gargoyle and the governors parted before him. The gargoyle said nothing; it simply moved aside as he murmured to it. He stepped onto the bottom stair. Everyone else crowded behind him as the spiral staircase revolved, carrying them upwards and disgorging them on the wide landing outside the office.
Harry made sure that he was in the middle of the crowd, even though a part of him wondered if Snape still smelled of potions and magic and wanted to get close enough to find out. He watched as Snape walked to the ancient oak door and placed his fingers on the latch.
The door swung open with a faint creak. Snape paused with his head raised, gazing into the room that had been Dumbledore's, then his own for a short time, and now containing McGonagall's tartan furnishings and glass ornaments.
He walked inside and the governors crowded after him. As Snape reached the centre of the room, Harry felt something shift under his feet. It was a very small movement, as if someone had given the carpet a little tug, but for some reason, it made goose-pimples run up his spine. McGonagall gasped and Harry realised that he had allowed his wand to drop down his sleeve into his hand without even thinking. He cast a wordless charm to put pressure on the wards and felt the enormous weight of them bearing down on his wand.
"The wards just reacted," McGonagall said sharply.
"Sorry," Harry said, "that was me; I cast a charm to test them."
"No doubt the great Auror Potter could walk through them like a knife sliding through butter," Snape remarked with a hint of a sneer.
"No," Harry replied, keeping his voice level, "only two people in this castle should be able to do that: the Head of Hogwarts or, in their absence, their deputy."
"I note that you said 'should', Mr Potter," Septima Vector, the second staff representative, said crisply. Trust a Ravenclaw to pick up on that.
"The wards have recognised Severus Snape," McGonagall explained. "I still hold them, and as my deputy, so does Professor Crowell, but Severus also retains full control over them. I think this answers our question, doesn't it?" She turned to Snape and Harry noticed that her eyes were crinkling in amusement. "Hogwarts welcomes you back, Headmaster Snape."
Snape inclined his head.
"If you wish, I will tender my resignation and formally re-apply for the position."
"That's very magnanimous of you, Severus," Lucius Malfoy said, gliding to Snape's side, "but I doubt it will be necessary. May I be the first to congratulate you on your return?"
Harry suppressed a shiver. He could clearly recall that ingratiating voice welcoming another wizard's return to power, and a gleam in Snape's dark eyes suggested that he appreciated the irony too. The governors crowded around to offer their support. Neville shrugged and wandered over to Harry.
"Might as well start off on the right foot, I suppose. At least he can't give me detention."
"Is he still your, um..."
"My boggart?" Neville whispered. "No, of course not. I've met much worse people than Snape; much worse."
Harry nodded, and when it came to his turn, he reached out, grasped Snape's hand and shook it firmly, wishing him well. Snape murmured, "Mr Potter," but his formal smile did not reach his eyes.
Ginny's course of treatment progressed slowly at first. All communication was via elf; Trotwood collected samples of her blood and returned with bottles of potion and meticulous instructions. For one period of three days, she had to take alternate versions of the potion every three hours, night and day; on another occasion, she was directed to rest in bed and take liquids only for twenty-four hours. She obeyed every instruction and Harry watched the colour slowly return to her cheeks. She began to regain a little of the weight she had lost during her illness and her magic gradually strengthened.
A month after she had started the regime, she and Harry and Lily were sitting in the kitchen after dinner when the Floo chimed. Lily looked up from reading Flying Horses of the World: a Beginner's Guide.
"Check with us if it's someone you don't recognise, don't just let them through," Ginny reminded her.
"Yes, Mum, I know! You say that every single time." Lily flounced out into the hall and Harry heard her calling, "You've reached the Potter residence! Who is it?"
There was the murmur of a male voice and Lily giggled suddenly.
"Bet it's Kingsley," Ginny said, flicking through the pages of Quidditch Monthly.
"I'd go for either Neville or George Flooing in just to confuse us. She doesn't usually titter at Kingsley."
Harry put aside the newspaper and listened to the whoosh of the Floo, Lily skipping back into the kitchen, and the swift click of boot heels that followed. That sound made his heart clench before his conscious mind identified the reason why.
"It's Headmaster Snape!" Lily declared importantly. "And see, I did identify him first even though I knew him 'cos he's been in all the papers! I asked him if he knew my Granny Potter and he said he did and that I looked like her, so there!"
Harry winced, even though Snape could hardly blame him for a child's naive reopening of an old wound. Then he remembered how Snape had never regarded Harry as innocent of James' offences, even when Harry was only eleven years old and completely ignorant of his father's past. He got to his feet as Snape paused in the doorway. He wore academic robes, although he had not yet taken up his post at Hogwarts.
"Mrs Potter, it is necessary to assess the level of your magic before I make the next adjustment to your potion – a task which I cannot delegate to an elf."
Harry thought that he detected a note of irritation in Snape's otherwise formal tone, as if this visit was an irksome obligation. Perhaps it was; perhaps Snape regretted their sexual encounter as deeply as Harry did.
Before Snape, Harry had been satisfied with his life of domesticity. He had been happy with his family and content with his daydreams, able to regard them as just that: fantasies to occupy an idle hour, relegated to the edges of his days and nights. Now he had tasted the poisonous fruit of passion and lust and he wanted to taste them again. He could barely bring himself to look at Snape, for fear that his need was written across his face as vividly as his scar.
"Oh," Ginny said, flustered, "Professor Snape. Yes, of course. Thank you so much for doing this, it's so kind of you."
A glance at Snape showed him controlling his urge to sneer with an obvious effort. Snape was not a kind man, and clearly resented being regarded as one.
"Kindly draw your wand and prepare to cast the following spells while I analyse the range and strength of your magic: Lumos. Wingardium Leviosa, Orchideous, Geminio, Ferula, Impervius, Expelliarmus, Evanesco, Expecto Patronum."
Ginny hurriedly complied. Snape conjured a quill and parchment and began dictating incomprehensible notes to it as he cast analytical charms faster than any Healer Harry had ever met. Lily's hand crept into Harry's.
"Is Professor Snape going to make Mum better? Like, really better, better enough to play Quidditch again?"
"I hope so, love."
She watched for a while and then whispered, "Is he going to teach again when he's Headmaster? Will he teach me when I go to Hogwarts?"
"I doubt it. The Head doesn't usually teach unless one of the other teachers is away."
Snape stopped his work and fixed Harry with a sharp stare.
"Potter, either keep yourself and your offspring quiet or leave the room. Your presence is not conducive to concentration."
"Sorry," Harry mouthed and pulled Lily gently out of the kitchen, much to her whispered indignation.
"But I want to watch!"
"We were in the way," Harry told her.
"I'm going back."
"No, you stay here," Harry said, in a tone that he rarely used on the children. Her lip quivered for a moment, but Lily was a bright child and must have read something in his eyes that dissuaded her from protesting.
By the time Ginny and Snape emerged from the kitchen, Harry was able to meet them with a confident smile.
"All done?" Was that just a little too hearty? He hoped Ginny would assume he was nervous about the results of the tests.
"I shall send Trotwood with the next potions in the morning," Snape said crisply. "Goodnight." He strode to the fireplace in the hall, seized a handful of Floo powder and vanished into the flames.
"He's weird," Lily proclaimed. "I was going to say thank you for making my Mummy better but he went too quick."
"He wouldn't have appreciated it," Harry told her. "He isn't fond of children."
"What's he doing at school, then? Mum, can I have a biscuit?"
"Did you clean out Gooseberry's cage?"
"I'll do it in the morning, I promise."
"No, you do it now, and be sure to give her clean water. I'll do you hot chocolate and a slice of your Granny's apple cake."
Lily must have decided this was a fair bargain, for she ran off to fetch the owl cage.
"How was it?" Harry asked quietly.
"All right. Good, actually, I was able to cast spells that I haven't managed in years. I even produced a Patronus! It was very tiring, though, and Snape said I'll need to rest up for a couple of days. Harry, he's given me hope and I never thought I'd ever have that again."
"Brilliant," said Harry, and kissed her bright hair, and tried very hard not to think of Snape.
Minerva McGonagall was ninety-three years old on the fourth of October and threw a party.
"It's my last chance to hold my birthday bash here," she told Harry and Ginny, smiling around at the Room of Requirement that had transformed itself into a tartan-festooned hall with round tables and a raised dais for dancing. "Next year, I'll be sipping Scotch in my cottage, with a bit of luck, and although you'll all be very welcome to visit, even Wizard Space won't allow everyone in at once!"
The room was filled with members of the old Order of the Phoenix, ex-Gryffindors, school governors and Hogwarts staff. Harry allowed himself to look around, nodding and smiling at his friends, trying not to look as if he was searching for a lone, dark figure among all the bright robes and swags of plaid. Ginny asked the question that Harry didn't dare.
"Is Professor Snape coming?"
"He was invited," Minerva told her, snagging a glass of champagne from a passing elf. "He said he's busy brewing Pepperup for the school Mediwitch, bless him, but he'll pop in later."
"Oh good," Molly Weasley said. "We must make sure he knows how grateful we are!"
Harry caught Ginny's eye, and she grinned.
"That'll be fun to watch. If you hug him, Mum, he'll hex you."
"I'm sure he wouldn't dream of it, dear, but we must thank him, mustn't we, Arthur?"
"Yes, dear," her husband said amiably.
"It isn't every day a wizard saves your daughter's life!"
"We don't need to embarrass him," Arthur said, confirming Harry's long-held opinion that his father-in-law's bumbling was all an act. "Just a quiet and heart-felt few words will suffice, I'm sure."
"Nonsense!" Molly huffed then bustled off to greet Pomona Sprout and ask for advice about the Chinese Chomping Cabbage invading her Brussels sprout patch.
Harry was alerted to Snape's arrival by Ginny, elbowing him in the ribs and indicating the cluster of auburn heads congregating around one black one. Harry sidled over with his hand on his wand.
Snape appeared to be on his best behaviour, or what passed for it in Snape terms. Harry noted that he nodded and replied when Arthur spoke briefly to him, also in response to Bill and Charlie, but his expression went blank when Percy began a long and stilted speech. Harry was amused to see that Snape was unsure whether to be relieved or not when Ron interrupted Percy in full flow, although Ron was wise enough to keep his own thanks fairly succinct, probably because he no more wanted to talk to Snape than Snape wished to talk to him. George simply walked up to him, nodded and said, "You're a good bloke. We owe you," and walked away again.
Then Molly threw her arms around Snape's neck and burst into tears.
"Our cue, I think," Ginny said and went to peel her mother off. Snape stood ramrod straight with an expression of deep distrust, as if Molly's behaviour was a front for something much more dangerous.
"Sorry about that," Harry remarked. Molly was sobbing something about Snape being tragically misunderstood. "She's convinced that you're secretly a romantic hero and that Ginny reminds you of my mother." He was fairly confident that Snape would not hex him in the middle of the crowded party. Snape surprised him by watching thoughtfully as Ginny and Arthur led Molly away.
"She may have a point, Potter, although what that says about you clearly hasn't occurred to her."
Harry snorted. "My Oedipus complex, you mean?"
"Your clever friend was brave enough to point that out, was she?"
"No, I thought of it all by myself."
Snape's lips curled in a small, if ironic smile.
"Oh, Mr Potter, what a tragic, mixed-up life you must lead."
"You would know."
"Yes," Snape breathed, barely audibly.
"The Weasleys have already said it," Harry said, digging deep for his Gryffindor courage, "but I want to thank you for what you're doing for Ginny. It's very good of you."
"I'm not being good, Potter, I'm doing it because I relish the challenge. I find my life sadly devoid of opportunities to use my talents, of late."
"Really? I'm sure Hogwarts will give you those."
"I'm sure it will; however, I was thinking more of talents of a personal nature."
Harry felt as if a band of pressure was closing around his chest; he could hardly breathe for his excitement, and his cock was lifting and twitching inside his formal robes. Was Snape saying what Harry thought he was saying?
"About that..." he said, unsure how to approach the subject. Snape cast him a sardonic look.
"Mr Potter, if you continue to court danger, you may find your luck will run out and everything will tumble down around your ears. Is this what you want?"
"Yes," Harry said honestly before he could consider what he was saying.
"And your wife and children, what of them? Your reputation, your career, your friends? Mr Potter, you are as rash and inconsiderate as your father."
Snape was putting him to the test, pushing his buttons to see if he was still the short-tempered, unthinking teenager from Potions class. Harry was no longer that boy. He simply waited, looking around at the crowded room and noticing how everyone kept a respectful distance, as they sometimes did when he was standing with Ron and Hermione, allowing the heroes their privacy to reminisce.
Snape spoke softly, but there was a faint, distinctive resonance in his deep voice. Harry realised that Snape had cast a wordless spell to prevent anyone overhearing their conversation. "I am about to become Headmaster of Hogwarts," he murmured, "a position that I never coveted, yet which will bring me a level of responsibility and a degree of respect I have never imagined. Do you expect me to risk that by becoming your dirty little secret?"
"I'm an assistant to the chief Auror and next in line for his job when he retires, I'm married with three wonderful kids, I'm a school governor and chairman of the Knockturn Alley restoration committee. I have just as much to lose as you."
"So," Snape remarked, wandlessly Summoning two flutes of champagne, "it all comes down to how much we want this, whatever it is; this aberration, this peculiarity that we share."
"Perhaps," Harry said hesitantly, "it'll burn itself out. If we let it have its head."
Snape took a sip from his glass. Molly smiled fondly at them and turned back to Arthur and Ginny.
"And if it doesn't? When someone finds out, as assuredly they will in the end, what then?"
"We could Obliviate them and each other, or you could brew a potion, an anti-Amortentia."
"As if it was love," Snape said, and snorted. "No, this is lust, nothing more than a base urge of the body, as ordinary as hunger or thirst."
Harry ought to have been upset by that comment, yet a surprising warmth settled in his chest and he wondered if Snape was trying to convince himself.
"I don't expect you to hold my hand," Harry told him.
"No, Potter, you have your delightful wife for that." Sharp and acerbic, Snape almost spat the words.
Silence grew between them, uncomfortably long, and then Snape whispered in a poisonous voice, "Beware, Potter, you are playing with fire."
He spun around and strode away, his robes billowing behind him. Harry watched him go, saw how he glanced back, just once, before banging out of the door.
"What got up his nose?" Ron enquired and Harry shrugged.
"You know Snape."
"Ron!" Hermione admonished him, "he's working to save Ginny's life! Did you upset him, Harry?"
"Probably," Harry said, "I did mention my mum."
Hermione clicked her tongue.
"That's got to be a sensitive topic, you know how private he is and you did tell the whole world about it."
"Yeah," Harry said, and thrust his champagne glass into Ron's hand. "Here, I haven't touched it. I'd better find him and smooth things over, apologise to him."
"Right mate. Yeah, he's still working on Ginny's potions, good idea."
Harry walked across the room, pausing to speak to Kingsley so he would not appear to be hurrying, and exited through the door into the lamp-lit corridor where Barnabas the Barmy and his trolls tap-danced forever across their tapestry.
Harry had hardly turned the corner when he glimpsed a familiar, misty figure drifting in the distance. Sir Nicholas was happy to help.
"Professor Snape went down towards the dungeons," the ghost told him. "He lives there at the moment, although rumour has it he will be taking over when dear Professor McGonagall retires. I'm delighted that you and he have come to an amicable accord, at last."
"Yeah," Harry said, setting off at a run, "so am I. Thanks, Sir Nicholas."
Harry found himself heading instinctively for the Potions classroom, where the door stood open. The door into the preparation room at the back was also ajar, and a golden flicker of candlelight stretched out from it, illuminating the stained, stone floor.
"Professor Snape?" Harry said softly, and pushed the door wider. Snape looked up from a line of cauldrons.
"Close the door, Potter."
Harry quietly shut the door, and felt powerful wards running across his skin like the ghosts of cold water.
"I've come to play with fire," he said. Snape nodded, sprinkling something acrid-smelling into one of the cauldrons.
"I had assumed as much. This cannot wait, or I shall have nothing to send to your wife in three days' time. I have made so many adjustments to the potion that the base is losing its stability; fine-tuning a medical potion of such complexity is a delicate business, as you may or not be aware."
"I'm happy to take your word for it." Harry hooked a tall stool closer with one foot and perched on it, watching as Snape moved along the row, adjusting the flames under a tiny golden cauldron, stirring another, adding ingredients to a third, in a complex and graceful dance. Eventually, he put down his stirring rod.
"What do you want, Potter?"
"I want you to stop calling me 'Potter'," Harry said.
"As if we were friends?"
"As if you weren't thinking of my father every time you speak to me."
"I don't think of him," Snape said thoughtfully. "I have taken pleasure in dismissing him from my mind." Harry shrugged and Snape lifted an eyebrow at him. "You have grown up, haven't you?"
"I should hope so."
Snape took a slow step towards him. "Good. Because I have no interest in boys; particularly disobedient, disrespectful, infuriating, lying, cheating boys."
"And I have no interest in being insulted."
Harry slipped off the stool and stood, his hands clenched tight, hidden in the folds of his robes. He had a feeling that Snape would try to get away with humiliating him in any way he could; if he was allowed to get away with it once, the tone would be set for the rest of their relationship.
Snape cocked his head. "Do you deny that you were an aggravating child?"
"Do you deny that you were a short-tempered, sarcastic bully of a teacher?"
Snape glided closer, until his hooked nose was a foot from Harry's face.
"I took pleasure in it."
Harry could smell the herbal miasma of potions, the laundry powder used by the Hogwarts elves, and a woody, spicy aftershave or cologne that went straight to his cock.
"And I took pleasure," Harry whispered, "in doing everything I could to defeat Voldemort." Snape pulled back slightly in evident surprise. "Even though I was thrown to him from the age of eleven, even though I was a child, kept ignorant of what was going on, even though I was always intended to die. We were necessary sacrifices, you and I, and we deserve this!"
Snape swooped on him, folding him in his robes like the vampire from a Hammer horror film. It was like being taken by a force of nature, swept away by a flood or seized by a tornado. Pushed back against the bench, Harry gasped as Snape took advantage of his opened mouth, crooked teeth closing in, tongue invading like a spear. Snape's cock thrust against Harry's belly.
"Say you want this," he hissed close against Harry's lips.
"I want it! I want you."
Then there were no words, only grunts and gasps as Harry writhed against the bony body frotting against him. After something of a struggle, in which they managed to get in each other's way, they unfastened their trousers and each seized the other's cock.
It was desperate and hot and messy and wicked and utterly wonderful.
When they had finished, Snape banished the come from their hands, using a very thorough cleansing charm, as if he feared contamination, and perhaps he did, with the potions bubbling not three feet away. Then he put his clothing to rights, not looking at Harry once, and placed his hands flat on the bench and braced his arms, staring down into the pale orange fire beneath the tiny cauldron.
"Go back to your friends," he said, in an emotionless voice. He took in a deep breath. "This must not happen again."
"I know," Harry agreed. "But it will, won't it?"
Snape closed his eyes. "Go. Please. Just go."
Emotions twisted in Harry's gut, remorse and anxiety, the remnants of satiated desire, regret that he had caused this strong man such obvious pain, and a curious need to offer comfort, as if Snape had ever wanted Harry Potter's sympathy. His hand hovered over Snape's shoulder but he let it drop to his side.
"I didn't want this to happen," he whispered as he turned away.
"No, Potter," he heard Snape say as he left the room, "neither did I."
Harry felt as if he was acting in a play, feigning the emotions called for in his script; playing the loving husband, delighting in the slow but indisputable return of Ginny's health and magic. He regretted that he must play his part most carefully with Ron, because he knew him best and would pick up on the slightest crack in his facade. Discovering that Harry had been unfaithful to Ginny would destroy their friendship, among other things.
Hermione plopped down onto the sofa next to Harry, startling him out of a rare, restful moment after a family Sunday lunch at the Burrow.
"You look tired," she remarked.
"Busy at work." The excuse slipped glibly from his tongue. Hermione simply looked at him. Harry felt the colour rising in his face. "Don't, Hermione."
"You know I'm on your side," she murmured and Harry felt as if he was being pulled in two directions at once, a physical tearing pain in his chest.
"You wouldn't be," he said. Hermione's small hand settled over his and squeezed.
"I would, Harry. Look, take a hypothetical example: if I split up with Ron, would you be unable to forgive me?" When Harry stared at her in dawning horror, she shook her head. "Don't be silly, we're fine. All I'm saying is, I can see you trying so hard to be happy that it hurts. You can trust me, if you want someone to talk to."
"It wouldn't be fair," Harry said. "I'll get over it and we'll be fine, too."
"I've got to be," he said simply. "Mid-life crisis, that's all. I don't want to dump all my angst on you."
"Hello, hello, hello," George carolled as he barged through the kitchen door, "what're you two plotting over there? Anyone want a cuppa?"
"Work stuff," Hermione said at once and George rolled his eyes and summoned the tea-pot and milk and everything was completely normal again. Harry tried to pull the warm ordinariness of the Burrow around him like a blanket, but it no longer seemed quite big enough, and a cold wind whispered beneath it.
The Healers nodded and conferred over Ginny, carrying out so many tests that she complained the blood loss was going to make her anaemic. The consensus was that she was not completely cured, but her body had stopped attacking her magical core and as long as she continued to take a maintenance dose of Snape's potion, she might remain healthy for decades. The Weasleys threw a party to celebrate and Molly invited Snape. He sent a carefully worded apology, stating that as newly-instated Headmaster, he felt unable to leave Hogwarts until everything was running smoothly, and he did not wish to draw attention to his extra-curricular activities while his relationship with the governors was still tentative.
Harry bit his lip as Molly read out the letter.
"That's a shame," said Ginny.
"Good," said Ron.
"What's 'extra-curricular activities' mean?" Lily asked.
"Potion brewing," Harry told her.
"Bet Snape does 'extra-curricular activities' with Malfoy," Ron muttered and Lily demanded to know what he meant. Ron flushed. So did Harry.
"Your Uncle Ron means that Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater and Headmaster Snape had to pretend to be a Death Eater," Hermione said, glaring at her husband. "So they got up to some pretty bad things, attacking people and so on."
"Oh," Lily said, nodding. "I thought he meant sex."
Ron groaned and poured himself a drink.
"You've been spending too long around your uncles," Harry said.
"It's what you get for bringing up a daughter with older brothers," Ginny said cheerfully. "It seemed to work for me."
"Of course it did," Harry said, hugging her to his side. Everyone laughed and he grinned and felt her soft curves against his ribs and hip, and wished that he could stand like this in a crowd with Snape's angles and edges pressed against him, just once.
"Headmaster," Harry said, and Snape raised his head and gazed out of his impenetrable dark eyes, then glanced around at the portraits.
"Mr Potter. Come through into the sitting room, if you would."
Harry followed him into his private chambers. "You should not be here," Snape said in an angry whisper, despite the powerful wards that had dropped down as he closed the door.
"I'm here to deliver this," Harry said, holding out a scroll. "A message from the Minister about the school's financial audit."
"That could have been sent by owl."
"It could," Harry agreed. "And now you're going to tell me that this must stop, but neither of us wants it to stop, do we?"
"Do shut up," Snape groaned, and seized him by the shoulders and shoved him back onto the sofa. They tangled in their robes, half-wrestling and half kissing, sloppy open-mouthed kisses, careful to leave no incriminating marks on unblemished skin. Then Snape suddenly grew still, with his knees on either side of Harry's hips and his hands fisting red Auror's robes. "I want to fuck you," he said. "God help me, but I want to get inside you."
"Have you done this before?"
"Of course not. Have you?"
A smirk spread across Snape's angular face. "Oh, yes."
Then there was a flurry of undressing and Snape Summoned a pot of the moisturising cream that the elves supplied to everyone working with potions or in the castle gardens.
It felt strange and not too good at first, being filled and stretched by Snape's eager cock. Harry tried to relax as instructed but he felt that here, as in Occlumency lessons, Snape assumed too much of his student. Then Snape found his prostate and lights sparkled behind his eyes and along his nerves, jolting his prick into life, and he no longer cared if his arse hurt or if he was actually being split into two. He could hear himself panting and Snape grunting with effort, Snape's balls slapping as he thrust, and then Snape went rigid and something pulsed deep inside Harry. Snape grabbed Harry's cock and tipped him over the edge so that he spurted between them. Snape collapsed onto him, Harry's come smearing across his hairy belly, and they lay together, breathing hard.
"You should emigrate," Snape said out of nowhere. "Take her away to America or Australia, somewhere warm."
"You don't really want me to go," Harry murmured.
"I don't want this to end badly and I know it will, if we keep meeting."
"Keep fucking, you mean. Call it like it is."
"Yes," said Snape, "that's what this is: just fucking. So why don't you stop, Potter?"
"So why don't you send me away, Snape?"
Snape drew himself up, grabbed his robe, and pulled it on in a sudden fit of nervous energy.
"You have it all, Potter," he snapped, turning so that the black folds whirled around him. "You have a wife, children and friends who love you. Why did you choose me? Why did you dangle this in front of me, offer what you can only give in tiny little pieces, doled out in a miserly couple of hours a month?"
"I didn't realise you wanted more," Harry said. "I can visit more often if —" he stopped speaking at the rage in Snape's face.
"I want it to stop," Snape said, biting down on the end of each word as if he could hardly bear to speak them. "You may be content with this but you just turn around and go home to your happy family and your splendid job and forget all about it until the next time your cock or your arse demand more attention than your pretty little wife can give."
Suddenly it was all too much. Did Snape really imagine that Harry wanted this crazy thing between them, to feel so vulnerable, pulled in two opposing directions at once?
"Do you think I wanted this, Snape? I want to stop wanting you, damn you! I want to stop the pain in my gut whenever I see your picture in the paper. I want to be able to walk into a room and not look for you. I want you out of my head!"
Snape snorted. "You never did have any control over your damned emotions."
"God, I know." Harry wrapped his arms around his ribs. "What're we going to do?"
Harry's insides twisted.
"Can't, or won't?"
"Whichever one of us Obliviates the other will still have to live with it unless we ask someone else to Obliviate us both."
"How could we?" Snape sank down into an armchair, his hands clasped between his knees and head bowed. "How could we possibly explain this? How could we trust anyone else to keep this a secret after we've both had it cut out of our souls?"
Harry bit his lip.
"Hermione, perhaps —"
"No." Snape shook his head. "Perhaps you can trust her, but I would never trust her husband, and it would be unfair to expect her to keep it from him forever. No, Potter, we're on our own in this."
"I won't come back," Harry said, and he felt his heart dropping as heavy as granite in his chest. "I can't keep doing this to myself Look, just once, will you call me 'Harry'? Please?"
Snape looked up and whispered, "Go now, Harry."
Snape's face slowly clenched, and as Harry pulled on his socks and boots, he saw Snape turn away and cover his face with both hands. He checked his clothing carefully, working on automatic, not allowing himself to feel, and walked quietly out into Snape's office.
"Harry?" Dumbledore called from his portrait. "My dear boy, is anything the matter?"
"Everything's fine, Professor," he said. "Although Professor Snape is feeling a bit poorly, so please don't bother him when he comes out."
"How nice to see you two getting on so well."
"Yeah," Harry said, "isn't it?"
He next saw Snape at one of the Ministry's regular fund-raising extravaganzas. This party was raising money for computers for Hogwarts, one of the new Muggle studies Professor's initiatives, so Snape could hardly refuse to attend. The most excruciating moment came when someone wanted 'all the heroes' in a photograph for the newspapers, and Snape and Harry found themselves bundled together in a group with Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville and Luna. Harry's hand brushed against Snape's and they pulled apart as if stung.
Harry felt as if a section of his soul had been cut away, leaving a hole like the socket after a tooth had been extracted. Something ached inside him, and he had nightmares about watching Snape die in the Shack; nightmares that he thought he had left behind years ago. Winter stretched bleak and grey once his sons had returned to Hogwarts and Lily to her lessons with Molly. He spent too long at work, seeking oblivion in the sleep of exhaustion. Ginny did not object; in fact, she was seldom home now, and he tried not to feel grateful for her absence. He did not question her, not wishing to draw attention to their lack of time together in case she felt guilty and stopped going out so often.
Then Ron came into the office early one evening, after the rest of the day team had gone home and the night shift were all attending a briefing session with one of the Unspeakables in the conference room. It was obvious that there was something wrong simply from the way Ron slouched to his desk. He was trying, and failing, to look casual.
"Hi," Harry said, signing his name on a parchment. "Something up?"
"Got a minute?" Ron asked, unnecessarily.
"Yeah." Harry put down his quill and folded his hands. "Look, whatever it is, stop worrying me and spit it out. It isn't one of the kids, is it?"
"What? Oh, no, mate! No, nothing like that." Ron scratched his head. "Look, I dunno how to say this. You're my best mate, right? Always have been."
Harry waited. His heart was hammering. Ron ran his hands through his hair and obviously decided to take a run at it, the way he would wind himself up to face a dangerous felon or ride his broom.
"Hermione's been saying for ages that you and Ginny don't get on so well," he said. Harry's fingernails bit into his palm. "I don't really notice stuff like she does, but I've been watching you and… well, yeah, I reckon she's on the button as usual. Something's not right. I'm no good at this, I told her she ought to say something and not leave it to me."
Harry felt slightly sick.
"What're you trying to tell me, Ron?"
"We think Ginny's having an affair."
Harry rocked backwards and then his chair settled back onto four legs with a thump. He almost laughed, so great was his relief that he had not been found out, even though there was no longer anything to find. Then Ron's words trickled slowly through his brain.
"I know this's an awful shock," Ron said quickly. "I hope we're wrong, but all the signs point to it. We haven't done anything really rotten like deliberately following her or intercepting owls, but — Merlin, I wish I'd kept my mouth shut now."
"No," Harry said, "but you ought to have spoken to her first. She's been talking about getting a job, reporting on Quidditch for the Prophet. Are you sure she isn't out drumming up her old contacts for that?"
"Holding hands with them and snogging them in a dark alley?" Ron asked in a hollow tone. "Don't ask me who it was, the bloke had a Glamour on, but it was Ginny all right. I did follow her a little way just to make sure it wasn't someone who looked like her and it was Gin, I know my own sister."
"My God," Harry said.
"Mate, you ought to speak to her, avoid a scandal for the sake of the kids."
"I'll do that. Thanks, Ron."
"Don't thank me," Ron said unhappily.
"Thanks for helping to avoid the scandal thing."
"Yeah, well, tell her from me that she's a —"
"No, we'll handle this like adults." Harry clapped Ron on the shoulder and added, "I hope."
Ginny put down her broom in the stand next to the front door. Her bright hair was windblown and her colour high from flying in the cold air. She had seldom looked so beautiful.
"Hi, Harry. I didn't think you'd be home."
"Wanted to talk to you." Harry stuck his hands in his pockets. "Where's Lily?"
"Mum's teaching her to crochet, of all things. Look, I'm dying for a cup of tea. Want one?"
They sat either side of the kitchen table and Harry folded his hands around his mug. "Who is he?" he asked quietly.
Ginny's face paled, and she carefully stirred sugar into her tea before gazing seriously at him and saying, equally softly, "I might ask you the same question."
His insides turned to ice.
"Pardon?" He could barely whisper between stiff lips.
"You talk in your sleep, Harry."
There was silence for a while. They each sipped their tea. Ginny seemed composed, but Harry wondered if she thought the same about him; if she thought that he didn't care.
"Whatever it was, it's finished," he said carefully. "I give you my word on that."
"Yes," she said, startling him. "As I said, you talk in your sleep, or mumble, at least. I got the impression that something was over. You were weeping."
"I can't —" he cleared his throat and tried again. "Ginny, it was a mistake. I could make excuses about you being so ill and so on, but I won't let it happen again, I promise."
She hid her expression behind the pottery mug that stated 'World's Best Quidditch Player!' in flashing purple letters.
"And what about you? Kissing a man in a dark alley? Will that happen again?"
She tossed her hair back over her shoulder.
"No. I found out that you preferred some bloody wizard to me; it was a man who was making you cry like your heart was breaking. I was fucking angry, Harry!"
"So you admit it happened?"
Ginny shrugged. "You obviously found out about it somehow; I can hardly deny it."
"Your brother saw you! What if that had been the press?"
She froze and her cheeks lost even more of their colour. "Who?"
Her lips formed an 'o' and then she narrowed her eyes. "Why was he following me?"
"He wasn't, that's the whole point! It could have been anyone. He thought it might be you so he took more notice than a stranger would, but you're hardly difficult to spot. Come on, Gin, you can't go round snogging random men and expect to get away with it!"
"Hardly random," she muttered. "If you must know, it's Viktor Krum."
"You're seeing Viktor Krum?" Harry said, and she rolled her eyes.
"Not exactly 'seeing', we're not rushing off to have wild sex together. He's too much of a gentleman." She said that with a hint of regret. "We're not completely stupid; anyone but Ron seeing us would have assumed it was you wearing a Glamour to avoid being recognised. Ron just knows the Glamours that you use so he realised it couldn't be you, that's all."
Harry took a deep breath. "Do you want to have a relationship with Krum?"
Ginny's slim hands clenched around the mug so that tea slopped onto the table. She put it down carefully.
"What're you suggesting?"
"Would you like a trial separation?"
"So you can get together with your fuck-buddy again? Is that what this is all about, Harry Potter?"
"No," he sighed, "stop it. That's over, I told you. I'd like you to be happy and you're not really happy with me. You've got your life back. Do you want to go on as we are, or would you like to try again with someone new? I'm offering you a choice. If you want us to stay together, that's fine; we'll make a go of it. If not, then maybe you can see Viktor and I might possibly see my… friend again. I don't know. He's been badly hurt."
"Poor him," Ginny said with complete lack of sincerity. "Let me think about it."
"Fine. Just don't let the kids find out by reading about you and Krum on the front page, okay?"
She snorted. "Yes, okay, as long as you put up a silencing charm if you sleep over at the Ministry when you're on nights. I can see that making a good headline – Harry Potter's mystery homosexual liaison ends in heart-break – wouldn't Rita love it? I had a suspicion that you watched male Quidditch players in tight uniforms for more than just their sloth-grip rolls."
Harry could see the conversation degenerating into a slanging match, for all his determination to act like an adult. He decided to finish it fast.
"You'd better speak to Ron before he lets something slip to someone." Ginny shrugged. Harry resisted the urge to smirk. "Your Mum for instance."
"Oh, bloody hell!"
Harry nodded. "Exactly. Glad we understand each other."
Ginny's brown eyes filled with tears as she stared at him. "What're we going to tell the kids? What shall I tell Mum and Dad? It'll break their hearts. I wish it hadn't come to this."
"So do I."
"Oh, shit," she said and burst into tears. Harry felt like doing the same, although whether through regret, relief or sorrow, he did not know.
The Weasley family listened quietly as Harry explained that he and Ginny intended to separate. George and Ron began whispering with their heads together, Arthur looked resigned, and Fleur gave Ginny a superior and knowing little smile. Molly huffed and seized Harry's arm, pulling him away from the others.
"Harry, dear, I know things are done differently in the Muggle world, but you can't just wish a marriage away with a wave of a wand! Divorce is an absolute last resort; if your husband or wife is sent to Azkaban for life, for example, or attempts to kill you. You and Ginny have just had one of the inevitable little squabbles that all married couples have. She was like this as a baby, always throwing her toys out of the pram." She smiled fondly for a moment then rubbed her hands together. "How are we going to fix it?" She fixed him with a stern expression. "You can't possibly divorce, dear. You have children."
She would have an answer for everything; Molly always did. Harry simply could not face picking apart every stitch and seam of his marriage with his mother-in-law. He stared into her eyes and stated, "I'm gay."
Molly blinked at him.
"Sorry, dear? You're happy with your marriage after all?"
"No, Molly," he said, trying not to grit his teeth, "I'm homosexual."
Molly pressed her lips together for a moment and frowned. For a heart-stopping moment, Harry thought that she was about to tell him that it was alright, homosexuality was perfectly normal in the Wizarding World. She exhibited none of the horror and revulsion that he had expected. Perhaps one of her brothers had been gay?
"No, dear, you're not," she told him firmly. "That's a stage that young wizards sometimes go through."
"I'm not young, Molly —"
"Of course you are! Charlie was exactly the same, protesting that he liked other wizards more than witches, bless him. He grew out of it in the end."
"That's why he fled to Romania, then," Harry snapped, "with his dragon-handler boyfriend! He got fed up of being told he was going to 'grow out of it'!"
Molly's expression hardened even as her eyes welled up.
"Harry James Potter! That's enough of that! This family won't stand by and watch you throw away your marriage just because of this – this silly fancy of yours —"
"Mum," Ron said, slinging his arm around her neck and hugging her to his side, while giving Harry a tiny shake of his head. "Harry's always had a thing for blokes, haven't you noticed?"
She huffed and tried to push her son off.
"Don't you start, young man! Harry has no such thing!"
"He was devastated when Cedric was killed in the Tri-Wizard Tournament and he had a crush on Snape."
Harry flinched and Molly smacked Ron's arm.
"Don't be silly, they hated one another!"
"Harry went on and on about his 'Half Blood Prince', didn't you?"
"Oh, yeah." Harry nodded vigorously. Ginny came up on Molly's other side and between her and Ron, they steered her away. Hermione watched thoughtfully then wandered over to where Harry was leaning against the wall. Above his head, the old clock's hands pointed to 'Home' in every case except his, where it wavered between 'Home' and a new destination: 'Leaving For Good’.
"Are you prepared to shoulder the entire blame for this?" Hermione asked softly. Harry nodded and she sighed.
"Typical. Ginny's just as much at fault as you, Harry!"
"But she's their little girl."
"You may lose your rights to see your children. The Wizarding World is pretty old-fashioned about these things."
"I know," he said. "But how long has Ginny got? Twenty years? Thirty? And the kids are old enough to make up their own minds, or soon will be. Once they're seventeen, they can visit who they like."
"That all sounds very grown-up and sensible but it'll break your heart if you only get to see them once a month for two hours." She peered at him with her eyes narrowed. "Harry, you both deserve to be happy."
"Do we?" He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Are you sure about that?"
"I worry about you, you know."
"You don't need to. I'm fine." He pushed himself away from the wall. "I'm going in to work while they sort themselves out, I've done my bit. I'll see you later."
Before she could argue him out of it, he strode outside and Apparated to London.
The Ministry's annual Halloween Ball, raising money for the Minister's designated charity, was the Potters' first appearance in public since news of their impending divorce hit The Daily Prophet. Harry and Ginny ensured that they arrived arm-in-arm, refused to answer any questions, and were flanked by a gaggle of red-haired security guards in the shapes of Ron, George, Charlie and Bill. Molly was no longer talking to Harry, but amid the melee of Weasleys and partners, her frosty demeanour went almost unnoticed. Anyway, Harry preferred silence to being harangued in the middle of a ballroom.
He was taken completely by surprise when Ginny grasped his arm and said, "Oh look! There's Headmaster Snape!"
Harry looked around. It would be rude to ignore Ginny's remark (they were keeping up a strong united front in the face of the disapproval of their friends and colleagues) but he wished that he had had just a little more warning. He saw Snape and his heart seemed to roll over and sink, like a drowning beast inside his chest. Snape wore black, formally-cut velvet and satin dress robes, as befitting the Headmaster of Hogwarts. His hair was tied back with a black ribbon, leaving his expression exposed, and Harry saw his profile as he looked at the witch who stood next to him. She was dressed in elegant sea-green robes and she was smiling at him. Something inside Harry did not want to accept that Snape was holding one forearm level so that she could rest her hand upon it, that he was welcoming her touch upon the sleeve that covered the now-faded Dark Mark.
She was too young to be the mother of a Hogwarts student but too mature to be a seventh-year. Being a member of the board of governors, Harry had met all the Professors, even the occasional temporary trainee from Beauxbatons or Durmstrang, so he knew that she was not a teacher. He wanted her to be vapid and silly, the type of witch who would flutter around any hero she could get her painted claws on, but she had an intense, level gaze and appeared to be carrying on an intelligent conversation. Then she said something and Snape laughed.
Harry hadn't known that Snape could laugh. Smirk and sneer, yes, but laugh? A deep, baritone chuckle, not loud, and quickly cut off, as if she had teased it out of him against his will. She whispered something and they turned towards Harry and he quickly looked away.
"We should go and speak to them," Ginny said.
"No, it would be embarrassing."
She cocked her head, pulling his arm close against her side.
"We owe him so much, Harry, we really ought to."
"You know how private he is, he'd only be sarcastic."
"They're coming this way anyway."
Harry braced himself. Snape and his partner were making slow progress; every few feet someone congratulated Snape on his survival, on his Order of Merlin (First Class) or on becoming Headmaster of Hogwarts. Harry tried to edge off in another direction, but Ginny resisted, aware that he would not argue with her in public.
Snape inclined his head and said, “Mrs Potter, Mr Potter," in a drawl that blended mild boredom, amusement and resignation to an irksome duty. The witch's gaze sharpened as she recognised the names. She carried her wand in a holster on the strap of her fashionable dragon-skin handbag, so she certainly was not a Muggle. Harry felt slightly guilty for the little jab of pique that she had not recognised him by sight.
"Professor Snape," Ginny said when it was obvious that Harry was not going to respond. She tightened her grasp on Harry's arm in a mild rebuke. Snape saw the movement and he responded by placing his own free hand on top of the witch's fingers. She gave him a bright, amused look.
"I'm delighted to see you looking so well," Snape said to Ginny, then gave her a decorous bow and moved away. His companion leaned towards him, obviously asking a question, and he freed his arm and slid it around her back at the level with her waist, his sleeve cutting a stripe of darkness across the green silk of her robe.
"How nice," Ginny said meditatively, "that he's found someone. All those years he spent pining for your mother, when he could have been with someone like that."
"Yeah," Harry said. He felt sick.
"I wonder who she is?"
"No, I've never seen her before and I'm sure I'd have noticed her. She's very vivacious, isn't she? I mean, she's quite pretty in a kind of intellectual-looking way. I wonder if they met at a potions or teacher's conference?"
"I'm surprised he got a date."
"Oh, don't be like that! He's not that unattractive!"
Harry allowed himself one last look at Snape's straight black-clad back, his lowered head and the witch leaning attentively to listen to his voice. He caught a hint of her laughter, rich and low and womanly, and wondered if Snape had slept with her yet. The thought of her slim, pale legs wrapped around Snape's body was almost more than he could bear. He was unsure if he wanted to cry, or shout, or throw up, but he did none of those; instead, he smiled and nodded and made small talk, and if he occasionally appeared distracted or said something a little odd, people put it down to the strain of the impending divorce.
The loss of Snape eased from a deep, all-consuming ache to a steady, dull lethargy. It was as well that Harry had Hermione to guide him through the intricacies of divorce, wizard-style, otherwise Ginny's solicitor would have fleeced him of his house, his legacy, his savings and probably his income, owl and broom as well. Ron tried to remain aloof, unwilling to fight with his sister or his friend and co-worker, and Harry didn't blame him.
Harry assured his children that they were loved by both their parents and that they were not to blame for the break-up. James was upset, but had recently begun seeing a Ravenclaw girl in the year above his own, so was understandably distracted. Al appeared unsurprised, but Harry sometimes thought that nothing truly surprised Albus Severus. Lily burst into floods of tears before realising that she would have two bedrooms in two houses to decorate, and then cheered up as soon as she returned to Hogwarts and revelled in all the attention.
Harry moved into number twelve, Grimmauld Place, while Ginny kept the family home in Godric's Hollow. Everything felt strange and off-balance; winter was flat and grey and cold and Harry was not looking forward to Christmas at all. They had agreed that the children would spend Christmas at the Burrow with Ginny and then come to Harry for Boxing Day. He was startled, therefore, when Al's head appeared in the Floo the day after term finished at Hogwarts.
"Hey, Dad, aren't we going Christmas shopping?"
Harry sat back on his heels, a glass of whiskey in one hand.
"Isn't your Mum taking you to Diagon Alley?"
Al huffed and a cloud of ash blew out onto the hearthrug.
"To Tesco, silly!" His face fell at Harry's expression. "We always go to Tesco. I thought – never mind. It was a kind of tradition, you and me..."
"Of course we'll go, Al."
Al beamed. "Great! Tomorrow? After you finish work? They're open twenty-four hours, aren't they?"
"Yes," Harry said, and smiled until Al's head retreated.
Tesco, where it all began – its aisles wide and shining, packed with Muggles buying last-minute gifts and enormous turkeys and enough booze to float a battleship – was hardly Harry's idea of fun. Still, Al was happy, darting around to find presents for those pure-blood school friends who would be fascinated by Muggle sweets and books. Harry bought himself a chicken, a pack of Brussels sprouts and a tiny Christmas pudding in a plastic bowl.
"Aren't you getting the coffee for Aunt Fleur?" Al enquired, breaking Harry's concentration. "And tea for Grandma?"
"That's a subtle hint, is it?" Harry asked.
"You're divorcing Mum, not all the Weasleys," Al told him gravely.
Harry nodded. "Yes, you're right."
"This way, then." Al seized the trolley and Harry followed him to the coffee aisle, almost running into the boy's back when Al came to a sudden stop.
"What's the matter?"
"Dad," Al whispered, "look over there. Behind that Muggle with the trolley."
"There are dozens of Muggles with trolleys."
A large woman made her selection from the instant coffee and moved away, revealing a black-haired man wearing a long, black overcoat and black jeans. He had his hair tied back and his profile was unmistakeable. He placed a package of ground coffee in his wire basket, and as he turned, his gaze met Harry's.
"Hello Headmaster," Al said. Snape gazed down his nose at him.
"Mr Potter. Mr Potter."
"Happy Christmas, Professor."
Snape nodded, cool and distant.
"And to you. I hope that your mother is still well."
"Yes, she's fine," Al said excitedly, "she's playing Quidditch again and she's got a job as a sports reporter for the newspapers! Isn't that cool?"
Harry had to say something; he could feel Al's increasing concern at his silence.
"How's the new job?" He could have kicked himself as soon as the banal words had left his mouth. Snape's eyelids dropped slightly, perhaps in boredom or irritation.
"The position is as it ever was: demanding and complex – as you should be aware, Mr Potter."
"Of course." Why did he have to keep digging himself into a deeper hole? "Well, have a happy Christmas, Professor."
"And you, Mr Potter." There was a sneer, lurking just below the polite facade. Harry could feel it, tickling his senses, and he realised that he was angry. How dare this infuriating man suddenly pop up to disturb the grey equanimity of his life? He was done with Snape, done with the hollow ache of loss in his chest and the gnawing of jealousy.
"How's your friend? Is she staying for Christmas?"
Slowly, Snape's dark gaze rose again to rest upon Harry's face. The weight of his regard was almost more than Harry could bear.
"I assume that you are referring to Marina?"
"The lady who accompanied you to the Halloween Ball," Harry said. He knew that the answer would only tear off another scab from his wounded heart but he could not stop himself.
"Marina Hennessy," Snape said, and his voice was coloured with a dark amusement. "She lives in Canada; she was visiting her great aunt, Minerva McGonagall, and expressed a desire to attend a formal ball at the Ministry. Who am I to begrudge a favour to an old colleague?"
"Are you coming to the Burrow for the New Year’s party?" Al asked. His voice, not yet broken into its adult register, sounded very youthful and ingenuous. "Grandma and Granddad always invite all the old Order of the Phoenix to their big party. You were in the Order, weren't you, Professor?"
Snape cocked his head and gazed at Al's eager face.
"You're a Slytherin, are you not?"
"And proud of it, sir."
"So you should be," Snape murmured. "Wasn't that a terrible shock to your parents?"
"Not at all, it was obvious," Harry said. Something was easing inside him, the protective carapace with which he had enclosed his heart, melting away. Al grinned.
"Go on, sir. Say you'll come?"
"I may," Snape said very quietly and he met Harry's gaze. "If your father deigns to issue the invitation."
"If you call me 'Harry', I might."
He held his breath, and watched as Snape's mouth curled at the very edge into something between a smirk and a smile.
"If Harry Potter, the great celebrity, condescends to allow me to accompany him, I shall attend. I await your owl."
Snape turned on his heel, his long, black coat giving a little swirl, and walked away towards the tills.
"There you are, I knew he would," Al said with satisfaction.
"And how did you come to that conclusion?" Harry wanted to run his hands through Al's black hair, hug him and swing him around the way he did when Al was a toddler, but restrained the impulse.
Al shrugged. "I reckon he fancies you."
Harry stared and then realised that his mouth was open, and shut it with a snap.
"Oh," he said. There was nothing else he could say.
Throughout Harry's teens and adulthood, the Burrow in winter had embodied the warmth and laughter of an old-fashioned Yule. This year was no different. The presence of the children forced Molly into civility, while the rest of her family accepted Harry as they always had. George drew him into a corner to show him the latest Wheezes, Bill told him about a novel method of identifying the roots of runic curses, Charlie asked about the Mendip chimera, and Ron drew Harry and Ginny into the annual argument about why the Canons were, or weren't, pants at defence.
Then Harry realised that Sturgis Podmore and Kingsley Shacklebolt were chatting to a wizard in black robes. Snape had his back to the wall and his dark eyes flickered as he watched the room.
"Severus!" Molly exclaimed. "How lovely to see you! Do have a glass of Arthur's punch."
The words 'so grateful', 'Ginny' and 'potions' were audible above the eddying conversations. Ginny poked Harry with her elbow.
"The Chosen One to the rescue," she muttered. "Go on!" The knowing look in her eyes suggested that Al had been telling tales. Hermione mouthed, "Do eeet!" and glanced at Ron, who, to Harry's complete astonishment, gave him a thumbs-up.
Molly frowned as Harry joined them and began to edge away, still uncomfortable in his presence.
"Severus," he said, hoping that he sounded suave but knowing that his smile was positively goofy and not caring a bit. "Happy New Year."
Snape made him wait, of course, but he wouldn't be Snape if he hadn't.
"Happy New Year," he said in a voice like oiled silk, "Harry."