Harry Potter stared up at the blackened rafters and gaping roof of the Shrieking Shack. The ruin was on the verge of collapse, too precarious to enter.
"He never had a chance, poor old sod."
Hermione sighed next to him and Ron tightened his arm around her shoulders. "Neither did Fred or Remus or Tonks," he said.
"Or even Crabbe," Hermione muttered and Ron nodded.
"Horrible way to go," he agreed, "but at least old Snape was already dead."
"I should have tried, Ron. I even had dittany in my bag."
"Stop it, love," Ron said, and Harry knew that this was not the first time they had had this discussion. "We didn't know, did we? Anyway, we didn't kill him, fucking Voldemort did."
"Yeah," Harry said. "If his ghost's around, at least he'll know he was avenged. They're all avenged."
There was silence for a while, except for a skylark singing overhead, and a light breeze rustling the grass.
"Doesn't help much, does it?" Hermione asked.
"Not much." Harry kicked moodily at the stones of the path. Then he snorted. "I wonder who set fire to the place? Someone who hated him or a mate of his, sending him off on a pyre like a Viking hero?"
They turned together and set off back towards Hogsmeade.
"Did he have any mates," Ron pondered, "apart from the Malfoys – who were too busy covering their arses to bother about him anyway?"
"The Slytherins cared," Hermione said, and they all fell silent again, and the sun shone down.
Was this heaven at last? He opened his eyes and gazed up into the smiling face of Lily Evans – no, she was Lily Potter, wasn't she? She stroked the hair back from his brow and whispered "Hello, Sev," and leaned down and gently kissed his cheek.
"Yes, darling, it's me. You're safe now."
Darling? When had Lily ever called him 'darling'? He sat up and looked around. He was in a room with stone walls, a wizard's room with candles and bookcases, cauldrons and a desk heaped with manuscripts; the kind of room that felt like home. Why was she here?
"What happened, Lily? Is he dead?"
She opened her green eyes wide. "Who, Sev? Do you mean Voldemort?"
"Don't say–" He stopped, knowing that she would only say the name if the monster had truly died. She smiled again, and her smile was bright, her fingers cool and smooth on his face.
"What about Potter?"
She blinked as if nonplussed.
"Your son, Lily, what happened to your son? Did he die?"
Her smile did not falter. "It's over, all's well."
"Did the idiot survive?"
She was like porcelain, as pretty as a painted shepherdess with the way her hair shone in the candlelight. As she moved towards him, the delicate scent of her lily of the valley perfume tickled his senses, her robes slipping back from her shoulders as she climbed onto the bed beside him.
Snape stared into her eyes and snapped, "Legilimens!"
She exploded in a shower of white sparks before he could enter her mind.
"There's something not quite right." Minerva McGonagall chose her words carefully. "Hogwarts is damaged more deeply than the mere breaking of its walls."
Hermione sipped her tea, glancing from her fiancé to her best friend then back to the Headmistress.
"Is it because the battle happened right here at the castle?" Ron enquired.
"Or is it because everyone who fought had actually been a student here?" This was Harry's suggestion. "Did that upset it in some way?"
"Something more subtle, I think," Professor McGonagall murmured. "The castle has withdrawn into itself. The magic has retreated; I can barely feel the remnants of it."
"Voldemort destroyed the wards, didn't he? Then the Room of Requirement was burned out by Fiendfyre."
"Yes, Miss Granger, and perhaps those two major blows have wounded the spirit of the castle. Yet Hogwarts has weathered greater storms in its past without abandoning its charges. None of the previous Heads have ever known this to happen."
"How can we help, Headmistress?"
McGonagall looked down at her hands, clasped in front of her on the imposing desk that had been Dumbledore's and then Snape's.
"Filius and Pomona are as much in the dark as I am. However, Horace tells me that the castle retains hints of itself deep in the Slytherin dungeons; that the glamours and wards are still holding on the oldest of the hidden passages and hiding places. It seems appropriate, therefore, to contact the spirit of the castle in Slytherin's domain."
"I don't see how we can help," Ron said. Hermione and Harry both looked at him. "What can we do that no-one else — oh. The Chamber of Secrets."
Hermione smiled the small, secret smile that made Ron blush. Harry shrugged.
"Yeah, if you think it'll help."
"But you don't, Mr Potter?"
"I don't even know if I'm still a Parselmouth, but I'll give it a go. What state was the Chamber in, when you visited it last, Hermione?"
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "All right. The Basilisk's rotted away to nothing but bones and we flew past all the rubble on a broom."
"We'll need brooms, then, Professor."
"Certainly, Mr Potter. I would like Professors Flitwick and Sprout to accompany us."
"And a Slytherin," Harry said quietly. "I'm not going in without a Slytherin."
For a moment, McGonagall stared at him but then gave a curt nod.
"You're right, of course. We must never exclude the Slytherins again. Leave it to me; I'll have a word with young Mr Malfoy. He has already asked if he can be involved in the restoration of Hogwarts." She gave a grim little smile. "He may have ambitions to take his father's place upon the Board of Governors. In a true spirit of reconciliation, I ought not to oppose him."
He hurt, oh, how he hurt. The pain radiated out from his throat and neck, drawing lines of fire through his veins. He attempted to speak but the movement of his jaw drove the pain to a crescendo that made him freeze, tears leaking from his eyes. Someone touched him, fingers prising his lips apart and dribbling a bitter, viscous potion between them. From far away, he heard a voice, thin and high as the cry of a seagull.
"Headmaster must drink his potion! Headmaster should not be awake yet. Nix must stamp upon his own fingers for letting Headmaster wake up in pain, my Liege will be so angry. Headmaster must go back to his dreams."
Harry, Ron and Hermione nodded at Draco Malfoy, who nodded back. It could have been worse; at least it wasn't his father. They met in the remains of the entrance hall, where Hogwarts elves scuttled back and forth levitating chunks of granite and tubs of mortar. Construction wizards in yellow robes emblazoned with the logo of 'Stott and Hickey Ltd., Magical Maintenance' were spelling scaffolding into place against the back wall. The air was heavy with dust, and the Weird Sisters' latest hit boomed from the builders' Wireless.
"Thanks for coming," Harry said, because someone had to say something. Malfoy shrugged.
"Not a problem."
He squinted as McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout appeared through the haze, coughing.
"Dear, dear," Flitwick remarked, waving his hand in front of his face. "There are charms to prevent this, you know."
"It makes them feel as if they're doing something physical," Sprout said disparagingly. "But of course it's all wand-flicking and hasty spell-binding, not like having real dirt under your fingernails. Hello everyone, lovely morning."
"Morning, Professor Sprout," Harry said. Everything felt so normal, which was subtly unsettling. He still half-expected Death Eaters to pop up out of nowhere.
They trailed up the stairs after the Headmistress. Ron and Hermione talked together in low voices, Flitwick and Sprout exclaimed over the damage to the castle, and Harry and Malfoy were silent.
How strange, to feel safer with Malfoy than out in Diagon Alley. The trio had quickly learned to do their shopping in disguise to avoid the stares and whispers, and the requests for autographs, locks of hair or sexual favours. Harry supposed that it would all die down eventually. Hermione, the cynic, said that would only happen when one of them was spotted doing something that the Daily Prophet readers disapproved of. Ron immediately volunteered to get drunk and hang his underpants from Gringotts' roof.
Moaning Myrtle peered around the door of her cubicle.
"Ooh, you're back again, are you? Couldn't come to see me and let me know what happened, I suppose? Oh no, poor Myrtle's kept in the dark, as usual–"
"Stop being ridiculous," McGonagall snapped. "You ghosts and portraits all talk to each other so you know perfectly well what happened."
"They didn't tell me!" she wailed. "No one wants to talk to miserable Moaning Myrtle, do they?" She dived into the nearest toilet, her wails burbling up through the plumbing until they faded away.
"And she wonders why no-one speaks to her," Ron said. "Mental, that one."
Harry stared at the little etching of the snake on the tap.
"No, I can't do it," he said, or thought he did, but Hermione and Ron smiled at him as everyone else eyed him warily, and he realised that he had heard the lingering echoes of hissing. "Open," he told the snake, and motioned everyone back as the sink dropped ponderously out of sight to reveal the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.
Hermione got onto the back of Ron's broom and Professor Flitwick climbed up behind Professor Sprout. Professor McGonagall, Draco and Harry mounted their brooms.
"Hold on, Filius!" Sprout cried, clamping her hat to her head with one hand and kicking off powerfully, so that her broom shot into the air and almost hit the ceiling before diving down into the open shaft.
They could hear Flitwick frantically chanting cushioning charms as they disappeared.
Ron snorted with laughter and followed, Hermione clinging on around his waist.
They flew over the mighty skeleton where scraps of bone-dry skin shifted and fluttered in their wake.
"We should collect some of the skin for Professor Slughorn," Hermione said. "Basilisk skin is useful for stabilising a number of healing potions."
"Remind me to stop on the way back," Ron told her.
Malfoy had already reached the centre of the Chamber and was staring around in the light of his upraised wand. Harry saw a look of awe upon his face, quickly replaced by smug complacency as soon as he realised that he was being watched.
"Great Merlin," Flitwick breathed, "I hadn't realised it was so vast." His small voice echoed away into the shadows.
"It feels empty," Hermione whispered. Harry shivered. She was right; the space was as cold and barren as the night on top of a mountain. The walls were just that – walls made of stone, silent and damp. He closed his eyes, trying to feel a hint of the castle's magic. The silence around them was so profound that he could hear the tiny sounds of breathing, the rustle as McGonagall shifted her grip on her broom, Hermione's robe brushing against her calves as she leaned back to shine her wand up at the roof.
Harry had never really mastered Occlumency, but he had been able to withdraw away from Voldemort's mind to some extent, and he remembered deliberately opening the connection to investigate what the Dark Lord was doing. He opened his mind now, in a vague hope that he would be able to sense the presence of a magical signature as huge as the castle's. For an instant, so brief that he was tempted to dismiss it as wishful thinking, he caught an impression of darkness and misery, hidden deep within the rock beneath his feet.
"It's hurt," he said, and they all looked at him, even Draco. Harry felt a twinge of embarrassment and shrugged. "Just a feeling of being hurt, in the dark."
"I can't feel anything at all," McGonagall admitted rather sourly.
"Then this is all a waste of time," Malfoy said.
"On the contrary, it tells us that the castle's magic has indeed withdrawn very deep, if I, as Head of the school, cannot access it here."
"This is Slytherin's Chamber, Headmistress," Malfoy told her with a hint of his old arrogance.
She narrowed her eyes, but said evenly, "So it is, Mr Malfoy. Have you sensed anything?"
He shook his head. Flitwick cast a charm that caused a ball of pale blue light to float up and around the corners of the ceiling. It illuminated some rather unpleasant carvings of animals being devoured by snakes, but nothing else.
"Well, thank you, Harry, at least we made the attempt," McGonagall said, and they turned towards the exit, Hermione whispering as she conjured up a box to store basilisk parts in.
He strode into his classroom; not the airy Defence room but his old, familiar dungeon, complete with all his meticulously labelled ingredients. The first years were already waiting, faces turned up towards him in a row of little, pale ovals above ties of silver and green, or red and gold.
"Harry Potter. Our new… celebrity," he spat, as he spied the tousled black head bent low over parchment and quill. "Potter! What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?"
Did Lily die for this scrawny, scruffy, myopic child, who now gazed up at him out of startled green eyes? Was this the reason for it all, for hope and loss, for anger and pain? Was he, Severus Snape, trapped in this blighted existence merely because this arrogant, disobedient, so-like-his-bloody-father, ill-mannered, snotty-nosed schoolboy had come to Hogwarts?
"I'm sorry, I don't know, sir," Harry Potter whispered.
Snape advanced, suspecting a trick, senses on alert for nudging or giggling, but the golden Gryffindor trio quailed before him like the most timid of Hufflepuffs. Granger and Weasley shifted away to either side, their faces rapt with fear, and Potter hunched behind his desk. "Sorry, sir. I didn't mean it, sir. I won't do it again, sir. Sir. Sir!"
"NO!" Snape bellowed, and his wand slid down his sleeve into his waiting hand. "You are not Potter! Potter would never apologise to me. Potter never called me 'sir'! Legilimens!"
For a second, Potter's mind opened to him. There was a familiar chaos of everyday memories, like foam upon an underlying deep swell of loyalty and determination. The image of the small boy morphed into a compact, young adult. Potter was standing in a gloomy cavern, his mind wide open, seeking contact, his Gryffindor courage blazing among the muted sparks of his companions. Even they no longer felt like timid schoolchildren but rather adults who existed on the fringes of his memory. Their features were familiar even though their faces were foggy; he could not quite place them even though he knew he should. Potter then winked out like a popped bubble, and the darkness swept over him again.
Number twelve, Grimmauld Place still contained shadows, even as it dozed in the summer sun. Ginny Weasley's bright hair seemed dimmer here, her freckles pale on her bare shoulders.
"You've changed, Harry."
He shrugged, unsure what to say.
"So've you." He fidgeted, wishing that they could revert to their old, easy relationship. "I suppose we've all grown up."
"There's growing up and there's growing on," she said wisely. "D'you realise that every single time I see you, Mum asks me if we're engaged yet?"
Something inside him went cold and his consternation must have shown on his face, because she gave a funny, lop-sided grin and patted his arm. "Don't panic, I'm not hinting. I don't think we should, do you?"
The thing inside his chest, that before had been as cold and heavy as a stone, unfurled and grew buoyant at her words.
"Everyone expects us to," Harry said, feeling his way towards a tenuous agreement.
"That's it, exactly, and I'm bloody well going to do what I want to do, not what they want, and you should, too. I want to take my final year at Hogwarts and then I'm going to play Quidditch. I've already had a meeting with Gwenog Jones – don't tell Mum, for Merlin's sake! Madam Hooch helped me set it up. I'm going to try out for the Harpies next season."
She gave him a vivid smile. "You should think about what you want to do, too, whether you want to play Quidditch, or go into politics like the Ministry wants you to, or take your NEWTs and train to be an Auror. You've earned the right to choose, Harry."
At last he could say what he had feared saying for months, because now she would understand.
"I love you, Gin."
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, once, on the lips.
"And I love you, Harry, but it isn't like that anymore, is it?"
"No. I don't think it is."
"Glad that's sorted, then. I won't tell Mum just yet, I'll wait until she's a bit more emotionally strong. She's desperate to keep the family all together in case anything else awful happens to anyone, so I'll tell her I want to wait until I've taken my NEWTs before committing myself; Dad'll back me up on that, I know he will, and so'll Bill and Charlie. You'll have to put up with her nagging you when you come to the Burrow for Sunday lunch, though."
"I can handle it, I'm a big boy."
Ginny sniggered in a way that her mother would not have approved of. Harry seized her hand.
"Are we still going out together?"
"If we don't, I'll have to fight off the creeps and you'll be picking knickers off your head every time you appear in public."
"Standing date for the Ministry boredom fests, then?"
Deep behind her eyes, he sensed the same mix of grief and relief that he felt himself. Something that had seemed clean amid the misery of war, something bright that he had held close like a dream of home, had just died for them both. He loved her for having the courage to say what he dared not, and for making the whole damned thing appear easy. He squeezed her hand.
"I dreamed about us getting married, it was really odd," Ginny remarked. "We had three kids, two boys and a girl, and we named them James Sirius, Albus Severus and Lily Luna."
Harry frowned. "That's stupid. What about calling a boy after Fred? Or one of your uncles, Fabian or Gideon?"
"I know; I said it was strange. I thought about it for ages. I'm scared of being swamped. Don't get upset, Harry, but you must know that anyone who marries you is going to turn into Mrs Harry Potter, the hero's nice little wifey, no matter what she does on her own account. She could be the star of the England Quidditch team or the Minister for Magic but she'll still be Mrs Chosen One. The public and the bloody Prophet will only be interested in whether she's pregnant yet and what colour robe she'll wear to the next Ministry ball. I don't think I could handle that. I'm sorry."
"I ought to tell Ron and Hermione," he said soberly, and she looked at him with knowing eyes.
"I already have."
From moment to moment, the relentless pain seemed the same, yet it must be diminishing because he could think again. His mind was his own, as exhausted and confused as it was, and he was able to sort through his memories of the last few – days? Weeks? Months? He was vague about the passage of time, which suggested that he had been unconscious or feverish for a while. He recalled the snake in the Shack, he remembered giving his memories to Potter and letting everything go, having done all he could. Then what? Pain and disjointed, bright shards of awareness, out of synch, Lily and darkness and Potter in his first year... no, that wasn't right at all.
The pain had been real – was still real. Pain so fierce that he dared not move and could only breathe in careful, shallow draughts that moved his diaphragm without disturbing his ribcage. Working on the assumption that this was reality, then so were the potions and the voice of an anxious elf. The rest was the disturbed fantasy of fever. So why had the imaginary Lily and Potter felt so wrong? Why was Lily as sweetly unreal as a fawning sixteen-year-old girl, smitten with her first love, or Potter unashamedly cringing and apologetic? Each vision had given him a few moments of mild satisfaction, nothing more, because he could not bring himself to believe in them.
Harry punched his pillow into a new configuration and buried his nose in it, breathing in the faint scents of washing powder and the dust that Kreacher never quite managed to eradicate. He had had the most unsettling dream. Someone was speaking his name; someone whispered, "You're not real. I know you're not real, Potter, go away and leave me alone, you're not real and you cannot help me. You cannot help me," and he could do nothing but listen. The voice was familiar – Snape's unmistakeable baritone – but he had never heard it sound so desolate and despairing.
Logically, he knew that his subconscious mind was reminding him of his guilt over those he failed to save in the war. Not a day passed when he did not think of Remus and Tonks, Fred, Dumbledore, Snape or tiny Colin Creevey, of the innocent lives that might have been saved if only he had found the Horcruxes more quickly, learned Occlumency or defeated Voldemort sooner.
He turned over, deliberately cleared his thoughts, and began reciting the names of the members of the international Quidditch teams in alphabetical order.
The pain was a dull throb, subdued by the potions he could still taste on the back of his tongue. When he cautiously raised his hand, he discovered that his neck was bandaged from jaw to chest. He could swallow with difficulty but dared not risk speech or larger movements. Instead, he catalogued his impressions of his surroundings.
He lay in a four-poster bed with dark brown hangings patterned with a thin, cream stripe. The bed was comfortable, similar to his old bed in the dungeons of Hogwarts. He was cocooned in cotton sheets, blankets and a brown eiderdown, and the air was on the chilly side. An area of cosy warmth around his feet suggested either a warming charm or a hot-water bottle. The canopy of the bed hid the ceiling; the segments of wall that he could see on either side were bare stone. Candles cast their unsteady, golden light from wall sconces, and their fluttering was the only sound that he could hear. He breathed in, finding that the rise of his chest caused only a slight increase in the ever-present pain. He smelled healing potions, candle wax and the faint, acrid odour of old stone. He suspected that the scent of his own body, of sickness and sweat, also hung on the air, but that his nose had become inured to it after long exposure.
He was obviously not in St Mungo's or the Hogwarts infirmary. If someone had taken his almost-dead body from the Shack and revived him, as seemed likely from the injury to his throat, then they had clearly hidden him away somewhere in an old Wizarding building. He dared not speculate upon their motives or intentions until he had more information.
Very carefully, he reached up behind his own head and wriggled his fingers beneath his pillow. He could not stretch very far before the movement of his shoulder jarred his neck and the pain flared, but as he suspected, his wand was not to be had. If he had been brought to Malfoy Manor, Lucius or Narcissa would have left him his wand. Damn. He groped further until the agony grew so much that unconsciousness was a relief.
Harry's eyes popped open and he reflexively reached beneath his pillow, curling his fingers around the familiar handle of his holly and phoenix-feather wand. He let out his breath in a long sigh and fell back to sleep.
He was not alone. Something or someone was in the room with him, moving about and disturbing the air. He heard the faint clink of a bottle upon a hard surface, the whisper of cloth as the covers were disturbed at the bottom of his bed, then the welcome heat of a hot-water bottle beside his feet. He cracked open one eye and allowed his head to roll just a little to his right, where the sounds were clearest.
An elf stood beside a table, measuring out potions from a row of bottles into a glass tumbler. It was wearing a large, white bath towel wrapped around its waist, the end slung over one shoulder. It gave the incongruous impression of a Roman in a toga. The elf was very grey in colour, a sickly pale as if it had never seen the sunlight. Its fingers were as long and thin as the legs of a spider and its bald head was mottled with darker spots, like the surface of a mushroom left too long at the back of the fridge. Without looking away from what it was doing, the elf spoke in a squeak.
"Headmaster must take his potions and rest. Headmaster should stop worrying and get better."
He tried to respond but nothing came out except a strangled croak. The elf wheeled, pointing a spindly finger.
"Sleep!" it commanded, and despite his efforts, his eyelids dropped and the room dissolved.
Harry grasped the mattress beneath his body, holding on as if to anchor his body in reality. For a moment he had dreamed that he was somewhere else, somewhere dark and dank, filled with the same miasma of sickness and helplessness that he had felt when he was trapped in the cellar of Malfoy Manor with Ollivander, Griphook, Dean and Luna. His throat and neck had burned with an unfamiliar, throbbing pain. Someone had been speaking to him in a high, scratchy voice, and it had called him 'Headmaster'. He was still trying to work out what the dream meant when sleep reclaimed him.
He recalled the dream when Hermione said, "I still have horrible nightmares."
The little group of friends, seated around a large, scrubbed wooden table in the back room of the Leaky Cauldron, all nodded or grimaced in understanding.
"Acromantulas," Ron muttered, and Neville patted his shoulder.
"For me, it's ruddy great monster snakes."
"Walls," George said, uncharacteristically soft, and shivered. "Walls falling down and down until I'm buried under the rubble."
"Bellatrix," Ginny offered and Dean said, "The Snatchers," and Harry felt how everyone carefully avoided looking at him. They all assumed that they knew him so well.
"Snape." His voice came out more strongly than he had intended and he coughed and shrugged. "Yeah, odd, but I had a really strange dream about Snape."
Neville shivered. "Rather you than me, Harry," he said, and Dean nodded.
"I don't know," Ginny said, "I feel a bit sorry for the old bat, looking back. He did stop the Carrows from actually killing anyone, after all."
"All that blood," Hermione said, but Harry shook his head.
"No, it's weird. He's alive, alone in the dark, in terrible pain, but he's speaking to me. He's telling me I'm not real but he's still calling my name."
"To put you into detention, most likely," Seamus said and everyone made that soft sound that was not quite amusement, as if they were belatedly affording the man the respect due to the courageous dead.
"I wish," Hermione began but stopped.
"Yeah," Harry agreed.
"Odd to think the greasy, old git was on our side all the time," Ron mused. "Amazing bloke, really."
"I'm glad I told Voldemort so the bastard knew his most trusted servant was a traitor. Just wish Snape had lived long enough to see the end."
Neville broke the ensuing silence by offering to get the next round in, and by mutual agreement, the discussions turned to the latest reorganisations at the Ministry, Quidditch, and whether to go for a curry or fish and chips when the pub shut. Harry, however, could not get his final memory of Snape in the Shack out of his head. He wished that he had said something kind, even though he’d not known of Snape's allegiance then. In this matter, out of all of them, he should have trusted Dumbledore.
He rolled his head from side to side experimentally. There was pain, but it was bearable and it died back to a dull glow once he had ascertained the limits of movement in the healing tissues. Slowly, he pushed himself up on his elbows to properly examine his surroundings for the first time.
The corner of the groined ceiling that he could see beyond the canopy of the bed was of the same dark stone as the walls and the flagged floor. Its familiarity was reassuring and he put that thought aside for later. If this was Hogwarts, he was in a part of the castle that he had never entered before. The furniture – a scarred table, a chair which held his folded robe and boots, the four-poster bed in which he lay – were all dark with age. There was a rug on the floor, its colours faded. There were no windows and only one door. The illumination came from a banked fire in the stone fireplace and candles on the walls. Candle wax dripped down in pale stalactites from the rusty, iron sconces.
He lowered himself back to the pillows, the exertion of holding his upper body erect making him dizzy. He could do nothing more until he had regained his strength. He was curious, but he was also starting to become angry. If someone was playing tricks on him, they were going to regret it.
Hermione gave Ron a nudge with her elbow. He cleared his throat and blushed. "I'm going back to Hogwarts to do my final year," he said.
Mrs Weasley beamed at him mistily. "Oh, Ron! That's wonderful, I'm so proud of you."
"Yeah, well, I want to be an Auror so I need the NEWTs."
"That's an excellent decision, Ronald, an education is something you can always fall back on if you need it," Percy told him.
"Shame," George remarked, "I was hoping you'd join the family firm and become another rich entrepreneur."
"Oh, you!" his mother said, more from habit than anger. "Are you going back as well, Hermione?"
George rolled his eyes. "And is that a superfluous question or what?"
"Actually, I'm considering an apprenticeship with Professor Vector while I study for my NEWTs," Hermione said. "She suggested it and Professor McGonagall thinks it's a good idea. Arithmancy underlies so much of the theory of Charms, Potions and Transfiguration that it's a really useful thing to have, and I don't need to commit myself to a career quite yet."
"That's nice, it sounds ideal for you," Molly Weasley nodded. Harry took a deep breath as she turned towards him. "And what about you, Harry dear? Are you going back, too?"
Harry gave Ron and Hermione an apologetic smile. "Yeah, I am."
They both stared at him as the rest of the Weasley family looked on with interest.
"But you said you weren't going back – I think you're doing the right thing, of course," Hermione added quickly, "but you seemed so sure you wanted to travel first."
"I thought about it a lot the last few days, and I realised I'd miss you all too much," Harry said. "Plus, I ought to get those NEWTs as soon as I can."
He could see that he had fooled neither Ron nor Hermione, and their expressions suggested that he would not get away without a thorough cross-examination as soon as they got him alone. The others, however, congratulated him on his sensible decision. Then Mr Weasley told them all about the latest changes that Kingsley Shacklebolt had made in the Magical Law Enforcement division.
"Who are you?" he asked, or at least, he attempted to ask. The words came out in a croak like the cry of a dying rook. The elf shook a knobbly finger at him.
"You is not to speak! Headmaster must let his throat heal before speaking. Here is your potions."
Snape obediently swallowed the evil-tasting healing fluids and pointed at the elf, mouthing his question again. The elf sniffed audibly. "I is Nix and I is looking after you until you is better. Now you is to drink some soup."
The soup was a bland, warm chicken broth and he managed half a cup before he began to cough. He gritted his teeth, feeling as if someone was attempting to gouge out his trachea with a blunt knife. Nix clicked his tongue and summoned a vial of potion, pouring it into Snape's mouth between gasps. It numbed the back of his mouth and his throat, easing both the irritation and the resultant spasms.
Exhausted, he fell into a deep sleep all on his own.
He sighed and turned to face Ron and Hermione. "It just feels like the right thing to do, okay?"
"Good for you," Hermione said and Ron grinned.
"Yeah, glad we'll be together for a bit longer, mate. Like old times, hey?"
"I hope not," Hermione muttered with an exaggerated wince, and they laughed and everything was all right, really it was, if only he wouldn't keep getting those odd glimpses, like flash-backs of a past that he could not quite remember.
He saw walls of dark stone, he heard an elf speaking in an exceptionally high, shrill voice, he felt emotions that were not his own – unease, confusion, bone-deep fatigue – and under everything, a grim, steadfast determination such that even Harry had never experienced. He knew what it was to march into battle and face his own death, yet this was something darker and deeper; this was perseverance that could last through years of deprivation and fear.
He was walking through Diagon Alley, his black robes and travelling cloak swirling around him. People stood aside for him, Headmaster of Hogwarts, respected wizard and hero. There in the distance was the bane of his existence, Harry Potter, turning to face him, bowing his head.
"Headmaster," Potter said. He was a young adult with Lily's bright, green eyes and his father's handsome bone structure, only in a smaller, finer frame. "Headmaster, you were right and I was wrong. I should have listened to you."
Snape was torn. He wanted this, wanted to see James Potter's arrogant son admitting his culpability, offering obeisance, but he knew damn well that it would never happen. This was not Potter but a simulacrum, a feigned Potter, Polyjuiced from someone else's fervid imagination. He drew his wand.
"Legilimens!" he cried. There was a brief flash of white light and Diagon Alley shivered as if painted upon a canvas that was suddenly punched from behind. For an instant, he was standing in an unfamiliar room, a kitchen open to the sunlight filled with rustic furniture, hand-crocheted cushions and the scents of home cooking. Miss Granger was speaking to him. "–it'll be a relief to have nothing more important than NEWTs to worry about–" and the youngest male Weasley laughed and asked, "What have you done with the real Hermione Granger?" and then Snape was back in Diagon Alley and Potter was cringing before him.
"You are not Potter," he said, but he might have been speaking Mermish for all the notice Potter took. "Legilimens!" This time there was a momentary flash of Potter in conversation with the Weasley girl, then back to Diagon Alley as if pulled there by elastic.
Severus Snape drew himself up to his full height, flourished his wand, spun it in his hand so that it pointed towards his own head and whispered, "Occlumens!"
Everything went black.
"Harry," Hermione said gently, "you need to let go."
He put down his quill and stared at his friends. "Yeah, well, we didn't get here by just 'letting go' and leaving it up to everyone else, did we? Because everyone else did bugger all to stop Voldemort."
"Voldemort's dead, mate," Ron told him. Even Ron was starting to look worried. Harry sighed.
"I know that, I bloody killed him, didn't I? Look, this isn't about the war – well, not directly, anyway."
"Harry?" Hermione prodded a very unpleasant-looking grimoire with a cautious finger. It riffled its pages with a sound reminiscent of a growl. "What is it about, then? This isn't like you."
"It's not like me to read a book, you mean?"
"That's not a nice thing to say! Harry reads my Quidditch magazines all the time!"
"Ha ha, very funny, Ronald. Look, Harry, what are you researching? Maybe I can help."
Harry propped his chin on his hand. "You don't have to supervise me, Hermione. I'm not going to start creating Horcruxes when your back's turned."
"I know you're not. It's just..." She took a deep breath. "You do tend to get obsessive about things."
"And you don't, Miss Hermione used-a-Time-Turner-to-attend-every-single-lesson-on-the-curriculum Granger?"
Hermione blushed slightly. "I hope I've learned a lot since then."
"So have I," Harry muttered, "and I want to know why Severus Snape's invading my dreams."
Ron seized a chair, swung it around and straddled it, folding his hands on the back and leaning his chin on them. "Come on, then, tell us about it."
"It's like I've got a connection with him," Harry said slowly. "I can feel him there, in my head, sometimes. He doesn't feel... malevolent, the way Voldemort did."
"How does he feel?"
"Hurt and sick and lost."
"Doesn't sound like Snape to me," Ron said dubiously.
"And angry. He's pretty damn angry, too."
"That's more like our Snape."
"So what have you been researching?" Hermione interjected.
"Whether you can have a mental connection like that with a ghost."
"No." Harry slammed his book shut. "You can't."
"So someone's trying to make you believe that you're being haunted by Snape," Hermione said slowly, "or else..."
"Or else, Snape's still alive somewhere. Yeah, Hermione, that's what the dreams are all about. He's alive, in the dark. Terribly hurt, but still alive."
"I've got an idea," Ron said.
He was awoken by a commotion; Nix's high voice squealing, his words incomprehensible but his fury very evident, interspersed with another, much deeper croaking. There was a bang, followed by a deep, subterranean rumble and the high, almost panicky voice coming swiftly closer.
"Yes, my Liege, Nix is going now, Nix obeys the Liege-lord! I is taking the Headmaster-sir at once!"
He pushed himself up in the bed, squinting in the light of the single candle on the table. The elf pushed the door open and scurried in.
"What's going on?" he asked in his pained rustle of a voice.
"You is to be sleeping!" Nix exclaimed and pointed at him with a finger that trembled visibly. Everything swirled away into darkness.
"Kreacher is sorry, Master Harry, Kreacher has failed you!"
"No, you haven't," Harry said strongly. "I asked you to make an attempt to find Professor Snape. Stop hitting yourself, okay? If you made the attempt then you obeyed, so that's all right. What happened?"
"Kreacher went to the Shack and searched for bones in the ashes," the old elf said in a matter-of-fact tone. "There were no bones. Then Kreacher went to Hogwarts to ask the Hogwarts elves if they knew about the Headmaster."
"Ah," Harry said, "does that mean they know something?"
Kreacher nodded his head so that his ears flapped.
"There are strange elves at Hogwarts."
"Do you mean elves from other houses? Death Eaters' elves?" Ron asked. Harry could feel the heightened tension in the room and knew they were all thinking of Dobby and the Malfoys.
"They are Hogwarts elves, but they are very strange," Kreacher said. He was speaking so quietly that the three humans had to lean closer to hear. "The elves who serve the Headmistress speak of them. They live deep down, far down inside the castle, and they never go out, and they are only seen out of the corner of an eye. Wizards just think they see an ordinary elf about its duties but the elves all know one another and they know. Sometimes, once or twice every generation, a young elf goes too far down and is never seen again. They say that Hogwarts takes them, to serve in the deep places. They say that these elves serve the magic of the castle, they tend to the roots. The kitchen elves prepare an extra serving of food each day and send it down to the lowest levels, and the plates come back empty."
"Oh, gosh," Hermione breathed, "this is fascinating!"
Kreacher glared at her but obviously his heart was not in it. "The kitchen elves say that the deep elves are restless. They say that the Headmaster's magic is poisoning the roots of the castle. They say that his soul is trapped there."
Hermione clapped her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror, and Harry knew that his own expression mirrored hers.
"Blimey," Ron said, running his fingers through his hair. "Like a Horcrux, you mean?"
"Kreacher does not know about a Horcrux, Kreacher only knows that the Hogwarts elves are afraid to go into the deep places, for fear that the Headmaster is become an Inferius."
"Oh my God, Kreacher, that's terrible! After all that poor man did for us!"
"How can we speak to one of these deep elves?" Harry asked and Kreacher gave a croak of humourless laughter.
"You cannot speak with them! Even the kitchen elves can't make them speak, they only serve Hogwarts. Kreacher tried to speak with them but they threatened to attack. Kreacher was forced to flee. They are very powerful and dangerous."
"You do know who you're talking to, don't you?" Ron asked, not unkindly. "This is Harry Potter and Harry Potter does the impossible."
"Only after breakfast," Harry said.
He woke in a room that smelled earthy and damp. The ceiling was low, a barrel vault of stone, lit by a couple of candles. He lay in a narrow bed against one wall. There was a table bearing the usual collection of potions, cloths and a metal bowl, with a chamber pot beneath it. He sat up warily and stared around at the bare stone walls. The floor was of dark, uneven stone and he could see no joins where the flagstones met; he realised that it was bedrock. There were trails of black moisture on the furthest wall.
Carefully, furtively, he eased his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself to his feet, riding out a wave of dizziness, before shuffling to the door with one hand on the wall for support. Low and square, made of black wood so old that it appeared as hard as iron, it was, of course, locked, and the wards sizzled across his skin like sparks. There was no window, no chink of natural light – and no way of escaping.
"Shit," he whispered and turned to drag himself back to his bed. The mild exertion had exhausted him.
Hermione, Ron and Harry stood on platform 9¾ feeling oddly out of place. They could have Apparated, but Harry wanted his last year to be ordinary, to be the year that all the others should have been: safe and normal and preferably involving plenty of Quidditch.
"Won't it be nice to be bored?" Ron remarked.
"Don't, you'll jinx it," Hermione said, only half in jest. "Harry's got a new fixation so we're bound to get dragged into breaking rules and courting danger."
"It isn't exactly a new fixation," Ron told her wisely, "he's been obsessed with the Half-Blood Prince since our sixth year. Anyway, you know that deep down, you secretly enjoy breaking rules."
Ron grinned and then noticed that a little group of second years were staring at the trio, their mouths hanging open.
"Go on, get a move on," Ron said rather brusquely, "nothing's happening here."
"Is that Harry –?" But Harry didn’t notice, his mind occupied with the weight of his thoughts.
"Shoo! Or I'll put you in detention before you even get to school!" Ron added.
"The novelty'll wear off," Hermione said with a faint note of desperation.
"It will when I've made them polish the trophies, scrub the cauldrons and muck out the thestrals," Ron said darkly. Then he frowned. "This power thing goes to your head a bit, doesn't it?"
"Oh, look," Hermione said with thinly veiled relief, "there's Neville!"
Neville was looking very cheerful as he revealed he’d just received an owl from Professor Sprout, offering him an apprenticeship in Herbology.
"Gran wanted me to be an Auror, but I said, d'you want me to do what I don't like, and be bad at it, or d'you want me to do what I love and be brilliant?"
"What did she say to that, Nev?"
"She thought about it for a bit and then said she wanted me to be my own man, and if that meant I'd end up working in a florist's shop, so be it. So I told her I was good enough to teach at Hogwarts and she stared at me. Then she gave me her blessing and I think she had a tear in her eye. I couldn't swear to it, though."
"Good for you, mate!"
They got onto the train and bagged a compartment with Ginny and Luna. Harry settled into the corner and stared out the window, trying to come to terms with the idea that he was just a schoolboy returning to Hogwarts for his NEWT year.
He put all the force that he could behind his voice, which was still not very much. "I demand to speak to your master or mistress. You cannot keep me here like a prisoner."
Nix sniggered. "You is looking at the Liege."
"Are you saying that you are a free elf?"
The creature drew itself up indignantly. "I is not! I is a good elf!" Then Nix's eyes narrowed. "Very well. I is fetching the voice of the Liege."
Snape sagged back onto his bed, trying not to succumb to a fit of coughing. Why couldn't the wretched elf answer a simple question?
Harry's head dropped to the side until it was resting against the window, and lulled by the soft murmuring of his companions and the thrum of the wheels, he fell asleep.
Nix returned with a rectangular plank of wood under one arm. He propped it carefully against the wall and waved a hand, summoning one of the candles and placing it in front of what appeared to be a very old painting upon a wooden panel. The colours had gone so dark it was hard to make out anything but a group of vaguely human figures standing stiffly shoulder to shoulder. Their toes pointed down and each held their hands together like the knights depicted in brass upon old tombs.
"I is Nix," the elf said in a reverent voice. "I is one of your elves. I has the Headmaster for you." Then he shuffled off to the side and indicated that Snape should approach the painting. Feeling slightly unprepared and out of sorts in his nightshirt, Snape warily stood and took a couple of paces towards the panel.
All the faces opened their painted mouths and spoke in unison. He expected to hear small, high-pitched speech from the primitive portrait, so was taken aback by the sheer power of the voices that emerged; not deafening, but resonant and echoing. He felt as if he was holding a conversation with the wind made animate.
"We are Hogwarts," they intoned.
"You're the Founders," Snape whispered, his own voice thin and reedy.
"We are Hogwarts. The Founders moved on a millennium past, leaving a small part of their awareness within us. We are glass and stone, wood and iron. We are made from shards of human and elf, vampire and ghoul, poltergeist, centaur and werewolf. All who reside in us leave something behind and contribute to the whole. We are in the gargoyles upon the roof and the portraits upon the walls."
"I see," said Snape. "So what do you want with me?"
"We have watched you, Severus Snape. We have seen you grow and change. You demonstrate the cunning of your house, yet you have the steadfastness of a Hufflepuff, the intellect of a Ravenclaw and the courage of a Gryffindor. You are a true son of Hogwarts."
"All well and good, but why am I here?"
"You are ours," the little painted people told him. "You belong in us and we in you. You are a worthy match for us."
"What sort of match?" he demanded, feeling cold and shivery. Their flat, painted eyes blinked up at him in unison.
"You are our soul-mate, Severus Snape."
Harry jerked and cried out, waking himself. His head was resting against the window and the glass felt cool against his skin.
"S'alright," he mumbled at Hermione's anxious enquiry, "jus' a bad dream."
There was nothing to describe, only a surge of emotion, an alien mix of rage and fear. Harry had known both emotions, of course, but this anger was as unyielding as an iron bar; it had the feel of something held over many years, heated and pressurised until it was like an unstable potion inside a cauldron, ready to blow.
He took a breath and tried to settle his thoughts, letting the passing trees and fields lull him into calm. When he had regained a semblance of serenity, he concentrated hard on one name and one person, holding on to his memories of the man. He thought about how Snape felt in all his suppressed anger and loneliness; his passionate, steadfast fidelity.
"Snape?" he thought as hard as he could. For a moment, grass and sheep and hedges all disappeared and he saw a narrow bed, a man lying curled, his hand pressed to the bandage around his neck and his eyes staring blankly at the stone wall. "Snape?"
The black eyes snapped to attention and Snape's lips curled back from his yellowed teeth. "Potter, fuck off!"
"What?" Harry recoiled from the blast of anger and contempt, and then Snape was gone and Harry was just himself again. He was, however, an angry Harry. What the hell was the man playing at? Here he was, trying to make contact, trying to help, and all he got was the usual crap?
"Snape!" He concentrated again, and this time it was easier because he had that image of Snape lying on the bed to reach for, Snape hurt and afraid and raging against the world. "Snape, you bastard, where the hell are you?"
He felt Snape's immediate ire as if the man was snarling in his face, and then, wonder of wonders, Snape seemed to withdraw a little and the anger was reined back, replaced with a wary interest.
"Potter?" It was as if Snape was speaking next to him, that silky voice soft as poison. "Are you the real Potter or another fantasy?"
"Are you the real Snape or an Inferius?"
Harry almost felt Snape's breath on his ear as he snorted. "If I was an Inferius, I wouldn't fucking hurt this much."
For some reason, Snape swearing was enough to convince Harry. "Where are you?"
"Are you real, Potter?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
He sensed Snape's caution, imagined him glancing around through the hanging strands of his hair like a wary animal.
"I have had images planted in my mind," Snape told him.
"Of your mother and of you. I realised that you were a mere fantasy when you and your cohorts cringed before me and apologised."
It was Harry's turn to snort. "Yeah, right, I do owe you an apology but you won't believe me so I won't bother offering it."
"Now I know you are real," Snape grumbled. "Obsessed with trivia and ignoring the real questions."
"Like why are we connected, you mean?"
"I attempted to use Legilimency upon your image, and I was able to make a connection with you, possibly because I have entered your mind previously."
"Go on, say it, because I let Voldemort–" He felt Snape flinch and continued, "I let Voldemort make a connection, too."
"Yes. You have been primed for this."
"So where are you?"
"Hogwarts," Snape responded. As if he had flicked a switch, the connection was broken. Harry sat there, his mind reeling.
"You with us, Harry?" Ron asked. "You looked as if you were out of there for a minute, mate."
"I was," Harry said quietly. He glanced around, at Ginny and Neville and Luna playing an obscure Wizarding card game, at Hermione with her nose in a book, at Trevor sunbathing on the seat next to Pigwidgeon's cage, the tiny owl asleep with his head under his wing. "Snape's at Hogwarts," he whispered. "He's trapped and hurt and shit, he's so angry! Someone's keeping him prisoner."
Ron's eyes went wide. "Who the hell would want to do that?"
"Damned if I know. He says he's had images of me planted in his head, he didn't believe it was really me at first."
"This is weird," Ron muttered. Hermione lowered her book and it was clear that she had been listening the whole time.
"When aren't our lives weird?" she asked.
"What do we do now?"
"I could advise you to practice Occlumency again, but I know a lost cause when I see one."
Harry mouthed 'S.P.E.W.' at Ron. Hermione sniffed and turned her page with unnecessary force.
Harry Potter filled his head. Potter as a first year with round spectacles and unruly hair, Potter as an awkward, angry, rebellious teen, Potter apologetic, Potter smiling, Potter angry, Potter as a young man leaning over him in the Shack, Potter walking to certain death with his head high and his Gryffindor courage shining in his eyes. He centred himself amid the bombarding images and reached inside himself and raised all his defences.
"Occlumens," he whispered. He had never dared to speak the spell, even in the privacy of his own mind, when the Dark Lord was alive; when the merest hint of obfuscation would have meant his death. Now, however, he used it to shore up the walls that blocked his deepest self from all intrusion. The clamour died away and he rested, allowing the memory of that brief contact to unreel, savouring the touch of Potter's untidy, unschooled and woefully unguarded mind. That was the genuine Potter, that creature of quicksilver emotions, all honesty, loyalty and indignation, and enough fucking courage to fuel an army. He had put all his faith in Potter before and it seemed to work. Why change a successful formula?
"Welcome back to Hogwarts, ladies and gentlemen," Professor McGonagall said in her no-nonsense brogue. "I'm pleased that so many of you decided to return and retake your final year. Let us hope that you will be left in peace to do so. As you are all of age, and many of you fought in the war, it seems only fair that you should be granted certain privileges. You have all been allocated single rooms within the castle, you may visit Hogsmeade on any weekend as long as you inform Mr Filch when you leave and report back to him on your return, and each term you may apply to your Head of House for up to three uses of the Floo network during weekends, evenings or other free time. However, with privilege comes responsibility." She peered over her spectacles at Harry, Ron and Hermione. "Please do not abuse the trust that we are placing in you. Some of you are Prefects, some are taking up apprenticeships, but all of you will be expected to set a good example to the rest of the school, behaving as the adults that you are. Now, kindly take your places for the feast while Professor Flitwick leads the first years in for their sorting. You may notice a few innovations; I shall be interested in hearing any suggestions you have for further changes to the school."
The ceiling had been repaired; the great hall glowed with the colours of the evening sunset. The four long house tables had been replaced by eight tables, parallel to the teachers' table upon its dais. The table in the front and the one at the back were empty; Harry realised that the students were arranged not by house but by year, and as he and his companions made their way to the very back, everyone turned to watch them pass by. Professor McGonagall cleared her throat loudly and the whispering and nudging died down.
"What a good idea!" Hermione murmured as the Head of Ravenclaw led in the little cluster of first years. She was even more pleased to find that, once the Sorting Hat had carried out its duties, the feast was levitated in by a group of house elves. No longer anonymous, they scurried around in their smart, starched Hogwarts pillowcases, directing the floating dishes to each table. There was a chorus of exclamations from the Muggle-born students in the lower years, who had clearly never seen house elves before. "About time, too," Hermione said after the Headmistress thanked the elves. They all bowed to her and vanished with a series of pops.
The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher was a tall, pale witch from Beauxbatons named Professor Janvier. Professor Slughorn had agreed to remain as Head of Slytherin for another year, to maintain a degree of continuity for members of his very subdued and battered House. Muggle Studies was to be replaced by a Muggle-Wizarding studies curriculum, in which students were expected to contrast and compare the Muggle and Wizarding worlds; the pure-bloods learning from the Muggle-born students and vice versa.
"Now that is a good idea," Harry said. "I could have done with that in my first few years. It might have helped."
"It might have helped if you'd read the set books before you arrived, Harry," Hermione said primly.
"What, and put you out of a job?" Ron asked. "We all knew we didn't need to read 'Hogwarts, A History' because you could recite the entire book off by heart."
She rolled her eyes and he made kissy noises and she laughed, and Harry wondered for a moment what it was like, to have that sort of easy, good-natured relationship with a partner.
Nix brought hot water in an enamel bowl, with soap, a sponge and towels, a safety razor and Snape's own aftershave. It felt good to wash away the residues of sweat and blood instead of relying on Nix's cleaning spells.
He felt better, dressed in his robes and dragon-hide boots; more like himself. The pain in his throat was no longer serious enough to inconvenience him as he prowled around the perimeter of the room.
How could a castle possibly presume that a human could be its soul-mate? As Headmaster, he had a connection with its magic, but soul-mates? Hogwarts had quite obviously gone stark raving mad.
In an attempt to test the limits of his confinement, Snape tried Summoning his wand. Nothing happened. He was able to Summon articles within the room, light or extinguish the candles, and reduce an empty potion vial to shattered glass. At least he had the option of killing himself by slitting his wrists with a shard from a bottle, or consuming powdered glass, but he was by no means reduced to such despair yet. After all, Potter knew he was there.
"But Harry," Hermione whispered, "how do you know that the house elves can't see through the cloak?"
"It's Death's own cloak, of course they can't," Ron told her.
Hermione looked to where Harry stood, invisible apart from his head.
"Harry always said that Professor Dumbledore could see where he was when he wore it."
"It's all right," Harry said, "I've worked out why that was. Only Dumbledore could see through it, I promise you. I'll be fine. Even the castle won't be able to see me."
"Do be careful, Harry. Have you got your charmed Galleon?"
"Got my coin, got my wand, yeah, I'm all set."
"Are you sure you don't want us to come with you?"
"I'm sure. It really isn't dangerous; I'm only going for a scout round."
"Yeah, well, the Slytherin dungeons are probably full of traps and jinxes."
"They can't be," Harry said reasonably, "otherwise the hospital wing would be full of jinxed Slytherin firsties, wouldn't it? Like I said, I'll be back in a couple of hours and I'll contact you by the coin if I find anything."
"If something does go wrong," Hermione told him, "we're fetching Professors McGonagall and Flitwick and to hell with the House points."
"That's my girl," Ron said admiringly and ducked.
Exhausted, he pulled on his night shirt and crawled into bed. He had no idea of the time; day and night were irrelevant down here in the dark of the earth. The last meal could just as easily have been breakfast, lunch or supper, consisting as it had of soup followed by jelly and custard. Swallowing was still painful.
Nix had left a hot-water bottle in the bed and Snape curled up in the warm patch before waving a hand to extinguish all but the furthest candle.
How did a castle expect to mate, mentally or otherwise, with a human? Was he to be kept here like a pet, to go slowly insane with loneliness and boredom? Or did it want to speak with him, hold long conversations about what had happened over the centuries within its walls? How did a castle think, or feel?
He imagined that to a building, all the students and staff running around must tickle as they cast spells and clattered through the corridors, unless they felt as natural and unremarkable as blood flowing through human veins.
"Potter," he thought, half asleep, and as if invoked by name, Potter swam into the room, smiling, tousled and unclothed. Snape meant to Occlude at once, but seeing a fully naked Harry Potter floating above his bed was not something to be instantly cast aside. He had only seen Potter unclothed during that painful night in the Forest of Dean, when he had waited to see if the idiot would survive his dip in the frozen pond. There was something mesmerising about seeing Lily's son like this, knowing that he was watching a castle-induced fantasy but unable to back away. Merlin, the boy had grown up. He would never be a large man, but he was muscular and compact, without an ounce of fat after his months on the run.
Rolling in midair, Potter reached down and hefted his own balls in one hand, closing the fingers of the other around his cock.
Oh fuck. Snape felt his own cock twitch in response; a reaction that he had never thought to experience again, after the last, desperate, lonely months as Headmaster. Potter's cock was flushed, glistening as it appeared between his caressing fingers, smooth and pink and fucking beautiful. He fixed his green eyes upon Snape's face and mouthed, "Do you want me, Professor Snape? Do you want me?"
Screwing his eyes tightly shut, Snape allowed his hand to crawl down under his nightshirt. Just this once, he thought, just one furtive, delicious bout of masturbation to this vision of young flesh and black hair. Then he would return to his diet of dry guilt and self-recrimination. Who would have imagined that Harry Potter was the stuff of fantasy?
Severus Snape had kept secrets all his life, not least the secret of his sexuality. Growing up with a father like Tobias, then entering Slytherin House – where any deviation from the perceived norm was a weakness to be exploited – he had had little choice. Even Dumbledore, pining for his long-lost Grindelwald and flouncing about in his spangled, lavender robes, had taken Snape's friendship with Lily at face value and swallowed his tale of romantic infatuation. At least his apparent fixation on Lily had prevented the old coot from pairing him off with sundry males, thereby revealing yet another of Snape's dirty little secrets to the world.
Now he echoed the movements of the young man above him, tugging gently on his foreskin, sliding his fingers over the head, toying with his slit – oh god, oh please – and reaching behind to roll his balls. Heat gathered low in his belly, his hips shifted and he tightened his grip.
Harry slid down with his back against the wall, until he sat on the stone floor. What the hell was that? A wave of sensation had broken over him and then surged away again, sexual arousal so powerful that it was like having his cock seized in a warm, wet mouth – not that he had ever experienced such a thing, but he was a teenager for Merlin's sake, and he had a good imagination. He pressed the heel of one palm to the zip of his jeans. Was it something to do with Snape? Had he inadvertently connected with Snape while the man was wanking? He had never imagined Snape did anything so human and normal and – oh fucking hell, so hot! Snape of the granite heart, celibate as a monk, loyal only to the memory of Harry's mum. Did Snape actually reach down and take his cock in his hand like an ordinary man, and stroke it to completion? Harry imagined that Snape's cock was like the rest of him: long and lean and dark.
He told himself sternly to be realistic. Snape's prick would be unwashed, surrounded by greasy black hair. It would smell horrible, stale and sour. Except that Snape himself never smelled bad, just rather medicinal when he had been brewing for the hospital wing. Harry screwed his eyes shut and tried to remember. There had been a certain scent about Snape; he had smelled it on the occasions when Snape had grabbed him by the collar and snarled in his face. It had not been unpleasant at all. Snape had smelled dry and spicy, a subtle aroma...
He could smell it! It was an old-fashioned aftershave or cologne. He wondered if Snape concocted it himself, for it had ingredients that Harry recognised from potions: citrus, lavender, vanilla, patchouli and oakmoss. He breathed in, reaching for more of that strangely appealing odour, and suddenly he was in a dark room where Snape lay on his back. Oh god, Snape's hand was moving rhythmically beneath the covers, the motion just visible in the light of a single candle. Snape arched his back, his hand sped up and he groaned Harry's name as he came.
Harry came back to himself, clutching a warm, wet patch that seeped into the fabric of his jeans. The sound of Snape's ravaged voice grunting 'Potter!' as he climaxed had been enough to bring him off; that, and being surrounded by Snape's faint, evocative scent.
Harry pushed himself up to his feet, feeling groggy after that stunning sexual experience. He cleaned and dried his trousers and underpants with a whispered charm and set off again in the direction of the Slytherin dungeons.
James Potter would have laughed his confident, upper-class, open-throated guffaw. His son was different. Harry Potter would be disgusted if he ever found out that Snape had wanked to a day-dream of him. Snape's hope was that, wherever she was, Lily would understand. He drifted into sleep praying for her forgiveness just one more time.
Harry paused to check the Marauder’s Map under cover of his Invisibility Cloak. The Slytherins were in their beds except for Draco Malfoy and Blaise Zabini, sitting one on either side of the common room fireplace, and Evadne Adams, who was wandering around the lower corridor. He descended silently and soon heard the muffled sobs of the pyjama-clad first-year. Harry hesitated, wondering if he should abort his investigation and send someone to comfort the distressed girl, but flattened himself against the wall as something large and silvery floated past.
"Miss Adams," the Bloody Baron said in a surprisingly pleasant tone, "why are you wandering the halls in your night attire? Are you lost?"
"I didn't – hic – want to be in – hic – Slytherin!" the child sobbed. "Everyone will hate me!"
"Nonsense," the Baron replied, "we won't hate you; we need you."
"You don't," she said, but there was a note of wary interest in her voice.
"Of course we do, child. We are Slytherin, we need the clever ones. After all, how else are we to live up to the standard set by our late, great Headmaster? Come, I'll show you where you can find a stash of chocolate biscuits and then you should return to your warm, comfortable bed..."
Evadne followed the ghost down a side passage out of sight, leaving Harry to continue on his journey, reassured that even the Baron could not detect his presence.
He gazed into Lily's green eyes, and they remained unchanged as her hair darkened to black, as her jaw became heavier and gained a shading of stubble, as her forehead grew higher and her cheeks widened. She morphed into her son, who smiled at him.
"Hello, Severus," he whispered.
"No," Snape said, but he was torn. The castle was learning fast. No longer laughably childish, its fantasies drew on something buried deep inside him. He wanted this, wanted to feel Harry Potter's lithe body against his own scarred limbs, wanted to investigate his secrets, warm himself in the glow of the young man's beauty.
"Occlumens," he groaned. As the vision winked out, he thought that he heard a tiny voice, Potter's voice, calling his name.
He had created defences in his mind to hoodwink Voldemort and could build them again. Stoically, steadily, he reformed the walls, disguising them with diversions, with innocuous memories, showing those fragments of his past that he wished to display, like exhibits in a museum. The castle was powerful but it was not human; it did not require the complexity and sophistication that had fooled Voldemort. He hung out his memories of his childhood friend and hid his longing for her son behind them, plaited with his need for penance and absolution. His lack of human contact was submerged in his love of potions and his desire to prove himself. His present intentions tucked themselves away beneath memories of his wartime exploits; the complexities of Dumbledore's plans were enough to hide almost anything. Only then did he squirrel his consciousness behind his deepest shields and reach out to that little hint of contact. Legilimens, he thought, carefully.
"Potter?" The voice seemed to whisper inside his skull. It was an odd sensation, as if he was aware of having just heard the word spoken aloud when he knew that in reality, he hadn't.
"Snape? Am I imagining you?"
A snort, the sort of snort created by a large nose with an even larger temper behind it.
"Where are you, Potter?"
"It's the only place that Hogwarts–"
Then Snape was gone, all contact lost like the snapping of a thread. As Harry stood irresolute in the middle of a dark, dank-smelling, stone passage, he felt something pass over him. Softer than a draught, yet huge, he felt the air-pressure change in his ears and all the hairs on his skin prickled with static. The presence swept on and away, questing, and he knew that only the Cloak had prevented it from finding him.
"Snape?" he thought, and the deep, irritable voice sounded inside him again.
"It picked up on its name."
"Like bloody Voldemort," Harry said inside his own head. "It was looking for me."
"Quite. I suspect that it acquired the idea of latching onto its name from one of us. What are you doing?"
"The dungeons are the only place that Hog–the castle still acts as normal, so I'm down here looking for you, you stupid git."
He had not meant to transmit that, but thinking aloud inside his mind was not the same as speaking; there was no delay, no chance to censor his thoughts before Snape could hear them. He felt the man withdraw slightly, followed by the sharp sting of his anger. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean it like that. Well I did, but I didn't want to make you annoyed. Oh fuck, it isn't easy, this Legilimency shit!"
"Language, Potter," Snape replied, but the anger was tempered by dark amusement and a hint of superiority. Well, let him have his moment of gloating, the git had earned it.
"Do you know where you are? You don't appear on my map so you must be beyond the edges or very well hidden."
There was a pause.
"No," Snape said, and Harry could sense his reluctance to make such an admission, as if his thoughts carried his emotions as subtly as the tones of his voice. "However, I believe that you are far above me and to the right hand side of this room. I am unable to give you a direction by the compass as there is no daylight down here."
Harry closed his eyes and concentrated, turning around on the spot.
"Keep speaking to me..."
"Where are you now? Give me an idea of your location and I will attempt to direct you."
"I've just passed the Slytherin boys' dorms and I'm standing in a corridor where the lanterns stop; there are just a few torches from here on. I can kind of feel you. I'm sure I'm heading in the right direction."
"Very well. Once you penetrate beyond the light of the seventh and final torch, trail your right hand along the wall and take the first turning on your right hand side. The floor is perfectly level. Once you are around the corner, you may light your wand."
Harry hurried along the stone corridor, following Snape's instructions. Once he turned the corner, he held out his wand and whispered, 'Lumos minima!'
The faint glow did not pass through the Cloak, but it illuminated the floor around his feet and he felt more confident about stepping into the darkness.
"You will find a door to your left, ten or fifteen paces along the corridor. Take care; it opens onto the top of a steep staircase. This is one of the few entrances to the deep fortifications."
"I've never heard of them," Harry whispered, as he walked along the silent passageway and groped for the door. "How do I open it?"
He could feel Snape's presence, though it was a few seconds before the man’s next words formed in his head.
"It should not be locked."
"Well, it is."
"Attempt the usual opening spells, wordlessly, keeping your wand beneath your Cloak. Let us hope that the Cloak is sufficient to prevent the castle from becoming alerted."
Harry flicked his wand at the door, silently running through the standard opening spells from 'Alohamora' onwards. Eventually, the door quivered and he was able to push it open.
"How did you know about the Cloak? I never mentioned it!"
He could feel Snape rolling his eyes.
"Your mind is like an open book, Potter. Take care on the stairs, they are uneven."
With visions of his mind flopping open like a grimoire, showing his most recent thoughts and dreams on its exposed pages, Harry tried desperately not to think about Snape wanking. Casting around for something, anything, to distract his over-active brain, he conjured up the scent of Snape's aftershave. It came to him on a waft of dank, dungeon air, that faint but heady mix of musk, patchouli, lemon and lavender, but with it was the lingering hint of arousal that lifted his cock inside his underpants.
He felt Snape withdraw, as if the man physically reared back, baring his uneven teeth in a snarl of rage. Harry's thoughts tumbled over each other as he tried to prevent Snape from shutting off all contact.
"No, don't go, just hold on! I can't find you if you let go. Look, I didn't mean to spy on you, I can't help it, neither of us can totally control it, it just happens, okay?"
"No, Potter, of course you cannot control yourself. You merely stick your head into other people's Pensieves totally by accident!"
Harry stopped on a stairway that could have led him straight into the bowels of hell for all he knew, feeling alone and vulnerable in the glow-worm light of his wand. He leaned against the wall, taking deep, steadying breaths.
"Snape!" he thought, trying to shut out visions of Snape frothing at the mouth, Snape hurling jars of cockroaches at his head, Snape spitting insults in that precise, lethal voice of his. "Snape, shut up and listen for one fucking minute!"
There was silence, probably born of shock while Snape built up a truly impressive head of steam. Harry thought fast, forming incomplete sentences in his head before Snape either shut off or exploded. "Look, rant later, okay? Save it, scream at me, do what the fuck you want, but let's get out of this mess first, alright? I didn't mean to eavesdrop on you wanking – no, sorry, didn't mean to say that either – god you were hot – could smell your aftershave – you said my name, you said my name when you came, oh god –"
Harry clutched the cold stone of the wall, staring into the dark, waiting for Snape to burn out the synapses of his brain in his fury. "Potter," came a small, precise voice inside his ear. "Control yourself. You are correct, this is neither the time nor the place. If you attract the attention of the entity – do not think its name – you may find yourself incarcerated, too. Concentrate upon your route, upon keeping yourself hidden, upon putting one foot silently before the other."
"Yeah," Harry thought as his heart-rate slowed back to something approaching normal. "Cloak, wand, feet, staircase. Right. Keep going down. Where next, Headmaster?"
He felt Snape's surprise melting into wry amusement.
"From the bottom of the stairs, a short tunnel leads to a room with four exits. When you reach it, you will need to choose the one leading towards me; I cannot assist you there."
"I think I'm heading away from you now."
"No matter. Keep going until you reach the room. It has a groined, vault roof and there is an ancient table in the centre, you cannot mistake it."
"Stone," Harry thought. "Corridor, castle, deep in the ground, rock, do not think about Snape wanking – wand! Feet! Cloak!"
He allowed the light from his wand to increase sufficiently, just enough to show the outlines of the low, stone room. As Snape had said, there was a great, heavy, carved table in the centre, bearing a black candelabrum with partly burned, misshapen candles and the remains of a meal, festooned with cobwebs and a thick layer of dust. Harry wondered who on Earth had wanted to eat a meal here, and why they had abandoned it. He turned in a circle and the faint, indefinable touch of Snape's presence guided him past the table and down a passageway that seemed to have been hewn from solid rock. It was very narrow and he had to duck to avoid banging his head on protruding lumps in the ceiling.
"Part of an earlier fortification," he heard Snape remark inside his head. "Much older than the castle above. The Founders retained it in case of war..."
When he reached a branch in the passage, Harry automatically turned towards Snape. The floor became increasingly uneven and strewn with stones and gravel; he slowed down to avoid tripping or making a noise that might alert the castle to his presence. Ahead, he could just make out a faint glow, showing that the uneven corridor made a bend to the left. Slowing down even more, he wordlessly cast a charm to muffle his breathing and footsteps. He distinctly felt Snape's approval before the man realised that he was broadcasting a positive emotion and clamped down on it. Harry allowed himself a sub-vocalised chuckle and felt it reflected back from Snape's own amusement. He doused the light from his wand and peered around the corner.
"Elves," he thought, "two of them."
The elves moved around the low, stone chamber in an eerie, silent harmony, arranging food and drink upon a tray, casting laundering spells upon a set of familiar, black robes, and magically cleaning crockery and cutlery. Harry slid down the wall, settling himself to wait. After a while, the smaller elf squeaked something and popped out of existence. The remaining elf trotted across to the far wall and traced a rectangle with one finger, from the floor to as high as it could reach, across and down again, and the outline of a doorframe appeared. It waved its hand and the door itself quivered into sight, a heavy, iron-bound structure made from chiselled planks. It looked ancient and massive. The elf placed a key in the lock and turned it, then Summoned the prepared tray and opened the door.
Hidden beneath his Cloak, charmed to make no sound, Harry hurried after the elf.
Nix entered what Snape regarded as his prison cell, a tray of supper floating behind him. Snape lay on the bed, his arms folded on his middle. He could feel Potter's nearby presence thanks to the mental link they shared.
"How long does your master intend to keep me down here?" he enquired. As he had intended, the elf paused.
"My Liege isn't sharing thoughts with elves," Nix squeaked.
"There's more than one of you, is there? Why haven't I seen anyone but you?"
"I is serving you, Headmaster. Nissi is a young elf, she is doing the cleaning and fetching. Now you is to eat your supper and take your potions."
"I would like a bath," Snape said. "I've had enough of this nonsense. I want a hot bath and a decent shave and something to read; I refuse to be treated like a recalcitrant student in my own bloody school!"
Nix directed the tray to the table and pattered further into the room.
"You is to eat your supper and take your potions!"
"And if I refuse? What then?"
Although that damned Cloak and Potter's surprisingly effective charms prevented the slightest sound or even a movement of air, Snape felt him slide into the room behind the elf and settle in the corner. The boy then appeared intent upon a task involving his wand and a coin, but Snape was too busy distracting the elf to take notice of the details.
"You is doing what the Liege says!"
"Or what? You'll stun me and keep me unconscious, or force-feed me? What would be the point?"
"I is speaking to the Liege," the elf declared. He pointed at the door, which slammed shut, then he Disapparated with a loud and indignant-sounding crack.
"Thanks," Potter said, allowing the Cloak to slide down onto the floor in a shimmering puddle of cloth. He and Snape stared at one another.
Snape was too thin, his normally sallow face waxy and his eyes sunken in bruised-looking hollows. Harry's initial plan to sneak his way out, taking Snape with him, was probably a non-starter. The man would collapse after twenty yards, never mind climb the stairs while holding full Occlumency shields.
"How are you, sir?" he asked. Snape gave him a sardonic look.
"Happy as a lark." Snape's voice was thin and scratchy but it was definitely him, even if his baritone had lost its silken edge.
"I'm going to get you out," Harry told him with more conviction than he felt. Snape's eyebrow lifted slightly but he made no reply, and Harry felt his scepticism. Harry sighed and crossed the room to sit down on the edge of the bed. "Look, I found you, didn't I? When everyone else believed you were dead. Have a bit more faith, Headmaster."
Sitting this close, he suddenly got a faint whiff of Snape's aftershave. It was all scrambled up with memories of Snape snarling at him in detention, Snape sneaking behind him to peer down into his cauldron or Snape looming over him in the corridors of Hogwarts, yet those images seemed to be of a rather different Snape. Harry had not even recognised the storm-cloud of anger and black robes as an act. Here was the essential Snape, stripped of his disguise and no longer playing his part in Dumbledore's great drama. Harry looked at him and saw him, possibly for the first time, as simply a man; an exhausted, sick and courageous man.
"I hate you, Potter."
And a man riddled with resentment and long-held grudges, apparently. What the hell had brought that on?
"No you don't," Harry told him. "You don't even know me. You hate my father."
Harry realised that the connection between him and Snape had closed down. That had to be Snape's doing; Harry did not have a clue how to raise shields that efficiently and unobtrusively. Why had he – oh. Oh.
Here he was, sitting on the edge of Snape's bed, no more than twelve inches away from his ex-Professor who had wanked to a fantasy of him, and he wondered why the man was uncomfortable. Harry knew exactly how Snape reacted to what he considered an invasion of his privacy; he lashed out.
"You were so hot," Harry whispered. The most daring thing he had ever done, way beyond going wand-to-wand with Voldemort, was to reach out and slide his palm up the side of Snape's thin, pale face. Snape did not even seem to breathe. His black eyes were fixed upon Harry's face, inscrutable, but Harry knew that Snape would never harm him. Reject him, perhaps, scream, spit venom, rip him to shreds with sarcasm and spite, but never actually harm him.
What would Snape do if he leaned closer still? Snape's lips were thin and there were little cracks in the skin that looked as if they were healing, residue of his painful illness and slow recovery. What would he do, if Harry kissed them? He wanted to.
As he swayed nearer, Harry lowered his hand from Snape's face and trailed it across the blankets. He rubbed the sharp angle of Snape's hip and felt Snape's breath, puffing out in a little gasp, a warm, damp touch upon his face. Then – ah, yes, Harry's own cock stiffened within his jeans as he placed his hand upon Snape's erection. Oh god. Snape was as hard as iron for him. As he pressed down, he felt Snape's pelvis tilt upwards, in an instinctive bid to increase the pressure, before Snape stilled again. Snape's eyelids dropped just a fraction, but Harry recognised if not complete acceptance, then at least a temporary acquiescence. Snape was going to allow this, maybe only once; Harry would deal with the future when it arrived.
Now he just wanted this. Without his wand, exhausted and sick, Snape was still one of the most dangerous wizards Harry had ever met. He was unimpressed by Harry's name or reputation, so if he wanted Harry, it must be for Harry himself. He probably considered Harry's final victory over Voldemort to be a fluke.
Harry touched their lips together.
Snape rolled aside and snapped, "Get under the Cloak! Now Potter!"
Harry's reactions had always been fast but he was dazed with lust and anticipation. He still had his wand in his hand and he swung it towards the Cloak, but the length of holly was tugged out of his grasp before he had fully visualised the spell. Nix stood in the doorway, his mouth gaping open, Harry's wand flying to his spindly fingers.
"I is telling the Liege!" the elf gasped before fleeing, the door slamming with an air of permanence.
A lesser wizard would have wept. Snape sank back against the pillows and closed his eyes.
"Sorry about that," Potter said, sounding more like Hagrid apologising for nudging someone's elbow in the pub than a young wizard about to get them both killed or incarcerated for life.
Snape clamped down upon his rage and fear, shutting them away in the little box that had hidden similar emotions from the Dark Lord. His erection was not surprisingly deflating. When he opened his eyes, Potter was standing in the middle of the room, Cloak in one hand, the other arm outstretched.
"Accio Harry Potter's wand!" Potter exclaimed. Nothing happened, of course, but Potter simply appeared resigned. "Have you tried to Summon your wand, Professor?"
"Of course I have, you idiot."
"Just checking, no need to be rude." Potter gazed at him, green eyes clear and oddly self-assured. "Can you feel your wand at all? I can feel where mine is, but it can't get to me."
Snape shrugged. "It appears to be nearby but this room is heavily warded."
"That's what I thought. I wonder if Hermione got my message."
"Message?" Despite himself, Snape felt a little trickle of... well, call it hope. It would be foolish in the extreme to admit that Potter's strangely matter-of-fact confidence was infectious. Despite first appearances, the Chosen One seemed to have a back-up plan.
Potter removed a Galleon from the pocket of his jeans and held it up. "Protean charm. I sent a message saying that I'd found you and would contact Hermione and Ron again in an hour. So either the message didn't get out at all, which means they'll soon be looking for us – not on their own, they'll bring Professors McGonagall and Flitwick – or else they'll know I found you and will be waiting for the next message anyway."
"You only found me because of that damned Cloak," Snape pointed out. "They have nothing of the kind." Potter looked down at the offending article.
"Yeah, but I was trying to sneak. They'll go for brute force if they have to." Potter gave the thing a little shake so that it fluttered and shimmered. "Professor Dumbledore could see through it, you know."
"Albus Dumbledore could do a lot of things that no-one else could, Potter."
"Yeah, and don't we know it?" Potter folded the Cloak until it was small enough to tuck into his back pocket. "He was a manipulative, cold-hearted, arrogant and unnecessarily secretive bastard."
Snape stared at Potter for a moment, astonished. "Did your know-it-all friend teach you to use polysyllables on your camping trip?"
Green eyes sparked with anger as Potter glared. "Don't insult Hermione; none of us would have survived if it wasn't for her!"
Snape waved a hand, feeling oddly contrite. "Yes, I realise that, Potter. I was somewhat taken aback at your unexpected attack upon the sainted name of Albus Dumbledore. I expect you to name your first born after him and hold him up as an example of shining Gryffindor self-sacrifice and nobility."
"Bollocks to that," Potter said with feeling. "After leaving me to be raised by the Dursleys so I'd be pitifully grateful for his crumbs of affection, and be prepared to do anything he asked? Yeah, right. I would have been pretty pissed off with the old bastard anyway when I'd had time to think about it, but the way he treated you was fucking evil. He made you murder him. He knew one side or the other was going to try to kill you before the end." Potter peered at him from under his messy fringe of black hair. "I made sure everyone knew you were our spy. I told Voldemort before he died."
There was a time that admission would have brought a warm burst of joy; now it afforded no more than mild satisfaction.
"Thank you for that; however, my reputation is irrelevant if I'm to be the cause of your demise, only to spend the remainder of my days as the plaything of a demented castle."
"It hasn't–" Potter went engagingly pink in the face. "It hasn't done anything to you, has it? Anything sexual, I mean?"
"Like what, Potter? Roger me with a suit of armour, force me to copulate with a statue or engage in a torrid affair with a house elf?" Potter went even redder and Snape took pity on him. "It fed me with fantasies, as you are aware."
"Yes, among others." Snape neglected to point out that the others had been of Lily, or that the visions of his childhood friend had not aroused him.
"When we get out," Potter said, with the happy Gryffindor optimism that permeated the wretched boy, "I'd like to make some of them come true. With you."
He was too bright, glowing with youth and energy in a way that Snape never had.
"Don't be a dunderhead, Potter. What would your friends think? What about your relationship with Miss Weasley?"
"Ginny?" Potter smiled a soft, little smile that lanced into Snape's innards like a knife. "She's like my favourite sister. She understood that I wasn't going to marry her before I did."
The words trickled through Snape's awareness as softly as balm. "So you really are...?"
"Gay? Yeah, I think so."
"I will not be your little experiment, Potter."
"Good!" Potter said strongly. "I was wondering where the real Snape had got to, glad you're still with us. Right, are you ready to get out of here before that weird elf comes back or the castle decides to squash me flat?"
Snape's heart gave a leap in his chest. Merlin, Potter had grown up. This might be more than sheer Gryffindor blind luck and optimism after all.
"Do you have a Portkey?"
"Nope, I can do better than that. You'd better stand up, I don't know how this will work and it might be messy."
They stood side by side and Potter seized his arm. He could feel the lad’s muscle and bone, tense but competent, pressing against his side. "Now," Potter said quietly, "you remember how Dumbledore used to be able to see through my Cloak, and Apparate through any wards in existence? You know why that was?"
Snape's brain finally clicked into overdrive. "His wand."
"Yeah," Potter breathed. "The Elder Wand. He was master of it."
"The Dark Lord believed that I became its master when I killed Dumbledore; that's why he attempted to kill me."
"But we both know that wasn't true. Draco disarmed Dumbledore."
"Yeah. But you see, I disarmed him and so the wand transferred its allegiance again – to me. That's why it didn't work for Voldemort."
"Yet the elf has just disarmed you," Snape said, his heart beating wildly.
"Remember what Ollivander always said, 'the wand chooses the wizard'? That wand liked Dumbledore and it likes me. It still wants me as its master, I can feel it."
"It would not have recognised an elf as a wizard, anyway; besides, it is clearly drawn to power," Snape said, knowing exactly how it felt.
"I think so," Potter agreed, and he said it straight, without arrogance, a simple admission of the truth.
"Where is the damned thing?"
"Not far. I put it back in Dumbledore's tomb." He raised his voice. "Can you hear me, Hogwarts? Let us go or you'll regret it. I'm warning you."
They waited in silence. Potter shook his head. "Your own fault then, you stupid great stone prat! Accio the Elder Wand!"
The silence continued but there was a ringing quality to it that Snape recognised; the feel of tremendous occult forces gathering. He had felt it when Dumbledore or Voldemort called upon their deepest, greatest magic. In the distance, so low that it was more a vibration than a sound, came a rushing roar. It approached like an aircraft out of control, or an earthquake rising from the depths of the ground. Then suddenly it was there, bursting through the door like a missile, straight into Potter's hand; a long, knobbly wand that Snape knew well.
Elves snapped into the room, crying out in anger as Potter spun the wand around his head. Without speaking aloud, he Summoned both his own holly wand and Snape's wand of dark fir, casting a shield charm as he did so. Nix and three other pale, etiolated elves threw themselves at the shield and bounced off again, their high voices squealing indignantly.
Potter thrust Snape's wand into his hand. Snape sensed an enormous weight bending down upon Potter's shield; the glowing hemisphere distorted and shook under the pressure. He felt Potter brace the wand against it, a youthful Atlas prepared to hold the entire world upon his shoulders. Snape added his own, still-shaky shield charm and felt the fleeting touch of Potter's acknowledgement.
Potter grasped the wand in both hands. "Snape, do you want to stay on as Headmaster?"
Beyond the Protego shield, Snape could hear an ominous grinding. Grit pattered down from the ceiling.
"Do you really wish to discuss my career options at this point in time?"
"Just answer the fucking question before the roof caves in! Please?"
Snape opened his mouth to deny that he ever wanted the job in the first place, but knew it would be a lie. Of course he had wanted the job, but he wanted to do it properly. He had had such plans for Hogwarts, and had spent many of his sleepless nights writing them out for Minerva to find after he was gone. He wanted to reduce the rivalry between Houses, he wanted to teach the pure-bloods about Muggles and introduce Muggle-borns to Wizarding culture. He wanted to improve the status of the house elves and squibs like Filch.
"Yes," he said. "Yes!"
Then Potter released his own Protego, stabbed the Elder Wand upwards, and yelled, "Obliviate Castellum!"
All the candles and the fire went out, plunging them into complete darkness. The grinding grew to a roar and Snape's wand lurched in his hand as it struggled to maintain his shield against hundreds of tons of cascading stone. He could feel his magic draining as an arm came around his middle, and then a wrenching, twisting sensation drove all the air out of his lungs as Potter Apparated them straight through the wards.
Harry landed on his back on the threadbare hearthrug. The room was dimly illuminated by streetlights glimmering through the window and he could hear the muted hum of traffic.
"Potter," Snape croaked. He cleared his throat rather painfully and Harry saw his unmistakeable silhouette as he pushed himself up on his elbows. "What the devil did you just do?"
"Apparated us to Grimmauld Place?"
"To Hogwarts, you maniac!" Snape subsided into a fit of coughing, clutching his throat with one hand. He still held his wand in the other, Harry noticed.
"Kreacher!" he called, and a moment later, there was a familiar pop and Kreacher's luminous eyes peered down at him. "Bring Professor Snape a drink of water and a general healing potion, would you?"
Kreacher sniffed audibly, snapped his fingers to light the candles and lamps, and vanished, to reappear almost immediately with a vial and a tumbler of water. Snape narrowed his eyes at the potion, and then obviously saw his own spidery writing on the label. Harry recognised it as a potion from the first-aid kit that Snape had left in the kitchen, back when the house had been the headquarters for the Order. Snape downed it in one. He followed it with sips of water until he was able to speak again.
"What did you do to Hogwarts, Potter?"
"Removed its memories of wanting a relationship with you. It thinks you're just another of its Headmasters now."
"So it couldn't remember needing that room for anything and the ceiling fell in when it allowed the wards to fall," Snape said, shaking his head. "You never do things by halves, do you, Potter?"
"Nope," Harry said, feeling exceptionally cheerful. He waved his holly wand and his stag Patronus burst from the tip, prancing on the spot as it awaited instructions. "Go to Hogwarts and tell Hermione and Ron that I'm fine, and ask them to tell Professor McGonagall that I've got Professor Snape and we'll be there in the morning." The stag bowed its head and vanished. "I need something to eat after all that, what about you?"
"Kreacher is overwhelmed with joy at being able to serve Master Harry once again," the elf muttered.
"Something easy to swallow," Snape said.
"Steamed fish in butter sauce, with mashed potato, followed by jelly and ice cream," Kreacher suggested rather sulkily.
"I'll have fish too, with chips and peas and a glass of butterbeer. What do you want to drink, Headmaster?"
"A pint of bitter," Snape said, "and stop calling me 'Headmaster', Potter."
Harry blinked at him. "Yeah, okay, Professor, if you want, but you are still the Headmaster."
"Supper will be ready in half an hour," Kreacher declared. Snape scowled at the elf until Kreacher disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, then turned his formidable glare to Harry.
"Potter," he growled, "until such time as I return to the school, I remain of undetermined status, neither alive nor dead, neither Headmaster nor yet supplanted. I have one short night of relative freedom and I mean to make the most of it. Then I will become, once again, your Headmaster, and our relationship will remain an entirely professional one. Do I make myself clear?"
Harry swallowed. "Are you saying that once we're back at Hogwarts, we can't...?"
"Say it, Potter."
Harry stood up and dusted his hands on his jeans. "You want a quick fuck tonight and then that's it, that's all I'll get."
"If you wish to think of it in that way, then do so."
Harry folded his arms. He could feel Snape's tightly suppressed emotions sinking deep as Snape pushed them away, and he realised that this was never going to be easy.
"I don't want you to lose your job," he said, and reached down to help Snape up. "I get it. So while I'm still at Hogwarts, we can't risk being together. But what about afterwards?"
"That is up to you," Snape said, and Harry smiled.
"Yeah, I can wait. I think you're worth waiting for."
"You are more insane than I realised," Snape told him.
"And we've got tonight, haven't we, Professor?"
"Do not call me that," Snape whispered, "particularly when you have your hand on my cock. Oh, Merlin!"
"It feels like a very nice cock," Harry said. "What was that fantasy you had?"
"You were... oh... you were masturbating while I watched..."
"Like this?" Harry slowly lowered the zip on his jeans, his other hand running up and down Snape's erection. He watched as Snape's dark eyes dilated, as the tip of his tongue ran along the edge of his upper lip and his breathing sped up. Never before in his life had he known anyone to want him like this; never before had he been so aroused. The need was zinging back and forth like electricity arcing between them.
"Potter," Snape breathed, "Oh, Christ..."
"Just tonight, I'm Harry and you're Severus."
"Say it, say my name."
Snape reached out and dragged him closer until their mouths crashed together, lips caught between clashing teeth, hands grasping and hips thrusting, in an uncoordinated muddle of limbs and clothing and gasping breath. Harry felt as if he was on a hair trigger; a state that he recognised as resulting from an excess of adrenaline and the buoyancy that came from success.
"I want you," he said into the lank hair hanging over Snape's ear. Snape made a small, hoarse sound that in anyone else would have been a whimper. His fingers clawed at Harry's back, snagging in his sweater, then he gave a little shudder and bent over, gasping. For a moment, Harry wondered if he had hurt the man, until realisation dawned and his face broke into a grin. Then he made a lunge and just managed to catch Snape around the middle as the Headmaster's knees buckled.
Before he even opened his eyes, Snape knew that something had changed. Instead of damp stone, he could smell the indefinable scent of an old Wizarding house. Doxy droppings, candle wax and the dust from gently mouldering grimoires mingled with Mrs Skower's Furniture Polish and house elf cooking, lending number 12 Grimmauld Place an unmistakeable character. Snape slowly slipped one hand upwards, sliding it under the cushion beneath his head.
"It's here," a familiar voice informed him. Snape's eyes snapped open, fixing on the dark wand in front of his face. "I didn't want you hexing me before you realised where you were," Potter explained, pressing the wand into his hand. He slid his arm behind Snape's shoulders and helped him to sit up on the sofa, pushing cushions behind his back to support him.
He felt as limp as a Flobberworm, but his memories of the last few hours were reasserting themselves and he felt his face warming in embarrassment. Had he really come in his pants and then passed out?
Potter was watching him with an expression that combined fondness and concern. "Are you all right? You scared me for a bit, there. Should I send for Madam Pomfrey?"
"No," Snape snapped, resisting an urge to bat Potter's hands away and leap to his feet. He had a feeling that he would only end up on the floor in an undignified heap.
"Something to eat, then? Kreacher's left supper under a warming charm."
"Potter," he growled, "unless you stop mollycoddling me, I shall be forced to hex you."
Potter merely smiled at him. Damn it, where was his rage when he needed it? It had been a simmering part of his personality for so long but now it seemed to have deserted him.
"Hey," Potter said, "if you go all mellow after a bit of mutual wanking, just think how cuddly you'll be after we have full-blown sex!"
Snape stared at the vivid green eyes, wondering if Potter had gone mad. Perhaps without realising, they had slid sideways into a parallel universe where Potter ruled the world and could say or do as he liked. Then Potter's slightly calloused hand came up to lightly brush the hair back from his face. "I'm teasing you, Severus; that's what friends and lovers do."
Friends? Lovers? Was this to be his life from now on, normal and safe, an existence in which he dared to have relationships with people? It was unlikely, but not impossible, with Harry Potter at his side.
He considered the future while they ate. Potter was uncharacteristically quiet, as if distracted by his own thoughts, or perhaps he was simply thinking about sex. He was a teenager after all.
Snape, however, could feel the day's exertions and emotional highs catching up with him. Once his belly was fuller than it had been since before the battle of Hogwarts, all he wanted to do was crash into a bed and sleep for a week.
"Yeah, I know," Potter said, except that the words were echoing silently inside Snape's head; he was too exhausted to Occlude. "You're still pretty weak, aren't you? I'm not going to jump on you, you know. What sort of a prat do you think I am? Don't answer that; I know you think I'm an idiot. Come on, then."
Snape found himself being assisted up the stairs and tucked into bed by Harry Potter, who then shucked his own clothes and climbed in beside him, and they fell asleep curled together. As lovers do.
"How did you survive?" Harry asked over cereal, tea and toast provided by the grumbling Kreacher. "You bled to death. We watched you."
"I can only surmise that Hogwarts sent one or more of its elves to follow me. If they plugged the damaged arteries as soon as you had left, slammed me full of blood replenishing potion and restarted my heart, the brain damage would have been minimal. Even so, I was extremely ill and weak."
Harry nodded, spooning up cornflakes. "Not exactly in the best of health now, from what I can see."
Snape shrugged. "I am what I am, Potter. Do not expect miracles. You will never walk into Ministry galas with a handsome young swain upon your arm."
"Good. Ministry galas aren't really my thing. Quidditch matches, yeah, wouldn't mind going to the odd Quidditch match."
"Do you intend to play as a career?"
Snape sounded as if he did not care, but Harry was learning fast.
"Nope." He gave what he hoped was an engagingly naive smile but suspected that he probably looked goofy. "Still want to be an Auror. I'm like Hermione; I want to make a difference. I'd be a crap politician, I'm not brilliant enough for the Department of Mysteries and look, I'm Harry Potter. I might as well learn how to defend myself really well and do it officially."
"You have thought about it," Snape stated.
"Course I have. I could go into business with Ron and George, or open a Quidditch shop, or learn how to make brooms, or play Seeker professionally, but I'm always going to have one eye on my back, aren't I? I'm never going to be able to walk down Knockturn Alley or mooch about Hogsmeade after dark without some idiot wanting to take me down just because of who I am. You know, my mates just beat me at chess or arm-wrestle in the pub but there are plenty of people who'll come at me with their wands drawn so they can say they've got one over on the fucking Chosen One. At least Aurors get to use the latest in defensive spells and watch each others' backs."
Snape nodded and spread Oxford marmalade on his toast.
"Good," he said.
Eight Months Later
The mood of the school had been subdued all day. The other teachers watched him warily out of the corners of their eyes, so Snape made a considerable effort to behave exactly as normal, or what passed for normal in this new, shining, post-Voldemort world. He would never be patient with dunderheads, but most of his regular interactions were with Shacklebolt's team at the Ministry or Minerva and the staff at Hogwarts and none of them were fools, thank Merlin. The occasional idiotic student was a hell of a lot easier to deal with as a result.
He climbed the steps to the Astronomy Tower with his wand in his hand. Whoever they were, the students had not even had the nous to put up a silencing charm; he could hear their low voices whispering down the spiral stairs.
As he emerged into the moonlight, he saw them facing one another, each sitting with one leg hitched up onto the low, stone ledge that ran around beneath the battlements. Far from leaping guiltily to their feet, they exchanged a smile. He allowed the tip of his wand to drop.
"Granger and Weasley."
"Good evening, Headmaster," Granger responded politely and Weasley nodded. After all they had been through, there was nothing he could do to intimidate this pair of idiots – well, no, they were far from being idiots. Even the Weasley boy had gained a degree of prudence; he must have to attract a witch of Granger's calibre, although Snape could not see it himself.
"And what are a couple of Gryffindors doing up here after curfew?" he enquired in the smooth, silky voice that promised loss of many House points.
"Waiting for you, sir," the bushy-haired harpy said. Her glance flicked to one side and Snape sighed.
"Very well, Potter, drop the Cloak, if you would be so kind."
Potter appeared, swirling the Invisibility Cloak from his head and shoulders and stuffing it into the pocket of his robe.
"Couldn't sleep, could you?" Snape asked, as snidely as he could. "So you decided to come out for a little walk? How charming."
"I knew we'd find you up here," Potter said. Even in moonlight, his eyes glinted green. "Tonight, of all nights."
"Feeling like a little tête-à-tête? Come to compare our memories of Dumbledore's death over a drink for old times' sake?" Snape could feel his irritation level rising, and then Potter put out a hand and said quietly, steadily, "Severus."
Weasley and Granger watched without moving. He must have told them. Potter had fucking told them! Snape clenched his hands and a red spark spat from the tip of his wand.
"I asked Ron and Hermione to come because I didn't want to put you in a compromising position," Potter said, relentlessly. "Of course I told them, you git, these are my friends! We were prepared to die for each other. Like you and Dumbledore did."
Snape turned aside, breathing steadily. "What do you want, Potter?"
"I've been thinking a lot about power," Potter said. "How even though I've put the Elder Wand back with Dumbledore, it's still mine by rights, and that isn't a secret any more. I want to be an Auror, and there's going to be a queue of people trying to bring me down and get their hands on that bloody Death Stick."
"Yes," Snape said, because his own thoughts had been running along similar lines.
"Every time I'm in danger, I'll be tempted to just call the damn wand and finish things. It's too easy." Potter took a deep breath. "I wanted Ron and Hermione to be here with me, and I wanted you to be here, because we're the ones who suffered most and we all understand." Then Potter moved, coming to stand in front of him, green eyes seeking his. Snape unclamped his Occlumency shields just enough to allow him to read the message in the front of Potter's limpid gaze. "The trouble is I know how much power arouses you."
Snape folded his arms in an automatically defensive gesture, refusing to dignify the comment with a reply that would embarrass him in front of Granger and Weasley.
"I'm sorry," Potter said, "but I have to do this. Even if – well, whatever the results. I can't not do it and still be me. Accio the Elder Wand."
It arced through the night like a shooting star, coming to rest lightly in Potter's grasp. They all gazed at it for a moment, and then Potter gripped it in both hands, curling his fists over the handle and the tip and brought up his knee, snapping it cleanly into two. Then he threw the pieces in the air and they ignited, and fell blazing to the Earth where their previous master had fallen, and then they went out.
Snape saw Weasley and Granger tighten their hold on each other's hands, silent and unmoving in their support.
"There," Potter said. "That's done. The Resurrection Stone's lost and the Death Stick's destroyed. I'm just me, now. If you still..." His voice faltered and he took in a breath and said quickly, in a rush of Gryffindor bravado, "If you still want me."
Snape stood poised, balanced so finely between two alternatives that he was physically unable to move for a moment. His natural reticence made him baulk at the idea of any sort of declaration in front of Granger and Weasley, even though he understood that they had kept Potter's secrets and by definition, his own, throughout the most tumultuous of events. His feelings for Potter – damn it, the little sod had already forced him to demonstrate that his actions had not left Snape unmoved – and now what did he expect? A declaration of intent upon on one knee, like a Hufflepuff?
"Potter," he said, letting his almost-healed voice drop into its lowest and most portentous register, "you realise that your actions... this wilful destruction–" He saw the corners of Potter's mouth quirk and realised that he had not entirely shielded his emotions after all. "Fuck it, Potter," he growled, "you do realise that you have achieved something that would have been impossible for the Dark Lord, and that even Albus Dumbledore could not achieve?"
"Um, yeah, actually."
"You have the strength to take unlimited power in your hand and throw it away! Yet all you can say is 'um, yeah, actually’?"
"Headmaster, what I'd really like to say would make Ron's head explode."
"Too right," Weasley muttered, "too much information, thanks, Harry."
Granger gave her boyfriend a little tug. "Come on, Ron. We'd better check that the second years have finished raiding the kitchen and gone back to their beds. I'm sure Harry will be along in a bit."
"Yeah, good idea. G'night, Headmaster."
"Granger, Weasley. Five points from Gryffindor for being out of bounds. Each."
He could hear Weasley sniggering as they disappeared around the bend of the spiral staircase.
"I gave my word," Snape said, holding on to the last shreds of his dignity, "that I would do nothing while you are still a student."
Potter nodded, his wild hair flying in the breeze. "I know." He stepped closer. "I know how strong your word is. I wouldn't ask you to break it. Did you mind, about what I just did? Are you angry?"
"I am in awe," Snape whispered and watched the moonlight illuminate Potter's dazzling smile.
"Yeah, well, I think you're pretty awesome yourself, Headmaster."
"Go, Potter. Now. Please."
For once, Potter obeyed, but not before the faintest touch of Legilimency grazed Snape’s consciousness. If he hadn’t been paying attention, he may have missed it, so light was its whisper, its caress. But when Snape looked up, Potter had gone.
There were only two weeks until the end of term. He and Potter had spent these past many months bolstering their mental connection with each other, sharing long, intimate conversations – and, to Snape's declining embarrassment, masturbation sessions while each lay securely in their own bed – half a castle apart. He could wait a little longer for the real thing.
He stared up at the moon, its vivid, blue glow hanging in the summer sky over Hogwarts.
That wand had been a most terrible temptation. He wondered how it had felt, to grasp such power in one hand, to know that if he had been wily enough, and careful enough, he could have become invincible. Slowly, inevitably, he realised that what Potter had done had been not for himself, but for him, for Severus Snape, now Headmaster of Hogwarts and soon-to-be lover of The Boy Who Lived.
As Snape descended the Astronomy Tower, a little smirk curled his lip. Perhaps The Chosen One – no, Harry – was not such an idiot after all.