Harry orientated himself towards the Burrow, then reached up and gently stroked his owl’s soft feathers.
“Off you go, girl. I’ll be staying here for a while, so come back when you’re ready. Happy hunting.”
Hedwig nipped playfully at his earlobe and took off from her accustomed place on his shoulder. One of her wide wings lightly brushed the top of his head; he could feel his hair being ruffled. She did that so often that he was sure it was deliberate; he took it as another sign of their mutual affection. He sucked in a deep breath, stepping slowly and reaching out, then rapped his knuckles on wood.
“Someone at the door,” a female voice called out and he heard the click of the latch. A puff of air met his face, warm with the scents of home. “Harry!” He recognised the voice now, and the soft body against his chest, the arms wrapped around him and most of all, the light flowery scent that was Ginny Weasley. “Everyone, look who’s here!”
She pulled him inside and shut the door behind them. Harry called out “Happy Christmas, Weasleys!”
They all began greeting him at once. He amused himself by identifying everyone present. It was easy when they hugged him, he could even tell what most of them had been doing. Molly Weasley was baking – what else, this close to Christmas and with a house bursting with family and friends? Ron smelled of broom-handle polish. Hermione had been brewing potions but not the same ones as the twins, who also smelled faintly of fireworks. Fleur’s sophisticated perfume vied with the whiff of plant compost that seemed to hang around Neville. Charlie always carried the hot-spice odour of dragon and Bill reeked of the protective potions he used in his work.
Harry felt Molly’s hands on his shoulders, pressing him into a seat at the kitchen table.
“For Merlin’s sake, let the poor boy get his breath back! Harry dear, would you like a drink? Tea? Cocoa? Something stronger?”
“Wouldn’t mind a butterbeer, Molly, thanks.”
A mug was pressed into his hands and he breathed in the fragrant steam of Arthur’s famous mulled butterbeer, redolent of cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and a splash of Old Ogden's.
“Home for Christmas,” he sighed and took the first deep, satisfying swallow. He felt someone settle in the next chair, the brush of robes against his arm.
“No Hedwig, Harry?” Hermione asked the question softly, as if she feared that something had happened to his precious owl.
“She’s fine; she’s just been cooped up for a few days so I told her to go hunting. How are you?”
“Great,” she breathed, and he could sense her contentment. “We’ve some very good news.”
“Let me guess. A baby?”
“Yes, in six months.”
“’Mione!” He reached out, and she returned his hug, with a quick giggle that was pure Hermione. “Oh that’s fantastic! Ron, where are you?”
“Here, mate. Good, aye?”
“Brilliant. Fancy my two best mates being a mum and dad!”
“Scary,” Ron agreed, settling on his other side. “Hasn’t quite sunk in yet. And how about you? How are things with...?”
“Nick,” Hermione prompted her husband.
“Ah,” Harry said, “Well, that’s over, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry, Harry.”
Harry shrugged, sipping his butterbeer. “Not a problem. A mutual decision to split, both bored, both tempted elsewhere.”
“And the elsewhere?”
“Didn’t amount to anything. Story of my life,” Harry added, wryly. “Still, loads of time yet.”
“You’ll find someone,” Hermione said softly, “You’ll see.”
“Yeah, I find people all the time, trouble is, they either want to shag the Famous Harry Potter so they can tell their friends about it or else it’s a pity fuck.”
“I know,” Ron sighed. He had been out to enough Quidditch matches and clubs with Harry to have noted the phenomenon for himself. “Perhaps you should try looking closer to home?”
“Hm,” Harry said, “Well, let’s think. You’re my best mate but I don’t fancy you and anyway you’re straight and spoken for. Same goes for ‘Mione. Ginny’s with Neville. Bill’s with Fleur. Percy has Penny and Charlie appears to be married to a couple of dragons.”
“Which leaves the twins,” Hermione said, nudging him. “Threesome?”
“Whoopee,” Harry remarked, “Except they have a succession of nubile young women – and men - in and out of their beds – or bed, I’ve never managed to fathom out their relationships.”
“I don’t even try,” Ron said darkly as Molly Weasley offered mince pies and brandy-snaps to everybody. Harry let the familiar atmosphere of the Burrow roll over him, as comfortable as a knitted blanket. Thank Merlin for family. This was one of the two places in the world where he never felt alone in the dark.
“Owl for you, Harry,” Percy remarked at breakfast. Harry pursed his lips and gave a soft whistle. Hedwig landed on his shoulder, her claws gripping the leather reinforcements stitched onto his robe for that very purpose. She nibbled his ear and he whispered the charm that allowed him to “borrow” her eyes.
The colours always seemed a little off, faded and washed-out, probably because she was designed to see at dusk, not in full daylight. The focus was never quite right either, but at least he could once again see the faces of his loved-ones. He would never be able to repay Filius Flitwick for this wonderful little charm. He waited while Hedwig preened an out-of-place feather on her rump, giving him a close-up view of her snowy wings and tail, then she sat up straight and stared at the unfamiliar tawny owl. It was patiently holding out a leg.
He had never quite got used to the fact that her eyes were always on one side or other of his own head, unless she sat on top of his skull, which both had given up as a bad job years ago. Nevertheless, once his hands were in her field of view, he was able to reach to the owl, remove the parchment, offer an owl-treat from his pocket and hold the message up in front of Hedwig’s eyes. He missed being able to read books, but he could hardly force the poor bird to stare for hours at what, to her, were incomprehensible markings on boring pieces of dried skin. This letter was brief and to the point; Professor Minerva McGonagall, learning that he was back in Britain, invited him for a meal at Hogwarts at his earliest convenience. Harry took an auto-quill from his robe pocket, placed it on the back of the note and dictated his reply.
“Dear Headmistress, I would be delighted to join you and the rest of the Hogwarts staff for lunch on Christmas Eve. Kind regards, Harry. PS please ask Hagrid not to bring his pet mouse this time.”
“Pet mouse?” Molly enquired, serving eggs and bacon.
“Last year, Hagrid was showing us how he had trained a mouse to do tricks and unfortunately Hedwig thought it was her dinner.”
“Poor Hagrid. Give all the old crew our best wishes, won’t you?”
“Of course. I wonder who’s teaching DADA this year?”
“Some prat, no doubt. Why didn’t you apply for the job?”
“Hedwig would go demented trying to decipher the scrawl of first year essays. Wouldn’t you, girl?” He offered her a bacon rind, which she accepted graciously.
Hermione piled her plate with eggs, mushrooms and onion chutney. Her husband winced.
“Won’t you be sick?”
“Nope. Don’t seem to get morning sickness at all. Just a craving for your mum’s pickles. Harry, why don’t you train an assistant for Hedwig?”
“I’d hate to put her beak out of joint. She’d be jealous, I had enough problems when Nick’s barn-owl decided that she didn’t like Hedwig last year and they squabbled non-stop.”
“Why does it have to be an owl?” Hermione asked as if it was the most logical question in the world. Harry reached up and gently turned Hedwig so that he could stare at Hermione via the owl’s amber gaze.
“Damn good question, that,” he agreed after a long pause.
“A cat would be good,” she said. “Or even a dog. Dogs are easier to train.”
“You have to walk them, though, whereas cats and owls exercise themselves.”
“Muggles use guide dogs with a lot of success.”
“Perhaps I’ll borrow Rex and try out the charm on him before committing myself.” Harry tucked into his bacon and eggs.
“Rex?” Neville asked, sitting down beside Ginny, who leaned to kiss his cheek.
“Hagrid’s dog. He lost dear old Fang years ago. Any messages that anyone wants me to deliver to Hogwarts?”
“Can you ask Pomona Sprout if she had any luck with grafting the sessile spark-berry I sent her? Oh, and I’ve some seeds of troll-bane if she wants them, in exchange for the biting orchid root stock.”
“You’d better write it down, Nev,” Harry advised, “You know Herbology never was my strongest subject.”
“Ask Hooch what she thinks of the new Thunderbolt series,” Ron said around a mouthful of toast.
“If you can leave a message for Snape,” Bill remarked, “let him know that the potions he suggested worked a treat against the Tarantellus curse.”
Harry nodded. He would take that message down to the dungeons himself.
Minerva McGonagall, unchanged as far as Hedwig’s eyes could make out, met Harry in the main hall with outstretched hands. She leaned in to kiss his cheek, moving carefully so as not to unsettle the owl, and smiled at him as he took in a deep breath.
“Christmas at Hogwarts smells just the same as ever,” he told her. “Pine trees and mince-pies and lavender polish. It’s great to be back, Minerva.”
“And lovely to have you to visit, Harry. Hogwarts is always open to all its sons and daughters of any age. Come on up to the staff-room, lunch doesn’t start for an hour; we have time for a sherry or two.”
Ghosts were floating along the corridors singing carols. Nearly Headless Nick wore the phantom of an ivy wreath on his head and the stone corridors were decorated with mistletoe and holly and tiny, tinkling bells. Harry felt a pang of something bitter-sweet – nostalgia for a more innocent time, reminders of those who had fallen to Voldemort or maybe simple homesickness.
“Any changes in the staff?” Harry asked casually. “Since last year? Retirements? New arrivals?”
“Oh, the odd one or two. Professor Binns has gone on to a higher plane; his place has been taken by Professor Gwillym ap Rees.”
“Another Scot, then,” Harry said and she chuckled.
“We have a new Professor of Potions of course, you may remember a Ravenclaw named Thelma Jubilees, she must have been in the sixth or seventh year when you first joined us.”
“Professor of Potions?” Harry enquired. His feet slowed down of their own accord, and realising that she had left him behind, the Headmistress turned.
“Oh dear, didn’t you know? You’ve been out of the country, of course, but I thought that the Weasleys would have told you.”
“Professor Snape hasn’t resigned, has he?”
“Not at all, he’s still here. I’m afraid that he’s very sick, Harry.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Harry said, and realised that he meant it. “What’s wrong?”
They began walking again, slowly, side by side.
“The Death Eaters have died. Everyone who took the Dark Mark. Sadly, the Mark hasn’t differentiated between those who changed their minds about their allegiance and those who embraced it willingly. Poor Severus… he has only months left, we fear.”
“Dear Gods,” Harry whispered. “Hasn’t anyone tried to help him?”
“Of course, but there’s nothing we can do. The Mark was a master-and-slave bond, between the Dark Lord and his followers. When the master in such a dark bond dies, the servants’ magic leaks away into the vacuum that’s left and carries the witch or wizard’s life-force with it. Severus is a strong, powerful wizard, only in this last year did he begin to weaken appreciably. Poppy makes him as comfortable as she can; fortunately he suffers little pain.”
Greeting the staff suddenly altered from a pleasure to a chore. Harry had to force himself to assume a seasonal cheerfulness. He was very fond of McGonagall, of little Filius Flitwick, Hagrid, Pomfrey, Hooch and Sprout, but their smiling welcome did not awaken an answering happiness in him. One of the pillars that had held up his world had been crumbling and he had not known it until now.
Dumbledore’s death had deeply shocked Harry. He knew that losing McGonagall would be just as traumatic, but he had not realised how much he had also depended upon Snape always being here. Every visit to Hogwarts included a trip down into the potion-scented dungeons, where he would perch on a stool while Snape stirred cauldrons, or prowl the office where he marked assignments, or sit at the fireside over coffee. Snape never asked, but Harry told him what he had been doing and where he had been, and Snape would make acerbic, subtly barbed comments that always made Harry grin. Coming back to Hogwarts meant hearing that beautiful voice, and using Hedwig’s eyes to watch Snape’s deft, slender hands at work, and feel the dark, dark eyes observing him in turn.
“Harry.” McGonagall touched his arm gently. “Harry, I doubt if he’ll join us for lunch. Would you like to go and see him? He’ll be in his chambers.”
Harry nodded, and stretched his lips into what he hoped was a smile.
“Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll be back later.”
Once he was far enough away from the staff lounge, Harry leaned on the cold stone wall and tried to swallow past the constriction in his throat. Hedwig shuffled uncomfortably and he reached up to smooth her feathers. “Hedwig, go down to the dungeon, will you? Go to Professor Snape.”
She shifted from foot to foot, then he felt her sudden tension and the breeze against his ear as she took off into silent flight. He saw the walls flashing past as she flew, the misty faces of the ghosts, a brief glimpse of portraits whom he had once known almost as well as he knew his school friends. Then she was shouldering her way through the owl-flap above the doorway, into Snape’s living room. Harry saw the familiar fireplace with its stone canopy and Slytherin banner, furniture of old oak and a dark-haired man sprawled in slumber. Hedwig settled on the back of the sofa and peered down at Severus Snape.
His hair was still densely black, stark against his white skin, but he was way too thin. The prow of his nose, sharp as an eagle’s beak, and his high, patrician cheek-bones, appeared gaunt. He far looked older than his forty-six years, and utterly worn out. It was clear that the next time Harry visited Hogwarts at Christmas, Snape would no longer be here. Harry choked back a little noise and realised that it was a sob.
After a while, he pushed himself away from the wall. He drew his wand and cast Finite Incantatem so that Hedwig’s point of view would not confuse him as he walked, then spoke another of Flitwick’s charms. This one enabled him to feel the shapes of nearby surfaces through his wand, so that he was able to negotiate stairs and corridors without Hedwig’s aid. It was no use for reading, watching people’s faces or making sense of complex objects, but he was able to walk confidently down to the Head of Slytherin’s dungeon suite.
Snape opened the door after a couple of minutes. Harry imagined the scowl.
“Well well, if it isn’t Hogwarts’ greatest living celebrity alumnus. Do come in, Mr Potter.” The once-vigorous voice was breathless and scratchy.
Snape closed the door as if he was moving slowly, hoarding his strength. As Hedwig flew to his shoulder, Harry glimpsed himself, wearing the fashionable dark glasses that hid the ugliness of his empty eye sockets, then he saw the gaunt scarecrow that was Snape.
“I’ve been in America,” Harry said, feeling that he had to explain something, he was not sure what. “I haven’t been in the country since last Christmas. I’m sorry it was so long.”
Snape shrugged, indicated the armchair that Harry always sat in, and eased himself into its twin on the other side of the log fire.
“Times flies, Potter, when you’re young and having fun.”
Snape was one of the few people who met Hedwig’s gaze, not Harry’s blind black lenses, when he spoke to him.
“You didn’t tell me,” Harry began steadily enough, “that you were ill.”
“I’m not,” Snape replied quietly “I am not ill; I am merely dwindling.”
“You sound as if you’ve accepted it.”
“What choice is there?”
Stark, like all their conversations, bare of evasion.
“I don’t accept it,” Harry said, with all the strength of conviction. Snape’s thin lips twitched in a pale imitation of his old sneer.
“I fear that you must. I would prefer that you did so with equanimity, or at least resignation, but as you are a Gryffindor, I shall no doubt be subjected to some degree of emotional display. How odd, that you should miss the greasy old Potions Master who was the dark cloud over your schooldays.”
“Oh no, that was Voldemort,” Harry muttered. “And as for missing you – that isn’t a strong enough word.” Harry leaped to his feet, making both Hedwig and his point of view lurch dizzily. “Severus Snape, I don’t believe you! After all you went through, you can’t tell me that you’re going to sit here and just give up?”
“I am exhausted, Potter.” The deep voice had lost all of its rich timbre. “I am no longer a wizard; my magic has completely drained away. As a squib, I cannot brew potions. I have no appetite and I sleep much of the day. I have little life left in me.” Again, that ghost of a sneer. “I have come to terms with this slow and gentle decline, as have my colleagues. How typical that Harry Potter should once again disturb the quiet monotony of my existence.”
“You git,” Harry said softly, “You really are the limit.”
“I had assumed that you came to wish me the greetings of the season; if I had known that you intended to berate and insult me, I would not have let you in.”
“Could you have kept me out?”
“Good point, Potter.”
“You think I’m going to just sit and watch you fade away like – like an old ghost, without trying my damnedest to save you?”
“Harry Potter, saviour of the universe, rides again?”
Harry was horribly conscious of wanting to cling to every precious second, every barbed comment, insult and gesture.
“Just watch me, Snape.”
Snape gave a breathy gasp.
“Thank you, Potter. I have not laughed for months.”
“When are you going to call me ‘Harry’?”
Loss of sight had made Harry more attuned to the tiny sounds as Snape shifted in his chair, the whisper of his breath.
“Whenever you wish. You never asked me to.”
“I’m asking now.”
“Very well - Harry. I suppose that you wish me to return the courtesy?”
“Not unless you want to.”
“Subtle, for a Gryffindor. Yes, you may call me ‘Severus’ but under no circumstances will I tolerate being called ‘Sev’ or, Merlin help me, ‘Sevvie’.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Severus. Aren’t you joining everyone for lunch?”
“No. I promised to attend Christmas lunch; I shall conserve my strength and my appetite for that. I shall be something of a spectre at the feast I dare say, but Minerva insists.”
“I should hope that she does.” Harry frowned. “Who’s the latest DADA teacher? Are they any good?”
A little huff that in earlier times would have been a snort of derision.
“Professor Dupont, who has a huge ego, little knowledge, a vapid conversational style and the conviction that his Parisian accent will secure him both friends and lovers.”
“So you don’t think much of him, then?”
“He’s a twit, Pot – Harry. You would have made a better job of it.”
“Can’t mark the assignments, though.”
“Strange, that. I had not realised that marking essays contributed to the defeat of Voldemort.”
“Good grief, you said his name.”
Snape directed a minimal shrug in Hedwig’s direction.
“He can do no more to me now.”
Harry made his decision and acted upon it. He got to his feet.
“I promised I’d have lunch with the faculty, but I’ll be back in a day or two, I want to spend some time with you. If you’d like me to.”
“I shall check my diary for prior engagements,” Snape said dryly.
Harry held out his hand and after a moment, Snape reached up. His once-strong fingers felt like bones held together by wire. Harry gently squeezed the fragile hand in his.
“Boxing day. I’ll come for tea.”
Snape nodded at Hedwig.
“I usually leave the door unlocked.”
Harry took his time walking to the Great Hall, getting his emotions under some kind of control. Although he no longer shed tears, he could still sob, and he did not want his face to appear blotchy.
A dozen students had remained at Hogwarts for Christmas; they joined the staff and their guests around one long table. A handsome brown-haired man with a seductive accent was telling tales of the monsters he had overcome on his travels. He was wittier than Lockhart but Harry was in no mood for funny stories. McGonagall indicated a place at her side and Harry gratefully slipped into the chair.
“Are you alright, Harry?”
“Yeah,” he began, then said in a whisper, “No, I’m not, I’m bloody devastated! This is awful.”
She squeezed his hand.
“I’m so sorry, I should have contacted you, but the Weasleys knew and I made a false assumption.”
“And they must have thought that you’d told me. I’m not going to let him go without a fight, Minerva.” Then he thought about what he had just said, and whether he really meant it in the way that it must have sounded.
As Harry walked into the cacophony that was the Burrow on Christmas Eve, he was seized by someone who bore a very faint but distinctively feral odour. He hugged the werewolf’s firm, powerful body, and then was pulled away and embraced by a witch who yelled “Wotcha Harry! How the devil are you?” in his ear as she almost knocked him over.
“Remus, Tonks, merry Christmas!”
“Are you here for long this time?” Remus Lupin asked, guiding him through the crowd to his usual spot at the kitchen table, since Harry had let Hedwig go to her roost in the guest bedroom before she had a nervous breakdown.
“Not planning on going anywhere else. Did you know about Snape?”
“Yes.” Lupin sighed. “Tonks and I owe him so much. Such a shame after all he’s been through, poor devil.”
Harry knew that one of the children playing under Molly’s loving supervision was the three year old Flora Lupin. Snape’s potions had not only enabled Lupin to father a child – werewolves usually being infertile – but had ensured that Flora bore no taint of the lupine curse. Not to mention the Wolfsbane potion which made Lupin safe and controlled at the time of every change.
“Hasn’t anyone looked at the damn bond?” Harry demanded. “How the Mark was formed… what can be done about it?”
“Harry,” Hermione said, touching his hand, “They were all Death Eaters. The Ministry frankly didn’t care; it meant that they didn’t have to look after them in Azkaban for very long. I know Professor Snape was fully pardoned and received the Order of Merlin, but he’d never made himself popular.”
“So everyone’s going to stand back and let him die?” There was an uncomfortable silence.
“He has produced potions to control his condition for a long time,” Lupin said eventually. “That’s why he outlived all the others.”
“He can’t brew now; he’s lost all his powers. Isn't there any way someone could give him more magic?”
“I suppose it must be like having a terrible wound,” Hermione said thoughtfully, “You could give the victim a transfusion of your blood but it will just pour out of the damaged blood-vessels.”
“So you plug the wound.”
“This is more like the loss of a limb,” Lupin pointed out. “When Voldemort died for good, part of every Death Eater’s soul tore away.”
“Can’t we replace it?”
“Who would want to?” Lupin asked. “The Dark Mark was a very dark bond, it drained strength from the Death Eaters, and it was unbalanced, one-way. More like a curse.”
“In which case, I want to speak to Bill.”
“I’ll get him,” Hermione said.
“And I'll need your research.”
He imagined that he could feel the radiance of her smile on his face.
“You’ve got it, sweetie.”
“You know what generated the power to establish the Dark Mark in every new Death Eater?” Lupin asked, his normally furry voice turning sharp and hard. “Rape.”
“Are you telling me that I’d have to rape someone?”
“Not necessarily, but if you wanted to replace the bond, you’d have to use something equally as powerful, a sex magic rite of some kind.”
“Ew,” Ron said.
“Hm,” murmured his wife.
“That’s hardly significant,” Bill pointed out, “When you take into account what would happen afterwards.”
“What?” enquired his youngest brother.
“Whoever did this, would be bound for life, to Snape, in an unbreakable magical connection. And if it was made a two-way bond rather than the original parasitic arrangement, it would probably tighten.”
“What would that mean?” Harry asked.
“It would become exclusive,” Lupin said. “And sexual. Like the soul-bond in the old marriage rites.”
“Shit,” said Ron Weasley.
“Hm,” Hermione said.
Harry nudged her.
“You’re getting repetitive, ‘Mione.”
“I’m just noticing that you don’t sound the slightest bit alarmed by all this, Harry.”
Ron gasped. “You don’t mean…Harry, you can’t fancy that greasy, evil-tempered old git? No way!”
“Ron,” Lupin said with a warning in his voice, “Snape may not be the cuddliest of men but he is a good man, nevertheless. A very brave and loyal wizard.”
“Even if he is able to hold a grudge for over twenty years,” Tonks muttered.
“Actually, greasy or not, he does have a certain appeal,” Hermione said, ignoring Ron’s splutters. “He’s not pretty but he is damn sexy.”
“I think he’s wonderful,” Harry whispered, “And I’ve only just realised it.”
“I wondered when you’d catch on,” his best, female friend whispered back.
Gently, Harry placed a hand on the bony shoulder and shook it. Snape shifted a little, then his black eyes fluttered open in their bruised-looking sockets.
“Harry?” He smiled and Harry had never seen such an expression on his face before, neither through his own eyes nor through Hedwig’s. It was peaceful, contented, but it lasted only a second or two. “I must have been dreaming…”
The usual scowl dropped into place.
“Of course not, Potter.”
Harry squatted down beside the sofa and lifted the top edge of the Slytherin green and silver blanket, so that both of Snape’s hands were exposed. He took them in his, and they rested on his palms like bundles of dry twigs.
“I need to ask you a question, Severus. I want you to give me the truth, because it’s the most important question that I’ve ever asked anyone, in my entire life.”
“Merlin, boy, you do pick your moments. I take a long while to wake up.”
“Good, you’re less likely to dissemble. What are your feelings towards me?”
“You are a pain in the arse, Potter.”
“Harry. And I want the truth. Do you feel as strongly about me, as I do about you?”
Snape stared, not at Hedwig, but at Harry, as if trying to penetrate the black sunglasses to the skull beneath.
“And how do you feel about me, you foolish brat?”
“Strongly enough to want to form a bond with you for the rest of my life.”
Snape gave a sharp bark of laughter and then dissolved in a fit of coughing that left him trembling.
“Is this another stroke of idiotic, self-sacrificing, Gryffindor heroism?”
“No, this is realising why I keep coming back. Why I keep choosing partners who’re older than me, with black hair and dark eyes, and being disappointed in them when they haven’t done anything wrong – they just aren’t the person I’ve really wanted them to be. Why I’d do anything, anything at all, to keep you alive, although I understand why you wouldn’t want an idiotic, skinny, blinded, Quidditch-mad Gryffindor ex-hero and professional layabout as a partner.”
“Are you crazy?” Snape whispered.
“Probably. But are you crazy enough to do it?”
“You want to be tied to me, when you could have anyone?”
“I’ve tried that and I didn’t like it.”
“I do not understand one word of this,” Snape said and his voice degenerated into a croak. “You know me, you know what I am.”
“Exactly. And you know me. And maybe, we’re both blinded by old prejudices. Maybe I’m more than just a skinny, immature brat who’s famous for killing a dark wizard and you’re more than a greasy, old, ex-Death Eater bastard of a Potions Professor.”
Harry grasped Snape’s left arm and unbuttoned the cuffs of his jacket and shirt. The Dark Mark was a faded brown stain on the alabaster skin. Harry pulled out his wand and pressed the tip to the tattoo, and immediately felt the hungry pull on his power. He jerked back and Snape made a small, pained noise.
“It will swallow you just as it is swallowing me.”
“Oh, no. That isn’t how this is going to work. Severus, tell me what actually happened when Voldemort gave you this Mark?”
Snape closed his eyes and turned his head away. Harry reached out and gently turned it back.
“The Dark Lord gave me a potion that made me aroused and dizzy. I was ordered to rape a Muggle girl while he cast the curse. Then they killed her and raped me.”
“Don’t upset yourself any more. I get the gist.” Harry sighed. “You were only seventeen, weren’t you? That was all intended to terrify you into submission, and give the whole group a guilty secret that bound them together. The only relevant bits were the sex and the curse and his tremendous magical power. So we’re sorted.”
“I do not believe one word of this,” Snape muttered.
Harry took a piece of parchment out of his pocket and held it up before Hedwig’s face. She blinked then stared at it patiently.
“That’s the curse he used. Hermione did the research.”
“On Christmas Day?”
“Yup. My friends are good to me, aren’t they? She Flooed to the Headmistress’s room and used the library here. Then Bill and Remus were good enough to work on adapting it almost all night. All I have to do is generate the power and control it, and we all know that I can do that. I did it before.”
“Generating it is going to be your problem,” Snape said, sounding dazed, “if you intend using a sex-magic ritual.”
“I suspect that your owl hasn’t looked very closely at me recently?”
“You are too thin,” Harry admitted, “And you do have more than a hint of the restless undead about you, but I’ve had a crush on you since the sixth form.” He leaned over and softly touched his lips to Snape’s. “I think that I can manage. All you have to do is allow me to do this to you.” He deepened the kiss, slipping his tongue between Snape’s lips. For a while, Snape did not react, then a tentative tongue began to move against Harry’s. “Good,” Harry breathed. He sat up again, and stroked Hedwig. “You’d better go and perch on the owl-stand, girl. I don’t want you to catch any magical back-wash – or get any funny ideas.”
Then he placed his fingers on Snape’s face, locating his mouth for another kiss. He could feel Snape’s breathing deepen.
“Harry, This cannot possibly work. I am far too weak and I have been impotent for many months.”
“I understand. That’s why you’re going to have this.” Harry reached into his pocket and took out a flat amber amulet. “Do you know what it is?”
“No, but you will no doubt enlighten me.”
“It’s an ancient Egyptian curse snare. Bill loaned it. Usually it sits looking innocent until some careless passer-by triggers the curses that have been loaded into it. In this case, however, it contains powerful strengthening charms, cast by the Weasleys and their partners and your friends.” He unbuttoned Snape’s robe, tunic and shirt as he was speaking. “Although the Dark Mark will eventually drain it, it should give you enough strength for this.”
“And they did this for me?” Snape sounded baffled.
“Of course. Call it a late Christmas present if you like.”
“But the Weasleys never give me Christmas presents.”
“However they give presents to me and to my partner. I hesitate to use the word ‘boyfriend’ in your case.” Harry placed the amulet on the skin of Snape’s hollow belly and spoke the charm to attach and trigger it. “Can you feel the magic in that?”
“Oh Merlin,” Snape breathed, “Oh…” His breath hitched in his throat. Then he reached up, seized Harry’s head and pulled it down, to plunder his mouth in a deep kiss.
The extended Weasley family contained some very powerful witches and wizards. Bill was one of the best curse-breakers in Britain, his wife Fleur had been a tri-wizard champion and Charlie’s powers were tested against dragons every working day. The twins, Ron, Ginny and Hermione were all skilled and focussed, then there were Tonks and Remus Lupin and Arthur with his Auror friends from the Ministry. Whether they had contributed their strength for Snape or for Harry was not a question that concerned Harry at the present. When he brought the amulet to Hogwarts; McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout, Hooch, Pomfrey, Vector and Sinistra had all cast their strengthening charms into it, until Harry began to think that the damn thing was going to explode before he got it as far as Snape’s dungeon. Flitwick had once again earned Harry’s gratitude by stabilising it and putting a timing charm on it, to release the magic in a steady flow.
Snape even seemed less painfully thin, as if the magic had re-hydrated his flesh. Harry regretted sending Hedwig to rest; he would have liked to have seen the life return to Snape’s eyes. He contented himself with using his tongue to map out the shape of the man’s mouth, and run his sensitive fingertips over his chest, lightly rubbing his nipples. Snape arched into his touch and whimpered.
“Do you really want me?” Harry whispered in awe.
“You stupid dunderhead of a brat,” Snape snapped, “I have been longing for you for the last seven years! Now will you get on with it, while this last brief moment of vigour persists?”
Even his dark-chocolate voice was back, if chocolate could sound irascible.
Harry began to struggle out of his robes.
“Are you a wizard or not, Potter?”
Harry raised his wand, thought for a moment, and wordlessly charmed off not only his own clothes, but Snape’s as well. “Better,” the Potions Master grunted, and Harry sniggered.
“God, I love it when you’re snarky.”
“How long does this thing last, Potter?”
“About an hour, Flitwick reckons. Long enough.”
Harry began to kiss his way down Snape’s throat and chest, tasting the fragile skin, detouring to suck at an earlobe and a nipple. Snape writhed and clawed, as if encouraging Harry to wring every last sensation from his own failing body. This was not going to be a gentle seduction. Harry moved down, tonguing his navel, feeling the vibrating warmth of the amulet against his cheek. Then he nuzzled against Snape’s soft, but twitching prick.
“Well, well, magic really is an aphrodisiac,” he remarked, just before taking the tip into his mouth. Snape groaned
“Gods, Harry… if this kills me, at least I will die a happy wizard!”
Harry tried to reply but he had his mouth full. The activity of his throat and tongue seemed to encourage Snape anyway, judging by the inarticulate noises.
Harry released Snape’s cock once it had stiffened. Snape snarled. The sound made Harry even harder.
“I know,” he murmured, “But I’ve got to get this right, damn it.” He Accio’ed a tube of lubricant gel from the pocket of his robes, applied a generous dollop to each of their throbbing erections, and finally to the pucker of Snape’s arse. Rehearsing the words of the charm under his breath, he began to gently stroke and tickle the entrance, as Snape panted and made small jabbing shifts of his bony hips.
“Great fucking Circe, will you get inside me, boy?”
Harry grinned and pushed the tip of one finger into the hot, tight channel. Snape tried to impale himself upon it, grunting with effort, so Harry relented and thrust first one, then two fingers in. Snape gasped as a fingertip gently stroked the little nub of his prostate, and his prick began to leak as Harry fondled it. Snape himself might be too thin but his cock was gorgeously long and plump, just as Harry had always dreamed it would be. He worked his fingers for a while, widening the sphincter, then Harry settled himself between Snape’s parted thighs and guided himself into position, lifting Snape’s long, thin legs up around his waist.
“We have to come together,” Harry gasped, inserting himself inch by exquisite inch. This was Snape clenching around his cock, Snape, the gorgeous wicked viper-tongued git himself. All those times Harry had shagged tall, dark-haired strangers, trying to make himself believe his own fantasies, and here was the genuine Snape, in all his skinny glory, wriggling and panting beneath him.
“God, I can’t hold on!” Harry gasped.
“Nor me,” Snape groaned. “So good – really got you at last!”
So Snape, too, had dreamed of this moment? How wonderfully, exquisitely ironic!
Harry could feel heat coiling in the base of his abdomen. He spoke the words of the spell, and worked his fingers up and down Snape’s now rigid cock, and his insides all drew tight and he shuddered and came, and he felt Snape coming too, spurting over both their bellies.
Magic howled through him, hot-cold, a surge of tingling energy. Harry concentrated on Snape’s forearm, ignoring his softening prick still in the other wizard’s arse. He felt a raw wound that bled magic, and in the same way that he had sealed his mouth over Snape’s lips, he sealed his magic over the torn edge of the Mark. Everything slammed into a new configuration and he collapsed, dripping with sweat. Snape was motionless, and Harry began to panic, and then the Potions Master heaved in a sobbing breath. Harry reached up to stroke Snape’s hair. It felt coarser than his own, and it was very greasy, but no doubt the man had been so ill that he had not bothered to wash it often enough.
“Harry.” Snape’s voice was a breathy rasp. “Well. This is a turn-up for the books.”
“How are you?”
Snape’s muscles tightened around Harry’s prick.
“What does that feel like? Brat.”
“Your brat, now.”
Harry felt hands on his face, removing the sunglasses that had been charmed to remain in place.
“No, don’t. It isn’t pretty.”
“You’re beautiful,” Snape whispered, “Beautiful. Even your scars are beautiful because I know how you got them and what they cost you. And I can hardly believe that you are mine.” He chuckled, suddenly, a warm unfamiliar sound. “And not too concerned about my ageing looks.”
“Mature,” Harry assured him. “In your prime. Are you up for another go yet?”
“Give me a chance; I have only just got off my deathbed!” Then Harry heard Snape’s breath hiss between his teeth, and the Potions Master murmured “Fetch your owl and look at my arm.”
Harry called Hedwig onto the back of the sofa so that he could stare through her eyes.
“Well,” Harry said eventually, “That’s different.”
Instead of the previous skull and snake, or the expected Gryffindor lion, the tattoo was now in the form of a phoenix with its wings outspread.
“Meddling old sod,” Snape muttered to the air, “Still got a finger in the pie from the other side.” He began to move, rippling the muscles around Harry’s cock. “Potter, are you going to get your arse in gear?”
“I’m Harry, you git!”
“Shut up and shag me, you idiot! Before I pass out...”
Harry woke from an unusually deep sleep. His body felt delightfully lax and warm as he shifted slightly in the bed, stretching luxuriously. He brushed against a body and became aware that someone was breathing softly next to him. Harry had no idea where he was or whose bed he was sharing, and he felt a familiar plunging moment of disorientation. There was the trailing remnant of one of those dreams that was wonderful at the time then so depressing when cold reality hit. One of the old, poignant heart-aching illusions. The smell of potions – that was it, the subtle mix of herbs and spices and chemicals that triggered a wave of longing so intense that he ached. He recalled dreams of Snape, but this time they segued into the reality of Snape, a slender leg across Harry’s calf, a tendril of hair tickling his face, breath warm and moist against his neck as Snape nuzzled against him. Harry wrapped his arms around the bony rack of ribs and breathed in the unique scent of the exquisitely real Snape himself.
“Severus?” he whispered in awed amazement.
“Mm.” Snape’s arm snaked across his chest, fingers ghosting over his skin.
“How are you?”
“Was I that good?”
Harry shivered and felt Snape’s grasp tighten.
“Are you cold?” Snape asked softly.
“Hardly. You just growled at me. I love it when you growl; your voice goes straight to my balls and makes me shudder with desire.”
“Not quite my intention.” Snape yawned, widely and audibly, and wriggled until he was pressed against the length of Harry’s side from shoulder to toes.
“I didn’t know you snuggled,” Harry whispered, running his hand down the prominent knobs of the Potions Master’s vertebrae.
“I do not.”
“Sorry, I must have imagined it.” Harry could feel his face stretching into a grin. “You cuddled, then.”
“No.” A pause. “Maybe I embrace, but I neither snuggle nor cuddle.”
“Of course not,” Harry said soothingly. He wanted to sing, to shout in exultation to the top of the castle, but contented himself with holding Snape in his arms. He also wanted to weep.
“Are you patronising me, Potter?”
“Would I dare?”
“Indubitably.” Snape shifted, tucking his head against Harry’s shoulder. It felt amazing, that this powerful, independent, proud wizard should reveal such a human side to his nature.
“You said that you’d wanted me for a long time,” Harry said carefully, and felt a subtle tautness in the body against his own.
“When one believes that one has merely days or weeks remaining, it is easy to reveal things that one would normally conceal.”
Harry’s own tension must have communicated itself in exactly the same way, because Snape’s deep, beautiful voice continued with barely a pause, “One is prone to telling the truth at such times, however.”
“Just as well,” Harry murmured, “Since we’re now bound to one another.”
“Indeed.” A slim hand came up to gently cup Harry’s face. “Regrets, Mr Potter?”
“No, Professor Snape, not on my part. What about you?”
“I have something precious that I never dreamed that I could regain. I have hope.” Snape’s voice hitched in something that Harry suspected was as close to tears as Snape would get. “And I am hungry for the first time in many months.”
“The house elves can bring us some breakfast.”
“No,” Snape said softly, “I want to go to the Great Hall for breakfast. I want to reclaim my place.”
“What are we waiting for? Accio wand. Come on, then.”
It would have been wonderful if Snape could have stalked into the hall with all his old panache, but he had been very ill for a long time. He leaned on Harry’s arm, breathless from the climb up the stairs from the Slytherin dungeons, but there must have been a sense of new purpose in his stride, in the arrogant tilt of his head, or most likely in the dark blaze of his eyes. Hedwig, on Harry’s shoulder, saw the pale blurs of faces turning towards them as they quietly approached the staff table. Conversations faltered and died, and Minerva McGonagall stood up.
“Severus?” she whispered, looking back and forth between her Potions Master and the young wizard with his white owl familiar. “Have you…?”
“I think we did it,” Harry said, to put her out of the misery of suspense.
“There’s no ‘think’ about it,” Snape growled, “You know you did it, foolish brat.”
McGonagall burst into tears. Madam Pomfrey gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth. Hooch punched the air and yelled “YES!” and Flitwick squealed and knocked over a bowl of fruit and two litres of pumpkin juice. Hagrid exclaimed “Bloody hell, Harry!” and Sprout leaped to her feet and reached Snape at the same time as the sobbing headmistress and the mediwitch. All three witches managed to fling their arms around the rather disconcerted wizards; Harry found himself squashed between Sprout’s ample bosom and McGonagall’s lean form in a group hug. Hedwig hooted indignantly and took flight, making Harry dizzy with a swooping view of the breakfast table sliding past beneath her, before he cut off the charm.
“Excuse me?” Snape asked frostily, “May I be permitted to breathe?”
“Severus,” Pomfrey exclaimed, and there was the sound of a smacking kiss, “My dear, you can’t believe how happy I am to hear you snarking again!”
Snape gave what could only be an embarrassed snort, then Harry felt his arm seized in a firm but gentle grasp as Snape steered him towards an empty seat at the table. Hedwig returned to her accustomed place and Harry borrowed her eyes, smiling at the pupils who stared at their professors in open-mouthed amazement.
“Thank you for your strengthening charms,” Harry said, helping himself to a plateful of sausages, bacon, mushrooms and eggs. “They worked a treat.”
“Our pleasure,” Flitwick said, waving his wand to clear away the spreading pool of pumpkin juice.
“I had better warn Thelma Jubilees that her services will only be required for a short while,” the Headmistress remarked, wiping her eyes.
“It’ll be months before Professor Snape is strong enough to teach again full time,” Pomfrey said, “Maybe longer.”
“Can you manage without him for a while?” Harry asked. Snape paused in the act of delicately consuming a triangle of toast and scrambled egg, cocking his head to one side. “I think that Professor Snape needs to convalesce somewhere warm and quiet.”
“And you know just the place, do you, Potter?” Snape asked, his voice rumbling ominously. Harry grinned.
“Yep. A few, actually. Italy, Greece, Spain…full of fascinating potions ingredients.”
Hedwig’s sharp eyes caught the tiny smirk that Snape attempted to disguise.
“That sounds like bribery, Potter.”
“Oh no, that isn’t bribery, Professor. If I wanted to bribe you, I’d do this.” Harry reached over, caught Snape by the back of his neck with one hand and pulled his head closer, so that their mouths were pressed together. Snape’s lips softened and parted almost immediately, and Harry inserted his tongue. Snape’s tongue met it at once, in a sweet battle for dominance that made Harry’s cock stiffen in his jeans. When Snape gently pushed against Harry’s chest to part them, both wizards were gasping.
“That would work,” Snape panted, fussing with the front of his robes in a way that suggested that he was just as aroused as Harry. “Potter, you’re frightening the students.”
“And you don’t?”
“Boys,” McGonagall said indulgently, reaffirming Harry’s suspicion that she often channelled Albus Dumbledore, “At this rate, you’ll have to make honest wizards of one another.”
“Now there’s a thought,” Harry whispered. Snape merely raised an eyebrow in Hedwig’s direction.
Harry stretched out on the sofa in the dungeon, listening to the Wizarding World Wireless service, as some boring wizard interviewed an even more boring witch about breeding kneazles. Hedwig dozed on her perch and Snape sat at the desk, reading the Christmas bumper edition of New Magical Research.
“There’s a tolerable series of articles in here about the control of wandless magic,” he remarked.
Harry stood up and went to the desk, feeling his way with his wand.
“Does it mention me?”
“Hardly an up-to-date journal if it doesn’t, is it?”
Harry sighed, resigning himself to having to ask Snape to read the articles aloud. Hedwig was unable to keep her focus on the written word for longer than it took to read a very short owl-post message. Snape continued speaking, his tone off-hand and almost disinterested. “Have you attempted Flitwick’s charm on a human?”
“Borrowing their sight, you mean? Of course not.”
“It would be such an intrusion, and probably contains an element of risk.”
“Hardly an intrusion if you were invited, and there is no risk.”
“How do you know?”
“I asked Filius.” A rustle as Snape turned the page. “Of course, if you don’t want to, I quite understand.”
Harry drew in a breath and pointed his wand at the Potions Master, whispering the words of the charm. Nothing happened and he gave a soft groan.
“What’s wrong, Potter?”
“It didn’t work.”
“Ah. Maybe because I have my eyes shut?”
Snape opened them. Harry reeled. All the colours of the world came back, and the pages of the magazine sprang into perfect focus. Harry stumbled and found himself caught in Snape’s arms, and they ended up sitting crushed together side by side on the sofa with the journal spread on Snape’s lap as Harry read everything through Snape’s eyes, with a fervour that amounted to greed.
“I’ll have to get used to reading about potions,” Harry said after a while.
“I do read other things,” Snape told him. “I keep meaning to re-read Tolkien. If you wish to read him with me?” Then he chuckled as Harry burrowed against his chest. “I take that as a ‘yes’, then. And I suppose that I could force myself to attend Muggle cinemas if there were films that you wished to watch. You see, what sacrifices I am prepared to make in order to sustain this relationship?”
“Yes, Severus,” Harry murmured blissfully, “Of course I do.”
It was a typical New Year’s Eve at the Burrow. Some Weasley or other must have cast powerful silencing and notice-me-not charms, otherwise the place would have attracted every Muggle within five miles. The ghoul in the attic was drunk on a tumbler of fumes from the punch. Everywhere people were Apparating in and out. The twins had supplied a big box of their luxury fireworks, which hung around for hours like exotic fiery flower-arrangements. Bill’s two boys, Remus’s daughter and Percy’s twins had been allowed to stay up far too late, and were zooming around a foot from the ground on their toy broomsticks, falling off and bursting into tears of over-tiredness. Someone had fed brandy-soaked treats to the owls so that the birds flapped tipsily from their roosts and collapsed into the buffet.
“Oh Merlin,” groaned the tall, dark-haired wizard, gripping Harry’s arm.
“It’ll be fine,” Harry said gently, as if encouraging a flighty hippogriff. “Honestly. Don’t you get it, you’re family now?”
“They will neither forgive nor accept me.”
“They forgave Percy for being an utter git. They accepted Fleur, despite the dramatic effect she has upon every red-blooded male in her vicinity.”
“Obviously I’m not red-blooded.”
“You are, you’re just gay. Luckily for me. Come on, Severus!”
Sighing and acting very put-upon, Snape allowed himself to be dragged towards the door. Harry held his arm, and they listened as Molly yelled for quiet, and a clock struck the hour. Harry, being the only really dark-haired male present at the party, had been dispatched outside to carry out the first-footing ritual. Except that he had apparated to Hogsmeade, Flooed from the Three Broomsticks to the dungeons, and dragged a bemused Severus Snape away from his peaceful potions journal. Snape had just happened to be wearing his best satin-trimmed velvet dress robes, almost as if he had been hoping that Harry would turn up. He would never admit it, of course.
Hedwig perched on the back of Hermione’s chair with a good view of the back door and the rest of the room. Harry stood still, it was too disorienting to try to walk while he was borrowing her eyes elsewhere, but he could not miss seeing this from inside the house.
Snape looked almost as good as he ever had: tall, with all the presence of an irritated dragon; arrogant, elegant and sexy as hell. He threw open the door, allowed his black gaze to sweep the room and purred “Happy New Year, Weasleys and assorted hangers-on,” into the stunned silence. Harry slid his hand into his lover’s.
Then Snape, Professor Mean-moody-and-magnificent, grasped him by the shoulder, turned him so that they stood face to face and proceeded to snog him into sweet oblivion. Dimly Harry heard Tonks and the twins cheering them on and Hermione’s squeal of delight. “Happy New Year, Harry,” Snape whispered as they paused to breathe. “Oh, and Potter? Ten thousand points to Gryffindor. Well done, brat.”