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The ground beneath Harry was uneven, strewn with rubble. It squelched unpleasantly beneath him with each step, and instinctively he knew he shouldn’t look, because there were other things, piled high across it, things it wouldn’t do to examine, things he desperately didn’t want to see. He knew though, with each inch he crept ahead on unsteady legs, just what they were, what he was walking on. His stomach felt like it was twisted up with growing vines, and yes, perhaps that was actually happening to him, like he was being eaten from inside, one organ at a time. Right now, right here inside this darkness wrapped around him like a cloak, he knew it to be possible, knew that he had to run -- not knowing where, just this one word: away.

He couldn’t run, not and see where he was going, and every step was like an abyss looming in the dark, an endless fall about to happen. He had been here for so long, forever, might well be going round in circles. His heart was in his throat somewhere, pounding, pounding, a staccato beat.

A shape resolved itself in the near distance. When he came closer he recognised it as Ollivander’s: the empty shell of what was once a brightly sparkling shop, part boarded up, part blown to pieces. He crept on past it, found himself inside the Great Hall, all candles lit and floating merrily atop it. Their light didn’t filter down to where he struggled vainly to move forward, and when he sought the ceiling, it reflected not the night sky, but an expanse of black, a never-ending black that chilled him to the bones. He kept on stumbling, but he seemed to make no progress, never moving, endlessly caught within one step. The black above was pulling at him, and he couldn’t stay here, needed to get out...

And then they came. They seemed to float, yet never move at all. Soon, they were all around him, closing in, their faces twisted in grotesque contortions of a grimace.

Chosen. Cedric, with dead eyes. Chosen. Sirius, reaching out for him with lifeless hands. Chosen. Fred as he approached, chosen, Tonks, her hair a mousy grey. Chosen, Remus -- smiling, chosen, Snape gurgled through his torn throat, blood still pouring from it, dripping onto Harry’s hands.

“No!” he shouted, shrinking back in desperation. “No, I didn’t, you know I didn’t, I never meant for this to happen!”

But they wouldn’t listen. Chosen, echoed in chorus, mockingly, amused. Chosen, chosen, chosen, and he tried to run from the cacophony of noise, stumbled, slipped and fell. His hands met something soft, blood-warm, and he could see now, though there was no light, could see that he was knee-deep stuck in corpses, all around him, everywhere. He drew a breath of rotting, putrid air and screamed beneath the terror, screamed and screamed and screamed and...

...woke up still screaming his lungs out, arms flailing wildly and colliding with something, sending it flying straight out the bed.

For a moment, he was alone in the darkness, and for one, utterly terrifying second, he wasn’t sure he’d really woken up -- it wouldn’t be the first time -- it felt so absolute. Then, (“Lumos!”) he was blinking against too-bright light as Ginny scrambled back into bed with him, her arms wrapping around him, rocking him, holding him.

“Shhh, Harry, it’s all right, you’re fine, you’re safe, it’s okay.”

It wasn’t, though. His heart was still racing madly, his pulse reverberating like a hammer in his throat, and his breathing had gone all funny, too tight, too rapid, too shallow. His skin felt like old parchment, crackling and thin, all-over hot and too sensitive. Ginny’s hands seemed to crumble it away into nothing, exposing raw flesh; each brush of her fingers physically hurt.

“Don’t touch me!” He twisted out of her embrace and onto unsteady feet. “Fucking hell, Ginny, how many times do I have to tell you not to fucking touch me?”

He didn’t wait for a response, ignoring the way her eyes brimmed as he turned away and slunk to the bathroom. It was her own bloody fault, really. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d told her how horrid it felt to be touched straight out of a nightmare; none of his doing if she was too stupid to remember it.

Splashing cold water on his face went a little ways to calming his breathing, although his knees still felt like he’d been hit by a particularly powerful jelly-legs jinx. The bathroom appeared fuzzy and unreal round the edges without his glasses, and when he looked at his blurred outline in the mirror, he couldn’t quite recognise himself.

“Now there, dearie,” the mirror cooed. “Why so glum? One might think the world was ending, to look at you.”

“Shut up!” His palm met the glass with force, if not quite enough to smash it. The anger felt good, anyhow, centering him, focusing.

The mirror, wisely, fell silent. Harry still vowed to get rid of it tomorrow.

His pyjamas were a sodden mess, sticking to him everywhere. A shower would probably be the best idea, but he was far too exhausted for that, and so settled for peeling the cloth off himself, and slipping into a fresh pair from the closet.

When he returned to the bedroom, Ginny lay under the covers, arms wrapped around herself. Her eyes followed his progress towards the bed; on her cheek, there was a splotch of redness sure to bloom into a bruise by tomorrow.

She looked incredibly young, Harry thought, with an uncomfortable twist to his stomach.

He ordered the lights out before he slipped back under the duvet, as close to the edge of the bed as he could twist himself. The sheets were unpleasantly damp, and cold, now that the night air had had a chance to creep back into them.

Sleep was a long time coming.

---

They sat in silence over breakfast. They usually did, these days, and Harry wasn’t sure whether he preferred it that way. He’d been living with Ginny at Grimmauld Place for less than a summer -- since the Battle of Hogwarts -- but he’d quickly grown to hate her chatter in the mornings. When it tapered off, it had come as a relief. And yet... there was something worse in this than hearing plans he couldn’t give a toss about, something more pronounced about the skittish glances she kept stealing at his plate, as if the silence lent them weight. Each time he chanced a look at her, the bruise on her cheek seemed to accuse him...

He dropped his half-eaten slice of toast back on the plate. He wasn’t hungry, anyway.

“Where are you going?”

Her voice caught Harry halfway through the door. He stopped, not so much because he was interested, but at the incongruity of the question. It seemed insulting, almost, that she had to ask. Was it not obvious? He was going where he always went.

“Tell me it’s to change,” she continued, a mild note of hysteria creeping into the words. “Please, tell me it’s to change.”

He looked down at himself, at the faded jeans he’d worn for three days running (or was it four?), the brown sauce stain adorning his jumper. Then back at her.

“Why would I change, Ginny?”

A beat, a breath, as they exchanged mutual incomprehension.

“You have forgotten,” she continued, close to a whisper. “You’ve actually forgotten.”

He shifted on his feet, fingers drumming against the doorjamb. His patience wasn’t very good, these days.

“The Burrow! The Burrow,” she repeated more calmly. “We’re meant to go, remember? It’s Mum’s birthday. We said we’d come, weeks ago.”

She was right. He had forgotten.

Ginny shook her head. “Never mind. It’s cool, we’ve ages, yet. It’s early, you can have a shower and change, and I arranged the present, it’s...”

He never heard what the present was, too lost already in his thoughts. She was still talking, but her voice faded into the background, as if a veil had fallen somewhere in between them. The Burrow. Molly’s birthday. An afternoon and evening of Weasleys, of Ron and Hermione, of members of the Order. A whole day, watching Molly bustle through the chaos with the open wound still dripping, plain for all to see. A whole day, watching George try valiantly to joke when it was clear that he was missing the other half of every sentence, his humour blacker now, and falling flat. A whole day, and Harry couldn’t possibly bear it, not even for the Weasleys. The air felt thick already, pressing in around him, cloying. Why should he put himself through that, when he could go and lie within the warmth of his haven?

“I’m not going,” he heard himself say, as if from afar. Ginny stopped gesticulating -- what she’d been trying to explain, he’d never know -- and froze in perfect stillness for a beat.

Then, as expected, “What? You’re kidding, right? Harry, you can’t do that. You know how much it means to --”

“I said, I’m not going!” He didn’t mean for quite so much sharpness to seep through, but he was tired, suddenly, so tired of the fighting. “Give everyone my love. I’m staying here.”

He left the room without another glance. He wasn’t running, really -- the thought itself seemed preposterous, coming out of nowhere. He didn’t run; he’d never run. No, he was walking, calmly, up the stairs, and that was all.

“Harry! Harry, come back here, right fucking now! We aren’t finished; you hear me?”

If he was scared, he reasoned through the fog which muted Ginny’s rage, he would be feeling it right now. One didn’t piss the youngest Weasley off without knowing there’d be backlash. He’d been aware of that long before they started dating, and if he was a coward, well, then right now he should be terrified. But all he did feel was the familiar anticipation of where he was going, of what waited for him behind that door.

His hand already held the doorknob, when she rushed up the stairs behind him. Then her hand was on his arm, gripping tightly.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said.

He shook her off. Ginny fought at first, a brief, unpleasant tussle, before letting go.

“Harry James Potter,” she said, voice wobbling on the last syllable, yet full of steel. “I swear to Merlin, you walk in that room right now, we’re through. You hear me?”

She spat ‘that room’, as though the words were poison, and Harry knew his choice, instinctively. He took her in, one sweeping glance. She looked, at once, defeated and incandescent in her anger, impossibly proud. Her shoulders squared, her mouth pinched in a solemn line, her eyes blazed fire, though they were wet to overflowing, one thin rivulet tracing the line of her cheek. He used to think that she was beautiful when she was cross, he realised. He had adored her for her spirit most of all, and it shone now, bruised, yes, but unbroken.

And yet he didn’t feel a single thing.

“I hear you.” He turned the knob and slid past through the open door.

---

The polished bowl of the Pensieve was cool to the touch as he bent over it and let himself fall, safely ensconced in the locked room.

It wasn’t like he was obsessed with Snape, or anything -- though if his friends had been telling the story, they probably would have accused him of precisely that.

They just didn’t get it. How could they? None of them had the history that Harry himself shared with Snape. Oh sure, they’d despised him on his behalf, and for his blatant favouritism in classes; they’d mistrusted his every move alongside Harry, or, in Hermione’s case, cautiously advocated for the respect that should surely be due to a teacher. They’d been horrified by the events that night on the Astronomy Tower, and subsequently relieved -- if grudgingly, in Ron’s case -- by the revelation that Snape hadn’t betrayed them at all, when it came down to it.

But none of them -- not Ron, not Hermione, not Ginny -- none of them had seen, had been there, had lived through it. They’d never experienced the full force of Snape’s hatred, the way Harry had from the moment he set foot in Hogwarts, the burning feeling of injustice that went with it. They’d never had Snape rifle through their heads, week in and week out; they’d never callously ripped into his privacy in revenge (and didn’t that ache now, oh, didn’t that ache, that he had never apologised), only to find more than they bargained for. They hadn’t seen Snape kill Dumbledore, hadn’t felt the wave of betrayal, the incandescent, blinding rage which followed.

They’d never called Snape a coward.

And they’d never had that moment, after the dizzying rush of memory upon memory spooling itself out, of emerging from the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s (Snape’s, Snape’s) office; that breathless moment, bright like the blinding sun; that moment of looking and actually seeing, for the very first time.

They didn’t have that. All they had were his words, his inadequate summaries of the truth. Snape loved my mum. Dumbledore told him to kill him; he’d sworn an Unbreakable Vow. That Patronus that led me to Gryffindor’s sword -- it was his. Snape always protected me, all along, he did. Because he loved my mum.

They’d never seen the memories. Harry was sure that Ginny, at least, would have tried to whilst she was still here, but he guarded them as though they were unicorn blood: unutterably precious and dangerously potent. The vial that held them went in a velvet-lined case, triple-locked; went in an ornate drawer, both locked and warded. The room itself was off-limits, its wards keyed to Harry’s own magic. The one time Ginny had tried to open the door, the clanging inside his own head had brought him running within seconds. The ensuing shouting match had lasted much longer, complete only when Ginny had burst into tears and run out of the house.

Perhaps Harry ought to feel guilty for that. Perhaps he ought to feel guilty for choosing insubstantial fragments of a dead man over her. But it was difficult when he knew, deep within him, that she wouldn’t understand, not even if he did show her the memories. They would simply be memories to her: nothing more, nothing less.

Yet they were so much more, more than Harry could ever possibly articulate.

He’d had nothing but time, ever since Voldemort slumped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. So much time to fill but nothing to fill it with, now that there weren’t any Horcruxes to hunt and destroy, now that he didn’t have to think on his feet every second of every day.

The realisation had come the first time he’d reviewed Snape’s memories in the aftermath of the battle. Oh, he’d known for longer, known since that moment in Dumbledore’s office, but on a deeper, more visceral level. It wasn’t until he had the luxury of time to think that the words crystallised themselves out in his mind, assaulting him with the blinding force of the truth: him and Snape, they’d been the same.

It seemed stupidly obvious, once he’d made the connection. He recalled those flashes of memory he’d caught during their Occlumency lessons: young Snape in the corner, cowering under his father’s hate, and couldn’t help but think of the Dursleys and their own brand of spiteful cruelty. He thought of Dudley and Piers, chasing him across school grounds, the terrifying humiliation of it all, and thought of his own father and Sirius, and Snape hanging upside-down for the school’s ridicule. He thought of the need to belong, of Ron and the Weasleys and Gryffindor, of Slytherin and Death Eaters, of Snape rejecting his mother in favour of something that must have looked like control, like dignity, perhaps.

Choices, Dumbledore had told him, choices are what make you who you are. But he could see it so clearly now, too, how his own path might not have been as straightforward as expected. What if he hadn’t met Ron on the Hogwarts Express and been warned against Slytherin? What if he had been sorted there instead -- would he really have rejected Malfoy’s hand in friendship, if the whole school had been eyeing him with suspicion?

Despite the ways in which he’d been lucky, the acceptance and warmth of the Weasley family, having friends he could count on... some of his choices had still left a little something to be desired. Snape would have understood that, Harry knew now; out of all people, Snape would have understood. About Cedric and Sirius and nightmares and the crushing guilt, about the incontrovertible knowledge that it was your fault, your fault, all your own fault.

And Snape, in his silence, carrying so many secrets, biding his time for that final day, watching the pieces of the puzzle slot slowly together -- he would have understood, too, the isolation that even Ron and Hermione had never been able to take away. The understanding that, when it came down to it, the weight of the world couldn’t be shared, but that it rested solely with you.

Of course, with the realisation came the sense of loss. Harry hadn’t been prepared for it, for how utterly devastating it would be to lose something you’d never really had. In a sense, perhaps he should have done -- after all, was it so dissimilar from growing up an orphan? It shouldn’t have been, and yet it was. Where thinking of his parents still evoked longing, blunted round the edges by time, when he thought of Snape now, all he could feel was regret, bitter, dark regret. He figured that the difference lay in this: with Snape, he’d had his chance. He’d had his chance, but had wasted it, too blinded by his hatred and suspicions to look past the surface. Snape had worked so hard to keep him at bay, and Harry, foolishly, had played right into all of his expectations, had probably shown as much of a contorted image of himself as he had seen of Snape.

There were so many things that he’d do differently, if given another chance.

But Snape was dead. Snape was dead, and all Harry had were his memories. Really, was it so surprising that he treasured them, and hoarded them, and thought of them, when he would never get the chance he so desired? Ginny, he knew, couldn’t possibly comprehend the loss he felt; none of them could -- and he could not explain without revealing things which weren’t his to share. The understanding which he held of Snape, now, after everything, it was too intimate. It would be disrespectful to reveal, when Snape had seemed so determined to cast the truth of himself in shadow, hidden in the dungeons and wrapped in layers of defence.

At first, Harry had thought he couldn’t bear to see the memories again. Surely it would hurt too much -- and yet he’d found the opposite to be the case.

The only time he didn’t feel regret was when he was in there, inside the Pensieve, a silent spectator to Snape’s life. There was something in the muted colours and muffled soundscape that clung on to every memory, something comforting, something safe. He couldn’t interact with Snape, but neither did he wish to, in those moments. It was enough to be, to witness and to share his feelings. Of course, he did prefer those older memories, the sun-dappled summer days, the sense of connection between Snape and Lily, but even in the later ones Harry found an odd kind of peace. When Snape sobbed his heart out, clinging tightly to the woman in his arms, it brought relief, felt almost as if he was crying on behalf of Harry, too.

He hadn’t cried himself -- at least whilst conscious -- not since the final battle. Sometimes it felt like he had forgotten how.

The world outside the memories was far too bright. Too bright and noisy, and too full of feeling, and yet paradoxically, sometimes his own emotions felt so muted there; the joy leeched out of laughter, the comfort out of Ginny’s warm embrace. It had become so well before he’d started visiting the memories with regularity, although before and after bled into each other like each day bled into the next. When he was out there, every current of the air seemed to shiver, every creak of the floorboards shrieking with the grating edge of ice. And that was just inside the house. Beyond the door lay chaos and a sense of falling, a lack of direction that he couldn’t try and put into words, even had he wanted to.

The memories were his sanctuary, his refuge. They held him in their predictability; even when they were unpleasant, he knew what to expect. Sometimes he fancied he could hear them whispering to him, as they wound silver-soft about his fingers, calling him towards them.

They felt like home.

---

The house was very quiet, without Ginny. Not that they had been speaking all that much before she left, but in the nights, when Harry tossed and turned in bed, too trepidatious of the nightmares to welcome such oblivion as sleep might bring, each sound seemed amplified, each shadow in the firelight a shape about to spring on him. Not even Kreacher was around to keep him company; he had left for Hogwarts shortly after Ginny had moved in. The two of them simply hadn’t got on at all.

Harry didn’t miss him, of course; the thought alone would be ludicrous. Nor did he miss Ron and Hermione coming over at all hours to whisper conspiratorially with Ginny. He didn’t miss them talking of plans for their repeat seventh year at Hogwarts, their unspoken assumption that he wanted to return. Most of all, he didn’t miss their concerned glances and thin smiles that cracked around the edges. He was glad to finally get some peace. He was.

It hadn’t been that long since Ginny had left, at any rate, though it became too easy to forget, to lose his sense of time. The memories helped stave off the endless hours, and Harry forced himself to read the Prophet -- or look at it, at least, each morning, in some strange pretence that he was moving with the outside world.

Other letters came, of course, both from Hermione and Ron, but he discarded them unread. It seemed too much effort to read through pages of accusations and questions, impossible to attempt to even explain. They wouldn’t understand.

Three days after Ginny’s quiet, swift departure -- she’d packed her things and gone whilst he was still immersed, leaving him to a house which bore no marks of her presence -- something occurred which broke into his seamless haze.

'The Boy Who Lived -- To Go Barmy?', exclaimed the Prophet’s headline in huge, scarlet letters. Beneath it, a picture of himself glancing skittishly away from the camera played on loop. He didn’t recognise it. Judging by the scrapes on his face, it must have been from the press conference they had given the day after the Battle of Hogwarts, a candid shot initially discarded only to be dug out again for this article. The picture made him look washed out and tired, and more than a little on edge.

Harry swallowed hard to banish the scrap of toast that seemed to have grown impossibly large inside his mouth. For a moment he debated tossing the rag straight to the fire, but some spark of curiosity won out.

Adored by the masses, loved by all -- ever since Harry Potter vanquished the dark evil of You-Know-Who at the height of the Battle of Hogwarts, The Boy Who Lived has earned himself a cast iron seat in the hall of wizarding heroes.

Oh, thanks ever so much. Why couldn’t they just leave him the fuck alone?

But, now that the dust has settled, and the slow, hard work of rebuilding the torn tatters of our world begins, we have to ask ourselves: at what cost? Has the strain of his years-long struggle, the ever-present spectre of You-Know-Who’s terror broken something irrevocably inside what once was an innocent child? And if so, is there a looming danger on the horizon -- for what is madness, if not a complete collapse of control? Winnifred Purpleglove investigates.

He wasn’t reading this. He couldn’t possibly be reading this.

It is without question, of course, that Harry Potter’s efforts and outstanding achievements to rid our world of a terrible evil should be lauded and celebrated. No witch or wizard alive would dare challenge the bravery that such a feat required, and nor should they.

...and this was, what, then? A thank you card?

But it is with great regret that we have to reveal to the world that all is not well in the world of the Chosen One. Whilst we all understood his desire to retreat from the limelight to recover from all he has endured, sources close to the man himself paint a more worrying picture.

“He hasn’t left his room since the Battle,” our informant, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells us. “Locks himself up on his own, and he’s all over paranoid. Thinks the shadows are You-Know-Who risen up from his grave to get him, Death Eaters hiding in every corner, that sort of thing.”

The Prophet can also exclusively disclose that the troubles haunting the mind of our favourite hero have not been without consequence. Our source tells of the heartbreaking split between Harry Potter and his Hogwarts sweetheart, only a few short days ago. The strength of his delusions, and the violent outbursts which they provoke, were too much for love to endure, it appears. Ginny Weasley, who was last seen on Diagon Alley two days ago, sporting a horrific bruise on her alabaster cheek...

Harry’s teacup exploded, spraying shards and hot liquid across the table and paper. He flung the stained mess of it into the fireplace, jabbing it viciously with a poker until it had burned to cinders, all of it, the whole bloody damn lot.

It took three hours of comforting summer-washed memory repeats for him to approach anything even remotely resembling calm.

---

Harry fell out of the Floo in the Leaky Cauldron with a sense of foreboding, and a sputter of ash. What on earth had possessed him to even come in the first place, he couldn’t have said. It seemed monumentally stupid at best, recklessly suicidal at worst. Then again, hadn’t Snape always accused him of being both?

It hurt more than a little to admit that perhaps he hadn’t been completely off base.

The Howler certainly hadn’t been the incentive, as much as it had nearly made him jump through the wall in shock, when it exploded on him during a toilet break. (He was only glad that he’d thought to divert all unrecognised mail straight into a chest in the basement, after the article -- there were more Howlers waiting right there, he was sure of it.) No, hearing Ron and and Hermione demand to meet him this evening with the shrill quality that only this kind of letter conveyed hadn’t been it. Nor had it been the promise to hunt him to the ends of the earth if he didn’t show up tonight -- in fact, it had a lot more to do with the final words that followed said promise. “For us, Harry, please?” Hermione had added, after a momentary lull, voice hushed and so soft he could barely detect it in the wake of the shouting. Something about it had made him stop short, and so here he was, much as he wished that he wasn’t.

And he really, really wished he wasn’t. Going out in public itself was trial enough; in the dim, packed confines of the bar, every hair on his body suddenly stood on end. The blatant stares he received as he dusted himself off only exacerbated his nervous tension. Harry challenged any sane person to not become paranoid under such observation, mixed suspicion and curiosity alike. So much for being delusional. When you were Harry Potter, they really were watching you, every damn moment of every day.

At least Ron and Hermione had picked a booth out of the way, in the back corner of the pub. Harry ignored his surroundings as best as he could, making his way over towards them.

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, when he sidled into the seat across from them, his back to the crowd. “It’s so good to see you, you have no idea. We weren’t sure you were going to make it.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably, eyes flicking towards the table to avoid the plain relief on her face, the sombre set of Ron’s mouth.

“Yeah, well, I’m here,” he said. “Hell of a place to pick, I’ve got to say. It’s not exactly private round here.”

“Oh, for the love of -- Muffliato! Privatus Totalus! There you go,” she said, as the charms tingled through the air, encasing them in a bubble of muted sparks. “We are wizards, you know. Anyway, we thought it’d be better to have this conversation on neutral ground, so to speak.”

Harry stayed silent. His finger traced the outline a glass had left behind on the table. The wood was sticky to the touch.

“Go on, then,” he ground out, when the silence had pressed on for an interminable stretch of time. It had been the wrong choice, to sit with his back to the room. Unpleasant as those stares had been, it was worse somehow, not being able to see. Every muscle in his body felt tensed for flight; his palms were clammy with sweat. “Say what you came here to say. I’m listening.”

A soft sigh from across the table. “Harry... we’re not here to fight, or read you the riot act, or anything. We’re just worried, that’s all. You haven’t been yourself, lately, can’t you see that? You must be able to see that.”

If he clenched his jaw any more tightly, he was sure it would break. “I’m fine.”

A glass crashed to the floor behind the bar and Harry jumped about a foot in the air. When he remembered how to breathe again, Ron’s brows were drawn in a frown across the table.

“That right there, mate? That’s what we’re talking about.”

“So what? I’m not entitled to be a little jumpy after the year I’ve had? The last seven years, for that matter?”

Or try the entirety of his whole damn sodding life, really.

“Of course you’re entitled,” Hermione cut in, gently. “But it isn’t just that you’re a bit jumpy, and you know it. Before tonight, when was the last time you left the house? When was the last time you showed an interest in anything other than...” she broke off, shook her head. “You spend all your time, and I do mean all your time, locked in that room, shut up in a dead man’s memories. It isn’t healthy, Harry. It isn’t healthy.”

“I’m sick then, is that what you’re saying? I thought this wasn’t supposed to be about accusations --”

“And it isn’t!” she said, shaking her head again. Her fingers played with the hem of one sleeve, her eyes too wide and bright. Ron, beside her, was biting his lip, as if something simmered beneath the surface, dying to get free. “But... it isn’t like we haven’t tried. We tried giving you space, in case you needed it. We tried to back off for a while, to let you know that we’re here, that we care, and it’s all led to nothing. We hoped that what happened with Ginny might finally snap you out of it, but you didn’t call, and...”

“What happened with Ginny,” Harry said, “is none of your goddamn business.”

Hermione looked distraught. Ron, on the other hand, looked incensed. “Now listen,” he said, “that just isn’t on.”

It failed to have the desired effect. If anything, it only made Harry’s blood boil all the hotter. “Not on? Not on, really, Ron? I’ll tell you what isn’t on. ‘Sources close to the man himself’, that isn’t fucking on!”

“Oh Harry,” Hermione whispered. “You don’t honestly believe that Ginny... you know she’d never do something like that.”

“Do I, though? Do I, really? Quite frankly, I don’t know what to fuck to believe any more!” He slammed his fist on the table. “The Prophet’s first in line to hail me the next Lord Voldemort, and you two, it seems, are not too far behind. Even if Ginny wasn’t the one who spoke to them, they must’ve got their information from somewhere, so she clearly didn’t keep her big mouth shut all that well, then, did she?”

“You’re bang out of order, mate,” Ron said. “You’re so far over the line, it’s not even funny. Ginny, not that you give a shit, was gutted by that article. She’s pretty damn gutted in general, and thanks for asking.”

“She should’ve kept her mouth shut,” Harry repeated, ignoring the roiling twist of his guts.

“Yeah, well, it’s not like you gave her much choice, is it? There’s only so much you can tell your older brother or his girlfriend, knowing it’ll get back to him. And damn, but Harry, she needed to talk to someone. You put her through hell. No, Hermione, don’t kick me; someone’s got to say it!”

Hermione looked like she was about to cry. But Ron, picking up steam now, continued undeterred. “You put us all through hell. And I’ll come right out and say it, because I’m not afraid to: you’ve been nothing short of selfish, these past few weeks. So you’ve had a rough year, you saw a whole lot of shit go down that was nasty as fuck, but, you know what, so did we.”

“I died,” Harry said, inaudible through the force of Ron’s tirade.

It wasn’t the same. Snape, Harry thought with a bitter sense of desperation, Snape would have understood that.

“We were right there with you,” Ron continued. His face was quickly approaching the colour of his hair. “You’re not the only one who’s lost people, and you know you aren’t, but you don’t even care, do you? I don’t know what kind of twisted thoughts are going on up in your head when you lock yourself away in Snape’s -- Snape, of all people! -- head for hours on end, but it sure as fuck isn’t grief for any of us. How do you think my mother felt, when you refused to come to her birthday, when she had to deal with a distressed daughter on top of knowing that one of her sons has died?”

For a long, endless moment, silence reigned. Harry knew, somewhere in the back of his head, that he ought to feel guilty, that Ron had a point, but the knowledge felt like a distant memory, too far buried beneath the helpless frustration that they wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand. It sank away in the ocean of betrayal that seemed to envelop him, swallowed by the accusations, the pounding sense of being cut adrift. ‘Snape of all people!’ echoed inside him, an infinite loop.

So Snape wasn’t worth grieving for, then? Snape, who was like Harry, Snape, who would have understood him, if only Harry had allowed them the chance.

He clung to the wild injustice of it like a drowning man clings to a plank of wood.

“If that’s how you feel,” he heard himself say, “then I really don’t know what you’re still doing here.”

“No,” Ron agreed, after a beat. “I don’t know why I am, either.”

And with that, he got up from the table and walked away without another glance back.

“Harry,” Hermione said, voice quivering on his name. “He didn’t mean half of the things he said. You know how he gets, when he’s angry. It’s just... it’s just so hard to try and understand where you’re coming from at the moment, when you won’t let us in.”

“Just leave me alone,” Harry said, gaze fixed once again to the table. “Just go. Leave me the fuck alone.”

It seemed to be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, because she uttered what sounded suspiciously like a sob, then another, and then she was flying past him, face in her hands, long hair blanketing it from view. Harry slid into the empty seat left behind, inconceivably glad for the weight of the booth against his back. Every part of him felt drained and hollow and aching. He wished with the fervour of a thousand suns that he’d never been stupid enough to come in the first place.

The privacy spells still shimmered around him, but people had clearly witnessed enough; some even went so far as to point at him in their conversations, all pretence at subtlety forgotten. For a brief moment Harry considered just getting the hell out, but the blatancy of it rankled, rubbed something raw inside him which left him with nothing but spite.

He walked up to the bar instead, and ordered Firewhiskey. A bottle of Firewhiskey.

If people were going to talk, he might as well give them something to talk about.

---

It was well past dusk by the time Harry stumbled out of the Leaky Cauldron’s entrance into Charing Cross Road. Floo travel between Grimmauld Place and public locations had always been one way, and he hadn’t bothered to fix this in recent weeks. He would have to Apparate back home, but hadn’t felt up to facing Diagon Alley, and with a little luck he’d be able to find someplace secluded along the road, where he would be away from prying eyes...

Wait a second. Surely the backyard that marked the intersection between Wizarding and Muggle worlds would have qualified for that -- why hadn’t he thought of it before? Why had he walked straight out the front door, instead?

It must be the alcohol, he reckoned. All of his thoughts felt a bit sluggish, as though they were being dragged backwards through molasses, and now that he thought of it, the world seemed a bit unsteady on its axis, all wobbly-like. Surely the pavement wasn’t meant to tilt at that alarming an angle?

Perhaps he shouldn’t have had the entire bottle. He wasn’t too used to drinking, after all.

A group of Muggle teenagers out on the town ran past him, screaming in delight. They paid him no heed, dressed as he was in jeans and a button-down, but the sudden noise was a shock to his system, setting his pulse racing. Apparently, although alcohol blurred the world round its edges, it wasn’t as much of a cure to his nerves as he’d hoped. A car drove by, headlights flashing, and Harry jerked back against the building beside him. He felt exposed, suddenly, out on the main road like this; the lights left on overnight in shop windows were too bright to take. Thankfully, a side street cut off to his right not all that far away, and he stumbled towards it on unsteady legs. The rough brick of the wall against his back was soothing, steady, solid. His legs felt like liquid, all of a sudden, and he couldn’t quite tell if it was the anxiety, or being drunk. The tiredness, too, seemed not too unreasonable after the day he’d had, and when his legs decided to fold slowly under him, he just went with it.

He would just rest here, for a bit. He would just sit here, for a few minutes -- okay, or possibly lie down, even -- until he had caught his breath, until the world stopped spinning. This wasn’t so bad, really... though hard, the pavement was cool against his feverish cheek, a welcome relief.

When he next opened his eyes, they came to rest on a pair of slightly scuffed, but well-polished boots. Some instinct of self-preservation told him to move, but his limbs refused to cooperate. He settled for tilting his head upwards -- slowly -- to take in whomever was standing above him, gaze sweeping up the wide, voluminous robes with entirely too many buttons, up past the crossed arms, up all the way to a pale face curtained by black sheets of hair, a disproportionately large nose...

Harry’s vision blurred, then refocused. He closed his eyes on a groan.

“You’re not real,” he told the apparition. “Can’t be real. You’re dead.”

“And you, Mr Potter, are seven sheets to the wind.”

It even managed to sound like Snape, the same sour tone, as if he’d just sucked on a lemon. A rustle of robes, and the voice came closer. “Pray tell, what precisely is it you think you’re doing, having a nap in the middle of central London on a weekday evening, with your wand out in the open?” A soft clatter, like wood rolling against stone. “Even I, in my limitless appreciation for your lack of mental faculties, would have thought you to have more sense than that.”

A sound pushed itself past Harry’s lips, unbidden, something halfway between a sob and hysterical laughter. “Oh God.” His words came out slurred. “It’s all true, isn’t it? They’re all right, I’ve actually gone and done it, I’ve cracked. I’ve cracked, and I’m talking to a hallucination, I’ve gone round the bend, I’ve --”

“Potter!” The physical jolt of a hand gripping his arm was enough of a shock to cause his eyes to fly open. “For Merlin’s sake, pull yourself together. I assure you, I am quite real.”

Harry blinked. He sounded so certain, this Snape-who-could-not-be-Snape. He looked certain, too, though mostly he looked annoyed, as if he’d stepped in the remnants of one of Neville’s more unfortunate potions mishaps.

But then again, wouldn’t a hallucination be all those things?

“If you’re not a hallucination,” Harry said slowly, carefully, “then prove it. Tell me something that only you and I would know.”

Snape stared at him. Then he pressed a hand to his brow, as if he couldn’t even contemplate the stupidity that made up Harry. When he gazed back down at him, his eyes were flashing with ire.

“You mindless twit. If I were, in fact, a mere figment of your imagination, it stands to reason that I would remain apprised of the entire contents -- or lack thereof -- of your unfortunately dense skull. As such, telling you something only you and I know is an exercise steeped in futility.”

Oh. That made... a surprising amount of sense, once Harry had managed to parse it.

“I’d never have thought of that,” he admitted. Snape snorted. “Which means that you must be you... yourself, I mean. I mean, like, the actual Severus Snape, not an --”

“We’ll go with that, for now,” Snape cut him off, reaching to his side to pick up something from the ground -- Harry’s wand, he presumed. “Now come on -- up.” The hands which gripped his shoulders, tipping him first into a sitting position, then pulling him onto unsteady feet, did feel decidedly real. “If you could assist in getting vertical, I would be most obliged. Unlike some, I do not intend to spend the night.”

“Wasn’t planning on sleeping here,” Harry mumbled, steadying himself against the wall. “Am gonna Appa-- Apparate...”

“Like hell you are. And splinch yourself to bits along the way, yes? I’ll sidelong you. Can you stand on your own?”

Judging by the way the world tilted, Harry guessed the answer to that was in the negative.

“Evidently not,” Snape said, and slung an under Harry’s own, propping him up. “We’re too close to the main road. Do make an effort to walk. I categorically refuse to carry you.”

He came damn close to it, though, since Harry’s legs were inclined far more to drag than move where he intended them to go. They made slow progress.

“I don’t understand,” Harry murmured against the rough wool of Snape’s cloak. “If you’re not dead, then how...” damn it, he’d forgotten what he meant to ask. “I mean, why are you here?”

“Circe only knows,” Snape said. “Years of Pavlovian conditioning is the only explanation I can come up with, damn Albus and his scheming to all nine hells. I came to ascertain for myself whether the published drivel in the Prophet that dares call itself reporting had any basis in fact. It appears that for once...”

But Harry had stopped listening. The swaying gait they’d fallen into had once again set the world to spinning, and with it, this time, came a nausea so fierce he actually feared that it might turn him inside out. His mouth tasted sour, vile, the lingering taste of whiskey overpowering, and without conscious thought, he heaved...

“Oh no, you don’t. Not on my robes.”

In one swift movement, Snape twisted Harry round, away from him, still holding onto his shoulders. The sudden lurch was too much for his stomach to take, and he promptly proceeded to empty its entire contents -- mostly whiskey, to be fair -- onto the pavement below him.

Fuck.

At least the nausea abated somewhat, once he was done, if not the vileness of his mouth. Spitting did little to get rid of it. Thankfully, he’d managed not to get any on himself, near bent in half as he had been.

“And thus,” Snape said from behind him, “my night is utterly complete.”

Humiliation held Harry’s tongue the rest of the way as much as the horrid pounding in his head. Apparating was nothing short of torture -- he managed to hold off on throwing up again, although he retched rather pathetically on the doorstep of Number 12. Snape rolled his eyes, then bodily dragged him up the stairs, and dumped him on his bed.

It wasn’t until Harry lay there, blinking fuzzily up at Snape’s disgusted face, that he remembered everything he’d thought, everything he needed to convey, all in a rush. If this was going to be his only chance, he couldn’t let it slip through his hands. It was too important, too important that he make Snape understand the similarities between them, to make him see.

“I’m you,” was what he came out with, much to his horror. No, that hadn’t been it. Desperately, he tried again. “I mean, you, you’re me!”

Snape stared at him as though he’d grown a second head. Then he sneered. “Congratulations, Mr Potter,” he drawled. “As if tonight’s spectacular performance wasn’t quite enough, you also manage to win first prize for both the most inane comment and the most insulting statement to have ever graced my ears.”

A wave of sadness rushed through Harry, unlike any he had ever felt. When Snape moved to turn away, he weakly grabbed for him, his fingers snagging on the trailing edge of a sleeve.

“No please,” he whispered, and he didn’t care one whit how pathetic he must sound. “Please don’t leave. I have to make you understand... I have to...”

He never quite got to the end of his sentence, nor did he hear Snape’s reply, if indeed there was one. His eyes slid closed against his will, and before he knew it, he had fallen asleep.

---

When Harry woke up, his first thought was that he had died. Again. He had died, and this time, to make up for all of his past transgressions, he was going straight into hell, do not pass King’s Cross Station, do not collect sage advice from a deceased mentor.

There was no other explanation for the sheer agony. His skull felt like it had been crushed by a dragon; his mouth tasted like something had died in it. The sunlight streaming through the windows had turned into bright lances of pain, threatening to stab his eyes out.

It took him a good ten minutes to convince himself to turn his head to the side. When he did, he spied a bottle of Pepper Up potion on the bedside cabinet, and even through the throbbing of his head he lunged for it instinctively, like it might as well have been gold dust

He gulped it down in one go, ignoring the queasy wriggle of his stomach. As steam blasted out of his ears it mercifully took the train which had taken residence inside his brain with it. For a long moment, he simply breathed. Bliss. Relief.

Wait a second. Had he left that bottle there, himself? He couldn’t recall doing so. Perhaps Kreacher... but no, he was still at Hogwarts. And what the hell had happened last night, anyway? He could remember fighting with Ron and Hermione -- something twisted sharply inside him at the thought -- and then... nothing.

It all came back to him when he was halfway through brushing his teeth. His hand, still holding the brush, froze mid-movement, as every last detail reasserted itself in blinding Technicolor. He stared at himself in the mirror, not sure what to feel, emotions careening wildly between humiliation, despair that he’d let Snape get away, and giddy, unrestrained joy at the fact that Snape had been there, that he wasn’t dead, he wasn’t...

Something downstairs thumped dully. Then, a beat later, Hermione’s voice echoed up the stairs, hesitantly calling his name.

Harry spat out the toothpaste and chucked his brush in the sink, not sticking around to see where it landed. Joy, inevitably, had won out. Snape was alive. Nothing else mattered -- not that he had made a complete arse of himself, not that Snape hadn’t stuck around -- after all, what were tracking spells for? Snape was alive.

It filled him to bursting, the knowledge, filled him down to his core, blindingly bright. He couldn’t possibly contain it. He raced down the stairs, taking them two at a time, through the corridor, skidding to a halt in the kitchen.

“Hermione!” he shouted, grabbing her by the arms, his smile so wide that he was half convinced it would split his face in two. “Hermione, oh God, he’s alive!”

Her expression, which had lifted into cautious hope upon his entrance, froze in a parody of indecision. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What are you on about?”

“Snape!” He damn near shouted the name, too overcome to restrain himself, too overcome to even make the attempt. “Snape, oh my God, he’s alive, Hermione! I saw him with my own two eyes!”

Her face fell. Just like that, any lingering traces of optimism obliterated themselves, leaving behind a helpless sort of pity. “Oh, Harry,” she whispered. It was an absolutely wretched sound, this close on the heels of elation.

“You think I’ve gone crazy.” He didn’t make it a question, running one hand through his hair. “You actually think... okay, I get it, it looks a bit weird. But I swear to you, I’m not losing my mind. After you left last night, I got drunk, and then I kind of... stumbled around London a bit. I wasn’t really in a fit state to get home on my own, and then, just like that, out of the blue, he appeared.” He waved his arms for emphasis. “He brought me back. I swear to you, I’m not making this up.”

Her eyes flicked over him, top to toe, her nose wrinkling. “You got drunk, all right,” she said. “That I believe. You smell like the Hog’s Head. As for the rest...” She shook her head. “You were drunk, Harry. You must have dreamt it, or something, I don’t know. It wouldn’t really be surprising, what with all the time... what with everything.”

The joy was deserting him, fast. It still clung to him, but was steadily seeping from him, like blood from a wound. As if Hermione was pulling it out of him by sheer force of will, and that was... incredibly unfair, was what it was.

“I think I can tell the difference between a dream and reality,” he bit back. “Honestly, can you not just trust me on this? It’s kind of important.”

“He’s dead, for crying out loud!” Her hand jabbed the air. “He’s dead. We saw him die, remember? We saw him die, and we collected the body. We buried it ourselves -- it’s in the tomb right next to Dumbledore’s. Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that, too.”

For one horrible moment, Harry‘s confidence wavered, teetering perilously on the precipice of an abyss. He hadn’t forgotten, no, but he also hadn’t precisely taken the facts into account. He remembered his initial conviction, last night, that Snape couldn’t possibly be real. What if she turned out to be right? Was it conceivable, that he’d gone that far beyond the pale?

No. It couldn’t be; he wouldn’t let it. Snape was alive, and that was that.

“I haven’t forgotten,” he snapped back at her, more viciously than he’d intended. “I don’t know about the body -- there must be some kind of reasonable explanation. I’m sure of it. I just didn’t exactly have the opportunity to get all my questions answered, last night. As I said, I was drunk at the time.”

“And he didn’t stick round the house, either; he isn’t here right now, yes?” Hermione asked. All the fight had drained out of her voice, leaving behind only resignation. “Can’t you see, at least a little, how convenient that looks? No, that wasn’t fair. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to call you a liar --”

“No, just crazy,” Harry said. “Why did you come in the first place?”

Her shoulders slumped. “I was just going to say, it didn’t feel right, leaving you like that, yesterday, no matter how upset I was. I know things haven’t been easy for you, and all I’m trying here is to be a good friend, is to... I’m so worried, Harry. Please, could you not maybe come and see someone with me? There’s... there’s people at St Mungo’s, and you wouldn’t have to go alone, I’d be with you every step of the way. Just... just to make sure, that you’re all right.”

“What, so the Prophet can pick it up the next day and make sure I get stuck inside a padded little cell, somewhere?”

“It isn’t like that, I promise, it’s --”

“No thanks, I think I’ll pass. But I appreciate the vote of confidence, thank you ever so much. You really are a tremendous friend, with all this faith that you clearly have in me.”

“Harry...”

She was about to cry again; he could tell from the tremble of her lower lip, the wide dampness of her eyes. She was going to cry again, and he couldn’t stand it, not again, not two days in a row. For some reason, it felt suspiciously like it was his fault, and wasn’t that ludicrous, when she was the one who wouldn’t believe him?

“Just leave me alone,” he echoed his words from yesterday, not looking back as he turned and headed out of the kitchen. “Just give me some bloody peace.”

When he heard the soft whooshing sound of the Floo as he came to the top of the landing, he told himself firmly that what he felt was relief.

---

He spent the rest of the day in a state of nervous anticipation that left him uncertain whether to turn this way or that, unsure of what to do next. It seemed inconceivable that only twenty-four hours ago he would have been content to simply sink into memories for the rest of the day, not surfacing until his stomach complained so loudly at the lack of nourishment that it forced his hand.

Not that it wasn’t still tempting. The argument with Hermione had left him edgy, unsettled, and his first instinct had been to retreat. He’d come as close as actually pouring the memories into the polished bowl of the Pensieve, but then the thought struck -- what if Snape came back? He’d screwed up his chance last night royally, that much was certain, and he damn well wasn’t about to do it again. Only fools made the same mistake twice. Or... okay, so maybe it was closer to twenty, or even fifty, given that he’d spent six years in Snape’s direct vicinity pointlessly hating him, but the point stood.

Once the decision was made it left him with waiting for Snape to come back, and patience had never been his strong suit. Of course, as soon as he’d curled up on the window seat with a book, another thought assaulted him close on the heels of the first one: what if Snape didn’t come back? He hardly had a reason to, given how Harry had acted last night; he hadn’t seemed pleased in the slightest to be there. Annoyed, yes, and disgusted, as if Harry was a particularly unpleasant piece of filth he couldn’t quite scrape off the sole of his shoe. Just how stupid was he, to even think that Snape might be inclined to come back for more? Had his time in the Pensieve really skewed his perceptions that much? How could he have forgotten how much Snape hated --

It suddenly seemed hard to breathe. If Snape wasn’t going to... if Snape wasn’t... fuck, what was wrong with him? Shouldn’t he be doing something, shouldn’t he be heading out to that street near Charing Cross, to see whether he could find any hints as to how to find him?

Impossibly, his heart raced even faster, his ribcage weighed down with lead. Instantly, the memories came, the blinding headlights of cars, the noise of people out on the town. No, no, he had to stop thinking about this, this wasn’t getting him anywhere. His thoughts felt too dense, too fast; if he kept going on like this something in there might actually break, and where would he be, then?

Snape had to come back. He had to, he had to, he had to, if only because Harry sure as fuck wasn’t making it out there, not in this state.

He repeated the phrase in his head like a mantra, until he could breathe again, until he (halfway) believed it. For the rest of the day, he sat on the window seat, trying his best to read as a distraction, but his mind kept wandering off, had to be tugged back to the book and away from too-dangerous territory. The tiniest creak set him jumping in twin states of conflicting impulses: the wearying hyper-awareness he was becoming uncomfortably used to intermingled with the new, headier hope of Snape’s arrival.

By the time night fell, his nerves were utterly shattered, his hands shaking with a fine tremor he was helpless to stop. And he had entirely forgotten to eat.

This was pathetic, he decided, as he forced a couple of slices of toast down his throat. This wasn’t like him, this kind of passivity, sitting on his hands and being unable to lift a finger. It shouldn’t be this exhausting to read, it shouldn’t be this damn hard think, let alone not do so. The only place that seemed safe in his head were the scenarios of what he’d say to Snape when he next saw him, countless variations on a theme. They, at least, were strangely comforting.

A voice nagged in the back of Harry’s mind, periodically, prodding at more thoughts Harry chose to ignore. It sounded suspiciously like Hermione.

He fell asleep well into the early hours of the morning. There were none of the usual nightmares, this time, no fire and brimstone and sharply accusing eyes; yet, when he woke only a few hours later, he knew he had dreamed. The details escaped him, for once, wafting away like curls of smoke. His eyes were wet, though, and a profound sense of abandonment lingered throughout him; in a way, it was more unsettling than his usual terrors. He pressed his face to the pillow and sought valiantly for sleep. When the sun rose on the horizon, and he was still curled in the exact same position, he finally gave up the lost cause.

Failing to sleep, of course, did not equate to not being tired. Even used as he was to insomnia, today presented a whole new kind of zombified haze, and by the time lunch rolled around, he had inhaled four cups of coffee and very little else. The voice in the back of his head was becoming ever more insistent, too, refusing to be ignored any longer.

What if he really was going mad? Hermione’s insistence mingled with the memory of Snape telling him that there was no way to judge it, objectively. It seemed to make sense. He recalled a programme from years back, talking about the insidiousness of delusions, how they had an internal logic all of their own. He hadn’t caught much of it, Uncle Vernon changing the channel with a muttered comment about how those freaks should all be locked up for everyone’s good, but he remembered the fascination he’d felt at the time. How did one decide, anyway, what was real and what wasn’t? Snape had felt real, to him, down to every last detail, and wasn’t that, ultimately, what counted? It was utterly bewildering, thinking through this stuff. Bewildering, and more than that, stupendously terrifying. His stomach roiled with the ache of it, and for a moment he had to breathe deeply so he wouldn’t throw up.

It was too much too contemplate.

No, no, it couldn’t be. He had to stop thinking about this, had to pull himself the fuck together. Snape was real, Snape was alive, and Harry wasn’t going to sit here driving himself up the wall questioning it. Snape was out there, somewhere, and if he wouldn’t return on his own, then, well, tough luck. Harry was just going to have to find him, and if he eventually had to leave the house to do so, then he’d just have to manage. It couldn’t get worse than this, right, than questioning his very sanity?

He practically raced to the library. He probably looked manic as hell, but there was no one around, no friends to over-analyse his actions and put seeds of doubt into his mind. Good; he didn’t have time for that. Tracking spells, that was what he needed. Tracking spells.

He couldn’t have said how much time passed, from that point onwards. The Black family library was extensive, if nothing else, and Harry delved into it with abandon until his space on the floor was surrounded by piles of open books: small ones, ancient tomes, crumbling spines and impeccable bindings. It was only when something flickered in the periphery of his vision that the spell broke, making him look up.

Snape stood in the open door of the room, studying Harry with a kind of contemptuous curiosity, as though he were a particularly annoying puzzle. Perhaps a Rubik’s Cube -- Harry still vividly remembered the summer he’d spent fighting with one, after Dudley had thrown it into his cupboard the very same day he’d received it for his birthday.

Harry had never been more pleased to see anyone in his life.

“Oh my God. You have no idea how good it is to see you.”

In his rush to get up, his foot caught on one of the heavier books; he tripped, nearly fell. The only thing that kept him from landing flat on his face right under Snape’s nose was the rather desperate pin-wheeling of his arms.

“I assure you, the sentiment is not reciprocated.” Snape sneered. “I see that maintaining a vertical position is still proving a challenging task. Perhaps you require some practise?”

The insult barely even registered. Nor did embarrassment -- how could it, under the wash of pure, unbridled relief?

“You’re real.” Harry stepped closer, grinning his face off. His hands reached out of their own accord, grasping Snape’s arms. They felt reassuringly solid, warm. “You’re actually real.”

Snape shook him off. “Yes, Potter, we had already established that. Do pay attention.” He scowled, shifting minutely. “Reassuring as it is to find that your intellect has not been adversely affected by your latest... escapades, I believe I shall take my leave now.”

And just like that, he turned, striding towards the front door.

“No! Wait --” The panic was back, instantly, blocking Harry's throat. As if by some miracle, though, Snape obeyed, stopping partway through the corridor. His shoulders rose, then fell in an exaggerated sigh, before he turned to cast Harry a baleful look.

“You... you only just got here,” Harry finished lamely. Which hadn’t been what he’d intended to say at all.

“If you are labouring under the assumption that this is a social call, you are sadly mistaken. What do you propose, that we sit down for tea? Afternoon crumpets?”

“No, that wasn’t what I was trying --”

“I came to check that you had not somehow managed to expire from alcohol poisoning. As this is evidently not the case, I am quite done. If that is all --”

“But... but you can’t go, not yet! There’s so much I have to tell you, so many questions I need to ask, you can’t just...” Harry faltered, casting about for words. The sleep deprivation didn’t help, nor did Snape’s unimpressed stare. “I think they’re right,” he burst out, unexpectedly, entirely without his volition. “The Prophet, my friends, they all think I’ve lost it, and I’m terrified, because I think they’re right.”

Snape’s eyebrow arched. “That much is evident. Unfortunately for you, Potter, I couldn’t possibly care less.”

Harry thought he could cry. For one blink of an instant, the confession had felt good, a relief he hadn’t expected, but Snape’s casual dismissal stomped out the spark, left only hollowness in its wake. His chest felt too tight, thin bands of steel squeezing the breath from him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, it wasn’t, at all.

“That’s a lie.” The moment he said it, he knew it to be truth. “That’s a lie,” he repeated more firmly, pointing a finger at Snape, “and you know it. You said so yourself, the other night. You saw that article in the Prophet, and you got concerned enough to leave your cover to track me.”

Snape straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. “I said no such thing, you arrogant, self-important little snot. What I said was --”

“Yeah, yeah, Pavlovian conditioning, I remember. Make whatever excuses you want, I don’t care. You came back, didn’t you? You came back, and you didn’t have to. If you genuinely thought I was at risk of alcohol poisoning, you’d never have left me that night, you’re far smarter than that. You know why you really came back? Because you and I, we’re not finished. There’s all this unresolved crap, years of it, all piled up between us and some part of you knows that and can’t let it slide. You can’t leave, because we’re not done. We’re simply not done.”

Oh, he had him, now. Harry sensed it instinctively, saw it in the twist of Snape’s mouth.

“Well, well,” Snape finally said, after a long moment’s silence, “that was quite the little speech. Tell me, did you practise it much?”

Harry’s temporary confidence unhelpfully decided to choose that moment to take a nosedive. “Maybe,” he said, squirming uncomfortably. Only about a hundred times or so, in any and all possible permutations. “But you’re trying to avoid the point.”

Snape stared at him. Then stared some more. He looked, for all the world, as though he desperately wanted to argue, to fling untold insults in Harry’s face, then storm out the door. What precisely was keeping him, Harry couldn’t have guessed. Perhaps Pavlovian conditioning -- whatever the hell that was -- perhaps merely the fact that he knew Harry was right.

The only problem with that lay in the fact that Snape, to the best of his recollection, didn’t take too well to being backed into a corner. It had seemed so reasonable a minute ago to point out the obvious flaws in his story.

Now that the silence stretched between them, Harry wasn’t so sure any more. What if he’d fucked it all up, yet again? It would be so typical, but he couldn’t bear the thought. Tendrils of anxiety snaked their way into his blood anew, and fuck, surely he didn’t use to be quite this pathetic? It was nothing short of exhausting, this constant emotional roller-coaster. Hardly surprising that Ron and Hermione and Ginny had all given up on him. He was pretty damn close to giving up himself, frankly, and if Snape sent him packing, too, if Snape...

He closed his eyes tightly, and leaned against the wall for support. It hurt to breathe.

“Please.” Apparently he wasn’t above begging. “I’m not expecting the world. I’m not trying to get you to be... friends with me, or anything. It’s just... everything’s been so fucked up.” He failed to keep the misery out of his voice rather spectacularly. “You’re the only thing that makes sense, any more.”

Snape snorted. “I sincerely doubt that.”

For some reason, the corner of Harry’s mouth tilted up in spite of himself. “Yeah, I know, it’s probably completely barmy.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I told you, I’m not all with it, right now. I just... I think I need some sense of closure, maybe, with you.”

There, that last part had almost sounded reasonable. Mature. He hoped it sounded the same way to Snape; at this point he found it impossible to tell. He chanced a glance at the man. He didn’t look precisely sympathetic; his lips were still pressed in a tight line, but neither did he look quite as incensed as he had done. Another infinite moment trickled past. Then, just before Harry could discover whether he would go so far in his quest for humiliation as to burst out into tears, Snape inclined his head slowly.

“Very well. I shall permit you one hour of my time each week, beginning Saturday. You will Apparate to a location of my choosing, the details of which I will provide in the next few days. I have exposed myself quite enough as it is already, I refuse to take any further risks. You will tell no one --” here, he took a step closer -- “and I mean no one of the fact that I am alive, or of these meetings.”

Harry thought of Hermione, and fought hard not to wince. Snape clearly misinterpreted his silence as objection.

“This is not up for negotiation, Mr. Potter. I find you have broken the terms of this agreement, I will hunt you down myself, and you will die a slow and painful, one might even say excruciating death. Is that clear?”

Harry decided that mentioning Hermione would be a spectacular mistake, at this juncture -- for all he knew, Snape would freak and the deal would be off. It wasn’t like she even believed him, so should the topic of Snape ever come up -- providing they ever spoke again -- he could find ways to work around that.

“Crystal,” he said instead. An hour wasn’t much, seemed like far too little, but it was a starting point. It was one hell of a lot more than he expected to come away with five minutes ago.

“Good.” Snape extended one hand, palm upwards, a clear demand. “My memories.”

A sudden bolt of fear rushed through Harry, utterly throwing him off balance. He should have seen this one coming it was so blatant, but for some reason he hadn’t even touched upon it, in all his ruminations.

“W-- what?” he stammered.

“My memories,” Snape repeated, impatient. “If I am to be forced to endure your intolerable presence, the least you can do is return what is rightfully mine.”

The floor seemed to be tilting beneath Harry, about to fall out from under his feet. But he couldn’t just... hand them over! What if he needed them? What if he had an atrocious night, and needed something to calm him down? They were the only thing, the only sure thing he had left. At the very least, he needed time to prepare for the loss, time to think about alternatives, time to digest the idea.

“No,” he said, and then added, very quickly, lest Snape get irritated, “You haven’t even given me the location yet. I have absolutely no guarantee that you won’t just take off again and fail to come through on your promise. I’m keeping them as insurance. You can have them... you can have them back when I first come to see you.”

Snape’s gaze flicked over him. “It appears the Sorting Hat was not mistaken, after all,” he said. “You would have done well in Slytherin.”

And without another glance back, he strode down the corridor and out the front door.

Harry was left feeling oddly like Snape might have just paid him a compliment.

---

In the wake of Snape’s departure, Harry found to his immense relief that he could sleep. He crawled into bed with a weary exhaustion not expecting much, even though the caffeine high had long since abandoned him, and for once the moment his head hit the pillow, he was out like a light.

Of course it still wasn’t the most restful experience; when he finally opened his eyes to the glare of mid-afternoon sun streaming in through the windows he felt rather like he had been chewed up by a Hippogriff, then spat out for good measure. His stomach rumbled violently. To his startlement a Tempus spell revealed that it was the following day. He had slept for twenty-four hours solid.

Clearly his body had needed it.

Food was the next item on the list. It occurred to him, as he surveyed the kitchen cupboards, that he hadn’t eaten anything other than toast in days. He’d not had the appetite, but suddenly he found himself starving. The scent of cooking meat when he chucked the first bacon rasher into the pan was overpowering, making his mouth water. It couldn’t possibly finish quickly enough.

He’d just cracked two eggs into the pan when a burst of sparks glittered before his eyes, causing him to jump backwards. When they dispersed, a piece of parchment remained, floating down softly. He snatched it out of the air and unfolded it.

Potter, it read, in Snape’s familiar cramped scrawl,

Below the coordinates for your point of Apparition. If the concept of Apparating via this method escapes you, learn. I suggest you memorise them quickly, as this letter will self-destruct within ten seconds of your reading it. Saturday, 7pm, sharp. Do not make me wait.

Beneath was a row of numbers and runes. Harry repeated them out loud, dumping the spatula to grab a quill from the table. He’d just finished scribbling them on the back of his hand when the parchment burst into flame, raining wisps of ash on his shirt. It was missing the point entirely, he knew, but he couldn’t risk forgetting them. Besides, it was all a bit ludicrous, enough to make him grin. This letter will self-destruct within ten seconds of your reading it. Honestly. What did Snape think this was, a Muggle spy film?

Still smiling, he slid the eggs and bacon on a slice of bread, liberally coating them with ketchup and mayonnaise before squishing another slice on top. He snatched a quick first bite, then carried his plate with him into the library. He was sure he’d seen a book on advanced Apparition in there, the other day.

---

The next day, he said goodbye to the memories.

It sounded a bit stupid, calling it that, like they were an actual person instead of inert fragments of neither liquid nor gas. In a sense they were precisely that to him, though; a friend and companion that had seen him through otherwise unendurable days, offering comfort when nothing else could suffice. He didn’t want to relinquish them, felt cold all over at the thought, wanted to cling to them with all that he had. But when it came down to it, he wanted the chance to reconcile with Snape more, and if the memories were the price he had to pay, it had to be worth it. After all they were static, unchanging; Snape was a living, breathing being who could respond to him, react, engage.

He would view them one more time, he had decided. Just once and no more, lest the temptation to bury himself in them became too strong, distracting him from what was really important. He sighed a little as he poured them into the basin. He already missed their familiar swirl, their silent promise of calm.

But he would have to make do.

Breathing in deeply, he let himself fall forward as they rushed up to meet him one final time.

---

Saturday approached both too slowly and entirely too fast. The more he thought on what he would say to Snape, what questions to ask, the less he could tell what would work. There was an unpredictability to this whole thing which set him on edge, flaying his nerves with a mocking uncertainty.

He got a tad sidetracked, too, wondering about Snape’s parting shot to him. How did he know about the fact that the Sorting Hat had nearly sorted him into Slytherin? It wasn’t as though Harry had been open about it, quite the contrary. True he had told Dumbledore about it in second year, and Dumbledore could conceivably have told Snape, but... that didn’t seem right, somehow. After all, the memories had made one thing clear: that Dumbledore had withheld at least as much, if not more, from Snape as from Harry -- another thing they had in common. It took a couple of days for Harry to remember about the Occlumency lessons, to recall that his Sorting had been one of the things flashing through his head as Snape had invaded his mind. Snape had never let on just how much he had caught of the lighting-quick flashes, but it was eminently possible that this one could have stuck.

Yes, that had to be it. He didn’t know why he had wasted time thinking about this. Everything had a rational explanation. On top of all that, the closer Saturday came, the more anxious he got about the Apparition -- the process had seemed simple enough in theory and he’d gone over it again and again to make sure that he grasped it, but theory was never quite the same as practise. It would only be typical if he managed to fuck it all up and splinch himself to bits on his way there. Snape, he was certain, would not be amused.

Finally, seven o’clock drew near. There was a kind of hectic glint to his eyes when he took one last glance in the mirror that he didn’t quite like. He brushed down his robes, vainly attempted to smooth his hair, then felt like a right moron. It hardly mattered what he looked like; he didn’t know why he was bothering. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on the coordinates which he had memorised now, so well that they glinted off the back of his eyelids.

Then, he Apparated.

When the unpleasant crushing sensation had passed, he found himself standing on the edge of a forest, tall trees rustling in the wind all behind him. Mercifully, all his bits were attached and in their right place. Before him, a short, winding path cut through knee-deep grass, leading up to a small, white-washed cottage, complete with thatched roof. To its right, there was a small pond with more trees dotted around it; in the waning light several ducks floated gracefully across the water. The cottage was the only building in sight; beyond it there was nothing but stretches of cornfields swaying gently in the wind as far as the eye could see.

It was possibly some of the most tranquil and idyllic scenery he’d ever been in.

Brushing off the thought that this couldn’t possibly be the right place -- it just wasn’t Snape -- he walked up to the door. Predictably, it lacked a bell. Harry rapped on it instead, three times.

It swung back to reveal Snape. His mouth was set firmly in one of his perpetual scowls, as though he had rather hoped Harry wouldn’t show up, and found himself sorely disappointed. There was something distinctly odd about his expression amidst the picturesque backdrop of the small, cozy living room. Harry found himself temporarily stunned out of speech.

“Well come in then, if you must,” Snape said tersely, retreating into the room. “Don’t dawdle unnecessarily on my doorstep.”

Harry followed mutely, and found himself unsure of what to do next, standing rather uselessly beside the plush, maroon sofa. Snape seemed have similar problems; he cast an almost longing look at a matching armchair as though he wanted to sit down, but then crossed his arms over his chest to glare at Harry instead.

“I...” Harry began, but couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.

“I trust you’ve brought my memories?” When Harry nodded dumbly, Snape stepped closer, extending one hand. “Give them here, then. Unless you intend to renege on your promise, now that I’ve fulfilled mine?”

“No, of course not!” Harry fumbled inside the pockets of his robes, hands suddenly too big and clumsy. It took entirely too long to find the small vial, but he eventually managed to pluck it from the depths of cloth, dropping it into Snape’s hand with only a hint of outward reluctance. Their fingers brushed briefly, then Snape slid the vial into his robes.

“What is this place?”

“My house.” Snape didn’t add obviously, though his tone did it for him, making it more than plain that he considered Harry a phenomenal idiot for even asking the question. Not precisely a flying start.

“Well, yes,” Harry said. “I can see that but it’s so...” he trailed off, glancing around him. The warm glow of magical torches illuminated the room, casting flickering shadows inside the seemingly endless nooks and crannies. The sofa was covered in soft, fluffy pillows; the drawn curtains in midnight blue were heavy and thick. It all felt incredibly... homey. “It just doesn’t seem you,” he finished, awkwardly.

Snape’s eyebrows drew closer together. “It belonged to Albus,” he said. “He gave it to me under an assumed name prior to his death, in case I should need a safehouse. Is that sufficient explanation for you?”

It was, actually. Harry could definitely see that, could see Dumbledore in this house, sipping tea and feeding the ducks. He nodded again, wishing his brain wasn’t deserting him so, wishing he could come up with something to say. It left him agitated, this silence, was all kinds of unbearable awkward.

Snape apparently found it an irritant, too.

“You know, Potter, for someone who insisted he had so much to say, so much to ask, you are remarkably closed-lipped.”

Harry flushed scarlet. “My mother --” he burst out.

“Is not a topic I will ever discuss.” Snape drew himself up even straighter. The tension in him was palpable, his mouth a twisted line. Alarm bells were going off in the back of Harry’s head, but he ignored them; now that he’d said it, he could think of little else.

“But you were in love with her,” Harry said. It had been the strangest thing in all of this, the hardest thing to wrap his head around. The idea that Snape could love, in the first place, the fact that it had been his mother, second. The knowledge that when Snape had looked at him -- in what Harry had thought to be his final moments -- he had seen Lily, rested uneasily inside of him. It warmed him strangely, and yet it also unsettled him, for all that he’d more than accepted it.

He couldn’t quite figure out why.

“Which part of ‘not ever’ escaped your pathetically limited vocabulary, Potter?” There were faint splotches of red on Snape's pale cheeks, his eyes flashing with ire. “I have precious little time for your hopelessly romantic misinterpretations of things which do not now, and never will, concern you!”

“I’m just trying to understand,” Harry said. This wasn’t right, none of this was right. Snape wasn’t supposed to be angry at him. Snape was supposed to get it, this need to lay things to rest, to unravel the knots that had him all twisted up inside. He remembered the ghost of her, insubstantial, warm red hair and warmer smile as he walked to his death. “She was my mother, and hardly anyone’s talked to me about her, nobody I know knew her anywhere near as well as you. And what do you mean, ‘hopelessly romantic misinterpretations’? I thought --”

“You thought things which didn’t concern you!” Snape repeated, a bit of spittle escaping his mouth with the shout. It landed on Harry’s robes.

“But...” None of this made any sense. “But you said so yourself, to Dumbledore. ‘Always’, you said, and your Patronus, the way that you were with her, it --”

“What Lily was to me, Potter, you could never comprehend.” Snape was trembling, now, finely, from top to toe. He stalked towards Harry, and Harry backed away, found himself pressed to the wall, Snape looming above him like judgement day come early. “Your mother was all that was bright and pure and holy in this world; she was nothing so facile as my love interest!”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said.

“Nor will you, within your lifetime! Now get out of my house!”

“But...” Harry knew it was folly, even as he said it. “But my hour isn’t up.”

For a split second, he thought Snape might hit him. “You’ve forfeited your hour by sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong! Out -- out --” he gripped Harry’s robes and hauled open the door, thrusting him past the threshold with a violent push -- “Get out of my sight!”

The door slammed closed with a note of finality. Harry stared at it, knees shaky and weak, wondering at a great many things.

But mostly he felt the bitter knowledge that he’d fucked up spectacularly.

---

He thought a lot, over the following week. Between the familiar backdrop of nightmares and jumping out of his skin at sudden noises, he replayed that evening countless times, analysed each facet of their interactions from each possible angle. There were still countless things he failed to understand; Snape’s ravings about his mother made no more sense in the light of day, no matter which way he turned them. Then again, Snape had said that they wouldn’t, and Harry conceded that he’d have to accept that. As off-limit topics went this one appeared to be the big no-no.

The rest of it, however, came out into sharper focus with rational -- as rational as he got, these days -- analysis. He figured out enough so he could settle on a plan, a hopefully more productive approach for their next meeting -- that was, if Snape ever let him inside the house again. There was a distinct possibility that this might not happen; he chose not to examine that one too closely. It made him all panicky, his breathing so shallow that his limbs tingled with it and his head spun, and frankly, he had enough of that already.

Without the memories to tide him through the days, he found a restlessness that could not be contained. He cleaned the house from top to bottom, began sorting through old rooms, chucking anything that looked like it had no value. He swept the floors and dusted the ceilings, settled eventually on alphabetising the library. That should take up a decent amount of time.

Curiously, whilst doing the latter, he discovered that he found cookbooks inexplicably soothing. There was something about the order and clear process in recipes: cream 100 grams of butter with 75 of sugar, sift the flour, mix well. He only had the ingredients to make scones -- certain essentials replenished themselves in the cupboards, whether through some spell or long distance-ordering, he didn’t know -- and those did turn out well, although there were too many for him to eat on his own.

The house felt so empty, alone. He banished the thoughts of Ron and Hermione alongside Snape refusing to see him and went back to the cookbooks.

By the end of the week he’d read so many recipes that he -- theoretically, at least -- could probably give Molly Weasley a run for her money.

---

The house looked precisely the same, when Harry returned the following Saturday, and Harry experienced a profound wave of relief at the fact. Stupid though it might be, in some corner of his mind he’d had visions of arriving to an empty plot, of Snape having been so utterly pissed off with him that he’d moved the whole house by sheer force of will (and magic), just to avoid him.

Yeah, no, it really had been a stupid idea.

He knocked cautiously, this time, hand trembling all the while. For a long stretch of time, nothing happened, and he’d just wondered whether it would be all right to knock again, or if it would simply make him a pest, when the door swung open.

Snape looked much as he had the last time Harry had seen him, though thankfully not as wild with rage. It was a more contained displeasure that radiated from him, like something simmering quietly away inside a covered cauldron.

“Potter,” he said. “Come back for more, I see. Which area of my life would you care to intrude upon this week, I wonder?”

“None,” Harry replied, with a confidence he didn’t quite feel. “Well, maybe your house. Physically, I mean, only. That is, if you’ll let me.”

Snape hesitated for a long moment. Then, he took a step back. The clear invitation was offset somewhat by him crossing his arms over his chest, by the unfriendly glare he shot Harry. He stepped inside anyway, closing the door behind him.

“I wanted to apologise for last week,” he said. “I really didn’t want us to get off on the wrong foot like that, and it was entirely my fault. I should’ve backed off the moment you said to, and I didn’t, and that was way out of line. So. Sorry.”

He took a deep breath. Snape was unmoving, not giving him an inch. But Harry had fully expected that and come prepared, so it didn’t throw him.

“I want to apologise for a lot of things, actually,” he continued. “There were a lot of times over the years when you were right, and I never admitted that to you, because I kind of hated it when you were right. It always made me feel so...” He shook his head; this wasn’t supposed to be about him. “...it doesn’t matter. So, I’ll just start. I’m sorry for not giving you the proper respect you were due as a teacher. I gave it to everyone else, and I should have given it to you, regardless of whether I liked you or not. Instead I suspected you and thought you were out to get me when you were looking out for my safety, something I never accepted, no matter how many people told me.

“I want to apologise for not practising Occlumency when you told me to. It was rash and stupid, and it damn near got me killed --” his throat closed up a bit, thinking of Sirius -- “and you were right when you said I wasn’t paying attention. If I’d listened to you, that whole sorry mess could have been avoided, but I didn’t listen. I want to apologise for looking in your Pensieve --” here, Snape bristled visibly -- “It was a gross invasion of your privacy, and I had no right. I had no right. I’m sorry for that. I didn’t like what I saw, by the way. I didn’t have fun. I know what it’s like to be...” bullied was perhaps not the best word to use, however accurate -- “treated like shit, and I don’t approve of it. You were right on that, too, my father and Sirius were absolute dicks to you. I’m sorry for that.”

Best to move on, if Snape’s uncomfortable shifting was anything to go by.

“I’m sorry for nearly killing Draco Malfoy in that bathroom. I shouldn’t have used a spell I didn’t know; it was reckless and stupid. I’m sorry, too, for lying about having your book -- I was scared shitless, but I lied because I knew I’d done wrong, and that’s not a very cool thing to do. I’m sorry for cheating in Potions by using your work.” Well, actually he wasn’t hideously sorry for that, knowing that it had led him closer to Slughorn and finding out about the Horcruxes, but best not to mention that. “I’m sorry for using your own spells against you. I’m really, really sorry for calling you a coward that night. I can’t even imagine how that must have felt, straight after what you had to do. You’re not, and never have been a coward; in fact I think you’re probably the bravest man I know.”

Another deep breath.

“I’m sorry for sitting about stupidly while I thought you were dying. I mean, I know you’re not dead, but when I thought you were, I kept beating myself up over that. I should’ve done something, anything, and instead I just sat there like an idiot and watched you die. And... I think that’s everything, for now. I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff, but those are the main ones.”

Apart from being sorry for invading Snape’s memories time and again, he realised dully. He hadn’t even thought of that up to now, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to say it, given that Snape didn’t know, but he actually did feel a deep sense of remorse. It was the same as him persistently asking about his mum last week, only on a much greater scale; a gross invasion of privacy. Suddenly he felt rather glad that Snape had taken them away.

He glanced up at Snape. He had moved some way into the room, whilst Harry was speaking, as though he needed the distance between them.

Now he stared at Harry as though he had grown a second head. His mouth opened, like he intended to speak, then closed a mere second later. He looked utterly lost for words.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Harry added quickly. “I know I’ve probably brought your whole world view crashing down with this, demonstrating that I’m capable of admitting my own faults and all -- wait, that’s actually something I ought to apologise for, too. Not the apologies just now, I mean, but the fact that for all those years, I always let you see the worst in me. I was aggressive and rude and spiteful, and generally unpleasant around you, in a way that I’m normally not. I think you made me feel insecure, and that’s why. But anyway --” God, he was rambling, wasn’t he? “You don’t need to say anything. I don’t expect it. I just wanted to say it because I felt it needed saying. We can go straight back to you insulting me, if you prefer.”

For a long moment, Snape stood frozen, still staring at Harry. Then, as through shaking himself from a haze, he stepped past the sofa and moved around the counter that separated off the kitchen area from the living room. He took the kettle from the hob, filled it with water, set it back and lit a fire beneath it.

“You didn’t apologise for that chicken-scrawl you call handwriting.” Snape measured out tea leaves into a pot. “It made reading your essays doubly torturous.”

“Well, I could never read your corrections, either. So I guess we’re even, on that one?”

Snape made a noncommittal sound. He poured hot water into the pot and stirred, before replacing the lid and taking a cup from the cupboard.

One cup.

Emboldened by the lack of cutting remarks flinging his way, Harry decided to risk it. “Do I get tea, too?”

Snape froze amidst pouring to scowl at him. “I don’t recall our agreement containing provisions as to catering requirements,” he said, but he set out another cup regardless. Harry slid it towards himself once it was full, not asking for milk. Best not to push his luck.

“Do cease hovering.” Snape sank into his armchair. “There’s a perfectly good sofa not a foot away from you, you know.”

Harry obeyed without question. The sofa was soft and comfortable, cozy like the rest of the room. It was so different from Grimmauld Place with all its dark corners and huge, cavernous rooms; he thought he could come to like it here. The tea was hot and slightly spicy; perhaps better without milk.

For a long while they sat in silence, sipping at their mugs. It lacked all the tension, though it wasn’t quite comfortable, yet. It just... was.

“Can I ask you a question?” Harry said eventually.

“You just did,” Snape pointed out. His cup clinked against its saucer. “And you indubitably will again, regardless of what I say. Do go on, then.”

“How did you survive? I mean, we thought you were dead for sure. There was...” he shivered a little, remembering -- “there was so much blood.”

Strange, how it had taken him this long to ask. Harry supposed he really had been pretty caught up inside his own head in recent weeks. He wondered why it didn’t bother him more.

“Damn blasted phoenix. Saw neither hide nor feather of it for the entire year, and then, in my...” Snape’s mouth curled in a sneer -- “hour of need, it burst right back into being. Or so I presume, since it was sitting on top of me when I woke up.”

“But Nagini’s poison...”

“I had been taking antivenin for the majority of the year. Couldn’t risk accidentally slipping away before I’d passed on the vital last message.” He shook his head. “It was a very close thing, I believe. Fawkes probably came just before it would have been useless. It certainly took all my strength to transfigure that plank of wood into a reasonable facsimile of myself and to come here. I was drinking blood replenishing potions for a whole week.”

Well, that explained that. Harry wondered, dimly, at Snape’s seeming ire towards Fawkes, then wondered some more at how close he had come to death, and got rather stuck on this point. He sipped at his tea.

“When you were slipping away,” he said slowly, “did you have any weird experiences? I mean...” oh, to hell with it -- “Did death look like King’s Cross station to you?”

Snape’s gaze, which had been fixed on one of the many bookshelves, snapped back to Harry. He frowned, deep lines etching into his forehead.

“What on earth are you on about, boy?”

So much for that. “Nothing,” Harry said a bit too hastily. “It’s stupid, forget it.”

But Snape kept at it, with the staring. And the frowning.

“I... When Voldemort... when I... when I died,” there, he’d said it, and he’d say it again, for good measure, “When I was dead, it looked like King’s Cross station, only whiter. All bright-like, a bit like when you stare into the sun. Dumbledore was there, and we spoke, and then he said it was all in my head, naturally, and then I woke up.”

It was weird, saying it. Harry realised with a start that he hadn’t talked to anyone about the experience, not even Ron and Hermione. Not the details at least; he’d given them a brief run-down in the aftermath of the battle, but something had kept him from going into specifics.

“Death looks like King’s Cross station,” Snape echoed, as if he couldn’t believe it. “You are utterly deranged, Potter, you know that?”

Harry squirmed a little. It did sound rather stupid, on second thought.

“Death looks like King’s Cross station,” Snape said again. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard in a while.” He laughed; a sharp bark of sound, and just like that, Harry’s discomfort evaporated. He should have bristled, he knew, at being mocked like this, but Snape’s unexpected laughter brought a tinge of those memories with it; the ones he’d liked best, full of sunshine and warmth and belonging.

He couldn’t help but smile a little, himself.

“I’m glad that you didn’t die,” he said, as if as an afterthought.

Snape toasted him with his teacup. “And again, I say, you are utterly deranged.” He drained his cup dry, then set it down on the table. “Your hour is up, by the way.”

Harry didn’t want to go. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this good, this safe. But it would be best to avoid any unnecessary conflict.

“I can come back next week, though?” he couldn’t help asking as he got to his feet.

Snape sneered a little, but it lacked force. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”

This time, when Harry stepped out of the door, he carried a feeling of warmth with him.

---

Buoyed by the success of his meeting with Snape and driven by curiosity after reading a bunch more recipes, Harry decided to venture out the front door to get some groceries. He still didn’t feel ready at all to set foot anywhere near Diagon Alley, knowing he would be stared at all the way, but Muggle London couldn’t be so bad, surely? He had a reasonable amount of Muggle currency in a drawer and he couldn’t spend the entirety of his life locked up inside his house. It would be good to get out of here for a while; it would be fine.

It turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

Perhaps it was that he’d chosen a bad time to go; he couldn’t remember Tesco ever being so full of people. They were everywhere, all around him, clustering in aisles and bumping against him with their trolleys, blocking his way and caging him in. He fought hard to ignore them, but it was no bloody use. The shelves, too, were bewildering, filled with a dizzying array of produce, ten different varieties of everything. He stared at them blankly, could not for the life of him remember what he’d intended to get. He should’ve made a damn list, but when he had left he had known what he needed, so why didn’t he, now? It was so loud, beep-beeping of checkouts, chattering voices melding into a vertiginous blur of noise that threatened to pull him under.

A flash of light caught in the corner of his vision. He jerked, whirling towards it instinctively, stumbling back and into a display of baked beans, sending them sprawling all over the floor.

But there were no drawn wands there, no robed Death Eaters about to strike. Just a man, holding a can of Diet Coke, and now staring at Harry as though he was off his rocker.

“Sorry, sorry,” Harry gasped, and then he couldn’t stand it one damn second longer, dropping what he held in his hands to fly towards the door. It seemed too far away, suddenly, blocked by throngs of people. He wrestled his way through them, apologising frantically all the while, trapped, caught, gripped by a terror he couldn’t explain.

Finally, finally, he was out in the open. He kept running, heedless of where, away from the people, the main road and its cacophonous turmoil, until he ground to a halt outside a block of flats. He tried to breathe but there wasn’t enough air, each inhalation a tremulous gasp, too shallow, too fast, beyond his control. He felt dizzy all over and sank to the floor as the world greyed around him, receding in stages. His heart was a hammer inside his chest, thumping so fiercely that he feared it would explode, and wouldn’t that be hilarious, if he died from going shopping, when the most powerful dark wizard had failed to achieve his demise?

This was pathetic, pathetic, pathetic. He buried his face in his hands as he rode out the waves.

It took rather too long. Mercifully, he didn’t pass out, but by the time he finally felt with it enough to get to his feet, he was utterly shattered. It had begun to rain, a fine drizzle that left him shivering.

When he eventually returned to the relative safety and warmth of No. 12 -- sans groceries -- a letter sat on the kitchen table, bearing the seal of Hogwarts.

He opened it wearily.

Dear Mr. Potter, it read,

With the new term due to start in a few weeks, I wanted to take it upon myself to write to you personally to invite you to meet with me for an informal discussion concerning your return to your studies. I am aware that things have been trying for you, in the wake of last year, and would simply like to ensure that we can meet your needs over the course of the coming year, so please do not be alarmed. I had fully intended to write earlier, but the restorations have kept me quite busy, so please accept my apologies on this account. I would be pleased to show you their progress -- rather remarkable, it has to be said -- during your visit, should you wish to see it.

You may Floo straight to my office; it will be set to admit you. Unless I hear otherwise, I shall expect you at 10 am on Wednesday next week.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress & Professor of Transfiguration, OoM 1st class

Harry set the letter down with a prickling sense of unease. He couldn’t possibly go back to Hogwarts, he couldn’t. If this was what happened when he went to the shops, what kind of a wreck would he be there, where it all happened? It didn’t even bear thinking about.

It didn’t bear thinking about at all.

---

He was still feeling downtrodden when Saturday evening finally rolled around. His nightmares, which had briefly relented before his disastrous shopping trip, had taken up again with a vengeance, jerking him awake on a nightly basis with blood and terror and guilt. Even the prospect of seeing Snape didn’t lift his spirits measurably; he was simply exhausted, drained to his core.

Snape was already installed in his customary armchair when Harry arrived, flicking the door open casually with his wand, not bothering to look up from the book he held in his hands. A cup of tea sat on the small table next to him; another, steaming, on the low coffee table before the sofa.

Some tiny knot inside Harry unravelled at the sight. He sank into the sofa, cradling the cup in his hands, just feeling its warmth.

“No questions today, Mr Potter?” Snape asked, when he still hadn’t spoken after several minutes. His tone had a bored lassitude to it, as if he didn’t care much either way. He kept reading whilst speaking, eyes firm on his book.

“Uhm.” Harry blew on his tea, took a cautious first sip. “What do you do with yourself all day?” It was the first thing that sprang to mind, perhaps unsurprisingly given Harry’s own failures to fill the seemingly endless hours.

“I read.” Snape turned a page. “I brew. I supply mail-order potions for a fairly large company. Delivered remotely by owl, of course.”

Huh. “Don’t you need some sort of credentials, for that kind of work? I mean, if you’re under an assumed name you can hardly be registered with the guild, and all.”

“Generally speaking, yes. I managed to convince them to test some samples; they were sufficiently impressed with the quality that they don’t care. It isn’t the most lucrative contract, but it suffices.”

Harry took another sip of his tea. “Don’t you ever get lonely, though, being here on your own?”

“Not now that I’ve got your sparkling wit and ever-insightful questions to entertain me. You forget that I despise other people, as a general rule.”

Yes, of course. Feeling rather stupid for asking the question, Harry fell quiet once more. The silence stretched out between them, leaving him to his thoughts as moments spooled out into minutes, time trickling by without a word. Snape didn’t prompt him again, seemingly content to keep reading.

“Sometimes I think it would have been better if I’d got on a train,” Harry said eventually. “If I’d never woken up again.”

Snape’s gaze snapped to him, instantly. He lowered his book, forehead working into a frown.

“Do you have such thoughts often?” he asked, voice perfectly level. Cautious. Assessing.

Damn it. Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?

“No, it’s nothing,” Harry said rather quickly. “I shouldn’t have said that. Just forget that I did.”

“It’s not the kind of statement one tends to forget, Mr Potter. Nor, for that matter, should one.” Same measured tones. Harry stared into his cup, thumb rubbing along the edge hypnotically. Back and forth, back and forth. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I...” Harry let out a sigh. “Not really. I mean, yeah, I think it, from time to time, but that’s all it is. It’s just a thought. I’m not planning on doing anything stupid, if that’s what you’re asking, promise. It’s just... sometimes it all gets a little too much.”

He shrugged awkwardly, then chanced a glance up at Snape. He was still staring at Harry with rapt attention, eyes boring into him as though they could see straight down inside. Which, given that this was Snape, was entirely possible. It was wildly unsettling.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Harry said. “You’re one to talk, anyway. You sounded positively spiteful towards Fawkes for rescuing you, last week, don’t think I didn’t notice.”

Snape jerked back at that a little, just the tiniest movement. “That is entirely different,” he said, an edge of coldness seeping into his voice.

“Is it, though? Is it, really? I think it’s precisely the same, if you ask me.” He shook his head. “Did you... did you think about it, before Voldemort set Nagini on you? Were you...” he cast about for the right way to say it.

“Was I suicidal, is the word you’re looking for, I believe.” Snape gazed at him, intently, something irritable in his expression, and Harry wondered whether he’d once again managed to cross a line. When he just kept gazing back mutely, though, the irritation fled, evaporating like air or smoke. “I honestly don’t know. I fully expected to die before all was said and done. At the very least, I’d rather reconciled myself to that fact. It was a bit of a shock to find myself still in the land of the living, with a damn Phoenix trilling song in my ears.”

“And now?” Harry couldn’t keep from asking.

“Now I don’t give it much thought. This isn’t so bad, this... life.” He gazed round the room, one long sweeping glance, then back at Harry, and as though the sight caught at something inside him, the irritation came rushing right back. “Notwithstanding these scintillating conversations you keep dragging me into.”

The book went back up, higher this time, obscuring Snape’s face. For all that the gesture was a clear one of rejection, Harry couldn’t bring himself to feel cut by it. He couldn’t begin to even guess at why Snape had told him all that, but he was glad for it. He felt a little less alone, knowing he wasn’t the only one who’d struggled so.

“Professor McGonagall sent me a letter,” he said after a long while of silence. Snape made a noncommittal sound from behind his book, clearly attempting to convey disinterest. Harry wondered if anyone had ever told him that not reacting would do the trick far more effectively.

“She wants to meet me to discuss going back to Hogwarts,” he continued, not knowing quite why he said it. There seemed to be a lot of that going round, tonight.

Snape turned another page. “You are going, of course.” He made it a statement, rather than a question.

Harry faltered.

“I don’t... I don’t really know, actually. I wasn’t planning on it. I don’t think I can.”

The book came down again, snapping shut with an audible thump, this time.

“I do beg your pardon,” Snape said, not sounding regretful at all. More accusing. “I must have misheard.”

Harry squirmed under his gaze. He stared into his cup; it was empty. “There’s just too much... stuff,” he said. “I can’t possibly, it’s just...”

“You will attend the meeting, and you will attend Hogwarts this autumn,” Snape cut into him. “I will not have this, regardless of whatever excuses you’ve fabricated. If you are trying to convince me that you won’t do anything stupid, Potter, you have spectacularly failed, because this is the most brain-dead idea to ever enter your empty skull.”

“But --”

“I did not sacrifice my life,” Snape snarled, rising up from his chair to point a finger at Harry, “so you could throw yours away!”

Harry blinked in the face of such anger. So much for Snape not giving a shit about him, then.

“But you didn’t die,” he couldn’t help pointing out. “And after what you just told me --”

“That is entirely beside the point! Besides, when I speak of sacrificing my life, it equally, if not more so, refers to twenty bloody years going through the agony of trying to teach Longbottoms to tell their dittany from their dandelions, which I assure you, was no small feat. You said you wanted to show me respect, last week; this, Potter, is your chance to actually do so.” His eyes narrowed dangerously, when Harry didn’t immediately respond. “Fine then, I shall make it a stipulation of your coming here every week, and don’t for one second believe that I will refuse to follow through. I am perfectly capable of setting the wards to exclude you, to bounce you back on your sorry little --”

“Okay, okay!” Harry interjected hastily. He hadn’t expected this level of rage, he genuinely hadn’t. It felt kind of... good. “Calm down, would you; I promise I’ll go.”

Snape glared at him a second longer, then let his arm fall, and sank back into his chair. “Good,” he said, picking up his book from where it had fallen onto the floor. “And whilst you’re at it, you might as well get in touch with those little friends of yours. It is preposterous, that you would let it continue this long.”

Something in Harry ran cold. “I don’t... how do you even know about that?”

“I was tracking you inside the Leaky Cauldron, obviously. Whilst Miss Granger’s spells made it impossible for me to hear what was said, the interaction alone was quite telling. Add to that the fact that you haven’t so much as hinted at them in a word we have spoken, and are projecting your own loneliness on me, of all people, and the picture pretty much paints itself.”

Damn, why did Snape always have to be so... insightful? It left precious little room to argue. The horrible memory of the argument still clung to him, though, so Harry did try. “I’m not sure I can promise you that. Things between us, they’re... they’re complicated.”

“I don’t care. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing; you of all people should know that. Blast it, I saw that Weasley boy jump in a freezing lake for you, Potter! Such devotion, you’ll find, is rather uncommon in life. Don’t cast it aside as though it were nothing, or you will live to regret it. I can promise you that.”

And there wasn’t much Harry could say in return, was there? Not knowing, as he did now, that Snape spoke from bitter, painful experience. The thought gave him pause where nothing else quite had, before. It didn’t seem fair that Harry should dismiss his chance for reconciliation, when Snape was denied the same by a cruel twist of fate. Anything could happen to Ron and Hermione, tomorrow or perhaps the day after. He hadn’t even considered that before; they’d always been so solid, just always... there.

Snape, thankfully, appeared to have ranted himself out, flicking through his book whilst muttering irritably about having lost his page.

They spent the rest of the hour in silence, Snape reading whilst Harry sat and thought. When Snape dismissed him with a curt nod, it came alongside an explicit order for Harry to report back on his meeting with McGonagall.

---

Wednesday approached with alarming speed. By ten o’clock, Harry had nearly chickened out twice, but Snape’s dark promise of refusing to see him rang in his ears each time he contemplated not going. As much as he never wanted to set foot in Hogwarts again, he wanted to quit seeing Snape even less, and so when the time came he fell through the Floo with a distinct feeling of dread.

Professor McGonagall was waiting for him on the other side. She seemed almost relieved to see him, though she covered it well, nothing but propriety in her firm handshake, her offer of tea as she waved Harry into a seat. Harry declined politely as he watched her sink into the chair behind what he still couldn’t think of as anything but Dumbledore’s desk. Fawkes’ perch no longer stood beside it, replaced by a tasteful, waist-high candelabrum, and Harry wondered briefly at what had become of him. Snape hadn’t said, but then again, it wasn’t important right now -- he was more worried about who Professor McGonagall had spoken to, and what they’d told her about him, or what she might have read. Harry hadn’t so much as glanced at the papers since that day.

“Look,” he said. “If this is about what was in the Prophet...”

Much to his surprise, her propriety fell apart around her like a house of cards.

“That damnable rag! Such defaming libellous slander I have never read in my entire life, and I have been around for a few years by now. I wrote a very strongly worded letter to the editor as soon as I saw it, although, to be frank, I had half a mind to dip into my savings just so I could sue them myself! Such preposterous lies, such outrageous accusations -- they have no right to even call themselves a newspaper when what they choose to publish isn’t worth the parchment it’s printed on!”

“There was maybe a grain of truth in it,” Harry heard himself say.

“Well of course there was! But to run with it as they did, to imply, to outright state that you were the next Dark Lord coming, just months after Voldemort was interred, when you were the one that put him there and fought for it every step of the way! A bit of gratitude and sympathy surely wouldn't go amiss, under these circumstances. Merlin knows you've earned it.”

Harry, rather overwhelmed by her vehemence, felt somewhat unsure of how to respond. People seemed to get shouty around him a lot, these days.

“Uhm,” he said, eventually. “What do you mean by ‘of course there was’?”

McGonagall, who was straightening a stack of papers as though it would help her regain her composure, softened visibly. “I mean,” she said much more gently, “that it is only to be expected, after everything you've been through, that you would experience some difficulty in moving on with your day-to-day life. You have literally grown up with ever-present and constantly shifting threats all around you; it only stands to reason that now they're gone, some of it is bound to catch up with you.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose from where they had slid down in her outburst. “We've all been rather worried for you, you know. Miss Granger came by only a few days ago. She was quite beside herself.”

Harry shifted in his chair, wishing rather desperately that he’d accepted the offer of tea. At least it would give him something to focus on; as it was, he picked awkwardly at his nails.

McGonagall, seeming to sense his discomfort, didn’t press him to speak. “You aren't alone, either,” she said. “There will be a fair few faces missing from Hogwarts this upcoming school year. Some of the students simply cannot contemplate a return, after what they have seen here. And they can hardly be blamed. I am doing my best to ensure their educations won’t suffer -- options of distance learning, where feasible. It will increase our workload, but it's only fair.”

“I wasn’t sure I could come,” Harry admitted, when it became clear she wasn’t going to say more.

“That is perfectly understandable. And I am very glad that you did regardless. As a student of my own house --” she smiled a little -- “I would counsel you that to face our fears is almost always the better solution, in the long run. But the decision is of course entirely up to you, and there will be no judgement on my part, whatever your choice. If you would like to return, I am willing to work with you to set in place any adjustments you would find beneficial to your well-being.”

“Like what?” Harry knew she was right, deep down, somewhere. The further he ran the harder it would get to try again in the future. He loved Hogwarts, despite everything he now associated with it; he didn’t want to lose it forever. And surely he’d already taken the first step, by coming here today? Pushed and shoved and blackmailed into it by Snape as he might have been.

“Like a room of your own, perhaps. I obviously cannot extend this offer to every student, as we lack the capacity, but it seems more than appropriate in your case. Miss Granger mentioned nightmares, I believe?”

Harry nodded dumbly.

“Then if it would help not to have to worry about waking your dorm-mates each night, I am certain we can arrange that. Something close to Gryffindor Tower, so you would not have to lose access to your common room. The castle has been quite accommodating.”

“That... that’d be good, yeah.”

“Anything else? If you require time to think about it, you can always send me an owl.”

“I... I might need to take off, from time to time. I mean, not during classes, obviously --” or at least, he rather hoped not -- “But just to get away, go somewhere else, get some time on my own.”

“That will not be a problem. You are of age, after all -- we're extending the freedom to come and go within the realms of what is reasonable to all repeat seventh year students, as a matter of fact. So shall I proceed on the assumption that you will return, then, and work out the details?”

“Yes,” Harry said, wishing his voice wouldn’t shake quite so much. “I mean, I can’t guarantee it’ll work, obviously, but I want to give it a try.”

“That is all anyone could possibly ask.” She scribbled down a few lines onto a piece of parchment, then gave him a thin, if genuine smile. “I presume you would not care to be given the tour, right at this moment.”

“No. I... another day, perhaps.”

“Another day,” she said, rising out of her chair as he did, and grasping his hand in a firm shake goodbye. She watched him walk towards the Floo, then just before he could throw in the powder, cleared her throat.

“Mr Potter -- Harry... I do hope you know that you are more than welcome to come here, should you ever feel the need to talk. There may no longer be an endless supply of lemon drops on this desk, but my door, and my ear will always be open to you.”

Such devotion, you’ll find, is hard to come by in life, Snape echoed inside Harry’s head.

“Thank you, Professor,” he said aloud, and meant it wholeheartedly. Then he called for Grimmauld Place, and stepped through the flames.

---

Dear Ron and Hermione,

Snape threatened to kick my ass into next week and deny me his bright and sunny company, if I didn’t get my shit together and get back in touch with you. I think it’s because he’s bitter because of my mum --

Yeah, definitely not sending that one. Harry crunched up the parchment and sent it flying into the grate.

Dear Ron,

I’m still pretty pissed off about you saying I had been selfish. You haven’t the faintest idea how tough things have been lately, what with one thing and the other. You saying that really made me feel --

No, far too aggressive.

Dear Ron and Hermione,

So the other day I had a right freakout just going to Tesco. Thought some poor bloke picking up a can of Coke was a Death Eater come to get me, so I knocked over a shelf and then ran for dear life --

Too alarming, by far.


Dear Ron and Hermione,

I’m sorry I’ve been such a complete dick to all of you. I’m shit at pretty much everything these days: I’m shit at sleeping, I’m shit at shopping, I’m shit at communicating, and I’m shit at life. I’m pretty fed up with it all, to be honest --

No, too self-denigratory, plus it sounded like he was about to do something stupid. Which he wasn’t. Damn it, why was this so hard? He’d feed the fireplace for a week, at this rate.


Dear Ron and Hermione,

Professor McGonagall informs me that you are worried about my continued health. It was not my intention to cause you distress --

Great, now he sounded like Snape. That would really reassure them.

Dear Ron and Hermione,

I know you think I’ve gone crazy, but I haven’t, honestly --

Whereas that one was simply a blatant lie.

He drafted at least another two dozen missives, scribbling and scratching and flinging the remainders into the fireplace. What he eventually settled on was the following:

Dear Hermione,

Sorry I’ve been a bit crap. Things have been hard. I would like to explain, but that part’s hard, too, and I can’t seem to do it in writing, so perhaps it would be better in person. Do you think you could drop by, sometime this week? Would appreciate it if you could come alone, just for now.

Harry

It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do. He’d decided it would be better to avoid Ron for the time being - his comments still smarted, and this conversation was going to be difficult enough as it was. He would have to take it in stages; it seemed only sensible.

He sent the letter by Floo to the Burrow, hoping it would reach its ultimate destination. He really needed to get a new owl, but he’d been reluctant to do so; it felt too much like pissing on Hedwig’s grave.

Maybe in a little while.

He settled down with a cookbook in the window seat, seeing how there was precious little else to do. The sound of the Floo startled him out of his reading; it could only have been about 15 minutes, since he hadn’t got very far

Hermione fell into the room. She looked... pretty terrible, as a matter of fact. Her hair was even frizzier than normal, a tangled halo around her head. There were deep, purple bruises beneath her eyes, not hidden by the sheer relief that rang through every line of her body.

“Harry,” she said. “Oh Harry, you have absolutely no idea how good it is to see you. When I got your letter, I nearly, I... We’ve been so worried, I was going half spare, I mean...”

Such devotion, you’ll find, is hard to come by in life, Harry heard again, and this time it was accompanied by a vicious stab of guilt. He’d pushed her away, driven her up the wall with worry, treated her like shit quite frankly, and still, just like that she was here, the moment he called.

“I’m sorry,” he burst out, utterly heartfelt. Snape, of course, had been entirely right. He wondered if it would ever cease to surprise him.

“Oh no, don’t apologise, please. I should apologise, really, we could have handled it so much better, I could have done so many things differently.” She reached out as though to hug him, then aborted the movement awkwardly, her hands grasping lightly onto his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be all in your face and all over you, I’m just so --” she squeezed lightly, before letting go -- “so glad you called.”

He stared at her for a moment, wondering where to start. “Would you like tea?”

“Tea... would be lovely, actually, yes.”

He prepared it in silence, setting it on the table between them when he was done.

“I went to see Professor McGonagall today.”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean, she didn’t tell us what you two talked about, just that you’d been, and that you were planning on going back when term opens. She knew we were worried.” She beamed at him, openly. “I’m really glad that you want to give it a shot. It’ll be hard, but I think it could also be good.”

He nodded, stirring milk into his tea. “I got rid of the memories, you know.” No need to mention that it hadn’t been precisely by choice. What was done was done, regardless of how it had been achieved.

“You did?” She beamed, impossibly, brighter still. “That is fantas-- I mean, that must have been hard. I know that they meant a lot to you; it can’t have been easy. But it’s probably for the best.” Her expression sombered then, notably, her voice dropping a notch. “You don’t...” She hesitated, as though finding the right way to put it. “You don’t still think Snape is alive, do you?”

Well, he had known that one was coming. And thankfully prepared for it, in all his spare time.

“No,” he lied smoothly. “I must have imagined it, you were right. I was pretty damn drunk that night. It’s a wonder I made it back in one piece.”

The wave of relief that washed through her at that was palpable, though she fought hard not to show it. She took a sip of her tea.

“Did you...” this part was trickier, unfortunately, without giving away too much. “Did you tell anybody? That I thought Snape was --”

“Just Ron,” she said quickly. A little too quickly, and when he gazed intently at her, her mouth twisted. “And... possibly some people at St Mungo’s? Please don’t be angry with me -- I didn’t know what else I could do, and I was so worried. You seemed so convinced...”

That one was more unexpected. “What did they say?” he asked carefully.

“Not a whole lot, really. Bloody useless they were.” A note of anger crept into her tone with the words. “‘Not a clear and present danger to himself, or others’, they said. ‘We’re strapped for resources. Call us again if you think he’s going to --’” She cut herself off.

Harry’s heart clenched. “I’m not going to top myself,” he said, squeezing her hand where it rested on the table.

She made a choked sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob, hiding her face briefly behind her hand. “Anyway,” she continued, “you don’t have to worry about it ending up in the papers. They can’t talk about it; it’s part of their professional oath. I checked it before I went.”

Harry wondered dimly if she still would have gone if it hadn’t been the case. He supposed it didn’t matter much, now.

“I’m so sorry I made you worry like that.”

“Don’t be, really, it wasn’t your fault. It was just... that day, when you said what you did about Snape, we... We thought it might have been the fight with us that triggered it. Ron’s been beating himself up over it since; you can’t possibly imagine. He was upset about Ginny, but like I said at the time, he didn’t mean half the things that he said. He wants me to tell you he’s sorry, and that no matter what, he’ll always be there for you, even if he’s a twit.” She laughed. “He’d really like to see you, you know, but he also understood why you didn’t want him to come.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably. That was good, it was, but it still felt a little too much, too achy, too sore.

“I’m going to need a bit of time,” he said. “I mean, I’m not saying never, definitely not that -- hell, we’ll be back sharing classes before too long. But I’m not all together, just yet. In fact, I’m a right mess. So I might need some time, here and there.”

She nodded fiercely. “That’s okay, really, it is. He’ll get it, I promise. Whatever you need -- you can have all the time you want, all the space you need. Just so long as you keep talking to us, and tell us what you do need.” She grabbed both of his hands tightly within her own. “I’m so glad you called.”

Harry smiled weakly back at her.

“I... I got a bunch of books,” she burst out, a second later, and he couldn’t help laughing; he absolutely couldn’t. “Oh, shush, you, knowledge is power. Anyway, they’re all Muggle -- the Wizarding World’s rubbish at this stuff, apparently, they’re eons behind on anything to do with psychology -- but some of them are quite good, and I think they might help. Can I send them to you?”

Harry nodded his acceptance. It would be futile to resist; he knew that much from experience, and what the hell, it surely couldn’t hurt. Hermione got to her feet, then hovered uncertainly, as though she wasn’t quite sure where to go.

“Can I give you a hug?” she finally asked, voice catching a little on the last word.

He drew her into his arms without a second thought, burying his head in her bushy hair. Snape had been right, he reflected.

He’d never been more glad of it.

---

The books arrived the next morning, carried by a rather disgruntled-looking owl, which clearly wasn’t impressed with having to deliver the large package, despite the feather-light charms Hermione had put on it.

Harry fed it a rind of bacon as he unwrapped the books. Their titles seemed strange, putting names to things he hadn’t been able to articulate: “Understanding PTSD”; “Trauma and the Human Mind”; “War and Shell-Shock: The soldier’s last battleground?” and so on. Bizarrely, one book was named “Repetition and Trauma: Toward a Teleonomic Theory of Psychoanalysis”. Harry decided to give that one a miss, not having the faintest idea what teleonomy even meant, but smiled a little at how typically Hermione it was to include what looked to be an extended academic lecture.

He set the books aside, for the time being. He was going to look at them, but not all at once; taking it slowly and one bit at a time seemed like the best plan.

---

“I went shopping!” Harry declared with a sense of victory as he breezed through Snape’s door on Saturday, bags of groceries in hand.

Snape, watching him dump the bags on the kitchen counter from across the room, raised his hands and began to clap. Very slowly.

Harry flushed scarlet.

“Don’t, just please don’t, okay? You can make fun of me all you like, all day long. You can insult my intelligence, and you can tell me my hair looks stupid, I don’t care. But please don’t mock me for this, because it... it was actually hard.”

Snape, who had stopped clapping as soon as Harry spoke, walked over to the kitchen area. “I would never tell you your hair looks stupid,” he said, as he came to a halt beside Harry. “As an insult, it lacks both creativity and punch.”

Harry began to unpack. “So what, you would tell me... that the bird’s nest I keep atop of my skull must have been a focal point of migration lately, because all my brains appear to have been picked out?”

He felt a bit flummoxed if rather proud with himself for coming up with that; wit wasn’t usually his forte. Perhaps some of it had rubbed off from all the time he’d spent in Snape’s memories? That had to be it; it wasn’t as if there was another explanation.

Snape seemed unimpressed, though, watching him draw peppers and onions from the bag. “You are attempting to deflect. Why precisely is shopping proving so challenging?”

Damn it, he should have kept quiet. “It’s nothing.” Harry kept his eyes firmly fixed on what his hands were doing. “It’s a bit stupid, really.” He rummaged through the cupboards beneath the counter, drew out a couple of pans and a chopping board, then found a knife.

Snape, he decided, had a real knack for turning silence into a question, a demand. Harry could practically feel his gaze resting heavily on him, even without looking to check.

“It really is stupid,” he said, as he began to peel the onion. “It’s just... I get a bit overwhelmed. A bit panicky. I tried going the other week, but there were so many people, and so much noise, and for some reason I couldn’t stand it. The light reflected off a can of something in the corner of my vision, and I legged it out there like Voldemort himself was on my tail. It got a bit hard to breathe, I think I nearly fainted. It’s pretty pathetic, I know.”

But for some reason, Snape wasn’t taking the opening gambit. When Harry sneaked a surreptitious glance at him, he was merely contemplating him in silence.

“Do you feel like this frequently?” he asked, voice unusually mild.

Harry started chopping the onion. “Sometimes, yeah,” he admitted. “I don’t know, it varies. I haven’t been out much, it kind of scared me off a bit. It was pretty unsettling.”

“Panic attacks do tend to be, yes.” Snape pushed off from the counter, walking over to one of the overhead cupboards and rummaged through it. When he returned, he plunked a small, nondescript brown bottle on the counter next to Harry. “This should help.”

Harry’s hands froze mid-motion. “What is it?”

“It’s a concentrated calming draught. Two drops should suffice, three at most, although it will merely make you sleep even if you were stupid enough to take the whole lot. However, I strongly advise against becoming too reliant on it. It is not intended to act as a crutch, more of a fall-back should it prove necessary. Let me know if you require more.”

Well. That was unexpected. “Thanks,” Harry mumbled, resuming his chopping. “Hopefully I shouldn’t need it too much. I think it’s been getting a bit better. I mean, I managed today.” He gestured towards the blue-striped bags still on the counter.

“Evidently.” Snape cast a baleful glance at the bags. “Every little helps”, he said acidly. He made the slogan sound more like a curse. “If they truly meant that, they would ensure their Bags for Life don’t fall apart at the slightest hint of pressure.”

Harry’s hands froze for the second time in as many minutes, and on this occasion, he couldn’t help but look up as well, staring uncomprehendingly. “You --” he choked out through his bewilderment -- “you go to Tesco’s?”

Snape straightened, pushing his shoulders back. “Yes, Mr Potter, I go to Tesco’s. Quit gaping like a fish stranded on dry land. It is hardly news-breaking information; it's merely practical. I can’t very well walk into Madame Mulchkin’s Wizarding Groceries without going through a whole lot of unnecessary faff involving Polyjuice Potion.”

Harry tried to come out the other side of his bafflement, but it was proving quite difficult. He attempted to picture Snape walking through the aisles of his local Tesco’s, picking up milk and vegetables, and possibly condiments, too. His brain refused to cooperate. He stared at Snape’s familiar black robes, the endless rows of buttons, the billowing sleeves.

“Please tell me you don’t go dressed like that,” he said, only half-joking. He wasn’t sure he could imagine Snape wearing anything else, quite frankly.

“Why yes, I make it a habit to walk around small Muggle villages dressed as a wizard. Haven’t you heard? It is considered the height of subterfuge, and rivals even the most powerful Disillusionment Charm.”

The corner of Harry’s mouth quirked up in spite of himself. He’d finished the onion, poured a little oil into the pan and began to rummage through the drawers without much success, unable to find what he was looking for.

“Do you have a garlic press?”

Snape gazed at him blankly.

“A garlic press. It’s...”

“I know what a garlic press is, Potter, and no, I do not have one.” Snape scowled irritably, then shouldered Harry aside, grabbing the knife from his hand. “Give that here, before you utterly ruin it. It practically hurts my soul to see how you’ve managed to mangle that onion.” His fingers moved swiftly and deftly, unpeeling the cloves Harry had set aside, blade flying through them with neat little cuts.

“It’s going into dinner, not Veritaserum.” Harry shook his head and drew another knife from the drawer, starting on the peppers.

“Good technique benefits from regular practise, and proves useful across a range of applications.” Snape set down the knife, pushing the board back at Harry. Harry could hardly argue; the garlic was chopped so finely and neatly he wasn’t sure a press could have improved on it. “And whilst we’re on the topic, I’ll have you know that it is generally considered extremely rude to take over somebody else’s kitchen without their express permission.”

Harry rolled his eyes, not bothering to hide the gesture. Much. “You’re welcome,” he shot back. “I’m happy to make you dinner, you know. I thought it’d be a nice way to say thank you for kicking my arse into seeing McGonagall, which went very well, by the way.” He stopped short, a shiver of uncertainty crawling up his spine. “You haven’t already eaten, have you?”

“I have not,” Snape admitted, grinding the words through his teeth as though they were steel.

“Well, then I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Hand me the salt, would you?”

They bickered back and forth through the duration of cooking. Or rather, Snape managed to somehow criticise every single thing Harry was doing, while Harry related the details of his meeting with McGonagall as well as seeing Hermione between bouts of snark. It might have been discouraging, but for some reason it never felt like it, felt almost comfortable.

And when Snape neither disparaged the actual end result, nor commented on the fact that the meal they shared in silence pushed them well past Harry’s assigned hour, he couldn’t help but feel like the evening had been a complete success.

---

The following week, Harry arrived at about a quarter to seven. It was unintentional; he’d been a bit dazed all day, which had led to completely losing track of time and then freaking that he was going to be late, not thinking to cast a Tempus charm until after he’d Apparated. The potion had helped immensely in getting him out of the house -- even just knowing he had it around should he need it released some of the strain -- which had the pleasant knock-on effect of having ingredients to cook, another activity that brightened his days. But unfortunately his nightmares were not similarly affected; even knowing that they were nothing unusual from reading Hermione’s books didn’t curtail them. It seemed almost as though they were ramping up in preparation for his return to Hogwarts the coming week, which Harry supposed made a decent amount of sense. It definitely was a stressor, something he still avoided thinking about too closely, lest over-thinking trigger another panic attack.

There was no response when he knocked on the door. He eventually found Snape by the pond around the back of some trees, sitting on a sandy outcropping with his legs crossed beneath him. He didn’t look at Harry when he sank to the ground beside him, nor did he break posture.

He did speak, though, eventually.

“You are early. And you are disrupting my meditation.”

Harry blinked. He didn’t know much of the topic, but there had been a distinct lack of ohm-ing sounds. Wasn’t that required, or something? He decided it would be better not to ask, sensing it to be a stupid question. “But your eyes were open,” he settled for, because that one seemed most confusing.

“There are no rules that stipulate closed eyes as a prerequisite to the practise. In fact, many people find a visual focal point to be beneficial.” Snape’s eyes did not move from where they were fixed on the pond.

Harry considered that. “You’d never have struck me as the kind of person who’d meditate,” he tried again, after a while.

Snape did break posture then, to glare testily at Harry. “Meditation sharpens the mind and hones the senses, facilitating focus, concentration and control. How precisely do I fail to meet the requirements?”

Well, when you put it like that... Harry gazed back, uncertain of what to say. Snape, clearly thrown out of it, now, gave an almighty sigh, and then got to his feet, stalking away without explanation. Harry, stuck trying to decide whether he’d been given the brush-off or a silent message to follow, had just decided to go after him when he returned, dumping an immense tome of a book in Harry’s lap with more force than strictly necessary.

“Read. Be quiet. Do not ask stupid questions.”

Harry couldn’t help but break the last order instantly. “What’s this, then?”

Snape sank back into position beside him. “A text you would undoubtedly have already come across, had you bothered to do the tiniest bit of research on Occlumency in your fifth year. Chapter three. Now give me some peace.”

Harry opened the book, skimming the writing and after a little while, decided to give it a shot himself. The book didn’t make it sound all that hard, and the soft ripples of the water were oddly soothing. At least this way, he couldn’t possibly annoy Snape too much.

He didn’t notice Snape looking at him immediately. When he did eventually catch onto it and turned towards him, the man looked rather the opposite of calm and focused, distinctly aggravated.

“I think you’re doing it wrong,” Harry pointed out helpfully.

“Potter, it is virtually impossible to focus with how very wrong you are doing it not two feet away from me.” He put one hand on Harry’s lower back, the other firm against his clavicle, pushing his spine straight. “Proper posture is essential. Furthermore, the book specifically calls for diaphragmatic breathing.”

Yeah, Harry recalled reading something along those lines. “I wasn’t quite sure what it meant by that.”

“Why am I even surprised? It means, you illiterate idiot, that you breathe through your stomach, rather than your chest.” The hand moved down to just beneath his sternum, pressing gently. Something inside Harry squirmed a little at the contact, though he fought hard not to move. “The diaphragm is the muscle which separates your lungs from your internal abdominal cavity -- push my hand out when you inhale, yes, that’s better -- and exercising it not only deepens each breath, but confers greater lung capacity.”

The cessation of touch left Harry feeling oddly bereft when Snape’s hands moved away, but he tamped down the feeling, pushing it aside in favour of focusing on his breathing. Snape made no further disparaging remarks, and Harry concentrated on the glint of the fading sun on the water, trying to think of little else.

They sat like that for a while, until the sun bled hot on the horizon and the air had chilled around them, sending goosebumps prickling up Harry’s arms. Back in the warmth of the cottage he found that he didn’t have much to talk about, and so stretched out on the sofa with the book Snape had given him. It wasn’t breathtakingly interesting, in fact the prose was almost painfully dry, but there was something soothing in just how very boring it was...

He must have fallen asleep. The next thing he knew, there were red, glinting eyes everywhere, manic laughter ringing throughout him as something brushed against his shoulder. Harry lashed out instinctively, vaulting into a seating position with a cry as he opened his eyes to see...

Snape sprawled across the floor on the other side of the room, cradling his nose with one hand, and looking eminently pissed off. Harry flinched.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped out, heart still thundering wildly inside his chest. Was there blood? It rather looked like there was blood.

“What precisely about my nose gives you the impression that it would be improved by being broken, Potter?” Snape snapped from behind his hand, as he got to his feet.

“I’m so sorry,” Harry repeated, mortified. His skin felt clammy, his shirt sticking to him. “I didn’t mean to --” he fumbled for his wand -- “Here, let me...”

“I can fix it myself.” Snape said, before doing so with a muttered Episkey and stalking over to the sink, running cold water onto a cloth.

Harry was left feeling utterly unsure what to say. “I’m really sorry,” he tried, brain still foggy with the last vestiges of terror.

“Oh, do cease apologising. It is evident that you didn’t set out to knock me across the room; nightmares will do that, at times. I will know better not to touch you, should you ever be presumptuous enough to fall asleep on my sofa again.”

Was that... Harry didn’t quite know what that was meant to say. He nodded weakly. “Yeah,” he agreed. He was absurdly glad that Snape wasn’t trying to physically comfort him -- hah, as if! -- as it made the return to consciousness one hell of a lot easier. “It’s how I hit Ginny,” he found himself saying. “I didn’t mean to, it just sort of happened, exactly like this. I’ve tried Dreamless Sleep, but --”

“...it doesn’t work. It wouldn’t; despite the proprietary branding, it is a rather useless concoction for genuine issues.” Snape finished mopping the blood off his face and sent Harry a rather piercing look. “Frequency?”

“Uhm.” This was getting ridiculous. It was becoming an entirely too common occurrence, Snape questioning him about his problems as though Harry was a mildly annoying puzzle he was compelled to sort out. It was all a little embarrassing, frankly, and yet, on another level, Harry almost welcomed it. “Pretty much nightly, for the last week. I’ve been a bit worried about it, what with going back to Hogwarts and all. I’m pretty useless for the rest of the day if I have an especially bad night.”

“And this differs from your normal state of being how, precisely?” Snape said, as though he couldn’t resist. Harry had to admit that he’d walked straight into that one.

He was still wondering whether to deign the insult worthy of a response, when Snape shook his head and walked out the room. Harry, who had half expected for him to walk up to a closet to pull some kind of potion from its depths, was a little startled as he heard footsteps move up the stairs. Wasn’t that where the bedroom was? Why the hell Snape would head there, of all places, he wasn’t entirely sure.

Snape didn’t bother to illuminate him when he returned, although he did hold a bottle in hand. Harry automatically went to reach for it, but Snape snatched his hand back, pulling it out of range.

“Not so quick.” Judging from his expression, Harry might as well have been about to commit some kind of atrocious crime. “This, Mr Potter, is not Dreamless Sleep. Unlike Dreamless Sleep, it does work. Also unlike Dreamless Sleep, it is not to be abused, under absolutely any circumstances. If I am to extend you my trust by giving it to you, I will require an ironclad promise that you will follow my usage instructions to the letter. Five drops, no more, at bedtime. Two nights maximum per week, not consecutively. Not three, definitely not four, and I assure you, if you deviate from this, I will know, as, unfortunately, will you. Is that absolutely clear?”

Wow, that was a bit ominous. “Yes,” Harry said, and when Snape continued to spear him with his gaze added, “I promise.”

Snape inclined his head, setting the bottle inside Harry’s hands. He handled it as though it were fragile, though the thick green-tinged glass clearly was not.

“Thank you,” Harry said with as much sincerity as he could. “What is it?”

“It’s one of my own recipes,” Snape said waspishly. “It is potent. It is also well past time you left.”

Harry knew when to follow a hint. He let himself out as swiftly as his still wobbly knees allowed.

---

He took the potion for the first time on the night before he was due back at Hogwarts. Even knowing Snape’s mastery of the subject, he wasn’t expecting much -- in a way, it almost felt like nightmares had become part of him now, an immutable constant in his life.

He turned out to be wrong.

The effect of the potion could be summed up in one, short word: bliss. Not in the sense that it left him high; no, nothing like that. The moment it had finished rolling down his tongue it began to pull him under, leaving him barely enough time to replace the stopper, and then he was out like a light. When he woke up early the next morning he felt refreshed for the first time in months. The sensation was startling; he hadn’t realised how used he had got to being exhausted.

Harry rolled the innocuous-looking vial in his hand. It seemed too good to be true, that his nightmares could so easily be defeated. He’d half expected the potion to turn him into some kind of mindless zombie, but there was nothing like that, no lingering after-effects – just blessed, pure relief. Then again, Snape had been very insistent on limiting its usage, and for all that Harry found that hard to grasp -- surely feeling this revitalised couldn’t be a bad thing? -- he was bound to have his reasons. Harry opted against trying to examine the whole thing too closely, either way; best not to look a gift-horse in the mouth. At the very least he had given his word and he wasn’t about to break it, no matter how tempting the promise of restful, dreamless nights seemed. Perhaps he would ask about it again, some time, but for now, he needed to get going.

He arrived by Floo, levitating his trunk before him. Professor -- no, Headmistress, he still kept forgetting -- McGonagall was there to greet him with a warm smile, insisting on showing him to his room personally. Harry tried to protest that she must be busy, but it was in vain. She simply refused to have it, quelling his objections with a stern gaze.

“It will take all of five minutes out of my day,” was the last thing she said on the topic. “And they will be five minutes well spent. It is good to have you back with us, Mr Potter.”

He admitted defeat, following her mutely out of her office and through the corridors. He was glad that she apparently did not expect him to talk, seemingly content to chat easily about the preparations for the coming year, pointing out bits of restoration along the way. Their passage to Gryffindor Tower went uninterrupted, the main influx of students not due until tomorrow. Harry had leaped at the chance to arrive a day early, the idea of having some time to settle down without the confusing blur of the masses a welcome relief.

His room turned out to be small but cozy, accessible through a small alcove leading off from the stairs to the boys’ dormitory that Harry was sure hadn’t existed in previous years. It came complete with the tiniest en-suite Harry had ever seen, just a loo, shower and minute sink, but more than enough for one person. It even had its own little fireplace.

“I hope this will suit,” McGonagall said as he set his trunk down at the foot of the four-poster which took up most of the room. “I am sorry it isn’t more spacious, but the castle’s capacities are unfortunately still limited. It has expended a lot of its energies aiding us to repair the worst of the damage.”

“No, this is fine,” Harry said. He felt a little unsure about having to pass through the common room to get here, but perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. That way he couldn’t be tempted to just avoid all human contact completely.

“I’m very glad to hear it. I shall leave you to unpack your things, then -- if you do fancy a tour later in the day, please do come and find me. A break from all the paperwork will hardly prove fatal.”

And with that, she swept from the room, leaving him to his thoughts.

Harry walked up to the window, pressing one hand against cool glass. In the distance, the Forbidden Forest loomed, dark and ominous as ever, and yet strangely beautiful.

That was where he had... died.

It felt strange to think it, even stranger to not feel the terror he had anticipated would go along with the memory. In fact, he felt curiously little, just a resigned sort of acceptance that bled weakly through the much stronger sense of familiarity. Perhaps it was merely the extra reserves the potion had bestowed on him, perhaps a consequence of facing his fears. He chose not to examine it too closely.

It didn’t take long to unpack. He briefly contemplated just settling on his bed with one of the cookbooks he’d brought along, but decided against it; he had the time and resolve now to explore, and it might well be his only chance to do so in peace.

He had just passed through the common room and was about to reach for the Fat Lady’s portrait when it swung open of its own accord, causing him to nearly run into the person stepping through it.

Ron.

“Harry!” he exclaimed, face lighting up. Then Harry found himself pulled into a gruff one-armed hug, Ron’s hand thumping against his back once, before he retreated suddenly, flushing to the roots of his hair as he released Harry. “Sorry,” he said, shifting from foot to foot. “Hermione says I shouldn’t just grab you out of nowhere like that, but it’s so good to see you.”

For a moment they stared at each other, not speaking. Then: “I’m sorry,” both of them said at once, in perfect unison. It discharged some of the tension, Ron ducking his head on a laugh, and even Harry found it impossible not to smile.

“You first,” he tried again, just as Ron said, “Go ahead.”

Another beat.

“We’ll still be standing here next year, if we keep this up,” Harry said.

Ron nodded, still smiling. “Let me go first, then, all right?” He took a deep breath. “I am sorry. I know Hermione already passed it on, but I wanted to say it myself. I shouldn’t have flown off the handle at you like that, it was spectacularly unhelpful.”

Harry ducked his head. “Well, you kind of did have a point. I mean, you were right, I have been selfish. Just not deliberately, I promise. It’s just all been so tough, I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing half the time, so I just pushed everyone away, because it seemed... I dunno, easier? Sorry, that probably doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

“No,” Ron said. “No, it makes sense all right. It took me a little while to see that, but I got there in the end. You know how I am, patience isn’t my strong suit, except maybe with chess, so when I hit my limit, I blow up, even if I know it’s stupid. And Ginny’s my little sister, and I know she can fight her own battles, but she’s still... my little sister, you know?”

Harry flinched. “About that...”

“Don’t, okay? You were right on that, it isn’t my place to interfere between the two of you. I kind of want it to be, but I shouldn’t -- I mean, hell, she’d probably get in my face if I tried, and rightly so. So you sort that one out by yourself, in your own time.”

“I never meant to hurt her,” Harry said. “You need to know that. I never meant to hurt any of you, not her, not you, not Hermione, and definitely not your mum.”

Ron nodded. “I know, Harry. I mean, Ginny could probably do with hearing that from you -- oh look, there I go, doing it again.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’m terrible at this stuff. But anyway, that was part of what made it so hard, yeah? It just wasn’t like you.”

Harry nodded awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say. “Thanks,” he settled on, in the end. “It means a lot, knowing you’re still... you know.”

“Don’t be a prat.” Ron bumped him lightly on the shoulder. “Not ever going to run out on you again, mate, not for real. Learned my lesson during the whole Horcrux fiasco. I’m sorry I made you feel like that. But I’m really glad that you’re doing better.”

“Yeah.” Harry supposed he had to be, or he wouldn’t be having this conversation. “I’m not all there yet, you know. But hopefully I’m... on the way.”

“That’s cool. I’ll try my best to be a little less impatient, if that helps at all. I’ll probably fuck it up along the way, because I don’t always get it, so you’ll have to tell me when that happens. Hermione’s right, I have all the emotional depth of a teaspoon, sometimes.”

Harry shook his head again, laughing quietly this time.

“So...”

“So.”

“We’re good then, yeah?”

This Harry knew how to answer, without a second thought. “We’re good. I didn’t know you were getting here early, too,” he added, changing the topic.

“Hermione didn’t say? She must have forgotten. It’s all been a bit mad in the lead up.”

As if on cue, Hermione’s voice filtered down the stairs from the girl’s dormitory, coming closer. “Ron, do you know where I put my -- Harry! I didn’t know you were coming early, too.”

Harry grinned at her, unable to stop himself. “I was just saying the same.” She looked a lot better than she had at their last meeting. They hadn’t seen each other since their reconciliation, Hermione holding true to her promise to give him space, though they had exchanged a few letters.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot, I meant to mention it! I could’ve figured out on my own that you would be here, if I’d put two and two together. Sorry, it’s all been a bit hectic between helping my parents to settle back in, and studying for the NEWTs...”

There was an audible groan from beside him. When Ron promptly followed it up with a, “Please, not again,” Harry couldn’t help but laugh, trying to hide it rather unsuccessfully behind the hand he clamped to his mouth.

“Oh, don’t give me that, you two.” Hermione frowned. “It is never too early to start revising, and definitely not in preparation for the most important exams of our lives.”

Harry attempted to look suitably chastened. Ron, he saw out of the corner of his eye, didn’t even try. “How are your parents, anyway?” Harry asked somewhat more soberly, realising he hadn’t even thought of it up to this point.

“They’re fine now,” Hermione replied, relief plain on her face. “They were a bit dazed and confused initially, so I worried about them, but thankfully it wore off. They’re still a little disgruntled with me over what I did, you know, parents should protect their children, not the other way round and all that, but hopefully they’ll settle down in time.” She sat down on one of the sofas in front of the fireplace. “So, do you have any plans for today?”

“I was just about to go for a walk around the castle. See what they’ve made of the mess it was when I was last here.”

“You fancy some company?” Ron asked.

Harry fought the urge to cringe. “Actually...” he said, “I think I might have to do this one on my own. If that’s okay.”

Hermione was already nodding emphatically. “No problem. We already had a look around earlier when we arrived, so it’s not like you’re blocking us, or anything.” She smiled. “We’ll be here when you get back, if you want some company.” She paused. “You given any thought as to whether you want to attend the Welcoming Feast tomorrow?”

He had. “Leaning towards not, I think. It’ll be a shame to miss the Sorting, but I think it might be a bit... overwhelming, all the noise and... you know. I was thinking of asking Kreacher to bring up some food to my room, possibly.”

“We’ll join you,” Ron said. When Harry turned to look at him, he suddenly appeared a little less definite. “I mean, unless you --”

“That would be lovely, actually.” Just because Harry didn’t feel up to sitting in a sea of hundreds of students yet didn’t mean he wanted to be locked in his room on his own. He was a bit sick of the loneliness that came part and parcel with being crazy. Or having post-traumatic stress disorder, or whatever the hell it was called.

“Cool.” Ron was practically beaming at him, and when Harry moved past him to let himself out the portrait hole, he stopped briefly to clap a hand on his shoulder. Ron had been his first genuine friend in the whole wide world; no longer being at odds with him was a tremendous weight off his shoulders.

And that made him feel a lot more ready to face the ghosts of his past lurking everywhere in the still-empty corridors of Hogwarts.

---

Walking around the castle felt strange. McGonagall had not been joking when she had said the restorations were impressive -- Harry almost didn’t recognise some parts of the school. The last time he’d been here, it had looked horrible, rubble and broken glass littering the floors, immense stone columns smashed to bits. Slicks of blood, everywhere. Though there were still some areas that were clearly in need of repair, blocked off by shimmering wards and large sparkling letters spelling out “Danger!”, the vast majority of the castle appeared to be intact, painstakingly fixed to a level of detail that was almost breathtaking.

The insubstantial ghosts of memories now linked with the place were another thing entirely, of course. As he walked through the corridors and amongst the familiar rooms, Harry kept having flashes as bright as day: here, a DA member had lain, drained dry by a vampire. There, spells had been shot at him, nearly catching Hermione. Right in this spot on the floor of the Great Hall had lain Fred Weasley, his family sobbing desperately above him, and just over there had been Remus and Tonks, faces pale in death. He touched the ground, and it was just stone, no obvious signs of the horrors that had been committed on it.

But there were also so many other memories flooding back to him now, ones he had almost forgotten. In this corridor, Hermione had whacked him with a book for failing to complete his History of Magic essay. Around this corner, Ron and him had argued over the merits of various Quidditch teams, a futile endeavour what with Ron’s indestructible faith in the Cannons. Here, he had eaten and laughed and joked and sometimes cried; here he had learned and forged friendships stronger than steel. Here, for as many people as had died in the Battle, Harry had lived, and others had too, countless swathes of students, over the years.

Hogwarts had been home to all of them, in so many different ways. And it still was to him, too, he realised, despite all that had happened, in all of the ways that really mattered.

Suddenly, he felt inexplicably glad that he had returned.

Of course, for all those realisations, there still was a definite undercurrent of tension within him as he traversed the halls. He jumped several times when unexpected movements caught at the corner of his vision -- a bird taking flight in the gardens, a mouse scurrying across the floor -- but forged on despite his sharpened breathing, determined to weather this out. The closest he actually came to a panic attack was when he decided to visit the kitchens to see how Kreacher was doing, on a complete whim. As heartfelt and genuine as the house-elves’ attention was, the intensity of their chattering all around him left his heart racing and his head feeling faint, and he beat a hasty retreat, stumbling back into the empty corridor laden with at least half a dozen sandwiches and various pieces of fruit.

At least Kreacher had looked more cheerful than Harry could ever recall seeing him, he reflected, once he had managed to calm down (with only one drop of potion to aid him, just in case).

Harry carried the food up with him to Gryffindor Tower, where Ron and Hermione were waiting for him, wrapped in each other’s arms. They had an impromptu picnic by the fire, sitting long into the night chatting easily. When Harry finally ascended the steps to his room, he felt at once deeply exhausted and strangely exhilarated.

---

The first week of classes went by in a blur. Harry kept as much to himself as possible, exchanging little conversation with anyone besides Ron and Hermione, or their teachers during lessons. Hagrid was sadly absent from the crowds, as Harry had already known from the letters he’d finally started reading again, moved abroad to France to stay with Olympe. In some ways, Harry was a little glad of it; his resources for human interaction still seemed damnably finite.

It didn’t help that most of his classmates had opted to return, leaving the common room in its usual busy hustle and bustle. He got about as far as saying hello to Neville, one day, but that seemed to be about the limit, especially with so many first years around that knew nothing of him but what they’d read in the papers. Harry wasn’t sure what made him more uncomfortable -- the whispers that ground to a halt when he entered the room, or the awed glances he caught at odd moments. The first time he happened upon Dean and Seamus sitting by the fire with Ginny he legged it right back out through the portrait, wishing, absurdly, that he could be in Slytherin, to which far fewer students had returned. Surely Harry could have coped with the likes of Pansy Parkinson on occasion for the exchange of a barren common room, especially since Malfoy, for one, was conspicuously absent.

Of course, the thought only compounded the guilt he already felt over Ginny, because how bloody selfish was that?

There were also entirely too many moments throughout the days when he had to duck into a bathroom to calm his breathing, because a group of first years had run giggling around a corner, seemingly out of nowhere. He tried meditation, but it didn’t seem quite as calming without the pond or Snape beside him, which was a little weird.

Lessons themselves, he found to his relief, were not as much of a challenge as he had anticipated. Defense Against the Dark Arts was a breeze, unsurprisingly, although it set him on edge more than most of the others. Charms had always come easily to him, and he managed to get partnered with Ron in Herbology, thus blessedly avoiding any unnecessary contact with people he didn’t feel up to talking to, quite yet. Transfiguration remained challenging, but Professor McGonagall seemed keen to avoid any repeat students running into trouble, starting them off with an in-depth revision session of what they had covered in sixth year.

There was one notable exception, however.

“I don’t understand this, my dear boy,” Slughorn said with utter bewilderment, poking cautiously at the green gloop inside Harry’s cauldron that was meant to be a bright cherry red. “I don’t understand this in the slightest. You used to be such a deft hand at Potions, a true talent!”

Harry winced, squirming uncomfortably in his seat. “Uhm,” he said, looking frantically for an explanation that would sound reasonable. “Maybe I’m just having an off day?”

What on earth he would say the following week when he failed to deliver again, he hadn’t the faintest.

Slughorn seemed satisfied for the time being, at least. “Yes, an off day, that must be it. Well, I won’t fail you on this occasion, since I know you can do a lot better. But do try to get back into the swing of things, yes?”

He was so utterly fucked.

“Yes, yes, I know,” he said, when they left the dungeons, before Hermione could do much more than open her mouth. “I shouldn’t have cheated; it was a stupid idea. Now what the hell do I do to fix this?”

Hermione sent him a shrewd glance. “Maybe you’ll just have to study,” she said, in her most helpful tone.

Harry didn’t find the suggestion helpful at all.

---

“I see you have successfully managed to survive your first week of classes,” Snape said from behind his book when Harry stepped into the cottage on Saturday. “Congratulations.”

Harry didn’t bother to look up to try and determine how much of that had been sarcasm and how much genuine pleasure, dumping his bags on the kitchen counter instead and rummaging in the cupboard beneath for pans. Snape never let on, and it didn’t much matter, anyway.

“Barely,” he said with an exaggerated sigh once he had everything he needed out, chucking the pre-peeled potatoes in a pot and setting them on a high-speed cooking spell. He turned on the oven before splashing a bit of oil into the pan and adding the mince. “I’m mostly kidding. It’s been stressful, really bloody stressful, and I’m glad it’s the weekend, but it’s also been good. Surprisingly good, actually.”

Snape gazed at him from his armchair. “But....?” he said, when Harry didn’t elaborate further.

“But what?” Harry peeled the carrots with a slice-and-dice charm. He’d thought he’d never use it when he first learned it, but for once, he was looking for speed more than the calming motions of the cooking. Running around all week had left him bloody hungry.

“Do not try to play innocent. I can hear the but at the end of that sentence from across the room.”

Harry sighed, dumping the carrots in another pot and filling it with water. “But Potions is kicking my arse something horrible,” he said, resigning himself to the inevitable.

This time, the pleasure was self-evident in Snape’s face. Harry rather wished he hadn’t been stupid enough to glance over to see his reaction; the smugness practically rolled off him in waves.

“Imagine my endless surprise,” he drawled, and damn it, the corners of his mouth were actually quirking up. For Snape, that was nothing short of a miracle.

“Oh, stop smirking.” Harry pushed the mince around the pan with more force than entirely necessary. “I already apologised for that, didn’t I? And yes, you were right, I feel like a complete idiot now. Slughorn was utterly mystified.”

“It must pain him immeasurably, to see his favourite prodigy fallen to such depths.” Snape sounded positively gleeful.

“Hah-bloody-hah. I am in genuine distress over here, you know. The extended essay on Mugwort I can deal with, I know how to use the library. What the hell I’ll do about the actual brewing next week is anyone’s guess, though. If you had half a heart, you would at least try not sound quite so delighted about it.”

“Then it is a pity for you that I do not possess one,” Snape said languidly. Harry stared sulkily at the pans. Why was he making Snape dinner, again? It suddenly seemed wildly unfair.

Several minutes stretched by in silence, with only the bubbling water providing any noise in the room. Then, unexpectedly, Snape’s voice broke into the meditative blubs and gurgles.

“I suppose I could provide you with additional tuition, should you require it.”

Harry’s jaw dropped. He whipped his head around to stare in amazement and incomprehension, and something that felt uncomfortably close to joy, given that this was Potions.

“Really?” he asked, unable to keep the eagerness from his voice.

Snape, for his part, suddenly looked a lot less delighted and rather more disgruntled, with a side dish of bafflement. “No,” he said. “Forget that I ever made that preposterous suggestion, I have not the faintest idea as to why I did. A momentary fit of insanity, I presume.”

“No bloody way.” Perhaps it was stupid to latch on to the idea so fiercely so quickly, but just because Harry didn’t remember Snape as a good teacher that didn’t mean anything. At least part of that had to have been down to their previous animosity, and without constant anger to block him, this could actually be incredibly useful. Snape was good at what he did; Harry knew that, and Harry, for his part, was determined not to screw this up. It actually mattered to him that he did well this year, in a way that it hadn’t quite done before.

“You made the offer, and I’m going to take you up on it,” he said. When Snape merely continued to stare him down, he was compelled to soften his gaze a little. “Please? You may not believe it, but this is genuinely important to me. I’ll be nothing like the student you remember. I’ll work, and I’ll work hard.”

Snape studied him cautiously. “When I say jump, Potter,” he said, and the lilt of his voice had a testing quality to it. “What do you say?”

“How far?”

Snape scowled a little. “That kind of attitude will get you killed,” he muttered beneath his breath.

Wait. “Was that... a yes or a no?”

The response was barely audible, but Harry heard it all the same. “It was a yes, and don’t make me regret it.”

Harry beamed when he went back to stirring his pots. There was a kind of exuberance bubbling up inside him that seemed almost perverse, given the context. That was that problem sorted, at least, and knowing he had one less thing to actively worry about eased something inside him he hadn’t realised had been tense.

“It’s a bit weird, being back,” he said, after a little while. “Professor McGonagall was right, there’s a lot of students missing this year. Slytherin is practically decimated. It’s --”

“Careful, Potter.”

Harry cast a long look at Snape. “I was going to say, it’s kind of sad, really. It made me think of the Battle, how we locked them up in the Dungeons en masse when Pansy suggested they hand me over to Voldemort. About how maybe that wasn’t all that fair.”

“I didn’t know you cared.”

Harry blustered a little bit at the scepticism in Snape’s tone. “Yeah well, maybe I’m not quite as shallow as you think I am, then. I can understand why she did it, you know. I think most of them were probably just shit scared, on one level or another. Maybe I can grasp that a bit better, these days.” He paused. “Also, I don’t think Dumbledore would have approved of us tarring them all with one brush like that. Not after the speech he gave in sixth year about the importance of unity.”

There was a soft snort from across the room. “Albus was a master manipulator, and would have gladly locked any select group of people away, if he thought it would give him the slightest edge in a conflict.”

Harry considered that for a moment. “Yes, you’re probably right,” he said. “But I loved him all the same.” The moment he spoke the words, he realised he’d never said them aloud before. They sounded a little weird, especially given that he was talking to Snape, strangely intimate -- “I mean, kind of like a grandfather, obviously, not in a really twisted way, or anything.”

Snape glared at him across his book, grimacing. “Thank you ever so kindly for that grotesque mental imagery. The scars, I am sure, shall linger for years to come.”

The corner of Harry’s mouth quirked upwards. Bizarrely, now that the thought of Dumbledore as a sexual being had occurred, Harry couldn’t quite get rid of it. “You don’t suppose he and McGonagall ever...”

“That seems highly unlikely, given that the man was a rampant homosexual.”

“Really?” Harry said for the second time tonight. Apparently this evening was determined to be full of unexpected revelations.

“Yes,” Snape said. “Hadn’t you heard? He had quite the stormy love affair with Grindlewald, way back when.”

Three times, Harry reckoned, would be pushing it. He wasn’t entirely sure could have managed it, anyway. His brain felt oddly frozen, like a stuck turntable repeating the same line of song over and over again.

Grindlewald?” he managed, eventually.

“He never confirmed nor denied it, of course,” Snape said. “But the signs were all over the place, to an observant individual. I posit my theory to be correct with an extremely narrow margin of error. Perhaps 0.01%, give or take a few decimal points.” He seemed distinctly amused now, the corner of his mouth quirking upward minutely. “Does the mere concept shock you this much, then?”

“Not the gay part,” Harry said. “But... but... Grindlewald!”

“...was an extremely powerful wizard, and undoubtedly very attractive, when he was in his prime. Many dark wizards are, you know. The Dark Lord himself wasn’t always the grotesque snakelike vision you encountered. During his first reign, he was quite the sight to behold.”

Okay, this was just getting weirder by the minute. Harry was sure his face must be a rictus of horror. “You’re officially freaking me out now,” he said. “I mean, Voldemort, of all people, that is just... eugh.”

Snape smirked. “Consider yourself repaid for the lovely vision you supplied earlier, then. I am merely saying that there was a reason he rose to power quite so swiftly.”

“But,” Harry protested, apparently at the point where he’d lost the ability to speak in full sentences. “Voldemort. Scary.”

“Yes,” Snape agreed, in silken tones. “But he was also immensely handsome, and incredibly charming. He had absolutely no interest in such matters himself, of course, but he knew fully how to use his gifts to his advantage. And he did it well.”

Harry found there was nothing more he could possibly say to that. Except, maybe, one thing: “I think I need to bleach out my brain.”

Snape snorted again, and Harry returned to his cooking, draining the potatoes in a desperate attempt at distraction. It didn’t quite work, and moreover, he suddenly found his thoughts spinning off in an unanticipated direction. Snape had picked up on Voldemort’s... whatever the hell it was; Harry refused to name it. Surely Snape wouldn’t have picked up on it, if he was... did that mean that Snape was...

He didn’t even know why he was thinking about this. But for some reason, his brain utterly refused to stop, and knowing he couldn’t ask, because that would be a blatant intrusion into Snape’s privacy, only made the problem worse. The curiosity was killing him, enough so that Harry couldn’t quite keep from stealing surreptitious glances in Snape’s direction.

Clearly not surreptitious enough, because by the time he had the mince and carrots all layered up in an oven-proof bowl, Snape shut his book with a flare of annoyance.

“I take it all back,” he snapped. “You would not have done well in Slytherin in the least. Your attempts at subterfuge are so pathetic, they not only border on downright painful, but they actually move straight into torturous.”

Harry fixed his eyes resolutely on the potatoes as he began to mash them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Unfortunately, he didn’t even sound convincing to himself.

“Of course you don’t, it’s only bleeding off you in waves.” Snape sighed heavily, a long forceful exhale that expressed more irritation than words ever could. “The answer to the question you’re so clearly dying to ask is yes, not that it concerns you. Now go back to your meat and two veg, or whatever it is you’re doing.”

Harry could feel the tell-tale flush spreading its way all the way up to his neck. “It’s Shepherd’s Pie,” he muttered beneath his breath, pounding the potatoes into a pulp. This was ridiculous, he didn’t know what was wrong with him. “When do we start with Potions?” he added after a second, more than a little desperate for a change of topic.

“If I say after dinner, will you give me some bloody peace until then?”

Harry decided that as compromises went, it was a pretty decent one.

---

He was on his way to class, when he passed Professor McGonagall and Flitwick in the hallway, one morning.

“...administrative matters,” Flitwick said.

“I know, Filius,” McGonagall said, and the unusual irritation in her voice made Harry listen more closely than he otherwise might have done. “I simply wish Severus’ portrait would stop weighing in on every little thing I do to inform me how I’m doing it wrong. It is profoundly aggravating, not to mention --"

Harry didn’t hear what else it was, as the two of them turned a corner and walked out of earshot, but he couldn’t banish the conversation from his thoughts as he rushed to make it to Defence Against the Dark Arts on time.

“Did you find the book?” Hermione asked, when he settled into his customary place between her and Ron.

“Hmm?”

“The book,” Hermione said. “The one you went to the library to get just now?”

“Oh, that,” Harry said, pulling a sheaf of parchment out of his bag. “Yeah, got it in here.”

Hermione said no more, beginning to furiously scribble down notes instead, as Professor McNalty began class by launching straight into an extended lecture. Harry, for his part, couldn’t quite concentrate, his mind still stuck in the corridor with McGonagall and Flitwick.

Snape’s portrait? Now that was just weird. The fact that Harry hadn’t even noticed it on the couple of occasions he’d been in the Headmistress’ office was strange enough; the fact that it existed at all was by far more confusing, however. He’d always assumed that the portraits of past Headmasters only came into being after they’d died. The way that Dumbledore’s portrait had done nothing but sleep immediately after his death had only confirmed that suspicion -- some kind of transitory period, or so he’d assumed.

But Snape wasn’t dead; Harry had spoken to him in the flesh only a few days ago. Harry stared at his parchment, doodling spirals and circles as he attempted to puzzle it out. He got about as far as figuring that perhaps Dumbledore’s portrait had been faking just to avoid questions, which seemed about right, but that still didn’t explain the existence of Snape’s portrait, unless...

Maybe he’d got it all wrong, in the first place. He’d never been told explicitly that portraits only came into being upon a person’s death, he’d simply assumed. Their appearance could just as easily be linked with loss of the position itself, and it just happened to be the case that all former Headmasters of Hogwarts, except Snape, were dead. It didn’t seem unreasonable -- after all, the job required a lot of expertise and experience, and was usually occupied by seasoned wizards or witches.

Yes, that had to be it. And as for Harry not noticing the portrait -- well, he had been rather preoccupied with other matters both times he’d been in McGonagall’s office. It wouldn’t surprise him, either, if portrait-Snape had insisted his picture be hung somewhere a little out of the way, somewhere he could skulk within its frame and observe everything that went on without being the focal point of attention himself.

The thought made him smile a little. Snape really was a reclusive son of a bitch, what with --

Ron’s groan startled him out of his thoughts. “Five feet on Lethifolds, really? I mean, how likely is it that any of us will ever see one in our lifetime?”

“Lethifolds?” Harry said. Oh crap, was class actually over, already?

Hermione paused in rolling up her sheet of parchment, which was spilling over the edge of her desk. “Professor McNalty just talked about them at length,” she said. “I thought you were taking notes, but --" she cast a quick glance at Harry’s parchment -- “apparently not...”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “You’ve been a real day-dreamer lately.” He nudged Harry lightly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought you were off on a patented day-dream charm, the way you were smiling just now. Fancy sharing the joke?”

“If there’s something on your mind that we could help with...” Hermione said.

“No, it’s nothing,” Harry said quickly, adding a smile for good measure. “Honestly, just a tad distracted by something I came across earlier. Nothing major, I promise.”

Thankfully, they let it go, although Harry couldn’t fail to miss the frown they exchanged on their way out of the classroom.

---

“No, no, you’re doing it all wrong!”

Harry suppressed a frustrated sigh. He had promised Snape a different student, and thus a different student he was trying to be; snapping back in irritation wouldn’t help him. He had to be patient, he told himself, no matter how hard it got.

It didn’t help that he felt immensely under pressure. For his first lesson, Snape had set him the task of weighing things, and literally nothing else. Harry hadn’t got it, but true to his promise he had weighed and weighed and weighed some more, for close to two hours. By the end of it, he had been certain his next nightmare was going to consist solely of scales.

At least Snape hadn’t found much fault in his weighing, at the end of it. Not that it had helped Harry any in actual Potions class -- he had somehow managed to just scrape a pass on a wing and a prayer. As thankful as he’d been for the miracle, Slughorn had looked equally disappointed.

This week, it appeared like he might get to do some actual brewing, and for a minute, Harry had reached a state that nearly resembled excitement.

Except that apparently he was doing it all wrong.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “You said to chop the ginger root. I am chopping the ginger root, aren't I?”

“If you want to call it that.” Snape looked distinctly unimpressed. “Your technique is atrocious, Potter. I wasn’t joking when I said it hurt to see the way you mangled those onions the other week. Technique is the bedrock upon which the foundation of any good potion rests. The subject is an art as much as a science, but you are nowhere near the art stage yet, hence I’ve decided to focus on science.”

Harry gazed back at him blankly.

Snape’s eyes narrowed a fraction, as though something was dawning on him. “Tell me this: did you understand why I made you weigh ingredients, last week?”

“No? I mean, I get that it’s something you do as part of the process, but no, not really, I guess.”

“Then why in Merlin’s name did you not ask me?”

“Uhm.” Harry fought frantically for words that wouldn’t offend. “I didn’t want to annoy you? I kind of figured you would think it was blatantly obvious, so I didn’t want to ask what seemed like a really stupid question.”

Snape scowled at him. “It should be blatantly obvious, but that is beside the point. If you never ask why, you will never understand and therefore will never learn. So if you are determined to persist in this idiocy, we might as well call the whole thing off, as it will prove an utter waste of my time.”

“I’m not determined,” Harry said quickly. “I think I just misunderstood you before.” He decided not to point out that Snape hadn’t precisely invited questions before, in class. Maybe, he reasoned, Snape was actually trying as well. The thought made him smile a little. “So what you’re saying is that when you tell me to jump, I should ask why?”

“Do not be obnoxious. The reason I told you to weigh ingredients is that it is, like chopping, a core technique. Unless you have mastered said technique, you will never gain true mastery of the subject, because it is, as I just stated, a science. There is a tremendous difference between using 31 grams of unicorn horn and using 30. It may appear miniscule to you, but I assure you, to the potion it is not.”

Okay, that actually made sense. It was a little like cooking, actually -- well, the more advanced stuff Harry had been reading a fair bit about, lately. With Shepherd’s Pie you didn’t have to give a toss about being accurate, of course, but Potions seemed not unlike the cheese soufflé Harry had made more or less successfully just this evening -- finicky and temperamental.

Harry rather wished Snape had emphasised just how important this all was during the years he had taught them at Hogwarts -- it wasn’t like Harry had been too dumb to appreciate that weighing was done for a reason, just not how crucial precise amounts were -- but it was no use crying over spilled milk. “What I don’t understand is... if my technique’s so atrocious, how come I did so well when I was using your book?”

“Because the vast majority of my annotations were in fact improvements upon the existing recipe with an aim to drastically increase the potency of the potion concerned. It is perfectly possible to create a working draught based on the original printed text, although it requires infinitely more skill. My amendments, in a word, were sufficiently inspired to balance out even your shoddy work. I consider this quite an accomplishment.”

Harry fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Okay then. What’s wrong with my chopping? I’m not trying to be dense, I swear, but I can’t tell what I need to change to do it right.”

Snape sighed dramatically, before walking around the workbench, finally coming to a stop behind Harry. “The way you hold the knife, in the first instance,” he said over his shoulder, one hand reaching around to rest atop Harry’s. “A tighter grip does not confer more control, it merely causes your fingers to cramp, making you lose dexterity. Here --” his fingers pried Harry’s own loose from where they were clenched around the hilt, until they were clasping it lightly -- “more like this. You need to work with the blade, not against it.” He guided Harry’s hand through several strokes in smooth, gliding motions. “Let it flow from your wrist.”

Harry could feel the difference instantaneously, the way the knife slid through the root as though it were butter. It was a bit hard to focus on it, though, for some reason. Snape was suddenly so close. Harry could feel the heat of him at his back, radiating through his robes, the occasional brush of a button. He could smell him, too, the warm salt of his skin overlaid by the spicy mix of potions ingredients that always seemed to cling to him. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell at all, but it made him feel oddly uncomfortable, set his skin prickling in a strange way. Snape’s hand on his felt impossibly gentle, the touch growing lighter and lighter with each passing movement as his breath ghosted against Harry’s neck, sending goosebumps shivering up his spine.

It was hard to think, all of a sudden. Harry decided not to try; somehow it seemed easier to let himself sink into a kind of trance where nothing existed but the smooth rocking motion of the knife and Snape’s hand guiding him through it.

Until, that was, the moment when it finally lifted away entirely, taking Snape with it.

“You were doing it on your own, there, near the end,” Snape said as he stepped away and around the table again. There was the faintest undertone of satisfaction in his voice, but nothing else, as though he hadn’t picked up at all on the weird tension Harry had felt. “Perhaps you are not completely beyond help. Keep going; we’ll experiment with textures and different strengths of resistance in a bit.”

Dimly, Harry was aware that ten minutes ago he would have felt like groaning in despair at the idea of chopping all night. Now though, he was entirely too flustered to even contemplate protesting. His chest felt a bit tight, his heartbeat notably faster, but it didn’t quite feel like the early stages of a panic attack; it felt good, almost, but mostly... weird.

“Well, what are you waiting for, Potter?” Snape snapped, when he remained frozen in place for a little too long. “I am not about to write you an engraved invitation, so don’t stand about waiting for one.”

Harry shook off the feeling as best as he could -- which wasn’t very well, unfortunately -- and went back to chopping.

---

“...but there was nothing there!” he heard Hermione say, when he stumbled down the stairs to the common room the next morning, bleary-eyed and still half-asleep.

“Well, maybe you did the spell wrong?” Ron said. “Tracking-- hey, Harry, how are you?”

“Need coffee,” Harry said, and promptly yawned. At least the common room was deserted except for his friends. “What are you two on about?”

“Oh, just homework,” Hermione said, turning towards him. “Arithmancy is incredibly challenging this year; I’m not sure I’m entirely getting it.”

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “That doesn’t seem likely. Honestly, you worry too much about that sort of thing. Don’t listen to Ron -- I mean, really, when have you ever got a spell wrong?”

Hermione bit her lip, whether in concern or frustration, he couldn’t quite tell. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. She studied him for a second, her forehead creasing into a frown. “You look a bit worse for wear, this morning. Rough night?”

Harry’s mouth twisted. “Yeah.” The nightmares had jerked him awake well into the early hours of the morning, and although he’d eventually managed to get back to sleep, it had been a light, fitful doze, not at all restful. It seemed stupid that he was awake at all right now, but at least the tiredness seemed to be dulling the edges of the dream still clinging to him.

“Just... the usual, though?” Hermione asked. “I mean, they’re not getting worse?”

“No, it’s okay,” Harry said. “If anything, they’re probably better, on the whole. Being busy helps, I think.”

“That’s a relief,” Hermione said, although she didn’t sound entirely convinced. Harry supposed there wasn’t an awful lot he could do about that, unfortunately.

“Let’s go get you some coffee,” Ron said. “Hey, have you read the latest Quidditch Weekly? Sounds like the Cannons are on the up! Drew with the Caerphilly Catapults, so now all they need to do is keep going like this, and --"

Harry tried to pay attention, as they headed down to the Great Hall, but his mind wandered in spite of his best intentions. The ins and outs of the latest developments in the Quidditch league just held a lot less interest for him, these days, and especially so when he was so annoyingly tired. He wondered if there was a potion for that -- something to perk him up just a little, on those days when he couldn’t use Snape’s nightmare draught. There had to be, surely. Snape would probably caution against becoming too reliant on it, as he seemed to with everything else, but if Harry could convince him that it was only for the odd occasion here and there, maybe he’d show Harry how to brew it.

Well, provided that he ever let Harry brew anything and wasn’t planning on keeping him stuck forever on core techniques. Even though Harry appreciated their value a lot more after the explanation, he was eager to move beyond pure practise. He’d just have to make sure to get them down properly this time round.

He hadn’t realised how far off the conversation with Ron he’d drifted, nodding and making affirmative noises at appropriate intervals, until Ron bumped his elbow lightly against Harry’s hand.

“Have you been listening to a single word I’ve been saying?” Ron asked. “Because you sure as hell don’t normally agree when I tell you that the Cannons are in with a serious chance of winning this year’s cup.”

“Uhm,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair. “I guess not. Sorry, I just haven’t woken up properly, yet, I think -- give me half an hour, and I should be better.”

Ron gave him a funny look as they walked into the Great Hall and picked up some breakfast to take away with them, avoiding the Sunday morning crowds as they frequently did, these days. Harry put it down to understandable annoyance at not being listened to.

Hermione, for her part, remained silent until they were already by the lake and halfway through their first sandwich, but Harry could hardly criticise her for being distracted, whatever the cause.

---

“Hey, Harry, see anything interesting out of the corner of your eye, recently?”

The unexpected question froze Harry dead in his tracks, cutting short his -- rather hasty, as usual -- passage through Gryffindor’s common room. It was late in the evening, and he’d just come back from the library, where he’d spent entirely too many hours reading up on brewing techniques. The last thing he’d expected was to be heckled on his way to his room.

And by Dean Thomas, of all people? Granted, they hadn’t spoken a word since the start of term -- not that Harry had spoken to pretty much anyone, really -- but him and Dean had always got on well in the past. Well, except for that stretch in sixth year, when Harry had been so wildly jealous of him going out with Ginny, and then later, when Harry had kissed her the first time, right in front of Dean. He felt a sharp twinge of guilt at the memory, realising he’d never really apologised for that, for how insensitive it had been. What with everything else, it had slipped his mind completely, but Dean seemed to have forgiven him by the time he returned from hunting Horcruxes. There was something in his tone now, though, something that spoke of barely suppressed anger, and it set Harry on edge instantly.

“Like what?” he asked cautiously, not turning around, one foot still on the first step of the staircase.

“Oh, I don’t know. Like something that would make you think it’s okay to hit a girl, maybe?”

Harry’s heart skipped a beat inside his chest.

“Oi mate --” Ron’s voice; Harry had seen him sat on the sofa when he had come in -- “you cut it out right this second, you hear me?”

“Really, Ron?” Dean shot back, and the anger wasn’t veiled any longer, not in the slightest. “I would’ve thought you of all people --”

“I, of all people, am Harry’s friend, maybe you should remember that. Or the part where you, by all accounts, ought to be his damn friend, too!”

“Yeah well,” Dean said. “It’s not like he’s much of a friend to anyone, these days, is it? Doesn’t so much as say hello or goodbye, clearly thinks he’s too special for the likes of anyone besides you and Hermione, now that he’s got his own little private room to lock himself up in all the time.”

Oh God, this wasn’t happening. This couldn’t possibly be happening to him. There was a faint rushing sound in Harry’s ears, the thunderous echo of his leaping heartbeat. It utterly failed to remove the curious stares, though, which he could feel burning into his back. There had been a number of first years camped out in front of the fire when he’d come in; undoubtedly, they were all staring in open amazement by now. Harry sure would have, at that age.

And he was just standing here like a complete twit, unable to move, unable to say a word. They must all think him utterly pathetic.

“I swear to Merlin,” Ron said into the hushed silence that had fallen over the room, “you say another word, one more fucking word, Dean, and I’m going to punch you straight into next week.”

“He hit Ginny! Your own sister, and I bet he hasn’t even apologised for it, either! How could he have, he’s barely so much as glanced at her any time they’ve been in the same room together --”

“And I can bloody well fight my own battles,” a new voice cut into the fray, and this time, Harry couldn’t help but whirl towards it instinctively.

Because it was Ginny. It was Ginny, standing by the still open portrait, arms crossed tightly over her chest, her expression murderous. It was Ginny, who, it was true, Harry hadn’t so much as glanced at, who he hadn’t apologised to, no matter how much he knew that he should, because he hadn’t even known where to begin, because when it came down to it he was just too much of a pathetic coward to truly belong in Gryffindor any longer.

She wasn’t looking at Harry, her eyes fixed firmly on Dean, in all of her fierce anger. But she didn’t need to; the guilt and humiliation rushed up in him all the same, and suddenly Harry could not stand it one second longer, could not stand to be on display like this, every single one of his flaws and fuck-ups dragged out yet again in a public spectacle.

He did the only thing he could do: he fled.

Not to his room, no -- that was too cramped, too claustrophobic; he needed open spaces right now, somewhere safe, somewhere far, far away. He dashed past Ginny and out through the portrait hole, ran down the stairs and out onto the dark grounds towards Hogsmeade, then, for good measure, as soon as he was past the school’s wards, he Apparated.

He didn’t even realise he meant to come to the cottage until he found himself appearing right before its door.

For a moment, he vacillated. This was stupid, he didn’t know what he’d been thinking. Snape might not even be in; Harry had no clue as to what his schedule was during the week.

He knocked on the door anyway.

“It isn’t Saturday,” was the first thing Snape said, when he opened the door.

Harry, quite unexpectedly, promptly burst into tears.

Snape took a step back, looking vaguely horrified at this turn of events, but it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as horrified as Harry himself was feeling. This was just perfect, a brilliant master-stroke to end an already atrocious evening, crying in front of Snape of all people. Harry tried to apologise, to say that he was going to leave, but it was impossible to force the words out through the choking sobs that he couldn’t seem to stop, no matter how hard he tried. The best he could manage were some truly useless, half-formed stutters that made precisely no sense at all.

“Oh, get in here,” Snape said eventually, when Harry’s outburst showed no inclination whatsoever to stop any time soon. He grabbed Harry by the back of his robe with the words, practically dragging him inside to dump him firmly onto the sofa before thrusting a handkerchief roughly into his hands. “Kindly cease your snivelling, would you; I refuse to have your snot all over my upholstery.”

Harry tried valiantly, but failed rather spectacularly. It was like some kind of switch had been flicked inside him, like the scene in the common room had punctured a hole into the already strained dam that had kept his emotions at bay, followed by an entirely predictable flood. He didn’t even know what he was crying about, any more -- everything, perhaps; every single dark memory he had stored up inside him forcing its way out into the open.

Snape, for his part, hovered beside the sofa, tension bleeding through every line in him. Even through his hysterics Harry couldn’t help but notice the awkward way he held himself, and he wondered faintly at how he had ever managed as a Head of House. Perhaps Slytherins didn’t cry by the time they got to Hogwarts. It seemed a reasonable enough assumption.

Finally, Snape moved out of Harry’s line of sight. Harry couldn’t tell where he’d gone, but it wasn’t important anyway, seeing how he had reached the stage where there simply wasn’t enough breath for the force of his sobs. He gasped and shuddered his way through them, wiping frantically at his eyes and nose with the handkerchief all the while, and mercifully they let up a little until, at long last, only an unsteady hitch in his breathing remained.

Something hot was pressed into his hand, something solid. When Harry looked up, he realised that it was a mug of tea, and that Snape had put it there, wrapping Harry’s fingers around it so he wouldn’t accidentally drop it.

He wondered if any of the Slytherins had ever got tea.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He tried to take a sip, but it was still too hot, and besides, his nose was all clogged up. He unscrunched the handkerchief, blowing his nose loudly.

Snape made a face. “Are you quite done, then?” he asked far too cautiously, as though he expected Harry to dissolve again any minute.

Harry nodded. “I’m sorry.” He set the cup aside briefly so he could take off his glasses and wipe them clean on his jumper; they were flecked in little dots of white. “And thanks for the tea,” he said, picking it up again. “It’s --”

“Don’t mention it. No, really, do not mention it. This evening has been preposterous enough. Now, would you care to enlighten me as to what provoked this spectacular outburst of excess emotionality?”

Harry wasn’t sure he did, but it seemed only fair. He took a deep, steadying breath, blew lightly on his tea, and then launched into a blow-by-blow of the whole sorry tale.

“...and of course I just stood there like a right moron, not saying a word until Ginny showed up, and then I bollocksed it up even more by running away. In front of everybody,” he said, wincing a little at the memory. He glanced up uncertainly -- he’d kept his eyes stuck to his tea for the duration of his speech -- but Snape’s face was a mask, his feelings impossible to guess at.

“Thomas is an idiot,” Snape said, after a moment’s pause. “It has always been self-evident that Miss Weasley is quite capable of defending herself.”

Was that supposed to be comforting? Harry honestly couldn’t tell, and he was frankly too shattered to try. “He was right, though. I should’ve apologised to her weeks ago, and I haven’t. I’ve been meaning to, but I can’t seem to work up to it. It’s pretty pathetic.”

“Then you will rectify this oversight at your earliest convenience,” Snape said, as though it were that simple. “You may be slow, Potter, but even you have to get there, in the end.”

Wow, that had come dangerously close to sounding pep-talky. Harry contemplated the weirdness of his life for a moment -- how had it got to the stage where Snape was the one he went to when he needed to lift his spirits? -- sipping silently at his tea.

When he looked up again, Snape was gazing at him rather expectantly, with a note of impatience added in for good measure.

For a moment, the puzzle pieces failed to connect, but then something clicked. Of course, he needed to get back... what was the time anyway? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

But he desperately didn’t want to go back, not yet, not knowing people would stare at him as he walked through the common room. He felt too raw, still, like he’d been flayed alive and stripped to the bone, his insides turned out for everyone to see. He couldn’t possibly, possibly bear it.

“Could I...” he began. “I mean, could I maybe perhaps stay here, just for tonight? On the sofa?”

Snape glared at him like Harry might as well have declared his plans for world domination.

“Never mind.” Harry buried his face in his hands. “It was a stupid idea; forget it. I’m sorr--”

“Do cease apologising. I’ve grown utterly sick of the sound of it.”

Just as Harry had started to wonder whether he could do anything right tonight, something soft hit him square in the face. It bounced to the floor; when he opened his eyes it turned out to be a blanket, the same one usually draped over the back of Snape’s armchair.

“This is a one-time occurrence, you understand,” Snape said, glowering as though his life depended on it. “It will not become a habit. My house is not some kind of refuge for stray little Gryffindors that have been abandoned by the side of the road.”

The warmth that flooded through Harry was only partly amusement. “I’m not a puppy.”

“No, you are a miserable little whelp who destroys every last ounce of my reason. You will be quiet, and not disturb my sleep. You will leave with plenty of time to spare to get to your classes. Should I be unfortunate enough to wake before you have vacated the premises, you will not speak to me until after I’ve had my coffee.” Snape’s hands clenched once, tightly, at his sides. “And you... you will fold that blanket before you leave.”

Harry ducked his head. “Thanks,” he said, when he had regained enough control over his facial muscles to ensure Snape couldn’t misinterpret his reaction as an insult. “For the tea, and for listening, and for this. Just for... everything.”

Snape made a strangled sound somewhere in the back of his throat, pivoting around to storm out of the room. He slammed the door behind him, but Harry couldn’t find it within himself be upset as he heard footsteps creaking up the stairs. After all, it seemed miraculous enough that Snape was letting him stay in the first place. He set his glasses on the coffee table and spelled the lights out, stretching out on the sofa, a few pillows propped beneath his head as he covered himself with the blanket. The fire within the grate he left burning, watching its flickering light through half-lidded eyes as he settled down.

The blanket was warm and smelled faintly of spicy potions ingredients. Harry found himself drifting off into sleep far sooner than he’d anticipated, with an ease that was rarely won these days without the nightmare draught Snape had given him.

---

“Oh thank Merlin you’re all right,” Hermione whispered when Harry slid into his seat beside her in the Transfiguration classroom the next morning. “We were so worried when we couldn’t find you!”

“Yeah, where the hell did you get to?” Ron asked, leaning across the space between desks from the one he shared with Neville, to Hermione’s right.

Harry felt himself flush. Of course they would have been worried; he hadn’t even considered that factor last night, amidst his emotional upheaval. “I’m sorry,” he whispered back. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I just needed to get out, that’s all, and then the thought of going back was... a bit much. I stayed safe, though.”

Hermione still looked concerned, but her words were perfectly neutral. “Can’t really blame you. Perhaps it was for the best; you managed to miss the worst of it.”

Harry studied her cautiously, wondering whether he even wanted to ask. In the end, curiosity won out. “Why, what happened?”

Hermione rolled her eyes as she opened her book. “This twit here --” she shot a stern glance in Ron’s direction -- “thought it would be a good idea to follow through on his promise and punched Dean in the jaw. Meanwhile, Ginny started screaming about how she didn’t need to be protected, and how that was why they had broken up in the first place, which seemed to make Dean even more pissed off, to the point where he hit back. So of course Ginny got handsy herself, and then Seamus jumped in the fray and this mad tussle broke out. I tried to get everyone to calm down, but it wasn’t happening, at least not until Professor McGonagall showed up. I think one of the first years must have called her. She was distinctly unimpressed; she dragged us all to her office immediately.”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “She gave us all detention for a week, well, everyone except Hermione. Said a great many things about behaving like the adults we were and setting a good example for the first years. But don’t worry, we told Dean off proper like at the same time. It was absolutely worth it.”

“Oh, honestly Ron,” Hermione said. “Violence is never the answer.” She shot a quick, somewhat apologetic glance at Harry. “Not that Dean wasn’t completely out of line, of course. I just don’t think hitting people solves anyone’s problems, you understand.”

Harry nodded weakly. Several rows up ahead, he could see the back of Dean’s head, and the sight caused his guts to squirm unpleasantly. He looked away quickly, trying to figure out what the hell to say. Thankfully he was saved by McGonagall’s arrival, as she swept into the room in a flurry of robes, shooting stern looks at Ron, Seamus and Dean alike -- and a much milder, distinctly relieved one at Harry.

The class passed uneventfully, much to Harry’s relief. When it had finished, Professor McGonagall stopped him from high-tailing it out the room with a gentle, “A word, if you please, Mr Potter?”

Harry hovered uncertainly by his desk as everyone filed out of the room, steadfastly not looking at Dean as he walked past him.

“I’m sorry about what happened last night,” he said, when just he and McGonagall remained.

“You hardly have a need to,” she said. “As far as I can tell, you were not the one trying to solve problems through a most foolish application of fists. I merely wanted to ensure that you were all right. It can’t have been a pleasant experience.”

Harry squirmed a little. “Yeah, I... I’m sorry for taking off like that; I didn’t mean to worry anyone by disappearing. It did get to me rather more than it should have, you’re right.” He chewed on his bottom lip, trying to figure out exactly where he stood. “And I am still sorry. It wouldn’t have happened at all if I’d apologised to Ginny, and I really should have done, by now.”

“Perhaps,” McGonagall said. “But you can easily remedy that by doing so in the near future.”

Harry was momentarily stunned into speechlessness -- had she really just given him the same piece of advice as Snape had, last night? It seemed beyond grasping, the two of them actually agreeing on something.

“Please try not to take Mr Thomas’ comments too much to heart,” she continued. “These are difficult times; some friction is bound to occur. And for what it is worth, I did not get the impression that Miss Weasley wishes you ill, last night in my office. She seemed deeply conflicted, it’s true, and hurt by the silence, I strongly suspect. But I cannot imagine that she would not at least consider your words, if you were to attempt to make reparation.”

That... helped a great deal, actually, Harry found to his surprise. “Thanks,” he said, not quite looking at her.

“Don’t mention it.” Unlike Snape, she did not turn the statement into an insult; weirdly enough the effect didn’t seem to be any stronger for it. “I shall let you get on with your day, then.”

Harry nodded, heading out of the classroom. He had just closed the door behind him when a blurry shape caught in the corner of his vision. As he turned towards it he discovered it to be Dean.

“Hey Harry,” he said. “Do you maybe... have a minute?”

He didn’t sound angry this time -- rather abashed, in fact. Harry looked around them -- the corridor was deserted -- then nodded cautiously.

“I should apologise for last night,” Dean said. “I was way out of line. They all reamed me out pretty good for it, after you’d left. Even Seamus thought that it wasn’t on.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what came over me. I’ve just been worried about Ginny, I guess. We spoke a lot over the summer, I don’t know if you know. There was a lot that she didn’t say -- she never confirmed how she got that bruise, for instance -- but it was obvious that she was... falling to pieces. And I just... can’t stand to see her get hurt, and it all made me so angry...” He shook his head again, as though trying to shake off something. “I’ve been pretty angry in general, lately, I don’t really know where it’s coming from. It isn’t like me at all.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “There seems to be an awful lot of that going around at the moment.” A suspicion crept up on him, suddenly, seeping in with a clarity that he didn’t want to be true. “It was... it was you, who spoke to the Prophet, wasn’t it?”

Dean flinched visibly. “Not intentionally, I swear,” he said. “Even as angry as I was with you, I wouldn’t have done that; I know how they twist things. It was right after Ginny had broken up with you, the same evening, and I felt so stupidly helpless, so I went to the pub, and I had a bit too much to drink. There was this woman who seemed really sympathetic, and apparently I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I didn’t know she was a reporter. I was horrified when I read that article, knowing I’d caused it. Even I’m not stupid enough to think you would try and fill in for Voldemort.”

Harry took a few moments, trying to work out how he felt about the revelation. There was some anger still, undoubtedly, but mostly there was hurt, a deep aching sense of betrayal, blunted somewhat by the suspicion that maybe Dean was just struggling to come to terms with some things, not unlike Harry himself had been doing.

“I didn’t hit her deliberately, you know,” he said after a while. “It was a nightmare. I’ve been having a lot of those, lately. It’s part of the reason why I’ve got my own room.”

Dean’s mouth twisted a little. “I could probably have worked that out for myself, if I’d given any actual thought to the matter. I’m sorry I didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry said, finding to his surprise that it was true. They were both stumbling blindly about in the dark; it was no use holding on to grudges. “You were right in saying that I should’ve apologised to her by now. I never meant to hurt Ginny, I genuinely didn’t.”

Dean fixed him with a firm glance, although there was not much anger in it, now. “Then maybe you should tell her that,” he said.

“Yes,” Harry said. “I promise, I will.” He screwed up his courage, and decided that if he never jumped, he might as well give up completely. “Today, as a matter of fact. So... we good, then? All past transgressions forgotten, and all that?”

Dean nodded. “I’d like that,” he said. “Come on, let’s get to Herbology before Professor Sprout can work herself up into a tiff. I so don’t need any more detention.”

Harry followed him gladly.

---

Harry caught Ginny later that day, stopping her outside the Portrait of the Fat Lady with a somewhat manic call of her name as he raced up the stairs. “Hey,” he said as he finally reached her. “Do you... could I have a word, maybe? In private.”

She contemplated him silently for a minute, looking less sure of herself than was usual, before nodding and leading him off to an empty classroom several corridors down. When the door snicked shut behind them, it sounded impossibly loud to Harry; his palms were clammy with sweat.

“So...” he began uncertainly, staring at her where she leaned against the lectern, arms crossed in front of her chest and expression unreadable. “I... I want to apologise. I’ve been meaning to for a while, actually, but I’ve been too chicken to up until now, because frankly, I don’t know where in all hell to start.” His eyes flicked to the floor in his discomfort; he forced them back towards her again. If he was going to do this, he would do it right.

Ginny, again most uncharacteristically, stayed silent.

“I’m sorry for hitting you. I know it wasn’t deliberate,” he said, before she could say as much, “and I know you know that, but I’m still sorry. I felt terribly guilty for it at the time, so guilty that I couldn’t really let myself be aware of it, I think. I’m sorry for... well, for just about everything. Let’s face it, I treated you like shit, quite frankly, and don’t think I’m not aware of that. I never meant to hurt you, but I did it all the same, and I can probably grovel for all eternity and it won’t be enough to make up for it. I’m sorry for ignoring you, and for sniping at you, and for pushing you away when you were trying so hard to be there for me.”

She bit her lip at that, hard enough that he could see the faint indentations her teeth left behind. McGonagall had been right; she looked hurt -- so very hurt, and fragile, somehow, in her pain. The familiar guilt subsumed him. There was nothing he could possibly say that could make up for this, nothing to make it right.

“I’d try to explain,” he continued, “but I’m not sure I even can. Very little I did around that time makes any sense. I just felt so... so lost and in so much pain, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. You didn’t deserve it. I think maybe on some level... I was trying to get you to be angry with me, because I couldn’t stand how nice you were. Because I felt like... like I didn’t deserve that. Like I didn’t deserve anything good, really.”

She made a soft sound, then, pressing a hand against her mouth.

“You know that’s not true, right?” she said after a long moment’s silence.

Harry faltered. “I think... I think I’m getting there. Slowly, but you know, hopefully.”

Ginny nodded, her hand reaching out to twirl a curl of red hair idly around one finger. She always did that, when something was making her nervous. He’d almost forgotten.

“I’m not sure I know what to say, Harry,” she said after another long, drawn out moment. “If you want to get back together...”

Terror unexpectedly leaped up in Harry’s chest. Oh God, he hadn’t even considered that possibility, why hadn’t it occurred to him that she might ask? He had no idea how to handle this. What if she wanted to give it another try, wouldn’t it be absolutely horrid of him to refuse her, after everything she’d been through? But he couldn’t possibly, he couldn’t, not what with Snape...

His brain froze, crashed, then replayed that thought, stuck to it like a mosquito to flypaper. Snape? What in the name of all hell...

“... I don’t think I can do that,” Ginny said. “I still love you, and I think some part of me always will, but it simply hurt too much to just pretend it didn’t happen, even knowing you didn’t mean for it to. I just can’t trust you like that again at the moment, I’m nowhere near being able to trust you, full stop. I’ve thought about it a lot and I think maybe it’s for the better that we went our separate ways.”

Harry jumped on the conversation as though it were an anchor, a much needed distraction from the mass of scrambled impulses his mind presented.

“No, no, you’re absolutely right,” he said somewhat too hastily, hoping to the high heavens that his relief didn’t transmit too plainly. “I think maybe... we had our moment, yeah?” His mouth twisted into something not quite a smile. In spite of the relief, there was a definite sense of sadness within him, too. He had loved Ginny, in all of her fierce brightness, and some part of him would always treasure what she had been to him. She was just no longer what he needed. “And I get it, too,” he continued, “about why you can’t trust me. I do hope that it’ll change, that you’ll be able to again, someday. I would... I would like us to stay friends. I really don’t want to lose that.”

She nodded, once. He could see tears in her eyes, though she didn’t look like she was about to let them fall. “I don’t want that either. But I need a little time, I think. It’s all still too raw, too... I need a little time, that’s all.”

“Then you can have it,” Harry said. “I totally get it, promise. It’s only fair.”

She nodded again, then took a step closer to him. He could smell the flowery scent of her perfume, once so familiar to him, but now only a memory. She pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth and then withdrew.

“Look after yourself, Harry,” she whispered. “I do worry about you, you know.”

And then she strode out of the room leaving him behind with his thoughts and the understanding that Amortentia would no longer smell of treacle tarts, broomsticks and flowers to him, but of potions ingredients and the warm musk of skin, perhaps of the spicy blend of unsweetened tea. That it would smell of, in one word, Snape.

Snape.

As mind-blowing as the realisation had been a mere minute ago, as unhinging and shocking as it had felt, it suddenly seemed equally obvious, not distressing at all. Of course it would have to be Snape; how could he have failed to see it up until now? It all made such perfect sense, suddenly, all the signs he had failed to pick up on making him feel like a completely oblivious idiot: the strange squirming sensation that grabbed a hold of his guts when Snape came too close; the way Harry’s breath went all funny when Snape touched him, not that he’d done it a lot.

Of course it had to be Snape. Snape and his sharp wit and even sharper tongue; Snape and his long, graceful fingers, so fluid in motion that they couldn’t be tainted by the dull stains left behind by years of manipulating ingredients. Snape and his not at all graceful nose that somehow still fit him; Snape and his robes of endless, intricate buttons that shrouded him in swathes of black.

Snape, who Harry couldn’t help but wonder about, on those nights when sleep was hard to come by, with his layers and layers of sarcasm and biting, misanthropic remarks, walls of defence so intricately woven that he might as well have been a sprawling maze of unnavigable proportions, for all that Harry could guess at his secrets.

Snape, whose insults were starting to sound more and more like endearments to Harry by the day. Snape, who had seen him freak and fuck up and even -- he cringed at the memory -- throw up his guts on the pavement. Snape who he had raged at and insulted, whose privacy Harry had run roughshod over, time and again, and who still, after it all, took him in when he unexpectedly showed up on his doorstep to burst into tears like a complete and utter loon.

Snape, who really did get him, for all that he would deny it to his last breath, in ways that Harry hadn’t even been able to imagine when he had spent his days immersed in the memories. Snape, who understood about nightmares and panic attacks, and had never once judged Harry for them, just helping him quietly as though it had never been in doubt whether he would. Snape, who was all sharp edges and unseen depths, and who somehow still made Harry feel safe in a way that he couldn’t begin to explain.

Of course it had to be Snape.

It struck Harry as weird, suddenly, to call him that in his head. If you were attracted to someone -- and God, yes, he was -- shouldn’t you be calling them by their first name? Severus. He tested it out in his head, and then out loud, whispering it in to the empty echoes of the classroom. It tasted strange on his lips, unfamiliar, uncanny, almost, something dangerous about it, as though it should be forbidden.

Snape. Snape who had admitted that he was gay, Harry remembered, and yeah, that made sense, too, now, how utterly stuck he had become on that thought at the time. Not that it meant anything, of course, he told himself quickly, firmly repeating it to ensure that his brain got the message. As frighteningly close as Snape came to being outright nice to Harry, these days -- well, in his own special way -- he had given no indication that his feelings went any further than a reluctant kind of concern. He could just imagine it, could picture it perfectly: walking up to Snape to confess his feelings, and getting a mocking sneer in return. “Unfortunately for you, Mr Potter,” he would say, “I have precisely no interest in foolish little boys whose spectacular failings at Potions are only rivalled by their sheer lack of anything even remotely resembling a human brain. Now get out of my house.”

Harry wished his mental version of Snape didn’t sound quite so accurate; the thought was immensely deflating. It was true, though, too, because even if Snape said those precise words, who could blame him? Harry was little more than a mess these days, and whilst Snape was prickly and not exactly conventionally attractive, he was also fiercely intelligent and funny. Harry couldn’t possibly imagine what he would have to offer him; Snape needed someone more on his level, someone a bit like Hermione, perhaps, only not female. Not that he seemed inclined to go out and search, the way he locked himself up in his cottage, not interacting with the world beyond his four walls.

Harry should probably not feel quite so relieved at that fact. It was spiteful to be so jealously possessive of someone he had no right to; he didn’t want to be that person. But at least it would make things a tiny bit easier, knowing that he was highly unlikely to face that problem in the near future.

He wondered dimly whether he should be more surprised at the revelation that apparently he liked guys in addition to girls, but much like the rest of his feelings, it barely even registered as important. In fact, now that he thought about it, it suddenly fit into place with the same kind of blinding brightness: all those times he had noticed Cedric that little bit too long, or even Oliver Wood. Snape was right on that one; Harry was exceptionally daft, sometimes. He still couldn’t believe it had taken this long for the penny to drop, although it did make a certain twisted sense. Following that first week straight after the battle, during which he and Ginny had shagged every which way from Sunday, his sexuality had suddenly dropped off the face of the earth as though it had never existed. It only stood to reason that as he was starting to feel a bit better, it would slowly begin seeping back in.

Now if only he knew what to do about it.

The door to the classroom sprung open, revealing Hermione’s face. “There you are!” she exclaimed with a great deal of satisfaction. “I was wondering where you’d got to. You haven’t forgotten about our study session, have you?”

He totally had, but it seemed more sensible not to let on. “No,” he said, stepping away from the desk he’d been leaning against. “I was just about to come back. I apologised to Ginny, a bit ago. I think it went well -- she says she needs some time, but we’ll try and stay friends, in the long run.”

Hermione lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh, I’m so glad. I know you’ve been holding off on it, but it’s really good you took that first step. And Ron will be pleased, too. Come on, let’s get going, then. Revision won’t wait!”

Harry followed her readily, rather thankful of a distraction from the futile paths his thoughts had been heading to. If he was a tad distracted during their session, unable to focus as well on the problems and questions she had set them, Hermione didn’t comment on it, probably attributing it to his conversation with Ginny. Harry didn’t bother to correct her, not sure he’d have tried even if she knew about Snape.

When they finally finished -- Ron gave an audible sigh -- it was late and time to get to sleep. Harry found it impossible to come by, however, tossing and turning in the warmth of his four poster until he finally admitted defeat against his libido, which seemed to be taking entirely too well to its sudden reawakening. He touched himself furtively, beneath the covers, thinking of Snape’s voice and his hands, how they would feel running all over him, whether they’d play him as aptly as they wielded a knife. He thought of Snape’s lips, twisted in a sneer and how they would feel beneath his, whether his kisses would be as sharp as his insults. When Harry eventually came, spilling hot over his hand and belly, he pressed his face into the pillow to smother the noise, wondering desperately how the hell he would ever be capable of looking the man in the face again.

---

Facing Snape turned out to be not nearly as difficult as he’d anticipated, the coming Saturday. He behaved as though neither Harry’s teary interlude, nor his secret revelation had happened -- not that he could possibly have known about the latter, but still. It was like some part of Harry had been convinced that his feelings would suddenly be written all over his face; the knowledge that this was clearly not the case proved to be an immense relief.

He still made a complete idiot of himself, anyway, fumbling awkwardly with the willow bark Snape had set him the task of stripping for Remedial Potions -- Snape’s name for their sessions, of course, not Harry’s. Twice, Snape brushed by him a little too closely and Harry promptly dropped what he was holding in his hand, acutely distracted by his nearness. Snape simply made a disparaging comment as though he expected this kind of ineptness as a matter of course.

Harry had no fucking clue how Snape could fail to pick up on the way he blushed in his turn -- or the way Harry kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, for that matter -- but miracle of miracles, somehow he did.

For all the awkwardness entailed in spending time with someone you suddenly secretly fancied and the sheer terror at the prospect of Snape finding out, Harry wouldn’t have left the dingy little basement room that served as a lab for the world. Snape’s usual barbs were still oddly comforting in that bizarre way that Harry had grown entirely too used to, and just being around him was still immeasurably better than nothing at all.

In fact, over the course of the following week he found that he missed Snape terribly. He’d started to, before, not that he’d recognised it then, enough so that when he stumbled upon the perfect idea to say sorry to Mrs Weasley later that week, he didn’t even hesitate once in proceeding with the plan that formed in his head. On Saturday he left early after lunch, making excuses to Ron and Hermione, Apparated to London to do some shopping, and then breezed into Snape’s cottage with his bags as though he did it every weekend.

Snape shut his book with a frown, walking over to the kitchen area to watch Harry pull eggs, butter and various other ingredients from plastic bags.

“Pray tell what precisely it is you’re doing here?” he asked.

Harry began to sift flour into a mixing bowl. “I’m making pie. It’s a present for Mrs Weasley, to apologise for chickening out on going to her birthday. I figured it would be a good way to break the ice.”

“You are making pie,” Snape echoed tonelessly. “For a Weasley. In my kitchen. Potter, it is not yet four. You couldn’t have gone to your own house?”

“I like your work surfaces better,” Harry said, feeling rather impressed with himself for blushing only faintly. He was getting used to this, that had to be good, right? “And pie takes a while to make, so I apologise for being early.” He cast a quick glance at Snape; he was glowering impressively. “Hold your horses, okay? I’m going to make two, one for you as a thank you for letting me use your space.”

“Potter, you are invading my space, without so much as a by your leave. You are running over my kitchen like Attila the Hun ran over Eurasia and undoubtedly you will leave equal devastation in your wake.”

Harry decided it was best not to respond to that. Snape said no more; for a moment he hovered, as though speechless, but then he took a step closer, peering over Harry’s shoulder to inspect the contents of the bags. “What flavour of pie?”

Harry shivered a little as Snape’s breath fanned across his neck. “Cherry,” he said, and thankfully his voice didn’t sound quite as strangled as his throat felt. “I was thinking of trying Mississippi Mud, but I didn’t want to fuck it up, and I figured this would be easier.”

Snape made an unimpressed humming sound as he withdrew. “Cherry will be acceptable, I suppose,” he said, walking back over to his armchair. “I refuse, however, to entertain you while you make it.”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “And I promise I won’t interrupt you reading that --” he made a face at the huge tome Snape was once again spreading across his lap -- “absolutely fascinating looking book.”

Snape shot him a dirty look. Harry shivered a little more, wondering what it would be like to receive one of those if Snape had him pressed up against a wall. Or possibly a bed. He stamped down on the thought with all the might he could muster.

“It is a treatise on the fundamental laws governing the use of all magic,” Snape said, looking distinctly superior. “It is hardly surprising to me that you fail to see the attraction.”

If only that were true, Harry thought with a mild edge of hysteria as he went back to baking. If only that were actually true.

---

The pie turned out to be a complete success. Harry had one brief, utterly terrified moment as Snape lifted the first forkful to his mouth that he might turn out to be one of those people who couldn’t eat good pastry without making orgasmic faces. He wasn’t sure how he would have reacted if that had been the case, but mercifully -- and maybe with the slightest hint of disappointment -- he found that Snape ate pie like he ate anything else: in tiny, precise bites and with an expression that revealed absolutely nothing about whether he was enjoying the dish he was sampling.

Harry was unable to restrain his enjoyment in an equal manner; the pie was simply too good. Snape shot Harry a look that was maybe the tiniest bit off kilter, although Harry couldn’t quite put his finger on how -- tinged with an edge of discomfort, perhaps? He could just as well have imagined the entire thing, and given how over-active his imagination tended to be these days when it came to Snape, he didn’t examine it too closely.

Mrs Weasley seemed utterly delighted when he brought the second pie to the Burrow on Sunday. She refused to let Harry apologise in any decent manner; mostly she hugged him an awful lot, exclaiming how worried she’d been for him at odd intervals. Harry uhmed and ahed plenty, still feeling somewhat overwhelmed by such open displays of concern and sympathy -- maybe that was one of the reasons he felt so comfortable around Snape; he never made Harry feel like he couldn’t possibly deserve such kindness -- and eventually rerouted their conversation onto the topic of cooking. Thankfully, this was met with equal approval. Mrs Weasley seemed very consternated at the fact that none of her biological children had ever followed in her culinary footsteps, and consequently pleased that Harry was picking up some of their slack. When Harry returned to Hogwarts in the evening, he carried with him a stack of handwritten recipes as thick as his own arm.

For the next couple of weeks he fell into an odd kind of routine. During the days he studied and spent time with Ron and Hermione -- increasingly in public spaces rather than the comfort of his own room, and occasionally with some other people joining their conversations. At nights, he wanked furtively to ever more detailed fantasies of Snape before falling asleep. His sleep was still fitful, at times, the nightmares not totally gone, although they were becoming more sporadic and less intense with each passing day. Harry wasn’t quite sure which aspect of his life to thank for that; most likely it was a mix of everything. He was impossibly thankful for the development, though; that much he knew.

On Saturdays he went to Snape’s cottage to steal as many glances at him as he could reasonably sneak into the window of time they spent together. And, of course, to be drilled upside down, sideways and round in a circle on various aspects of brewing; Snape had taken to firing quick-shot questions at Harry as he worked, providing detailed explanations on the many occasions when Harry couldn’t answer to his satisfaction.

One particular session left Harry so dazed and confused that he temporarily forgot to gaze at Snape’s neck with longing, so distracted was he by the whiplash questions shot at him every which way. And that wasn’t a state of things too easily achieved, these days.

Harry wasn’t sure what it was about Snape’s neck that he found quite so hypnotising, apart from the obvious. Perhaps it was simply that it was one of the select bits of bare skin on display; perhaps it also had something to do with the line of silver that curved over his throat. The scar was subtle, subtle enough that Harry had only noticed it consciously the first time he paid serious attention to that part of Snape’s body, but it was there nevertheless. It filled Harry with a strange, giddy relief whenever he saw it, serving as a constant reminder of how close he had come to losing Snape, to never having him in his life, at all.

Predictably, it was on a Saturday that the near comfortable routine Harry had got used to fell apart around his ears like a house that had been built on quicksand.

He had just finished his potion -- Snape actually let him brew, now, and the first effects of it were starting to bleed through into Harry’s efforts in school -- and was pleased to discover that it was the exact shade of aquamarine it was meant to be, when Snape brushed past him in the cramped space between the desk and the shelves that lined the wall. He had taken to brewing himself, while Harry was busy following his set recipes, and he was doing so now, some concoction Harry didn’t recognise bubbling softly away in the background on a low flame.

“Sorry,” Snape said, as he bumped lightly against Harry, “I need to get to the dittany.”

Harry wasn’t quite sure what did it. Maybe it was the fact that Snape had, most uncharacteristically, just apologised to him, for what had to be the first time in the entire history of ever. Perhaps it was the fact that the apology hinted at something else, an acknowledgement of the fact that he was invading Harry’s personal space, when he had previously steadfastly ignored such occurrences. Or maybe it was simply Snape’s nearness, and too many nights Harry had spent longing for a moment exactly like this, running through countless variations on a theme in the dark confines of his bed.

All he knew was that he turned, as though drawn, to face Snape, and that he suddenly couldn’t stop staring. And that Snape was staring right back at him, with an expression that reminded Harry vaguely of a deer caught in headlights, looking for all the world as though he’d entirely forgotten that dittany even existed.

For one long, endless moment they stood there like this, until Harry simply could not bear it any longer; he decided to risk it. He stepped across the last inch of space that separated the two of them and, tilting his head upwards, brushed his lips against Snape’s.

At first he thought with a terrifying jolt that he’d wildly miscalculated. Snape froze against him at the contact as though he’d been struck, not a muscle moving anywhere in his body, even the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest temporarily halted. He wasn’t kissing Harry back, but then again, he wasn’t resisting, either, and when Harry bolted together the last shreds of his courage and tentatively traced the line of his bottom lip with his tongue, Snape opened his mouth on a barely perceptible sigh, melting against Harry like butter. Harry’s heart stuttered wildly inside his chest as he took the invitation for what it was, licking inside Snape’s mouth even as his hand came to rest lightly against Snape’s shoulder.

And then Snape was no longer just melting into him, but actively kissing him back, one hand grasping the back of Harry’s neck to pull him closer. It wasn’t the best kiss he had ever had; in fact, in was kind of clumsy, as though Snape wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, as though he was working purely on instinct. But Snape’s tongue was impossibly hot and slick where it stroked against Harry’s own, and he had been waiting for this, God, had he been waiting. The contact sparked something inside him, rushing through him like wildfire, and he was suddenly impossibly aroused, so hard his trousers felt uncomfortably tight. He kissed back with all that he had, pressing himself against Snape from top to toe because he couldn’t possibly not, and when he felt an equal hardness press back against his stomach he actually thought he might die, right there, at that very moment. But no, they were still kissing, weren’t they, deep and hot and messy, and Harry let his eyes slip closed, just giving himself up to it, letting himself be carried along on this wave of sheer bliss...

Only to suddenly find himself pushed back so abruptly that his back met the bench with an audible thud, something clattering to the floor behind him.

By the time Harry’s eyes were open again, Snape was nowhere to be seen. The room was deserted, Harry’s perfect potion spilling all over the cold flagstones, thrown off the bench by the impact of Harry’s body with it.

What the hell?

Harry flicked his wand to banish the potion as he took a steadying breath, trying to get his thundering heart under control. On second thought, he extinguished the fire beneath Snape’s cauldron, too, mind racing all the while.

This seemed a bit of an excessive reaction. Even if Snape hadn’t wanted to kiss him -- and Harry sure as hell hadn’t got that at all from the kiss -- why wasn’t he still here, shouting abuse at Harry as he was wont to? Something about this wasn’t right, set him on edge instantly.

His unease grew when he came to the top of the stairs to see the front door gaping, swinging slightly on its hinges. Snape never left doors open; it was one of his many ticks.

Harry stepped outside, frantically looking every which way. His eyes took a little while to adjust to the altered light levels, the gloom of early evening all around him, but as soon as they did he spied Snape, standing over by the line of trees that Harry usually Apparated under. The knot inside his stomach wound tighter with each hasty step Harry took towards him. Snape, he realised, wasn’t so much standing beside a tree as he was leaning against it, heavily, as though he didn’t trust himself to stay upright without its support. When Harry came close enough to make out his face, it looked ashen even in the dusk, like he was one inch away from throwing up or passing out, and couldn’t quite decide which to go for. The latter seemed a distinct possibility, judging by the laboured rise and fall of Snape’s chest, each breath too fast, too shallow to possibly contain enough oxygen. Harry recognised what was going on instinctively, because he’d felt it before, although he had never seen it. So this was what a panic attack looked like, then, not that he’d ever wanted to find out.

And he’d caused it, somehow. By kissing Snape.

“Are you all right?” he asked, and then cursed himself a billion times a fool for asking such a monumentally stupid question. Of course Snape wasn’t all right; that much was blatantly obvious.

“Go... away...”

Harry startled at the fact that Snape even managed to speak, in his state. Must be pretty important to him, then; it was a shame that Harry couldn’t obey his instructions. He sure as fuck wasn’t about to leave Snape alone, not like this.

He frantically scrambled for an idea of something, anything he could possibly do to help. Then he suddenly remembered, and cast equally frantically through the pockets of his robes, until his fingers finally managed to grab a hold of the bottle he was looking for. He hadn’t used the calming draught much in recent weeks; there was still about a third of it left. “Here, take this, it’ll help,” he said, thrusting the bottle at Snape.

Snape grabbed for it as though it was his salvation. Contrary to his specific instructions to Harry, he drained the whole lot of it in one go, shuddering weakly when he was done, collapsing back against the tree.

For a long moment, Harry just watched him in silence, watched his breaths even out and turn deeper, watched with a helpless sense of despair at knowing that he’d been the one to do this.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked out, eventually. “I didn’t mean --”

“Go away!” Snape snarled, with a viciousness he hadn’t directed at Harry in weeks. Not since the first night he’d come here, actually. “Haven’t you done enough? Are you happy now, Potter? Satisfied?”

Harry was none of those things. He was deeply, wretchedly unhappy, drowning beneath waves of guilt.

“But I --” he began, and then was cut off by a branch breaking off the tree above them, slamming to the ground not five inches away from his foot.

Harry Apparated the fuck out of there before either one of them could get seriously hurt.

---

Of course the realisation of why Snape had reacted the way he did followed Harry straight back to Hogwarts. Harry wasn’t completely stupid; he could put two and two together and get an answer of four. He knew enough by now to understand about triggers, knew that the trigger had undoubtedly been their kiss, or something in it, at least, and as to where the trigger came from, well, it didn’t take a genius to guess.

With the suspicion came a new kind of guilt, because for all that he had fantasised about Snape, he’d never even considered anything like this, had he? He’d wondered about him at times, but so fleetingly, just in the abstract; mostly he had considered Snape in terms of his own wants and needs and how Snape might be able to fill them. He hadn’t been treating him as an actual person, someone with wants, needs and problems all his own, and how bloody selfish was that? The afterimage of Snape propped against the tree threw his own behaviour so sharply in context, the stark reality of it all.

Still, he pushed the thoughts of what may have caused Snape to react that way as far away from him as he could, because he couldn’t bear to think it, because it was too horrible, because he didn’t want it to be true. He tried to push it away for the rest of the evening, sitting by the fire in the common room with Ron and Hermione, but it simply would not relent, poking and prodding at him with a malicious glee that was downright hateful. By the end of it, Hermione was shooting him constant worried frowns, so eventually he just gave up and conceded defeat, making some sort apology about having an off day before trudging up the steps to his room.

The books Hermione had given him before the start of the year were staring at him from his desk. He sorted through them, picking several up and carrying them over to his bed, sitting cross legged atop the heavy duvet as he opened them up. A lot of them focused on combat trauma exclusively; several did not. There had been chapters in them that he’d skipped at the time, knowing that they didn’t apply to him.

He read them now. The more he read, the more certain he became, the more inescapable was the thought, the heavy, sick knowledge inside him.

By the end of it, he felt lost and confused, angry and bitterly, bitterly sad, a wrenching sort of sensation that wouldn’t even allow him the comfort of tears.

And the worst part of it all was that he was still irrevocably, undeniably, utterly head over heels in love with Snape.

He’d just never contemplated before that anything but his anger might have the capacity to hurt Snape in the worst way imaginable.

---

He went back the next day. Sleep had failed to come to him the previous night, and he had gone through his classes in a strange sort of daze, neither asleep nor quite awake, unable to stop thinking about whether Snape would ever speak to him again. It hurt, the idea, hurt like a part of him had been scooped out of his chest with a blunt blade, leaving a gaping hole behind in its stead. He desperately didn’t want to lose Snape’s friendship, even if he could never have anything else; he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

Because a friendship it had become, somehow, he had realised late into the night. Probably the weirdest, most unconventional friendship he’d ever been party to, but no less genuine for it.

Or maybe he was just spooling wisps of fevered dreams into a reality that had never been the case. It was getting a little hard to --

No, damn it, he was doing it again. These were his own insecurities and nothing more, and as easy as it still was for them to grab a hold of him, he wasn’t going to let himself be wrapped up in them to the exclusion of all else. This was real; this was too important to him. Snape could have easily kicked him out at any point in the past, but he hadn’t done, so clearly there was something in this for him, too. Even if Harry found it hard to discern his reasons, because Snape didn’t let on about much, he must have them, or else he’d never have kissed him back. And perhaps, no matter how disastrously that had ended, Harry could actually do some good here, could give Snape something in return for all that he had given. Maybe, just maybe, Harry might be able to help him, for a change.

Or at least he could hope.

He found Snape by the pond again, sitting in his customary posture. He didn’t react in the slightest when Harry sank to the ground beside him in a replay of that day, weeks ago, didn’t so much as move a muscle. Contrary to that time, he didn’t speak, and this time, his eyes were closed.

Harry didn’t say anything either, for the longest while.

“I’m sorry,” he said eventually, barely more than a whisper. “I didn’t know.”

Snape didn’t respond. He didn’t say: “Of course you didn’t know; I would never have told you.” Nor did he say: “Cease prying into my private affairs, Potter!” And he definitely didn’t say: “It’s fine, you couldn’t possibly have guessed.”

He said nothing at all.

When the nothingness had stretched on too long, Harry’s frail resolve begun to crumble alongside it. He felt so uncertain of everything, all of a sudden, doubts creeping past his defences, mocking and taunting him inside his own head.

“It wasn’t...” he asked, “It wasn’t because it was me, was it?”

Snape opened his eyes, turning his head to look at Harry. He looked more enraged than Harry had ever seen him, with the possible exception of last night. “If you’re going to ask impertinent questions,” he snarled, “you could at least make sure they aren’t utterly beyond moronic as well, or I swear to Merlin --”

“No, no,” Harry said. “You’re right, it was a completely stupid question. I shouldn’t have asked it, I don’t even know why I did. I’m sorry.”

Snape looked away from him, staring at the water. His eyes were shuttered; his expression revealed absolutely nothing of what might be going on inside him, beneath the surface. He looked like nothing so much as an impenetrable sculpture poured from iron or maybe solid steel; unmoveable, unimpeachable, untouchable. Something tightened inside Harry’s chest at the sight of him, at knowing too much of the truth; that if Snape was a sculpture of anything, it was one woven from spun glass, infinitely delicate.

“It wasn’t because it was you,” Snape said, after what felt like eons.

I know, Harry wanted and didn’t want to say at the same time. He couldn’t have anyway, through the lump that blocked off his throat, rendering all speech impossible. He nodded instead, and then, on impulse, reached out to brush his thumb lightly over the back of Snape’s hand, the faintest touch, easily drawn away from.

Snape looked down, but he didn’t move his hand an inch. Harry repeated the movement, and when Snape still didn’t withdraw, curled his fingers lightly over Snape’s own, just holding, just resting, just touching.

“Is this okay?” Harry asked, not sure what he’d do with himself if the answer turned out to be no.

Snape stared at their joined hands for a very long time, until Harry was almost sure that he wasn’t going to answer at all.

“This is okay,” he said, voice barely audible, and something twisted sharply inside Harry’s chest, even as a different thread unspooled elsewhere.

They sat that way for a very long time.

---

Snape didn’t mention their kiss with a single word after that, and Harry, caught in the knowledge that whatever he could say about it would be a gross intrusion into spaces Snape hadn’t invited him into, did not speak of it either.

He stopped touching himself at bedtime, too. His body still yearned, apparently unfazed by recent developments, but Harry refused to give into it. It felt like a violation, now, to imagine Snape thus, brought thoughts with it he didn’t wish to contemplate too closely.

Of course, the tension between them was thicker than ever, as if it fed off every word that went unspoken, infusing each glance between them with a heavy weight that showed no signs of dissipating. Snape ignored it as though it meant nothing to him when Harry came round as usual on Saturday, drilling him on Golpalott’s Third Law and antidotes until Harry’s head spun with it, but he actually thought he understood it, this time. Then he set Harry the task of extracting the individual components of a blended poison before returning to brewing commissions.

Harry sweated over his cauldron for close to an hour. Even with Snape’s detailed explanation to guide him, the process proved immensely challenging, requiring a delicate touch and finicky adjustments at every possible turn. It was no wonder he’d failed at it so spectacularly in sixth year.

When he was finally done, each individual extract sitting perfectly separated in a neat row of vials, Harry breathed an audible sigh of relief. He felt a bright burst of accomplishment at having managed something which had utterly escaped his grasp not two years ago. When Snape finished his careful inspection of Harry’s work -- making him list and elaborate on each of the poisons as he went along -- with a curt nod of satisfaction, the accomplishment morphed into elation.

Then Snape asked him to pass the powdered dragonscales, and the carefully imposed wall of denial they’d built around them crumbled away into dust..

Their fingers brushed when Harry set the small jar into Snape’s hand, and in his temporary happiness, he utterly failed at pretending not to pick up on the spark that went along with it. Snape noticed it, too, his hand freezing right where it hovered beneath Harry’s, their skin still in contact, if barely so. Once again Harry stared and Snape stared right back, looking at him as though he was seeing Harry for the very first time.

The tension inside Harry would not be contained. Snape’s hand radiated warmth against his own, where their skin touched, and his lips looked so soft. The faint thud of his pulse was just about visible against his neck, a barely-there flicker that Harry might have missed, if he hadn’t been looking quite so closely.

“I really want to kiss you right now,” he confessed, unable to help himself.

Snape didn’t move an inch, expression frozen in stone, but his gaze flicked inexorably towards Harry’s mouth, as though he couldn’t quite help it, either. “That would be an extremely ill-advised idea,” he said tonelessly.

Harry hovered in place, uncertain. He didn’t want to push, didn’t want to cross a line that would destroy what fragile trust they held between them; he didn’t want to distress Snape again, not like this, not if he could possibly avoid it. But Snape was giving him pretty mixed signals here, not moving away when he could easily have done, still staring at Harry as though the world around them had ceased to exist.

“Was that a no?” Harry asked. “I can’t quite tell if that was a no.”

Snape, apparently, couldn’t quite, either. He didn’t respond, just kept gazing at Harry, and Harry wondered at what must be going through his mind, what kind of battle was raging behind his impenetrable facade.

Then Snape took a step closer, hand sliding impossibly soft over the back of Harry’s neck, and drew him into a kiss.

It was nowhere close to the passion of their first one, nothing at all like it. Harry was careful to let Snape lead all the way, not pressing, not demanding anything he didn’t choose for himself. It was impossibly light, impossibly gentle; almost chaste the way their lips brushed against each other. It probably shouldn’t have moved him so, but it was also the sweetest kiss he could ever remember receiving, and so it did all the same, lighting him up from the inside as though it were pure, distilled sunshine. When Snape coaxed his lips open, Harry parted them instinctively, as though he never did anything else, and when Snape’s tongue flickered faintly against Harry’s own, he startled himself by making a soft sound somewhere in the back of his throat. Snape broke the kiss, then, though his forehead still rested against Harry’s own, his eyes tightly closed. His breathing was far heavier than the kiss had had the right to instill, but then again, so was Harry’s.

“I can’t do this,” Snape said, almost too low to hear, and then he withdrew, taking Harry’s heart with him and dashing it somewhere on the flagstones.

Except for how it wasn’t Snape’s fault at all, and Harry knew that.

“Wait!” he called out, only to find himself faltering when Snape ground to a halt in the doorway, one arm resting against its wooden jamb.

Because what could he possibly say that wouldn’t make this an imposition, a grotesque violation of things that weren’t his to intrude on? What could he possibly say that wouldn’t destroy what he had already with Snape, too precious for him to discard in favour of something as stupid as hormones?

“Let it go, Potter,” Snape said, from where he still stood with his back turned on Harry. “For once I cannot provide you with what you need; I would have thought that much to be self-evident.”

And suddenly Harry found himself on much surer ground.

“What I need,” he said. “And you’re so damn sure you know precisely what that is, are you?”

Snape made a sound not quite like a laugh; it sounded too painful for that. “You are seventeen years old --”

“Eighteen, actually.”

“That is entirely beside the point, and you know it. You are at an age where certain things tend to be of paramount importance, things which I may never be able to give. You deserve them, too, and I wish you --” his voice took on a strangled note here -- “the best of luck in finding them elsewhere. You are an attractive young man; for all your shortcomings, you should find it not too difficult. Now leave me in peace, and don’t extinguish the light under my cauldron when you see yourself out; it needs to simmer for thirty minutes.”

And just like that, he walked out the door.

Harry saw red. A surge of righteous indignation rose up within him with a swiftness that stole his breath as surely as Snape’s kiss had done. No, he didn’t get to do that. He didn’t get to make it about Harry, when that wasn’t the point that everything hinged on, here. Harry simply wouldn’t let him.

He took the steps two at a time, bursting into the kitchen area at full speed before grinding to a halt. “We’re not done,” he said.

“Are we not.” Snape slammed the kettle onto the hob with an audible clang. “I thought I had made it perfectly clear that I wished for an end to this discussion.”

“No.” Harry took a deep, steadying breath, and continued, more softly, “Look, if you can’t do this because it’s too hard, because it’ll... hurt you too much, then I get that. Just say the word, and I’ll back the hell off and I won’t ever mention it again, promise. I don’t want that; I don’t want that at all. I respect you far, far too much to do that to you.”

Another deep breath.

“But you don’t get to make this about me. You don’t get to tell me that you know what I need, when you can’t possibly, because I don’t even know what the hell I need myself, these days. I thought it was Ginny, for the longest time, and look at how that turned out. She wasn’t right for me at all, and actually, in hindsight, it’s a little disturbing just how close I came to trying to marry my mother, there.”

Snape sighed a little. “I was wondering if you were ever going to pick up on that,” he said.

“Yeah, well, I did, even if it took me some time. Anyway, back to the topic --”

“Potter,” Snape said sharply, “It may have escaped your attention, but apart from... anything else, I am a mean, bitter, spiteful old man with anger issues. I am not a nice person, I am not a kind person, and I am under no illusion about that. You could do infinitely better than me.”

“Well, I’ve been pretty mean, bitter and spiteful myself, as of late,” Harry said. “So I think I can relate, somewhat. As for not nice or kind, you have been both to me in spades, even if you do it in your own inimitable way. It’s part of what I like about you, actually. You never make me feel guilty for accepting your help, precisely because you insult me all the while, whilst you give it. Which may be a little weird, but hey, it works for me, so I’m hardly going to question it.”

Snape failed to respond to that, but Harry didn’t need him to, right this second. He was getting into the swing of things.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “You and me, we’re so much alike. Maybe not in some ways, but in so many ways that count. This... this... thing between us, it’s been building for a while. I felt like a right idiot when it first came to me that I hadn’t noticed it sooner, because it’s so blatantly obvious, frankly. I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it yourself. You’re normally so perceptive.”

Snape made a sound, then, one that came dangerously close to hysterical laughter. “Has it occurred to you, Potter,” he bit out, “that I might not have picked up on it because my brain wouldn’t let me? Because the thought of it was too --”

Harry didn’t let him finish the sentence. He wasn’t sure how he would cope if it turned out to end on horrible. “Of course it has. I’m not completely stupid, you know. But I’m trying really, really hard not to pry.”

Snape’s shoulders slumped. Harry wanted nothing so much as to run his hand over the tense line of his back, soothing away the strain in his muscles. He didn’t.

“You don’t get to tell me what it is that I need,” he repeated instead, more gently. “Because as it turns out, it might just be you. I would rather have the occasional kiss like earlier, and your mean, spiteful company the rest of the time, than... anything else in the whole world, frankly. I won’t push, and I won’t ask for things you’re not ready to give, because that’s the precise opposite of what I want with you. But you don’t get to make that decision for me, like you’re not... not worthy of me, or something.”

Snape flinched at that, and Harry knew that he had struck a nerve somewhere, even though he hadn’t set out to. “Go away,” Snape said tightly, as though he was clinging to his facade with the last remnants of his strength.

“But --”

“I need time to think.” Snape was leaning heavily on the counter, and he sounded tired, worn down, completely unsure of himself. “I need time.”

And Harry recognised the tone of his voice, because he’d used it himself, not too long ago. He’d used it when speaking to McGonagall, and Hermione, and later Ron, and he knew, in that moment, how Snape felt -- if not precisely, then at least enough to understand.

“Okay,” Harry said. And he let himself out of the house without another word, or glance, or touch.

---

The following week, Snape once again acted as though nothing had happened. Harry wasn’t quite sure what he’d expected. This had been one of many possibilities, but certainly not one he’d especially hoped for. Some part of him -- the lonely, scared part that was all too desperate for approval, he reckoned -- wanted to kick and scream in frustration, to state his case again and make sure that Snape got it, this time. But he had made a promise, and wasn’t about to break it; that wouldn’t be fair. He’d made his point, hopefully in not too disastrous a manner, and if Snape needed another week, or another ten weeks to consider it, then Harry was damn well going to give him that time, no matter how much he wished otherwise -- or no matter what the decision turned out to be.

Instead, he focused on creating his antidote. He’d spent the past week feverishly looking up counteragents to the poisons he’d identified the previous Saturday, and puzzling even more over the mysterious additional ingredient that would transform the separate parts into more than their sum, “by an almost alchemical process”, as Slughorn had put it in sixth year. None of the books he had consulted had proved to be of much help with that; Harry suspected this was where the art element of potioneering came in.

At least his finished potion didn’t explode, or boil over, or smell of rotten eggs, much to his relief. He had absolutely no clue whether it would do what it was meant to, but there was little he could change about that, now. He rather hoped Snape wouldn’t decide to test it on him in person -- it seemed unlikely, nowadays, but it wasn’t a risk he fancied taking on.

Snape inspected the end result for what seemed like an excessively long time, poking and prodding it with his wand, decanting some of it into a vial to hold up to the light, sniffing it and casting spells over it; in short, doing everything shy of ingesting the damn thing.

“Hellebore, Potter?” he asked, when he finally seemed to have satisfied himself that he’d examined it from all possible angles. “An interesting choice, for a fusion agent. Why?”

“I... don’t know, actually,” Harry confessed, certain that he was about two seconds away from being called a dunderhead. “It just kind of... felt right?”

Snape raised an eyebrow. “Snakeweed is more commonly used to blend this spectrum of antidotes --” damn it, Harry knew he had got it wrong -- “Don’t look so glum. I was about to add that it appears your magical instincts are not wholly out of tune. Hellebore is not the obvious choice, but it is by far the better one; the fact that it is poisonous in and of itself increases the potency of the finished product by about fourfold. It would be my choice, as well.”

Wait, he had got it right? More than right, by the sound of things. It felt too much like sheer dumb luck for him to take much pleasure in the fact, however.

“Magical instincts,” Harry said. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that. Or ‘not wholly out of tune’, for that matter. I mean, I’m glad I got it right, but I have no clue as to how I did. I pored over so many books trying to figure this one out, you wouldn’t believe it, but none of them made it any clearer to me.”

The corner of Snape’s mouth quirked, near imperceptibly. “You still think too much like a Muggle, Potter. Magic is not merely something we, as wizards, use; it is not only a tool. It is a part of us. It flows through us, and all around us: it is in the air, the earth, fire and water. Whenever you cast a spell, you do not simply draw from your own power, but you tap into something that forms part of a greater whole. Any wizard worth anything is aware of that on some level, even if only subconsciously. Genuine mastery of any magical discipline relies on this instinct, and those who lack it will forever remain mediocre. You may not consciously perceive it, but the magic around you, it calls to you. It is a process of merging, of fusion, to truly access it, not unlike this antidote. You will never find such answers in any textbook, no matter how hard you try.”

Wow, that little speech hadn’t sounded seductive at all. Harry tried hard not to notice, but failed utterly; Snape’s explanation felt intimate, somehow, even without words like merging and fusion to add fuel to his fire. Harry flushed, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly as he glanced away. Snape thankfully chose not to comment on the obvious track his thoughts had taken.

“That’s fascinating, actually,” Harry admitted, once he trusted his voice to remain level. “I’d never even thought of any of that.”

Snape’s smirk held more than a hint of superiority. “It is magical theory. Not three weeks ago you were disparaging a book I was reading on the very same subject.”

Harry remembered the immense tome, and suddenly felt rather intrigued. “Well, I was clearly mistaken then. Oh, don’t even start. It’s downright nauseating how much enjoyment you get out of getting me to admit that I’m wrong.”

“But it brightens my days so immeasurably,” Snape drawled, and Harry couldn’t help but smile in spite of himself. “Get over here and chop those chicken livers for me. Thin slices, if you please.”

Harry did, feeling warm all over at the idea that Snape considered his technique decent enough now to let him assist in brewing his commissions, even if it was only a small job. He wasn’t sure he’d ever been given a nicer compliment.

They worked in silence, mostly, Snape occasionally commenting on what he was doing and why; Harry asking the occasional question whilst he chopped and sliced and ground up ingredients, simply watching Snape work in the lull of moments when he didn’t have anything to do. It was comfortable, easy, like this, and Harry found himself thinking that potions wasn’t really all that different from cooking in the sense of peace it bestowed upon him, now that he had half a clue of what he was doing.

When they had finished clearing up Snape caught Harry’s arm on his way out the door, eased him against the wall, and kissed him softly until his knees went weak with it. Then, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, Snape ascended the steps from the cellar and held open the front door in a clear gesture for Harry to leave.

Harry could live with that. Harry could more than live with that.

He Apparated back to Hogwarts with the stupidest grin on his face, heading back onto school grounds with steps so light that he might as well have been walking on air.

---

Not much changed between them, except for the fact that Harry started visiting Snape at the cottage on days other than Saturday, increasingly. He was a little worried that Ron and Hermione might get concerned if he took off without explanation too often, and not without reason, to judge by the long, searching looks Hermione in particular sent him on occasion. However, neither of them actively pried -- clearly they felt that giving him space was for the best. Harry was immensely grateful for the out it provided and decided to take advantage of it, if only for the time being. Hopefully, the fact that his mood was better than it had been in a long time would go some way towards alleviating their fears; if not, he’d just have to fix it later. He’d find a way to make it up to them, somehow, to prove that he really was genuinely all right.

The other notable change was, of course, the kisses.

Snape, now that he had evidently decided against ignoring this... thing between them (Harry really had to stop calling it that, it sounded faintly ridiculous), seemed rather taken by them, on the whole. There were still days during which he didn’t so much as brush against Harry, but more often than not, he drew Harry aside after they’d finished a potion or dinner to kiss him as though he didn’t know how not to. He never kissed him like Harry sometimes saw Ron and Hermione or other established couples across the school kiss, in a brief acknowledgement of affection shared, a quick peck on the lips in passing. No, Snape sought their kisses out as though he had planned them to a rigorous schedule that was beyond Harry’s comprehension, always ensuring that they had his full focus, that they could not possibly be distracted. He kept them light, mostly, slow and languid, as if he were testing them, tasting and memorising each part of Harry’s lips, his mouth, with aching precision.

Harry might have called them teasing, had he not known that they weren’t meant to be, and somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to mind it. It made those moments when they got hotter and wetter and deeper than normal all the more blissful.

Snape always withdrew, at some indefinable point that Harry couldn’t quite figure out the significance of because it kept changing; probably also because by then he was usually too wrecked to take in the subtle cues that would reveal the reason. For all their lightness, the kisses were still so unbearably sweet, something raw and honest in them that shook Harry to the core. He took up wanking again, at nights, because he couldn’t possibly not, would surely have gone mad otherwise.

Well, or madder, given that he’d already swung decisively round the bend earlier in the year.

They didn’t discuss the kisses, following the strange pattern they’d established that night of their third one. Harry left as soon as Snape signalled the end of it, although sometimes, when it had got a little too much, he couldn’t help but brush his hand lightly against Snape’s own on his way out.

Sometimes, their fingers tangled, as though unconsciously, whilst they were kissing. Harry loved those times most of all.

It was on a weekday night that the pattern finally broke. They were comfortably installed on the sofa -- as was frequently the case -- Harry’s legs curled up beneath him as Snape kissed him, his shoes neatly lined up by the door (Snape had insisted). As always, it was difficult to think with Snape’s tongue wet and silken inside his mouth, so Harry didn’t even try. He did work hard to swallow the moans that wanted to rise in his throat, if not the small sighs -- that was an impossibility. In spite of his initial clumsiness, Snape had become incredibly good at this incredibly fast.

Harry didn’t open his eyes immediately, as Snape pulled away. When he did, Snape was regarding him quizzically, as though he couldn’t quite figure out why in the hell Harry was even here.

“You must find this incredibly tedious,” he said, hand still resting warm against the nape of Harry’s neck.

Tedious really hadn’t been the word foremost in Harry’s mind.

“You’re kidding me, right?” he said without thinking it through properly, still somewhat dazed and shivery all over. Snape did that to him. “Yeah, I feel incredibly tedious when I’m alone in bed every night, thinking about how you kissed me.”

Snape startled a little, hand slipping away from Harry’s neck, and Harry felt like a complete and utter idiot. Would he ever manage not to be the proverbial bull in the china shop?

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, eyes darting down even as he felt the tell-tale flush rise to his cheeks. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No,” Snape said with near equal speed. He stroked his thumb over the pulse point in Harry’s neck, just once. “It’s fine.”

Harry glanced up at him to determine whether that was a lie. It didn’t appear so, but it was rather impossible to tell; Snape lied just as smoothly as he sliced Mandrake root or dragon hearts or garlic.

Harry wasn’t certain he was ever going to be able to tell, with confidence. It was a little unsettling.

Snape looked away, then, clearing his throat awkwardly before getting to his feet. “It’s late,” he said. “You should head back.”

He hovered beside Harry as he fumbled his way into his shoes, as though it would be impolite not to. Perhaps some things had changed, Harry reflected.

Just before he went, Harry couldn’t resist brushing his fingers lightly against Snape’s. He wasn’t quite sure whether it was a silent apology or an attempt to reassure himself. Maybe a bit of both.

But he was pretty sure he didn’t imagine the way Snape’s fingers lingered against his in return.

---

Increasingly, the kisses developed an edge, became deeper, rougher, as though they were morphing into a prelude to something else as opposed to the main act. Snape let him lead now, from time to time, brief flicks of his tongue inviting Harry’s own into his mouth, and Harry spent those moments in a strange state of terrified exhilaration, uncertain how far to go and desperately not wanting to fuck this up in some way. He didn’t appear to have, so far; Snape had never pushed him away sharply or given any other sign of discomfort, and Harry was immensely glad of it.

Sometimes, he found himself flat on his back on the sofa, Snape’s elbows resting either side of his head as he kissed Harry, their bodies never quite touching except for the brush of a robed thigh against him where Snape’s bracketed his own. On a few occasions, Snape had gone as far as tracing his open mouth up the line of Harry’s neck after a particularly enthusiastic kiss; the first time that had happened Harry had been half convinced he might actually die. He was usually too far gone at this point to keep his eyes open and take in Snape’s reaction. The one time he opened them speedily enough, Snape was looking at him with an odd mix of fascination and puzzlement in his expression, as though he couldn’t quite believe what was happening but was helplessly entranced with Harry’s response.

Increasingly, Harry failed to choke back all of his moans. Increasingly, it was him who broke their kisses instead of Snape, because he knew that if he didn’t take a time-out it would become too much. His hands wanted to do more than just rest against the jut of Snape’s shoulder-blades; they wanted to twine into Snape’s hair, grab onto his hips and pull them flush together; his hips wanted to surge up into the heat of the body above him.

But Harry wasn’t going to let himself do that, and so, he took time-outs. Even if he felt a bit silly at having to leave the room simply because his cock wouldn’t obey his mind. He was on one such break now, had excused himself not more than a couple of minutes ago to head out of the cottage for a little while.

It was frustrating, there was no way around that. It was frustrating and hard -- hah, bloody hah -- but it wasn’t as if Harry couldn’t get off as soon as he was back at Hogwarts, in the privacy of his own room. Frustration wasn’t going to kill him and he was learning to be patient, although it was mildly hilarious that this, of all possible things he would never have imagined, would be the thing to teach him how. Frustration was liveable, he’d decided, because he’d meant what he’d said to Snape before this all started and he couldn’t have changed it had he wanted to. This was already so much more than he’d expected, and Harry decided to treat it as a gift, every kiss, every caress Snape chose to bestow upon him. If it ever led anywhere else, that would be amazing, but if it never did, then it would be... well, frustrating.

Harry kicked at a small stone on the ground. Was it possible to get frustrated with yourself for getting frustrated? It seemed kind of circular, as arguments went, and Harry suspected circular arguments weren’t something Snape would approve of.

He sighed. It was a bright, clear night, no clouds obscuring the full moon. The scenery around him was beautiful, the tall grass waving silvery-green in the breeze, the rustle of leaves in the trees carrying across from the forest. At another time, he might have loved the quiet peacefulness of it all, in spite of the faint chill that stole under his robes, yet achieved little in the way of cooling his arousal. But he didn’t want to be out here; he wanted to be inside, with Snape kissing him, his warmth atop him -- and damn it, that wasn’t a helpful thought at all. If he could just --

The door flew open with a snap, startling Harry out of his thoughts. Snape stormed out, his posture bearing all the hallmarks of a right snit, and Harry took an instinctive step back against the whitewashed wall, mind frantically scrambling for how he had managed to fuck up. He couldn’t remember crossing any lines, and Snape hadn’t seemed angry with him a minute ago -- quite the opposite, in fact.

Then, Snape was right in front of him, incredibly close in a heartbeat, and Harry’s train of thought promptly derailed. He did look angry, his mouth a twisted line, but the way he pushed Harry against the wall was nothing but gentle. Before Harry could even attempt to reconcile the contradictory behaviour, Snape’s hand was suddenly between them, pressing unerringly against the hard outline of Harry’s cock in his trousers.

“Tell me you want this,” he said, all harsh, clipped notes. Harry moaned, startled into it by the unexpected contact, even as it all became clear.

Snape wasn’t pissed off with him. Snape was pissed off with himself. Whether it was because he wanted this to go further and was simply equally frustrated as Harry, or whether he felt like he owed it to him, or some such rot, was anybody’s guess.

“You don’t --” Harry choked out, clinging tightly to the last vestiges of his resolve -- “you don’t have to...”

“I know,” Snape shot back impatiently. “Answer the damn question.”

“Oh God,” Harry said, head falling back against the wall quite without his volition. He barely even registered the discomfort of it. “You know I do.”

And that seemed to have been all Snape was waiting for, because in the next instant, he was kissing Harry. Not slow, not soft, but deep and hot and all-consuming, as though he was trying to unravel him from the inside. It worked, too, of course it did, and this time, Harry couldn’t help himself, his hands reaching up of their own accord to wind into Snape’s hair, to pull him closer, as close as he could possibly get him. Snape didn’t object, hand fumbling with Harry’s belt then his zipper, and then Harry had only the briefest of flashes to register the shock of cool night air on over-sensitised skin before Snape’s hand gripped him and began to stroke.

Harry wasn’t going to last. He knew it immediately from the shudder that wrecked his body at that very first touch, knew he was going to come embarrassingly fast, and he couldn’t possibly have cared less. Snape’s grip was not as tight as he usually preferred it; his tempo a bit uneven, but it didn’t seem to matter because it was new and him and so desperately longed for; it shot through Harry like electricity all the same. Snape kept kissing him until Harry was beyond kissing, until he could only gasp helplessly for air, and when Snape’s mouth found the hollow of his neck instead, sucking sharply at his thundering pulse, that was it, Harry was done for. He thrust up once, twice, and then he was trembling with it, shaking himself apart with such intensity that he couldn’t even find the breath to cry out.

Snape was still kissing his neck, softly now, when the world slowly began to reassert itself around him. Harry was immeasurably glad for the firm wall behind him and Snape’s arm in the small of his back; his knees felt like liquid, and he wasn’t sure he could stand on his own. He breathed deeply through the last shudders trailing through him in the wake of his orgasm, remembering to loosen his fingers at the nape of Snape’s neck. When he finally stilled, Snape drew away from him, still close, but far enough away for Harry to look at him.
The sight nearly did him in all over again. In the dim light, his eyes seemed impossibly black, pupils blown to bits. His hair was dishevelled from where Harry’s hands had tangled in it, but more than anything what got to Harry was the way he looked at him, a strange blend of hunger and something darker, something that shouldn’t possibly have been hot. It made Harry want to crawl all up inside him, to wrap himself around Snape and kiss him and touch him and hold him until he lost himself, until he lost that edge from his eyes, too.

Well, one of those was hopefully okay. Harry pulled Snape in for a kiss, and tried to say what he couldn’t find words for -- not that Snape would have wanted to hear them anyway, he suspected. Snape flowed into him and kissed back, kissed back until he made a small sound in the back of his throat, and as if that had been the cue, he pushed Harry back against the wall.

“Sorry,” he said, gaze skittering away to land awkwardly on his hand which was hovering somewhere between them, gleaming faintly wet in the dim moonlight. He made an aborted move, as though to go for his wand, then cursed lowly beneath his breath.

Harry ducked his head to hide his smile. He wasn’t quite sure Snape would understand right now that he wasn’t laughing at him.

“Here, let me,” he said instead, thankful that his eternal paranoia meant he’d not left his wand inside even though his robes still hung over the back of the sofa. He performed a quick cleaning spell on Snape’s hand and himself, before tucking himself back in. “Haven’t yet figured out a not awkward way of dealing with this outside of an actual bed. Or shower, I suppose.”

Snape stared at him as though he was utterly lost for words. “I..” he began, then shook his head. “I apologise if this wasn’t what you... how you... it perhaps wasn’t the best idea to ambush you in this manner.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Harry said. “Do I look like I’m complaining?”

Snape couldn’t precisely answer that question, seeing how he wasn’t looking at him. Harry, unsure as all hell, blindly followed the instinct that told him not to let this one go.

“Look at me,” he said, urging Snape’s head towards him with a few fingers against the line of his jaw. “That was... I don’t even have words for what that was, quite frankly. But I promise, none of them are bad. I would give you some actual ones, but I kind of find myself all out of superlatives that seem appropriate.”

Snape stared at him silently for a good long moment. Then, like something snapped back into place somewhere, his shoulders straightened and his mouth twisted in something not quite a sneer.

“Given your sadly limited grasp of the English language, that is hardly surprising.”

If it was meant to jibe, Harry didn’t feel it. He rather suspected it served a different purpose, altogether, and so he did the only thing he could: he laughed. He felt oddly elated and overwrought at the same time, all tangled up inside.

“Let me just grab my robe,” he said. “And then I’ll get out of your hair. Unless you want me to stay, that is.”

Snape shook his head curtly, and Harry didn’t wait for things to get awkward again.

He did, however, press a soft kiss to the corner of Snape’s mouth just before he left, robes once more pulled over his head.

“Thank you,” he whispered. He rather hoped that Snape would get that he didn’t mean the sex but Snape trusting him; it didn’t feel like the kind of thing that would be wise to say out loud.

Yet.

---

He went to the Forbidden Forest early on Sunday morning.

Harry wasn’t quite sure what had prompted the decision, but it ultimately didn’t matter much. As reasonably comfortable as he’d become with the rest of the castle simply through being forced to use it, the Forbidden Forest was the one area around the school he’d resolutely avoided up to this point. Okay, so maybe he did still avoid the Great Hall at peak mealtimes, choosing to come before or after the main rush and having the occasional meal in his room, but that had less to do with it as a place and more with the sheer mass of people still setting him somewhat on edge.

The Forbidden Forest was... different. Still, it was about time he went to face that particular aspect of his past.

It didn’t look so intimidating with the bright morning sun filtering through the remaining leaves in the trees, more of them littering the ground in a burst of autumnal colours, crunching underfoot with each step he took. It was quiet here, this early during the day, most students still in their beds, taking the chance for a lie-in that the weekend presented. Before too long, there would probably be some fevered activity around the Quidditch pitch -- Ron had complained endlessly about Ginny’s decision that Sunday mornings made an excellent time for practise -- but for now all was silent.

Funny, how little he missed Quidditch. It had seemed so monumentally important to him, back in sixth year, but that felt like lifetimes ago. His priorities had changed so much, in such a short span of time.

When he moved over a little hill, Harry discovered to his surprise that the birds chirping in the trees and the small creatures scurrying about in the underbrush -- he still startled a little, at times -- weren’t his only companions. In the next clearing stood the herd of Thestrals, majestic and regal in all their grotesque glory. And Luna stood by them, chucking scraps of meat their way, stroking down the neck of one of the animals.

“Hey Harry,” she said in greeting. “It’s nice to see you.”

He remembered the first time he’d properly talked to her, just like this. That too felt like a lifetime ago. With a faint pang of guilt he realised that he hadn’t exchanged more than a brief wave in greeting with her; all the time spent at Snape’s and in the safety of the common room or the library had rather isolated him from students that weren’t Gryffindors. He wondered how she had been.

“Likewise,” Harry responded, walking towards her. She was wearing fuchsia coloured robes on her day off; they clashed horribly with the red hairband that held her unruly locks out of her face. Her earrings, for once, were almost stylish, pale purple columns of some kind of gemstone, perhaps amethyst. “I’m sorry I haven’t really spoken to you this year. It’s nothing personal, I’ve just been a bit...” he broke off, uncertain of how to put it.

“You’ve been a bit shy,” she said, still stroking the Thestral. “That’s understandable.”

Oh well. Trust Luna to get it. Harry reached out to the Thestral she was petting, running a hand down its leathery, bony nose. It huffed out a breath in response, pressing against him. Odd, how much it suddenly reminded him of Snape.

“A lot more people will have seen them, this year,” Harry said. He hadn’t really thought of that before; somehow, it seemed to settle something inside him.

“Yes,” Luna agreed. “It’s a bit sad, isn’t it?”

Harry nodded. “So how have you been?” he asked, after a few moments of companionable silence.

“Oh, I’ve been well,” Luna said. “I went to Brighton over the summer. Met this really lovely girl there. She’s a Squib, but she believes in the healing powers of crystals. We’ve been keeping in touch by owl since then. I‘m inviting her over to mine for Christmas.”

Something about the small smile she shot Harry along with the words made him stop short. Or maybe it was the way she enunciated lovely; regardless, he knew at once that Luna wasn’t simply discussing a new friend.

“I... didn’t know you were into girls,” Harry said.

“Neither did I,” Luna said. “But I don’t suppose it makes much difference, do you? It’s not really the shape and form that a person comes in that matters. It’s what’s inside. A bit like the Thestrals, you know.”

Harry thought of Snape and the prickly exterior he presented to the world, his sharp insults and disdainful manner, his aloofness, the intimidating swirl of his robes. He thought of his hooked nose and limp hair, of how he never really saw them, these days, because they had morphed into something else, they had simply become Snape. He thought of how soft his kisses were, of how vulnerable he had looked out there in that moonlit night, after he’d made Harry come.

“Yes,” he said. “I know exactly what you mean.”

The Thestral neighed, tossing its head before taking off into the forest, clearly having had enough affection for the time being. Harry watched it go, watched its smooth, elegant pace, and couldn’t help but think that had it worn robes, they would undoubtedly have flapped dramatically. The thought made him laugh.

Luna shot him a curious look, and suddenly Harry felt overcome by the wish that he could tell her. She would have understood, he suspected; she would have got it in a heartbeat.
But Harry had made a promise.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just thinking about the Thestrals. They really are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“I think so,” Luna said. “Did you come to feed them, as well?”

Harry shook his head. “No, actually...” He glanced into the forest; the clearing where he’d met Voldemort was just beyond that ridge. He’d held off long enough. “I came to lay some ghosts to rest.”

She nodded gently. “I’ll let you get to it, then. Don’t forget, it’s common knowledge that if you turn thrice on the spot where a bad thing happened, it will lose its hold on you.”

Harry valiantly suppressed his grin. “I’ll try to remember that. It’s been good seeing you, Luna. I’m glad that you’re happy.”

“Thank you, Harry Potter,” she said, giving him a blindingly bright smile, before heading off through the leaves, flurries of red, brown and yellow trailing in her wake. Harry watched her go until she disappeared out of sight, then turned and walked past the Thestrals still lingering in the clearing.

The spot where Voldemort had killed him looked no different than the rest of the forest. In fact, Harry wasn’t certain he could remember the exact place -- Hagrid had been over there tied down and protesting in vain. But had he stood here, or two feet to the left? It seemed strange, that he couldn’t remember, but perhaps that was a good thing.

The memory struck him out of nowhere, blinding in its intensity. Voldemort, his grotesque face twisted in triumph. The boy who lived... come to die. And then the spell, words so fast they bled into each other, and the flash of green light, heading towards him, encompassing him, shutting out everything else...

He was on the ground, shaking, leaves still damp with morning dew beneath his fingers. His heart was racing, thundering, and his mouth was dry, his breath coming in fast, shallow pants. He dug his hands into the ground beneath the leaves, dug them into the mud, and it was grounding, somehow, forcing him into reality. He was here, wasn’t he? He was here, with damp patches on his knees, and soil between his fingers; he was here, he was alive, he wasn’t dead. He was here, and the seasons had changed, the forest had grown and decayed around him, and he had fallen in love with Severus Snape. He wasn’t the same person that had come here that night, he had moved on, changed, he had grown, too.

He climbed to his feet on unsteady legs.

“Fuck you!” he shouted into the forest, into the empty expanse before him. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m here, and you’re not!”

There was no response. Of course there wasn’t, he thought dumbly, there would never be, not in this lifetime, and not beyond. And suddenly it seemed funny, getting so worked up over an empty clearing, shouting complete nonsense into the empty air. It was ridiculous. He could just imagine Snape standing on the sidelines, raising an impeccable brow and muttering about Harry’s pointless histrionics. He laughed, once, sharply, then again, and then he couldn’t seem to stop, laughed until he couldn’t laugh any more, until his face was wet with it and he lost his breath again.

Then, he turned thrice on the same spot. Just to be sure.

---

This stupid Transfigurations essay was killing him. He scratched another few words onto the parchment dangling over his knees, and breathed a heavy sigh. He had completely forgotten about the damn thing, too busy between visiting Snape, revisiting past demons and all the other work he’d had to do over the past week. He rather wished, now, that he hadn’t thought of it last minute before leaving tonight, that he had decided to leave it until his two free periods tomorrow, instead of tossing the necessary books and parchment into a small bag and taking it along with him.

He rather wished he had lied to Snape about it. But it had been no use; Snape had taken one look at the bag, and Harry had been compelled to confess the truth, and so, instead of kissing Snape, he was busy trying to put the difference between morphing inanimate objects into living ones and vice versa to paper.

When he could have been kissing Snape.

The sound of a page turning rustled across the room. Harry chanced a glance from over his knees, speculating.

Snape didn’t look up from his book. “Don’t even think about it,” he said.

Harry breathed another sigh, and went back to his essay.

The next thing he knew, there was the faintest impression of fingers against his jaw, and when he opened his eyes, it was to see Snape crouched on the floor in front of the sofa, studying him. The fire in the grate seemed to have burned down noticeably, too.

Fuck, had he fallen asleep?

He blinked his eyes hazily. “Did I... did I fall asleep?”

Snape’s lip curled. “Evidently.” He rose to his feet in one smooth motion.

Harry struggled into an upright position on the sofa, surprised to find the parchment no longer spread across his knees. “What time is it?”

“Nearly one. I probably should have woken you sooner, but you looked...” Snape shook his head. “Never mind. It’s late. You should --”

“Fuck!” Harry exclaimed. “My essay. I didn’t finish my essay, I need to get that done.”

Something close to a smile ghosted over Snape’s face. “Yes, your essay,” he responded, bending down to grab the parchment from where it had mysteriously moved to the table. “Let us see what you’ve written, shall we? ‘The other challenge that transfiguring an inanimate object into a living thing presents, is, of course, the sheer complexity of the task.’” He paused dramatically, and Harry suddenly had a very bad feeling about this. “‘If, for example’,” Snape continued with relish, “‘one wanted to transfigure an essay into a kiss, oh God, what am I even writing here.’” He set the essay down with a flourish. “I suppose a lenient marker might grant you points for recognising the incoherency of your argument, but somehow I suspect Professor McGonagall will not be impressed.”

Harry flushed. “I was half asleep at the time,” he muttered.

Snape looked distinctly smug. “My point exactly,” he said. “If you resume this exercise at this stage, you will spew out nothing but nonsensical drivel -- well, more nonsensical drivel than usual, I should say. It is late. Come to bed.”

He moved towards the doorway. The words didn’t sink in fully until Harry already had his robe in his hands.

“Uhm,” he said. “I think I misheard you just there.”

Snape stopped, one foot already in the hallway. “You heard me perfectly,” he said. “I will not repeat myself. Unless you have somehow managed to eradicate the knowledge of how to climb stairs from your brain, I will see you in a minute.”

Then he was gone.

Well, that was unexpected. Harry sat dumbstruck on the sofa for a minute, suddenly wide awake. This was... this was a thing, wasn’t it? He’d better not acknowledge out loud that it was a thing, though, or Snape would probably chuck him out the front door himself. Violently.

He dropped his robe back onto the arm of the sofa, extinguishing the fire in the grate and the magical torches, before cautiously creeping up the stairs. The door to Snape’s bedroom stood ajar; Harry stepped through it and closed it quietly behind him. The room was empty, but the faint sound of running water spilled out from the threshold of a door to his left, undoubtedly the bathroom. He looked around him tentatively, feeling weirdly out of place. The style of the room was much like the rest of the cottage - well, what he’d seen of it - all picturesque exposed wooden beams, the roof sloping down sharply on one side. The bed, not one of the four posters he’d become so used to but a comfortable looking king size, stood against the other side of the wall. Evidently Snape didn’t fancy waking only to knock his head on the ceiling. The thought made him smile a little. Like the living room, there was a fireplace, if somewhat smaller, bright flames dancing merrily inside it.

For a moment, Harry hovered uncertainly. He’d never actually been invited into anyone’s bedroom; he had no clue as to whether there was some sort of etiquette he should follow. He also didn’t have any nightclothes, obviously. Would it be all right to strip down to his boxers, or would that be a step too far? He was wearing jeans; they wouldn’t be comfortable to sleep in.

In the end, he opted for a halfway point, stripping down but slipping under the covers fully. That way Snape could ignore his mostly nakedness, should he want to. God, Harry really rather hoped he wouldn’t want to.

He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His heart was pounding away in his chest, which was faintly ridiculous. He’d already got off with the man, after all. There was no reason that this should feel any different.

When Snape came out of the bathroom he was wearing one of his ugly grey nightshirts, but even the sight of that monstrosity did little to calm Harry down. It didn’t help when Snape slid into bed next to him, propping himself up on one elbow to watch Harry intently. Nor when he pushed down the duvet to Harry’s stomach. And definitely, definitely not when he began to trace the fingers of one hand along Harry’s neck, down to his chest, over a nipple.

Harry closed his eyes, swallowing. “You’re going to... you’re going to get me all worked up, if you do that,” he said thickly. Hell, he was already most of the way there.

“I know,” Snape said. “Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but that is rather the whole point of this sort of thing, is it not?”

Well, yes. Harry couldn’t precisely argue with that. He opened his eyes again, and Snape was still looking at him, fingers not stilling once in their meandering path across his skin, whisper-soft against his sternum, tracing over his ribs. It was sheer torture.

“I’ve been wondering...” Snape said..

“What?” Harry asked rather breathlessly. And when Snape seemed to hesitate, “Whatever you want. Honestly, I’ll do it gladly. Just tell me.”

Snape’s gaze flicked away from his, following the random patterns of his fingers. “What you enjoy,” he said.

As requests went, it was nonspecific enough to confuse. Harry waited for several long seconds, but when nothing further came, he hazarded his best guess. “This right here’s pretty good.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” Snape said, his fingers stilling. A dull, hectic flush rose to his cheeks with the words, his lips twisting in obvious frustration. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. “If you could... show me, perhaps, what you do when you’re... that is, if it’s not too much of --"

“Oh God, it really isn’t.” Harry was already kicking the duvet off completely, pushing it to the side until it only covered Snape. He felt a strange surge of bashfulness as he peeled off his boxers; he’d never actually done this before. Fuck it, no time like the present.

Snape’s fingers retreated, though his gaze did not. Harry closed his eyes again, not sure he could stand being looked at so openly. He ran his fingers lightly up the length of his cock, shivering at the sensation. It somehow felt much more intense, knowing he was being watched. “I normally start out slowly, to get myself into it.” He curled his fingers loosely around himself, stroking. “Unless I’m already keyed up, which as of late --” he couldn’t bite back a laugh -- “I guess I have been.”

Snape didn’t respond. Harry bit his lip; it was proving immensely difficult to keep his movements slow and steady, he rather suspected he was going to be quick off the mark again. He gripped himself more firmly. “Then I usually just go at it hard and fast. Tight, you know.”

He fought for more words, unsure of what to say next. Talking had helped, somehow, with the sense of exposure, but he wasn’t particularly good at this, really. He’d make a shit phone sex operator, and what a ridiculous thought was that to have, at a time like this?

“Keep talking.” Snape's voice sounded rough around the edges, prickling up Harry’s spine. “Tell me what you... think of.”

“Oh God.” Harry laughed again, helpless. “You know.” There was no sound beside him, except the quickened pace of Snape’s breaths. Harry could feel them ghost over his lips, when he turned his head towards him, and so he did. “Think about you. Wonder if you ever do this, sometimes. What you look like. Whether it’s good.”

He opened his eyes. Snape was staring right into them, pupils blown to black. “I try... try not to make a habit of it,” he said. “But lately I... yes.”

Fuck. Harry promptly shut his eyes again; the wave of arousal that washed over him threatened to drown him, otherwise. He kept stroking himself silently, rougher now, unable to form words for a minute.

“Think about you kissing me,” he went on, eventually, breathlessly. “Your tongue in my mouth. How hot your body feels above mine. How hot you make me. How good you’d feel, pressed up against me. Think about the other night, how you got me off. Your... your hand on my cock, how hard you made me come, God, I don’t think I’ve ever come that hard in my life...”

There was a choked sound beside him, then a rustle as the bed shifted beneath him. When Harry opened his eyes, the covers had slipped down past Snape’s shoulders, and even though they still covered the rest of him, the fast, rhythmic motion of his arm left little to the imagination.

“Oh,” Harry gasped stupidly. “Oh God, you’re... fuck.”

And then there were no more words, because he couldn’t possibly speak, could only moan helplessly as he fought desperately not to come for one, excruciating moment. Not yet, not yet, not yet, he told himself firmly, even as his hips refused to obey him, as he fucked up into his hand with a helpless sort of abandon. Snape was still looking at him, not down at where he was touching himself but at Harry’s face, as though the sight was the only thing keeping him sane, as though he hung onto it for dear life. Even in the dim light Harry could see the faint, hectic flush on his cheeks. The fire cast strange dancing shadows on the planes of his face, both softening his features and casting the angles of his cheekbones into sharp relief. His lips were slightly parted, his breath mingling with Harry’s own in the space between them. He looked desperate and lost, and utterly, utterly beautiful; Harry wanted to pin him to the bed and lick him absolutely everywhere, kiss the line of his throat, suck him down until he screamed with it, until he...

Snape was completely silent, when he came. There was just the slightest hitch in his breath, in warning, and then he was clenching his eyes tightly shut as his face twisted into a grimace, as he pushed it into the pillow, as though he could not possibly stand it, otherwise. He shuddered with it, and the moment Harry knew it was happening, he was lost, too, groaning raggedly as he spilled all over his hand, his belly.

In the wake of his orgasm, he realised dimly that he hadn’t kissed Snape yet, not once, this evening. He would have done so in a heartbeat, but it would prove rather difficult with Snape’s face still half-buried in the pillow.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked, as his pulse finally began to slow down.

Snape blinked at him, a little dazed, as he raised his head. Then his hand emerged from the covers, grasping Harry by the nape of his neck to pull him in. It was still damp, leaving trails of sticky wetness against his skin, and Harry made a helpless gasping sort of noise into Snape’s mouth before kissing him deeply, long and slow and hot.

When they broke apart for air, Snape’s mouth twisted a little. “Sorry,” he said. “I got... all over you.”

Harry laughed. He captured Snape’s retreating hand with his own before it could withdraw fully, placing a kiss to the centre of his palm, licking languidly up his fingers. “I don’t mind,” he said. “It’ll spell out.”

Snape looked at him as though he was utterly lost for words.

A couple of quick Tergeos and a Nox later, they were lying beneath the covers, side by side, only the faint glow from the fireplace illuminating the room. Harry shifted a little, trying to get comfortable, wondering whether Snape would ever conceivably acquiesce to a cuddle.

Possibly, he shifted a couple more times.

“Oh for Merlin’s sake,” Snape growled. He grabbed Harry’s arm and practically hauled him close, slinging one of his own around him.

Harry smiled against his shoulder, in the dark. He could feel the faint thud of Snape’s heartbeat, like this, and it quickly lulled him to sleep.

---

Snape in the morning was... well, Snape in the morning. He was already wearing his usual robes by the time Harry opened his eyes blearily to a slight shake of his shoulder. When Harry’s lips parted in preparation for a greeting, Snape shot him a vicious, quelling glare before stalking out of the room in a flurry of black. Obviously he hadn’t had his coffee yet.

Harry rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, taking a quick side trip to the bathroom before putting his clothes back on. When he clattered down the stairs and into the living room, Snape was standing by the window, cradling a mug of steaming coffee. Harry poured himself one from the pot by the stove, drinking it as quickly as the scalding liquid allowed. He didn’t fancy trying to Apparate whilst still half asleep; it was ridiculously early, and he hadn’t got as long in bed as he seemed to need, these days.

Snape didn’t say a single word, although he kept shooting long, pensive looks in his direction as Harry drained his mug and packed up his things, shrugged back into his robes. His face was unreadable, and he seemed somewhat distant when Harry pressed a soft kiss to his lips in parting.

Harry didn’t worry about it too much. It only stood to reason that Snape would be a right grouch at this time of day.

---

“Long night?” Hermione asked with a sidelong glance at him when Harry sunk down on the bench next to her in the rapidly emptying Great Hall. Blessedly, there was still some toast left. Harry grabbed about four pieces and began to slather them in jam. He was absolutely starving.

“Yeah, you weren’t in your room when I tried to get you earlier,” Ron said from beside her. “Bed didn’t look like it’d been slept in, either. Where’d you get to?”

Harry paused in his chewing, then resumed, then swallowed. Damn, but he hated having to lie to them. It didn’t feel right, with everything they’d been through together.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Sometimes I find it a bit difficult to get to sleep in the castle, that’s all. Didn’t mean to worry you.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Hermione said. Her smile was rather thin around the edges, sending a vicious stab of guilt through him. “Harry,” she began, voice coloured with concern. “We --”

“Anyway,” Ron said quickly. “You got any plans for your free periods coming up?”

Harry leapt onto the change of topic gladly, although it was with a groan that he buried his face in his hands. “I’ve got to finish my Transfiguration essay,” he said, voice somewhat muffled against his skin. Surely he wouldn’t have to copy over what he had already onto a fresh piece of parchment; he could just cross out that last sentence very firmly, right? Or wait, wasn’t there a spell for that kind of thing?

“Blimey,” Ron said, face twisting in sympathy. “You haven’t done that, yet? Hermione kicked me into writing it two days ago.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “She actually threatened to withhold sex. Pretty damn good motivator, let me tell you.”

Harry’s mouth twitched. Hermione cleared her throat exaggeratedly. “I’m sitting right between you two, Ronald,” she said, shooting him an exasperated glance. And then a rather firm one at Harry. “You had better get started on that, then. Anyway, I’ve got to run off to get to Ancient Runes in time. I’ll see you both in Transfiguration.” She picked up her stack of books, shimmying out from between them and into a standing position, beginning to turn.

“What, I don’t get a kiss goodbye?” Ron said.

Hermione rolled her eyes. Harry grinned around his toast, pretending to look like he wasn’t watching.

“For being a complete and utter pig?” Hermione said. But she bent down for a quick peck anyway, before lifting a hand to Harry in parting. “Later!”

“Later,” Harry said. Then he elbowed Ron lightly in the side. “God, stop it with the grinning, would you? The two of you are positively nauseating, at times.”

“Oh shut it, you’re just jealous.” Ron's face froze as soon as he said it, as though he was reconsidering the wisdom of those words.

Harry just rolled his eyes at him. “You wish.” He stuffed the rest of the toast into his mouth and stood up himself. “Gotta get on with this,” he said through a mouthful of crumbs, before heading quickly off to the library.

He managed to finish the essay just about in time, only seconds before he had to dash off to class. It probably wouldn’t have taken him quite so long normally, but he kept getting rather distracted by visions of Snape’s face in the throes of orgasm.

---

After Transfiguration, lunch and subsequent Potions, Harry spent the afternoon with Ron and Hermione by the lake, alternating between homework and comfortable conversation while they caught the last rays of autumn sunshine. As the shadows slowly began to lengthen, so did Ron’s casual glances at Hermione, until Harry rolled his eyes -- honestly, one would think Hermione actually had withheld sex. He left them to it, though with advance warning that he was heading out for a while. If his friends could spend the early evening making out like teenagers, then so could he.

Hopefully.

“We brewed Vivificus earlier,” Harry said cheerily, as he breezed into the cottage. The door opened to the touch of his hand, he had discovered. He wasn’t sure if Snape simply never locked it -- unlikely -- or if he’d adjusted the wards to admit Harry at will.

Snape didn’t respond. He was standing by the window, just as he had this morning, although he was no longer holding a coffee cup but a tumbler half-filled with amber liquid. A strange sort of tension hung about him, but he didn’t seem angry or upset, for that matter. Kind of preternaturally calm. When Harry stopped partway towards the sofa, he silently walked over to the oak cabinet, took out another glass, filled it halfway, and pressed it into Harry’s hand before heading back to the window.

Harry stared at the glass in his hand in a mix of bewilderment and nervousness.

“I was seven,” Snape said evenly, from across the room.

Oh God. “You don’t,” Harry said, before he had even consciously thought of the words, “you don’t have to tell me this.”

“Yes. I do.”

Harry’s stomach plummeted the length of the Astronomy Tower. This had been the worst of all possibilities, the one he’d desperately, desperately avoided thinking about.

“I was seven,” Snape said, “the first time. Or perhaps it was eight. The details escape me at times.”

The details escape me at times. As though he were talking about a particularly boring Ministry report, not of... not of...

Harry suddenly understood the alcohol. Not that he could have remembered how to drink it. Oh God, he thought frantically, please don’t let him say that it was his --

“He was a friend of my father’s,” Snape said, and Harry didn’t find even the small measure of relief he’d hoped for. “He had not been unkind to me, before. Come to think of it, he was never particularly unkind after, either.”

Harry’s guts had turned into a churning mess of coiled ropes. There was an odd, acrid taste in the back of his mouth; he felt like heaving, but for some reason, he couldn’t even do that. He could only stand there and let Snape’s calm, measured words roll over him.

“It wasn’t as though I understood nothing of such matters,” Snape said, rolling the tumbler idly between his hands. “I’d already seen... I knew enough to know that it was meant to hurt.”

“It isn’t,” Harry heard himself say in a horrified whisper. Where he’d found the breath to form the words, he couldn’t have said.

The upwards tilt of Snape’s lip was entirely lacking in humour. “Yes,” he agreed, taking a sip of his whiskey. “I discovered that later.”

He was still gazing out of the window, a strange faraway look in his eyes. He hadn’t looked once at Harry, not since he’d started speaking, he realised. How could he possibly remain so calm? So... so unaffected, almost, as if...

“I’ve wondered, sometimes,” Snape said, looking down into his glass, like it might conceivably hold the answer. “If that was why I didn’t fight back harder, when it first happened.” He shook his head, as though the idea was preposterous, then drained the glass empty, setting it down on the windowsill.

“Fight back,” Harry said. Something was trying claw its way out of his chest, something dark, something ugly. “You were -- you were a child!”

Snape did look at him, then. His expression was perfectly smooth, utterly placid. “I had magic, didn’t I?” he said, like it was the obvious answer. “I had conjured up flowers, I had animated my toys, I had grown back my hair overnight when my father cut it. He was a Muggle, I was a wizard. Surely if I truly hadn’t wanted what he did to me, I could easily have banished him with just a thought.”

The glass exploded in Harry’s hand. There were shards everywhere, at least one large chunk embedded in his palm, but he didn’t even feel it. He felt nothing, nothing at all.

“Oh you idiot boy,” Snape said, striding across the room and grasping Harry’s hand gently to inspect the cut. “What did you do that for?”

Harry didn’t respond. He let himself be led, mutely, over to the sink, watched Snape carefully extract the piece of broken glass from his hand, watched his blood swirl down the drain as Snape ran cool water over it, taking any smaller fragments with it. Watched Snape run his wand slowly along the wound, sealing it smoothly at the edges until the skin was as good as new. Watched as Snape looked at him with more obvious concern than he had ever displayed in his life.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Harry said, finding his voice against all reason. “Please, you have to believe that.”

Snape’s gaze skittered away from him.

Harry swallowed thickly against the lump in his throat. Okay, it looked like he wasn’t going to win that one. A thought came to him, blurry and ill-thought out.

“Did my... did my Mum know?”

Snape looked horrified for the first time since he had started speaking. “Of course not! I would never have... tainted her like that.”

And Harry understood, suddenly, everything that Snape had told him the first night he’d come to the cottage. It all made such perfect sense now, what Lily had been to him, what she’d represented, and understanding it broke Harry’s heart all over again. If that was even possible.

“Did you... did you ever tell anyone?”

Snape huffed out a breath that sounded mildly exasperated. “Who would I have told? My father? He hated me from the moment I was born, if not before. I was an abomination to him, and worse, an abomination that tied him to another abomination. He would undoubtedly have been thrilled to discover that I was getting what I deserved. My mother? She had enough troubles as it was; I couldn’t possibly have given her more. The last thing she needed was her son making dubious accusations of things he could barely even grasp yet.”

Harry stared at the floor. There was a chink in the tile, just shy of his foot. He’d never noticed it before. Dubious accusations, he thought. As if Snape doubted his mother would have believed him, as if, maybe, he doubted that there was anything to believe. Harry wanted to protest, to shout and scream the truth, but it seemed too risky. The way Snape had instantly withdrawn at Harry’s insistence that he wasn’t to blame had made it clear that this was treacherous territory. It seemed safer, for now, to let this one go, no matter how much it went against his instincts.

“How did it... how did it end?” he asked, instead. He looked back up at Snape with his next words. “Did you... you didn’t kill him, did you?”

The corner of Snape’s mouth quirked slightly. “No. The honour of my first kill I reserved for my father. He moved away, when I was thirteen. I have no idea whether he’s still alive or not.”

He moved away. It sounded so mundane, such an everyday occurrence. He moved away. Had there been others? Harry suddenly couldn’t help but wonder. How many? Had he been caught, put on trial, paid for this damage he’d wrought, or had he remained undiscovered? Was he sitting somewhere right now, as they spoke, in a comfortable warm flat, enjoying his retirement? The idea seemed unthinkable. It seemed equally inconceivable that Snape had never contemplated the possibility that he hadn’t been the only victim, but no, of course he wouldn’t have. Of course not. Not when it was his fault.

“What was his name?” Harry asked.

Snape took a step back, straightening his shoulders. “I’m not telling you that.”

“Why not?” Every part of him felt coiled, tensed, thrumming with untold energy.

“Because,” Snape said, “you would undoubtedly do something very rash and foolish, which I don’t want you to do.”

Harry thought about arguing. He thought about pointing out the obvious missing pieces in Snape’s logic, and knew that if he did, he could probably get his way. But what would that do to Snape? If he had never considered it once, in all these years, and this was the end-result, what further torture would that knowledge, that realisation bring him?

Harry couldn’t do it; he couldn’t find out. Perhaps that made him a terrible person, the worst sort of person, but he just couldn’t do it.

“Let it go,” Snape said. “It was over three decades ago. Let the past stay where it belongs.”

Three decades, Harry thought hysterically. Three decades, and still Snape wrapped himself up in robes so elaborate that they might as well have been armour. Three decades, and he still locked himself away from the world, because that way, it would never get even the chance to hurt him. Three decades, and he still tried not to touch himself, still shied away from Harry’s touch although he clearly wanted it. Three decades, and it had sent him running straight for Voldemort, for more of the same, because he didn’t know he deserved better, so very much better.

It was suddenly too much. It was all, all too much.

“I have to go,” Harry said, and then he was running out of the cottage, as though he could flee the knowledge, the wrenching horror of it all.

---

He didn’t know how he managed to Apparate. He didn’t know how he passed through Hogwart’s grounds, up the stairs, up to Gryffindor Tower. He was half-blind all the way, only faintly registered someone touching his shoulder as he raced through the common room. He shook it off, still running, up some more stairs, for the relative safety of his room.

The room was no comfort at all. He needed to hurt something, hit something, destroy something. He reached for the first thing his hand could find, a glass carafe of water on the chest of drawers, hurled it into the fireplace. It smashed into a billion pieces, glass littering the floor everywhere, and he crashed down into the mess, not caring if he cut his hands again. It didn’t matter, nothing mattered. A sob tore its way out of his throat, the most horrid sound he’d ever heard, and another one followed, and then another. It didn’t help, crying, only felt like his insides were being ripped to shreds, excruciatingly slowly, one bit at a time. He wrapped his arms around himself and gasped with it, and thought that it was only fair, that if it gave him even the slightest inkling of what Snape had been through, then it was fair.

“Harry?” Hermione’s voice, then the creak of a door. “I heard something break I -- oh God, what happened?”

He shook his head, as her arms wrapped around him. He couldn’t possibly have told her, even had she known about Snape. He could never betray the confidence.

“Oh Harry,” she said. It didn’t seem right, to let her hug him; Snape had never had even that small comfort, had he? But he felt so weak, too weak to fight it, and so he just let her, let her hug him, for all the bloody good that did.

“The world,” he choked out against her neck, in between hitching sobs. “The world, it’s such a horrible, horrible place.”

“I know,” she said, kissing the top of his head. He wanted to push her away, shout at her that she didn’t, she couldn’t possibly, she could barely even begin to understand. “But there’s so much good in it, too. There’s laughter and friendship and love. There’s...” she broke off, as if trying to find the right words. “There’s a lot of good in it, too.”

Harry wished desperately that he could believe her. But right now, with all that lay heavy and dark and unspoken inside him, nothing seemed further away from the truth.

---

Harry didn’t sleep a wink that night. Hermione put him to bed long after the sobs had died down, smoothing his hair and tucking him in. She also tried to get him to eat, but he refused. Hunger was about the furthest thing from his mind. After she left, reassembling the carafe as she went, he lay perfectly still under the covers, staring at the ceiling. It was impossible to keep his mind from hounding him with visuals, each one as horrible as the next, although he tried hard to focus it elsewhere. Snape had killed his father. That was pretty damn major as well, wasn’t it? Harry wondered how it had happened. The whys seemed obvious enough, but what had been the trigger? Had it been pre-meditated, planned carefully down to the last detail as Snape approached most problems? Or had it been in a fit of rage, had something just snapped, one day? Had it been in revenge for his mother, or in order to save her life? Had he used magic, or his bare hands? How old had he been?

For enemies, Harry couldn’t help thinking. He shivered a little at the thought, but it was so much easier than all of the others which refused to leave him alone.

He lay in bed until the sunrise washed the sky outside his window in blinding shades of orange and red. He didn’t want to go to class, wanted to stay huddled beneath the covers all day, but he forced himself to go regardless. It wasn’t as though he was getting much comfort, here.

His lessons passed in a blur, none of the information sticking for longer than a few seconds. Hermione kept shooting him worried glances, as did Ron. He left as soon as Herbology let out, not caring for once whether he’d cause them concern. Some things were more important.

Snape was sitting at the small desk in the far corner of the living room, writing. His quill froze against the paper, his head turning slowly towards Harry when he walked in. His lips were slightly parted.

“You came back,” he said, and he sounded so profoundly astonished that something twisted sharply inside Harry.

“Of course I -- God, I’m such a complete wanker!” Seven quick steps took him across the room to Snape, who stared at him all the way, still looking nothing but baffled. There were deep, bruised circles beneath his eyes. “I was always going to come back,” Harry said, grabbing Snape’s hand between his, holding on to it as though he could transfer the truth of his words by touch. “I was never angry with you, you know that, right?”

Judging by Snape’s expression, he hadn’t.

Harry resisted the urge to kick his own head, hard. It would never have worked in practise. “I really, really wasn’t,” he said. “I just felt so helpless, that’s all, knowing what you had to go through, knowing there was no way I could ever undo that. I felt so damn helpless. I just wish there was something I could do, anything.”

Snape stared down at the tight circle of Harry’s fingers around his. “You’re already doing it,” he whispered. Then, as if the admission had been too much, he pulled his hands out of Harry’s grasp and stood, a little stiffly. “I have sadly neglected commissions to brew. You may assist me, if you wish.”

“Yeah, I’ll be down in a sec. Just need to pop to the loo, first.”

Snape nodded, before sweeping out of the room, closing the door behind him. Harry’s eyes fell to the parchment on the table, a splotch of ink bleeding into it where Snape’s quill rested, forgotten.

Potter, it said. A bold black line had been drawn through the word, half-obscuring it. Harry, he read beside it, in slightly smaller letters. There was nothing more.

Harry ran his finger over his name, wondering if Snape would ever have finished the letter. If he’d ever have sent it.

It didn’t matter. Harry might have utterly failed to think of how Snape would feel when he’d taken off last night, and although that was understandable, given his shock, he wasn’t going to repeat the mistake. He wasn’t going to beat himself up about it, because it seemed pointless, but he’d make damn sure not to give Snape cause to doubt him, again.

He rolled the parchment up, and stuck it into the inside pocket of his cloak.

---

That night, he did sleep. That night, the nightmares came back with a vengeance.

Bizarrely, it wasn’t pools of blood he dreamt of, nor the accusing faces of everyone who had died for him. He dreamt of that night on the Astronomy Tower, dreamt of Snape killing Dumbledore.

It made absolutely zero sense. He’d long since reconciled with the idea that Snape had done it on Dumbledore’s orders, that he was essentially dead already at the time. But he dreamt of it anyway, the same scene playing itself out on repeat as he stood frozen beneath his invisibility cloak, trapped, unable to lift a finger. Severus... please.... Avada Kedavra. Dumbledore, falling, limp as a ragdoll, and Harry still frozen, although the immobilising spell on him had worn off...

It made no sense. But he woke gasping and shivering all the same, then proceeded to heave his guts out over the toilet in his tiny en-suite, bringing up only bile.

Later, he had a panic attack in Defense Against the Dark Arts. All it took was Professor McNalty mentioning the killing curse in passing, and he was off. He barely managed to get out of the room before the worst of it hit him, forcing him to sink down against the rough wall behind him. Hermione emerged from the classroom a split second later, crouching before him and looking extremely worried and helpless, and Harry somehow managed to direct her to the potion inside his pocket which his fingers had refused to grab a hold off.

“Sometimes I think it’s never going to stop,” he said when his heart was no longer threatening to explode behind his ribcage, when he could draw proper breaths again. He wiped away the damp streaks on his cheeks, feeling embarrassed as all hell. “What if I’m always going to be like this? What if it’ll never go away completely?”

“Maybe it won’t,” Hermione said. “But... it’ll get better. I mean, maybe you’ll always be prone to this if something difficult happens, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to live with it, and live well. It’s not been as bad lately, right? That’s got to be a good sign. There’s bound to be setbacks. Try not to let them grind you down.”

Harry nodded weakly. He knew she was right, somewhere deep down. Sometimes it just got a little hard to feel it.

---

“You don’t look well,” was the first thing Snape said to him when he entered the cottage that evening. He was putting on the kettle. “Has something happened?”

Harry bit his lip, running a hand through his hair. For a moment, he considered lying. He didn’t like that he had to.

“It’s nothing,” he said, as casually as he could manage. “Just didn’t sleep very well last night. And I kind of had a bit of a panic attack, earlier. It’s fine.”

Snape poured boiling water into the teapot. His mouth twisted. “I see,” he said, two words carrying the spectre of a billion ones unsaid.

And Harry had suddenly had it. He was tired and worn out and exhausted, and he’d just fucking had it.

“Don’t, okay?” he said, glaring at Snape for all he was worth. He slammed his palm flat against the countertop for emphasis; Snape startled a little. “I know exactly what you’re doing, and trust me, it’s not fucking helping. It’s pretty damn insulting, actually, and I won’t let you. I’m not some kind of fair maiden that needs to be rescued, all evidence to the contrary. In case it’s escaped your notice, I’m in this for good, and I can bloody damn well handle a bit of rough with the smooth, if that’s what it takes. I consider it worth it. I know you don’t get that, and there’s very little I can do to change that, but I won’t have you beating yourself up for something that’s the result of my own damn choices. So I had a nightmare and a stupid, pathetic panic attack, boo-fucking-hoo. Yes, it was fucking unpleasant, but you know what? I’ll get over it, I’ll live. So don’t --” he stabbed a finger viciously at Snape -- “Just fucking don’t.”

Snape stared at him, looking rather taken aback at the force of his outburst. Enough so that something loosened inside Harry, that he couldn’t help but smile a little, if humourlessly. “See?” he added. “Told you I could get shouty and unpleasant myself, these days. Before too long, I’ll be as good as you.”

The corner of Snape’s mouth quirked. “No chance in hell,” he drawled. “I have years of practise on you when it comes to perfecting the art of being a surly bastard. Decades. You’ll never catch up.”

And something about that struck Harry as immensely funny. He burst out laughing, all the tension inside him evaporating in a flash, leaving only amusement behind. He laughed until he had to lean against the counter, until his stomach hurt with it; he laughed until Snape’s lips curved in a way that came dangerously close to an actual smile.

There’s laughter, he thought; there’s laughter and love. Perhaps Hermione had been right, after all.

He drew Snape down into a kiss as soon as he had recovered. Snape followed him easily, so easily, now, as though Harry’s lips were gravity itself and there was no point in resisting. They fit together so perfectly, Harry thought deliriously, as Snape’s teeth scraped softly against his bottom lip. Snape’s hand was soft in his hair; then, a little less so. Before long their kiss had disintegrated from a languorous slide of lips into something deeper, something keener, grasping. Harry had been a little worried it would be harder to come by, now that he knew. He’d been a fool to doubt it.

Then Snape pressed him against the counter by the hips and sank to his knees in one, smooth motion.

Oh. Oh.

“You don’t --” he stammered, through his racing pulse, as Snape’s hands parted his robes, unfastened his belt -- “You don’t have to, to make me feel better.”

Snape glared up at him from between his legs. It was just as hot as Harry had imagined. “Idiot,” he snapped, and it still came out as an endearment. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”

“O-okay,” Harry gasped, because Snape hadn’t stopped in his task of undressing him in order to glare. Figured that he’d be pretty good at multitasking. “Just checking.”

And then he couldn’t precisely talk any more, because Snape was licking a long, wet stripe up the underside of his cock. Harry wondered whether it was possible to spontaneously combust from oral sex in the early stages, and made a spectacularly embarrassing sound. When Snape’s tongue moved on to flick lightly against his slit, he made another. When Snape’s lips slid over the tip of him, sucking him in, he stuffed his fist into his mouth, muffling any further vocalisations.

Snape withdrew. “Don’t,” he murmured against the skin of Harry’s hip. “I like -- I like the way you sound, during.”

Harry let his hand fall down to the counter, gripping its edge tightly beneath his fingers, a perfect mirror of his other hand. Snape resumed what he was doing, and Harry didn’t know how he could possibly stand it. Snape’s mouth was so hot, his lips so tight around him, cutting him to the quick. He didn’t take Harry in very far, but he didn’t need to; he entirely made up for it in suction. Harry chanced a look down, which turned out to be an incredibly bad idea; the sheer concentration on Snape’s face was enough to almost do him in, let alone the soft flutter of dark eyelashes against pale skin. He stared at the cupboard facing him, instead, and then closed his eyes, letting his head fall back as his moans grew increasingly ragged. He wanted to touch Snape, wanted to twine his fingers in his hair, but he didn’t trust his control, and so he just hung on to the counter for dear life, his knees trembling with the strain of holding himself up. Each brush of Snape’s tongue against his cock, each twisting grip of his hand around the base of it made the tension twine deliciously tighter in his groin, sent trails of blistering heat searing up his spine.

Before long, it became an impossibility to keep his hips still. Thankfully, Snape helped him, clamping the length of one arm across his hips to hold him in place. Harry suspected he’d have marks from the hard surface digging into him, but it hardly mattered. Fuck, it was good, too good, far better than it had any right to be; it was nearly too much except for how he couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else, ever wanting anything but this. He was making a pretty steady stream of noise now, but he didn’t much care, and anyway, Snape liked it, he liked it, he liked it...

“Close --” he managed to gasp, somehow, in between groans. “Oh fuck, so fucking close...”

Snape’s only response was to suck harder, and Harry lost it. It shattered through him with knife-bright pleasure, almost painful it was so sharp. He might have shouted something, but he couldn’t have said what, and then his legs were giving out under him as he lost his grip on the counter, Snape’s arm not enough to hold him upright. Snape caught him as he fell, wrapping his arms around Harry’s waist, until they were some strange intertwined muddle of limbs on the kitchen floor.

Harry gasped for breath and then thought, fuck it. He pulled Snape into a kiss, sloppy and messy and artless. He tasted of bitter salt, and Harry licked the taste of himself out of his mouth until there was none left, until Snape made a tight, desperate sound in the back of his throat, his hands tightening about Harry’s waist. When they parted for air, Snape kissed his neck, and grabbed Harry’s hand, pulling it awkwardly between them, pressing it between his legs against the layers of robes. It was a strange, furtive movement, as though he was ashamed of it, his fingers losing their grip as soon as Harry’s were in place. Harry’s heart swelled with it. He ground the heel of his hand against the unmistakable line of Snape’s erection, and then did it again, let Snape bury his face in the crook of his neck until his hips were surging helplessly up against him, until he froze and shivered himself apart in Harry’s arms.

They stayed wrapped around each other like that for a while, Snape’s breathing evening out slowly, in stages, against Harry’s shoulder. Harry’s hands traced nonsensical patterns along his back.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked, eventually.

“No,” Snape said, and Harry had a split-second to feel like the floor had caved out from under him, before he continued, quickly, “My back is killing me.”

Harry laughed his relief against the side of Snape’s neck. It felt good. Warm. Intimate. “Sorry,” he said. “Kitchen floor’s perhaps not the ideal place for this.”

“A masterful understatement.” Snape extricated himself from Harry’s arms and rose, wincing a little as he did so, a look of distaste crossing his face. “I am too old for this. I need a change of clothes. And a shower.”

Harry decided not to point out that this had been Snape’s idea, not that he’d protested too much. He was too deliriously happy; his gaze turned speculative at the word shower entirely without his doing.

Snape’s lips tightened. “No,” he said. “Don’t even think of it. I have to get some work done sometime today, you know. At this rate, you’ll be cutting rather disastrously into my profits in no time.”

Harry held up both hands. “Okay, okay, hold your horses.” He fixed his clothes, then stood up himself. “I’ll get started setting things up downstairs while you do, how’s that sound? Anything in particular you’re going for?”

“Dreamless Sleep,” Snape bit out, and then strode from the room without another word.

Oh, well. It wasn’t as if Harry had ever expected Snape to be good at the afterglow part of things, anyway.

---

Late November brought with it an early flurry of snow. Harry, who’d never much questioned the exact location of Snape’s cottage -- it was enough that he knew how to get to it -- discovered that it must be further up north than he’d expected; the snow was almost as deep here as at Hogwarts.

He wasn’t precisely thrilled to discover Snape already out on the doorstep, that Saturday afternoon. It was bloody freezing and he’d grabbed his autumn cloak by accident, which was nowhere near warm enough.

“What are you heading out for?” he called as he approached. For a moment he had a vision of Tesco, but no, Snape was wearing his full robes, so it couldn’t be that.

“To gather ingredients,” Snape said as though it were the height of obviousness, indicating the small woven basket at his side. “You may come along if you wish.”

Harry wished; he just also wished it wasn’t so fucking cold.

“In the snow?” he asked, as they set out for the forest.

Snape shot him a look that equated to an amalgam of idiot, dunderhead and why am I even talking to you?. “Yes,” he said. “In the snow. There are a number of species which still flourish under such conditions, and more crucially, their magical properties benefit from the extremes. Do you never pay any attention in Herbology? Witch hazel, for example, increases tenfold in potency if harvested sub-zero. The ice-blooming shadowshade, one of the rarest species of magical plant, only develops flowers, as its name suggests, beneath the snow. It is pure, elemental magic.”

“I’m pretty sure we never covered it,” Harry mumbled. “Wait, do you mean elemental like, rooted in the elements? Oh, right. Maybe I should borrow some of your books, sometime.”

Snape snorted. “And give me a heart attack?”

“I can read, you know,” Harry said. “I do, too.” He rather ruined the effect by shivering violently, and casting a longing look at Snape’s heavy woollen cloak.

“Potter,” said Snape, “why are you cold?”

This time it was Harry who shot him a look communicating the nonsensical nature of the question, while indicating his cloak. The fact that Snape didn’t instantly blow up at him was proof enough of how far they’d come; Harry would never have dared to pull that stunt only months ago.

But Snape evidently deemed his response stupid to the nth degree. “Yes, I can see that your choice of outer garment is a sad excuse for appropriate winter-wear. However, it is a problem only too easily remedied. Please do not tell me you’ve never heard of warming charms in all your years at Hogwarts, or I may despair of the state of Flitwick’s curriculum until the end of time.”

“Uhm, no, I have,” Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t know, for some reason it just never... sprung to mind?”

Snape sighed exaggeratedly. “Idiot. Why are you so utterly incapable of thinking like a wizard? Honestly.” He waved his wand with a flourish; warmth immediately began to seep over Harry’s skin. It felt almost delicious, and Harry smiled.

“Thanks,” he said. And then, after a beat, “Are you going to keep calling me that forever, by the way?”

“What, ‘idiot’?”

“No, not that one. Potter.”

“As long as you persist in acting like a mindless twit whose largest accomplishment is the capacity to walk on two legs, yes.” He crouched down in front of a tree, and began to brush the snow away from the ground with gentle movements. A small bunch of delicate looking flowers emerged, their petals nearly translucent. “Unless you have a strong preference for me not to. I mean, should my calling you that make you think I am referring to your father.”

Harry contemplated that for a moment. “No, it doesn’t,” he said. “It used to, back in school, and I hated it for precisely that reason. But you say it differently, nowadays.”

Snape began to pluck the flowers, one by one. “Do I,” he said softly. Harry couldn’t quite tell if he was actively distracted by what he was doing, or simply pretending to be. He suspected the latter; it made him smile.

He hummed in response, and sunk down beside Snape. “So, that the ice-blooming flowers you were raving about? They look pretty frail.”

“I was not raving,” said Snape. He wrapped the harvested flowers in cloth that appeared to be spun from gold leaf. “And looks, as I am sure you must be aware, can be quite deceiving. In the right hands, they can turn a weak healing potion into a lifesaving one, or a mildly noxious draught into the deadliest poison. They are immensely versatile.”

Harry, more than happy to listen to Snape all day, let him go on about the various plants he was picking, how to determine their location, and what they were useful for. He didn’t get bored until Snape was almost done collecting everything he was looking for, and even then it wasn’t so much boredom as merely having reached a certain point of... saturation.

He eyed the snow speculatively. Hogwarts had predictably turned into a snowball extravaganza as soon as enough had fallen to the ground. Harry had mostly stayed away from the outside -- he didn’t think being unexpectedly hit because a first year had missed their target would be the best thing for his nerves -- but it had been impossible not to notice.

He sunk to his knees and formed the missile stealthily, whilst Snape’s back was turned to him as he collected the last of some strange brown moss. He did wait, however, until Snape was turning towards him once again, before launching the snowball straight at him. It hit Snape squarely in the shoulder.

He scowled, looking down at his robes as though there might as well be a venomous tarantula attached to them. “Potter, what are you doing?”

Harry grinned. He was already compressing more snow between his hands. “I thought that was obvious.”

This one caught Snape over the sternum.

His gaze turned even more thunderous. “You will desist in this puerile behaviour this very instant; do you hear me?”

Harry laughed. Perhaps he was treading on thin ice, but for some reason he didn’t much care. “Make me.”

Snape glared. Harry threw another snowball. And another.

Snape set his basket behind him and out to the side, tracing a quick spell over it. Then he turned and flourished his wand, sending a whole bank of snow between them swirling into the air, heading straight for Harry.

Harry sputtered beneath the dusting of snow that rained down upon him. “You’re -- you’re cheating!” he shouted. “I wasn’t using magic!”

Snape smirked. Evilly. “You cannot declare open warfare on a Slytherin, and then expect them to play by the rules.” He snorted. “Gryffindor.”

He followed it up with another salvo of snow. Harry ducked and hid behind trees to launch his counter-attack, but he had to resort to magic eventually, there was no way around it. He was pretty damn pleased with himself when he managed to work out a spell that would send snowballs heading for Snape as though he were a homing beacon. Naturally, Snape copied the spell in an instant, and he designed this horrible trick of setting loose the snow in the branches atop them. It always crashed down just as Harry stood right underneath them.

Harry valiantly tried to give as good as he got, but Snape had always been a brilliant tactician; before long Harry was scurrying and dodging snowballs too often to mount a proper attack. There was snow everywhere -- in his hair, beneath his collar, under his robes, and even, somehow, amazingly, inside his boxers. At least Snape hadn’t come out of it completely unscathed, his hair looking distinctly damp, and his robes bruised in spots of white.

Also, Harry could have sworn he actually heard him laugh, when a particularly vicious attack had sent him stumbling into a tree, only for more snow to rain down on his head. It was a rough, gravelly sound, and it rolled through Harry like warm treacle.

“Mercy!” he gasped eventually, both hands up in the air, backing away against a tree. “I surrender completely! I’m waving my white flag!”

Snape didn’t point out that Harry had no such flag to wave, as he stalked towards him.

“You...” he said instead, grinding to a halt just inches from Harry. His cheeks were flushed with exertion, but Harry almost didn’t notice for the genuine smile that lit up his face, the helpless curve of his lips. “You...”

Harry could not help it; he thought Snape breathtakingly beautiful, in that instant. “I..?” he prompted gently.

Snape bent down to kiss him.

Harry sighed into his mouth, sighed a little more when Snape’s hands grasped his shoulders lightly, when his own hands wound into the strands of Snape’s damp hair. He shivered, and wasn’t quite sure if it was from the cold or the kiss; the warming spell had worn off a little while ago. It didn’t matter, though, because Snape was warm against him, his body radiating heat where he was pressed flush to Harry from top to toe. He let himself sink back against the tree and let himself be kissed, let himself be kissed until he had no more breath for it.

“You,” Snape said, when he withdrew, “are going to catch your death out here like this.”

Harry opened his mouth to protest, and promptly trembled with the chill under his robes. Snape sent several drying charms at him; they didn’t eliminate all of the patches of icy water.

“A hot shower for you, when we return, I think,” Snape said, as he headed back towards the small clearing they had started out in.

Harry followed, casting a sidelong glance at Snape. “You’re pretty damn soaked, too,” he pointed out. “We could share.”

Snape remained conspicuously silent.

Harry suppressed a sigh. They’d kind of stalled at this point, at getting Snape properly undressed, and it wasn’t the end of the world by a long shot, but it was... frustrating. Harry wanted nothing so much as for them to be naked together, to know what it would feel like to be nothing but skin on skin.

“I do have a bath,” Snape said, once he’d picked up his basket of ingredients.

Harry resisted the ridiculous urge to hug him right then and there. Snape did have a bath, it was true, and not a half-bad one, either. It was one of those triangular corner affairs, nowhere near the proportions of the Prefect’s bathroom at Hogwarts, but not as cramped as a regular tub, either. He didn’t get the impression that Snape used it much; though there were several bottles resting on its sides, they were covered in a fine layer of dust. The shower contained the more obviously handled bottles of shower gel and shampoo -- okay, so Harry had laughed, just the once -- whose contents steadily decreased with time.
“You do,” Harry said. “There could be bubbles.”

Snape flicked his hair irritably, as though he resented the very idea of bubbles, but could not precisely object to their beneficial properties in this instance.

Harry smiled. Bubbles it was, then.

---

Harry ran the water as hot as seemed bearable, sniffing the bottles on the side of the bath cautiously. He set away the one that, in spite of its innocuous yellow colour, smelled brightly of bubblegum -- honestly, had Dumbledore ever possessed a shred of taste? -- then poured about half the bottle of the less offensive, woodsy green concoction under the stream of water.

Snape hovered by the door as if he was half tempted to flee to the safety of his potions lab, one foot within, one without. He reminded Harry of nothing so much as a skittish, wild animal.

When the bath was run, Harry left the room and stood with his back to the wall outside the door. He manfully resisted giving Snape a slight shove as he went, because that would be -- well, quite literally, pushing.

Snape hovered a moment more. Then he stepped into the room fully, and shut the door behind him.

Harry stood, waiting, each second as slow as molasses. How long did it take a person to undress and get into a bath, anyway? Surely not more than a minute, even with all those buttons. Better make it one and a half. He counted it out, before slipping inside the room. Snape was encased up to his neck in white bubbles; it might have been the oddest sight Harry had ever set eyes on. He fought very hard not to smile -- that wouldn’t be helpful at all.

He looked away as he stripped, one piece of clothing at a time. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t relate, really. He’d never considered himself to be all that attractive -- he was no longer as short as he had been, but a year’s hunting Horcruxes and the subsequent summer had left him thinner than was the norm. He’d filled out a bit again since eating more regularly with the start of term, but he still didn’t fancy examining himself in a mirror too closely. He wasn’t sure he’d ever think of himself as anything other than scrawny and awkward; most assuredly, he was no Oliver Wood.

Snape always looked at him as though he might as well be a classical statue come to life, however. It was mildly unsettling, and incredibly flattering all at the same time. Harry didn’t attempt to find out if he was doing so, now; there was something strange in undressing so deliberately for another person, so openly, without already being at the point of proceedings where such things ceased to matter. He had half a mind to just tear his clothes off himself haphazardly, but with his luck, he’d probably manage to trip and land face-first and still half-dressed in the tub. That would really kill the mood dead in the water, so to speak.

None of this failed to erase the knowledge that he was naked in the same room with Snape, though, and so by the time he set his glasses onto the rim of the tub, he was more than half hard. He stepped inside and let himself sink into the blissfully warm water, let himself sink straight into Snape’s lap.

“Is this all right?” He didn’t want him to feel hemmed in.

“Yes,” Snape said, and he was looking at Harry exactly like that -- as though he didn’t believe Harry was actually real. His hands smoothed up the length of Harry’s back, slippery with water. His face was flushed, again, and it was impossible to tell if it was from the heat of the bath or something more. When Harry settled himself more firmly in place and pressed them closer together, he got his confirmation. Snape’s lips parted with the movement, and Harry licked a trail up the line of his neck, before kissing him. His hands came to rest against Snape’s chest; he discovered a faint smattering of hair at the centre of it, traced it along the growth to the flat nubs of his nipples. Snape made a startled sound in the back of his throat when Harry’s fingers brushed over them, his hands sliding to the small of Harry’s back, pulling him closer. Harry flowed along with the movement and undulated against Snape in a way that somehow seemed to come naturally, then again, then again, setting a steady rhythm going.

It was good like this, impossibly good. There was a sharp mutuality to this press of skin against skin with just the water between them, that hadn’t quite been there before. They were not only getting off together, they were getting each other off, at the same time. Harry realised dimly he’d longed for it, somehow, unconsciously. He wondered if Snape noticed it, too, if it frightened him, on some level. Probably scared him shitless, but it clearly wasn’t enough to stop him, because his hands were firm about Harry’s waist, his kiss deep and strangely hungry.

“Harry,” he rasped, when they broke for air, and it was such a tight, desperate little sound that Harry instantly had to kiss him again, because he couldn’t have possibly have lasted another second if he heard it repeated.

Sod air. Who needed to breathe, anyway?

Their pace steadily picked up speed, from then onwards. The water both softened and added to the friction between them, the rough slide of their cocks against each other’s stomachs, those burning moments when they brushed together. Before long, Harry’s hands migrated around Snape’s neck, because he could hold on better that way, get more purchase for the rocking motions of his hips. Before long, the water was sloshing over the rim of the bath somewhere in the background, but it hardly mattered, when he had Snape underneath him like this. Before long, they weren’t kissing so much as panting into each other’s mouths, but that was okay, too, because Harry was so full of feeling he felt like he might burst with it.

He wasn’t quite sure which one of them came first, whether he set Snape off or vice versa. All that he knew was that when Snape did, he made the most gorgeous noise that sank right into Harry, deeper than the heat of the bath had done, like he could feel it all the way down to his core. And then he knew very little at all for a good, long while but the thud of Snape’s heartbeat against his own, the warmth of his neck against his lips.

It had never been quite like this with Ginny, he thought dimly, once he could string more than two words together inside his head.

“You have utterly ruined my bathroom, you realise,” was the first thing Snape said to him.

Harry burst into spontaneous laughter. “You have the most amazing pillow talk, you know,” he said.

He knew it was a fuck-up the instant Snape froze beneath him. He shifted Harry awkwardly off his lap, untwining the arms still wrapped around his neck.

“I apologise,” he said, not looking at Harry. “I am not especially... good at --”

“I was teasing,” Harry said quickly. “I really like it, actually. It’s a little weird at times, but it’s funny, and it’s so... you. I honestly like it.” He idly flicked a soap bubble at Snape’s chest.

Apparently, that was another mistake. Snape seemed annoyed enough by it to temporarily forget about his embarrassment over being naked, rising and stepping from the tub in one, decisive stride.

Harry promptly fucked up for the third time in a row. He couldn’t help it, even as he knew that he should try. It was Snape, who’d somehow got all under his skin and inside him in a way that nobody else had done before; it was Snape, who was strange and jagged and twisted in all the right ways; it was Snape, who Harry knew he would gladly throw his life down for, not that it was ever going to come to that with Voldemort out of the picture.

The shape of him was a bit blurry, without his glasses, but it didn’t keep him from staring. He was too thin, just as Harry had expected, not skeletally so, but in a way that went beyond the occasional missed breakfast because you’d left in a hurry. There were faint scars to his skin, beyond the one on his neck, no gory wide stripes but thin bands of white that Harry was sure could easily have been vanished with a potion. A thin trail of dark hair stretched down from his chest all the way to his abdomen and lower, dipping beneath the towel he was hastily slinging about his waist. His arms were strong, corded ropes of muscle that spoke of repetitive manual labour. The Dark Mark was a faint trace of red against the inside of his left arm.

He wasn’t beautiful, not by a long stretch. He didn’t need to be; he was Snape.

“Satisfied, now?” he snapped. “Like what you see, Potter?”

The words came dangerously close to the ones he’d used after that first time they’d kissed, but Harry was too caught up in the way he said the final one to notice. He didn’t say it like he usually did, these days, but like he had done in school, spat out with a vicious sort of rage.

It kind of... hurt.

“I see you,” Harry said. He looked Snape straight in the eye, and then he fucked up for the fourth, and most spectacular time this night. “You know that I love you, right?”

Snape looked as if he’d been stabbed squarely in the chest, in the split instant that Harry got to see his reaction before he was no longer in the room.

The door closed behind him.

Harry slammed the back of his head against the porcelain of the tub. Hard. Idiot, idiot, idiot, why was he such a fucking idiot? Why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone? What was it about him that he’d managed to fuck up not only once, not twice, but four bloody times in a row? And it had been so good, too. It had been so good, before he had to go and ruin it by trampling all over Snape’s boundaries, invisible but familiar enough for him to guess at, now.

He submerged himself beneath the water, and didn’t come back up until he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. It helped calm him a little, oddly enough, although it didn’t erase the heaviness in the pit of his stomach.

He considered just lying here for a while, but that would not do. What had been done had been done, and at the very least he could attempt to fix it. He let the water drain from the tub and stepped out of it, drying himself off before spelling away the floods on the bathroom floor. He neither rushed nor dragged on with it -- if Snape had opted for flight, he’d be long gone by now, anyway.

But he was still there, when Harry emerged from the bathroom. He hadn’t even dressed, sat hunched over on the side of the bed with only the towel wrapped around his waist and his face in one hand.

Harry approached cautiously.

“I’m sorry,” he said, perching gingerly on the edge of the bed himself. “I shouldn’t have said that. Sometimes I just open my mouth and words come out, and it usually gets me in trouble. Well, at least it always did with you, back in school. I seem to have this special knack for saying the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time.”

Snape gave a bark of laughter. It was a harsh, unforgiving sound. “You’re apologising,” he said blankly. “You’re not the one who --” he cut himself off, slamming a fist against the side of the bed, as though in helpless frustration. “This is utterly moronic, the way that I’m acting. Pathetic. I told you, didn’t I, that this was never going to work.”

“No, don’t say that,” Harry said, grasping Snape’s wrist lightly. “We just hit a snag, that’s all. I think... I think we’re very similar in lots of ways, but we also deal with it very differently, at times, so it’s bound to happen occasionally. Doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel. You told me yourself, a while ago, that just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

Snape didn’t respond.

“And I’m still sorry. I knew you weren’t ready to hear it, so I shouldn’t have said it. You don’t have to say it back, by the way. I’ll --”

“You deserve to be with someone who can express that kind of sentiment,” Snape said, sounding disgusted.

You do, Harry thought, whenever you touch me. He didn’t say it. “I’ve told you before, I’m not leaving, so stop trying to get me to, okay?” he said instead. “I won’t. I meant it, you know. I’ll try not to say it too much, if it makes you uncomfortable, but... I do. ”

Snape scrubbed a hand over his face. When he next spoke, it was little more than a whisper. “I haven’t the faintest idea as to why.”

“Yes, I know. Kind of makes two of us, sometimes. I don’t know, maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you just have to... accept it.” Harry waited a moment, and then decided this was as good a place to leave it as any. Perhaps it needed some time to sink in, to percolate through. He stood up decisively, ignoring the aching wish that he could change the past. “I’ll go make us some tea, I think.”

Snape’s hand caught his wrist weakly on his first step away. “Potter,” he said, “-- blast it, Harry -- I’ll... I’ll try. I am trying.”

Harry rubbed his thumb over Snape’s pulse-point, just the once. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

Then he went to make tea.

---

When they went to sleep that night, Snape pulled the curtains and cast a spell over the fireplace that blacked out its light. Harry heard the soft rustle of clothes falling to the floor, saw nothing in the complete darkness that enveloped them both. He tried to protest that it wasn’t necessary, as Snape slid bare as his bones into bed with him, but Snape silenced him with a kiss. His hands found Harry’s, drew them towards his chest, drew Harry with him as he rolled onto his back.

Show me, he didn’t say, but Harry heard it regardless.

He kissed every part of him under the cover of black, Snape trembling beneath him all the way.

---

“I said thin slices! Tell me, do you simply not listen to a word that I say, or are parts of your auditory system actually broken?”

Harry frowned down at the yarrow root he was chopping. This was the third time that Snape had laid into him since they had started brewing about half an hour ago. It felt unsettlingly like being a first year all over again, criticism raining down on him at every turn. The first time it had happened, he’d actually thought he’d messed up; the second time, he had been less sure. Now, he knew it without a doubt: there was nothing wrong with what he was doing.

Fine, so his slices would never be as delicate as Snape’s, nor his herbs as finely crushed, but his technique was no different from a week ago, and a week ago it had been fine. Or at least good enough for Snape to deem his efforts worth going into one of his commissions.

Harry shot a sideways glance at him.

“You’re in a right mood today, you know that?”

“I am no such thing,” Snape said sharply, slamming the potion he had just finished bottling onto the bench with a clang. “Those powdered Doxy wings you had the nerve to hand over five minutes ago were an abomination. It is hardly my fault if you insist on being an incompetent, talentless --” he cut himself off, closing his eyes. Harry could see his jaw work, the silent grinding of his teeth.

A long moment dragged by.

“You’re right.” Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am in a mood.”

Harry took him in, the tense lines of his shoulders, the tight set of his mouth. It didn’t seem worth hanging onto the slow irritation that had been building inside him a minute ago. “Thanks,” he said instead.

Snape snorted. “For what?” He dropped his stirring rod onto the bench, lowering the flame under his cauldron. “For needlessly insulting you? Or for trampling down the first few stirrings of genuine interest you have begun to display in potions as a subject?”

“For acknowledging it,” said Harry. As apologies went, it was a bit circumspect, but he’d got pretty used to reading between the lines. One kind of had to, with Snape. “Any idea as to why? I mean, did something happen?”

“It’s nothing. I’m overtired. I haven’t been... sleeping well, as of late.”

Harry bit his lip. Guilt rose within him swiftly, as soon as he decoded the language. Of course, he had known that something like this was bound to happen; he had known that the closer they got, the more likely that Snape would have trouble dealing with the backlash. The predictability didn’t make him hate it any less, however, didn’t make him hate himself any the less for being the trigger. For one, terrible second his conviction in everything wavered, teetering perilously on the brink of something. Having to deal with some tough stretches himself was one thing; knowing that he caused Snape nightmares was a different ballgame altogether.

Then again, it was his choice, wasn’t it? He remembered how much it had rankled when Snape had tried to push him away for similar reasons; to do the exact thing in return didn’t seem fair. If Harry insisted that he could deal with any fallout himself, then he couldn’t very well deny Snape the same option. It would be disrespectful.

He firmly pushed the guilt away. “Is there anything I can do?” he said, instead of apologising profusely, as he’d been inclined to.

Snape shook his head. “It is of no matter. It will settle down, eventually. It’s simply one of those weeks when I wished the Insomnium wasn’t quite so limited in frequency of usage.”

“The potion you gave me?” Harry frowned a little. “Yeah, what’s up with that, anyway? I mean, the way you went on at me about it I was half expecting to turn into a zombie, but whenever I’ve taken it, I just felt... great. Really refreshed. It didn’t make much sense to me.” At Snape’s steely look, he added quickly, “Not that I messed with it, of course. You were pretty clear on that.”

“Good,” Snape said, glaring a little more. “It’s insidious like that, which is precisely the danger.” He sprinkled a fine layer of Doxy wing powder into his cauldron. “As you may or may not know, Dreamless Sleep acts by dampening the intensity of brain activity during REM sleep -- the cycle during which you dream. Anything above a certain threshold, and it cannot keep up. Insomnium, on the other hand, suppresses the REM cycle entirely. Naturally, it does more than that -- I added a number of potent ingredients to compensate for the disruption incurred by the process, to ensure that one does not wake up feeling as though no sleep has been had at all.” He huffed a humourless laugh. “I should have known it would never work.”

“But it does,” Harry said, mildly confused.

“Only in the short term. In the long term, the human brain cannot cope without REM sleep. Dreams are the way it... processes things, if you will. I was rather successful at circumnavigating this problem, perhaps a little too successful, as I found out the hard way. With continued usage, the effects creep up on you slowly, insidiously, as I said. At first, there is merely a heightened sense of paranoia. Perhaps unsurprisingly --” Snape’s lip curved up wryly -- “I failed to pick up on this. Then, the hallucinations start. They, too, are initially subtle, far too easily dismissed -- an unexpected sound here, a brief flash out of the corner of your eye there. Until, suddenly, they are not.” He breathed a sigh. “Minerva found me under the desk in my classroom, babbling incoherently about bats.”

Oh. Well, yes, Harry could see how that wouldn’t exactly have helped him at the time when Snape had given him the potion. Or ever, but at that particular time, it would have been nothing short of disastrous. He shuddered a little at the very idea. “That can’t have been pleasant.”

Snape snorted again. “Understatement of the century. She dragged me straight to the hospital wing, of course. And then hovered, whilst Poppy dragged the story out of me. I promptly got an extended lecture on the dangers of experimenting on oneself, along with repeated orders never to touch the Insomnius again. As if that was ever going to happen. Then Albus showed up and made a preposterous show of concern over me, as if he hadn’t set the whole thing off himself by informing me of his decision to employ that damn werewolf after the summer. ‘You can discuss any concerns quite freely with me, Severus’, my arse. Minerva kept dropping in for tea for weeks after the fact, too. It was beyond humiliating.” He pinched the bridge of his nose again. “If only this blasted headache would go away.”

Harry wanted to hug him, but decided against it. “Have you tried taking anything?” he asked.

Snape sneered at him. “Oh, what a marvellous suggestion, Potter, points for sheer brilliance. No, of course I haven’t; why, the idea to take a potion designed to deal with the problem would never have occurred to me, a Potions Master.” He stared at Harry for a moment, before the sneer fell away. “Damn it, this isn’t working. I am in a mood, I’m going to keep sniping at you, no matter how...”

...hard I try not to, Harry completed inside his own head. He smiled wanly. “D’you want me to get out of your hair?”

“Yes,” Snape said. “That might be for the best.” He cast a stasis charm over his cauldron, clearing ingredients away. “I think I might have to have a lie down for a while.”

He spat lie down as though it was an affront to his person.

“Okay.” Harry walked over to him, pressing a brief kiss to his lips. “I hope you feel better.”

Snape didn’t thank him, but then, Harry hadn’t expected him to.

---

“So,” Ron said over breakfast, “I’ve had a look at the application process for Auror training.”

Harry’s knife froze halfway into his egg.

“It’s good to see that you’re finally beginning to see the value in preparing ahead of time,” Hermione said smugly beside him.

Ron waved her off. “Yeah, yeah. I figured it couldn’t hurt, seeing how unlikely it looks that I’ll manage to scrape an Exceeds Expectations in potions.” He turned towards Harry. “There was a note in there about how they’ll consider extraordinary circumstances, if it’s given you loads of practical experience. I figure hunting Horcruxes and the like has got to count. But you’ll still have to go through the whole convoluted application process anyway. You fancy a look at it, at some point?”

“Uhm.” Harry brought his fork to his mouth, buying himself a little time with chewing. “Actually, I think... I don’t really think I want to become an Auror, any more. I know we always said it was something we were going to do together, one day, but...”

Ron, to his relief, didn’t appear surprised. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. “Yeah, I’d kind of figured you might say something like that, what with, you know... everything.” He drew a random, nonsensical circle with his hand in the air; Harry got the message regardless. “Bit of a shame, but I can’t really blame you. Hey, at least that way I no longer run the risk of being constantly compared to you, eh? Provided they’ll take me, that is.” He grinned, nudging Harry lightly in the side.

Harry smiled back. “They’ll take you,” he said. “You should absolutely let them know about how genius you are at chess. They’re bound to be looking out for people who’d be excellent tacticians, I’m sure.”

“Hadn’t even thought of that,” Ron said, gazing at his toast meditatively. “Thanks.”

Harry finished his egg. “Have you given any thought as to what you might like to do, instead?” Hermione asked, predictably.

Not in depth, no. He’d had precious little time to reflect on such matters, as of late. But there had been that thought which had crossed his mind a couple of times... “I’m not sure,” Harry said. “I mean, this might sound completely stupid, but sometimes I think... maybe a Healer?” He shook his head. “Not sure I’d be any good at it, mind, but the idea appeals. I’d quite like to... help people.”

Hermione gazed at him thoughtfully. “I think you’d make a fantastic Healer,” she said. “It’s a challenging career track, but you’ve got the compassion, and you’ve definitely got enough smarts, if you apply yourself. You’re doing the right subjects, too. A couple of years ago I might have been less sure, but you’ve actually become really good at potions, lately.” She looked a bit consternated at this fact -- he had rather been outperforming her in the last few weeks -- and heaps more curious. “Still haven’t figured out how you’ve managed to swing that,” she added after a moment, studying him more closely than he was entirely comfortable with.

Harry resolutely ignored her not-quite question, and reached for another slice of toast, as casually as he could possibly manage.

---

“A Healer,” Snape said, when Harry told him about his idea later that day. He studied Harry even more intently than Hermione had done and for longer. “It suits you,” came the eventual verdict.

Well. If Snape and Hermione managed to agree on a point, perhaps there really was something to it. For a while, Harry stared into the pasta sauce he was stirring, lost in contemplation.

“Your mother wanted to become one, too, you know.” Snape's voice had an odd, faraway quality to it. When Harry gazed over, Snape’s thumb was running along the edges of his book, repetitively. He didn’t look at Harry. “Damn fine one she would have made, too. Of course, her career plans fell rather by the wayside when she became pregnant with you. Or so I imagine.”

Harry hadn’t known. It felt a little strange to realise that he was unconsciously following in his mother’s footsteps, when he hadn’t set out to. Comforting, too, though. He remembered how warm he had felt when Slughorn had first compared him to Lily, how much he had longed for someone to speak of her. Come to think of it, Slughorn had been the only one who ever really had.

“Nobody’s ever told me that,” he said. “I... thank you.”

Snape shook his head sharply, flipping his book back open. “You should talk to Madam Pomfrey,” he continued. “She was always utterly besotted with you; I would think she’d explode with joy if you asked for the opportunity of an apprenticeship under her tuition. She’s an overbearing old nag, but good at what she does, and it would be tremendously beneficial experience. You’d be amazed at the spectrum of diseases and disasters that a castle full of adolescent idiots will expose you to.”

Harry smiled faintly, his mind still half on his mother. Snape’s efforts to curtail the subject were obvious enough, however, and so for the time being, he let it rest.

---

He wasn’t quite sure what had woken him, at first, but it quickly became obvious. Even with the edges of sleep still clinging to his mind, the bed shifted beneath him with jerking motions, a foot catching him sharply on the shin.

Lumos minima,” Harry muttered as he sat up. The magical torches flared to life with a warm, subdued glow, and yes, Snape was definitely having a nightmare. His body lay twisted in the sheets which his movement had pulled out from under the bed, his head half on, half off the pillow. His face was contorted in a grimace; even in the dim light Harry could see the rapid flickering of his eyes behind closed lids. His hair was a tangled, sweat-soaked mess, half obscuring his face where it clung to it in dark strands.

His lips moved occasionally, in a mumble too soft to make out. Harry rather suspected that it went along the lines of no; his heart broke with it.

He grasped Snape’s shoulder gently, with a great deal of hesitation. “Hey,” he murmured, “hey, wake up. It’s all right, it’s only a dream.”

Snape gasped sharply at the light shake Harry gave him, his eyes flying open. Harry beat a hasty retreat, which turned out to be a good thing; Snape’s right arm flailed upwards in an instant, as though he were trying to shield himself against something. It would have caught Harry right in the chin, had he not moved.

“It’s okay,” he said, resisting the urge to wrap his arms around Snape’s trembling form. It was tougher than he had anticipated, even knowing full well it would only make things worse. He wanted to comfort, to reassure; not being able to do so made his insides ache with hollowness. “You’re at home, in your bed,” he said out loud. The words didn’t seem nearly enough. “You’re safe. You had a nightmare, but it’s over now. It’s all over.”

His last words seemed to catch at something in Snape, who swept his hair out of his face with a brusque, rough movement. “Excuse me,” he bit out, voice hoarse as if he’d been shouting, and then he swiftly rolled out of bed, stalking off to the bathroom.

Harry remained seated in bed, letting out a sigh. It was strange, how he seemed to have come full circle. He suddenly understood far better how Ginny must have felt, over the summer, what she must have been through, night after night after night. At the time, he hadn’t been able to see past his own terror; now, he suddenly knew hers intimately. He sent her a fervent, wordless apology.

Snape stayed in the bathroom for a very long time, almost long enough for Harry to consider finding him to see if he was... well, not all right, but he couldn’t quite find a better word. He busied himself with spelling the sheets clean and dry, instead, tucking them back into place and fluffing out the covers. He extinguished the lights, and lay in the darkness, wishing there was something, anything he could do.

Snape smelled faintly of shower gel and shampoo, when he slid back under the covers. Harry’s chest ached with the urge to hold him. He rolled onto his side. “Can I touch you?” he whispered.

“Not right this second,” Snape said. The bed shifted under them, slightly. “It is nothing personal,” he added after a beat. “I just --”

“No, no, you don’t have to explain,” Harry said. The last thing Snape needed was to feel responsible for his own issues. “I get it, promise.” He drew a deep breath, and then added, “I’m sorry.”

The bed shifted again. “It isn’t your fault. I assure you, I have been having nightmares for longer than you have been alive.”

Well, that was a comforting thought. If by comforting you meant gut-wrenchingly disturbing. Harry stared at Snape beside him in bed; in the spill of moonlight through the window, his profile was thrown into sharp, shadowed relief. He wanted to trace the lines of it with his fingers, the familiar angle of his nose, his lips, his chin. He wanted to kiss them, to make Snape forget about every bad thing that had ever happened to him.

He didn’t.

“I’m still sorry,” he whispered. It helped a little, to say it. And he couldn’t fight the hope that maybe, deep down somewhere, it might help Snape a little to hear it, too.

---

“Fucking hell,” Harry exclaimed, throwing his quill onto the coffee table in frustration. It joined the piles of scrolls and books that were spread out all over it, nearly spilling off the edges.

“Language,” Snape said from his armchair, not looking up from his book.

“Oh, like you actually give a shit. I mean, really, are they actually trying to kill me? Cause it sure feels like it.”

Snape smirked. “It is seventh year. It’s meant to be challenging, you do realise this.” He paused, smirking a little more. “Although I do admit, it was rather delightful at times to be able to assign coursework without the preposterous limitations prescribed for the younger years. Especially to those select few Gryffindors who managed to weasel their way into my NEWT level classes, despite all my attempts to prevent this.”

Harry buried his face in his hands. “You’re really not helping,” he mumbled, before a thought caught at him, making him look up. “Wait, were you making a really bad joke about Percy there? I would have thought out of all of them, he’d be the one you’d have least of a problem with. Ambition being a Slytherin trait, and all that.”

Snape scoffed. “Don’t be preposterous. Percival was a lickspittle, an annoyance if only for his pathetic inability to cease bowing to authority if it so much as lifted a little finger. He wasn’t lacking in brains, just any capacity to string enough thought together to begin to form anything remotely resembling an independent opinion. Slytherin would have eaten him alive.” He flicked a page in his book, idly. “Charles was the most tolerable of the lot. Not that this is saying much.”

Harry laughed. “God, he’d hate to hear you call him that.”

“Yes, I recall. He rather resented it when I took the register, too.”

So Snape had naturally made a point of never calling him Charlie, Harry bet. “I think you’re being a bit harsh on Percy,” he said. “Never thought I’d say it, but he seems to have worked through a lot of his issues. They’ve reconciled, you know, him and the rest of the family. He’s even coming for Christmas.”

Christmas. Damn it. Harry stared at the pile on the coffee table. “I’m not getting any of this done,” he complained.

“I had noticed this, yes.”

Harry resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at Snape and rifled through his assignments, checking them against the books he had. “Bugger the whole lot of it,” he said. “I’m actually going to have to use to library for most of these.” While Snape had a staggering number of books, his collection was rather eclectic, Harry had found. There were tomes in there that looked like he had dragged them out of the room of Requirement after hundreds of years of hibernation, but the more obvious core texts were missing, as though Snape considered the knowledge inside them superfluous. Which it probably was to him, in all fairness. He’d undoubtedly memorised all of it by heart as a student.

“I thought you had finally managed to get past your reticence towards actual learning,” Snape said dryly. “It appears that I was mistaken.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Harry said. “It’s not the work that’s upsetting me, it’s the fact that I’ve got to get it all in within the next four days, and then we’ll be breaking for Christmas. Which means that I won’t have the chance to come here, if I’m going to be stuck in the library. And I know already that I won’t be able to visit over the holidays, either, at least not without arousing suspicion.”

Snape shut his book, gazing at him levelly. “You’ve decided to accept the Weasley’s invitation then, I take it.”

“Yes.” Harry sighed. He hadn’t really wanted to -- what he’d wanted was to spend the entirety of the holidays here, at the cottage. Not that Snape had invited him. But try as he might to twist it, there was no way to explain to Ron and Hermione that he didn’t want to be with family over Christmas. They’d worry, they’d wonder, they would feel hurt. Worst case scenario, they’d begin to suspect. Hermione already had too many pieces of the puzzle; he couldn’t risk joining them up for her. Best to excuse his absences from Hogwarts with the notion that the place in itself was triggery.

Couldn’t Snape have the decency to look the slightest bit upset, though? He seemed far too at ease with the fact that Harry would be gone for weeks. It was a little hurtful.

As if he had heard the thought, Snape’s eyebrows drew together. “Why in the blazes are you pouting at me like that?” he asked. He studied Harry for a moment. “Oh for Circe’s... you are, and forever shall remain, an idiot, Potter. It never even occurred to me that you would spend Christmas anywhere else than in the arms of leagues of red-haired monstrosities. It is, after all, a time for --” he sneered -- “festive cheer and jolly tidings and heart-warming eggnog filled gatherings around the Floo. My acceptance of the fact that you are bound to spend this time of the year with family does not equate to my kicking you out of the door.”

Harry couldn’t help but smile. “Well,” he said. “I was always planning on sneaking out on Christmas morning to come here. I have to give you your present, you know.”

“My present,” Snape said, as though he had never heard the words before. Harry wondered how often he had.

“Yes,” Harry said. “Your present.” He walked over to the armchair, flicked the book off Snape’s lap to the floor -- Snape glared -- and then settled there himself, taking its place. “I have to leave before too long, or I’ll never get any of that done,” he said. “But I can stay a little while, yes?”

Snape didn’t answer him, but he kissed Harry senseless all the same.

---

It was pitch black when Harry snuck his way out of the Burrow on Christmas morning. Seven years of practise didn’t make the process any less agitating; when a floorboard creaked under his foot just as he’d opened the door to Ron’s room, his heart nearly stopped. Thankfully, though, Ron only turned over in his sleep, mumbling something about dancing ducks -- honestly, Harry would kill for a dream like that -- and proceeded to snore quietly.

Soon, the uneven floorboards and crunching snow were behind him far enough to Apparate without attracting unwanted attention. It was snowing outside the cottage when he arrived, a fine dusting of white settling down on him as he made his way to the door. He knocked softly; Snape opened before he could let himself in. Despite the unsociable hour, he was already wearing his full ensemble of robes. Harry wondered how early he’d got up just to wait for him.

The thought made him smile. Actually, the sight of him managed to do it all on its own. It had only been a week since he’d last been here, but Harry had missed Snape rather disproportionately. Funny, how easy it was to get used to having someone around.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Can I come in?”

Snape’s eyebrows rose in what Harry had come to think of as his ‘this question is so moronic I won’t even bother with getting upset about it’ gesture, as he stepped aside. “Why in Merlin’s name are you whispering?” he asked.

Oh. Harry laughed, brushing snow off his cloak as he stepped into the warm living room. Predictably, there was not a single decoration in sight; it might have been high summer, if not for the weather.

“Sorry,” he said at a more normal volume. “It’s all this stealing about like a thief in the night thing. I think I’ve got a little out of practise. Haven’t really been doing it much, this year.”

“An unimaginable shame, I am sure, for your most obnoxious of talents to go thus to waste. If only it could have happened a great deal sooner. Would you like tea?”

Wow. An insult and a genuinely hospitable offer in one fell swoop. Snape must be feeling more unsettled by this whole Christmas shebang than Harry had anticipated.

He shook his head. “No, I really can’t stay long. Molly’s always up fiendishly early on Christmas Day, fussing like mad over the presents, and then the cooking. We’ll see if she’ll actually let me help with the turkey. She promised, but I’m not betting anything on it.” He fumbled inside his bag, thrusting the messily wrapped package into Snape’s hands.

Snape snorted when he saw it, and Harry couldn’t quite blame him. Perhaps going with green and silver wrapping paper had been rather predictable, but still, what the hell. They were Christmas-y colours, weren’t they? As were red and gold, for that matter. It wasn’t his fault that someone had picked the house colours in a fit of festive insanity.

His Spello-taping, of course, was a different matter. Snape fought with it for about a minute before frowning impressively at the small bundle inside his hands.

“Were you actually attempting to turn this into a Gordian knot?” he asked, before biting his lip. “I didn’t mean --”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry said. “I’m rubbish at wrapping things. Hermione had to help me with all the rest. Here, let me...” He attempted to untangle the worst of it, and only succeeded in nearly dropping it. Perhaps they were both a bit nervous.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Snape said, and drew out his wand. “Extricolus!” The paper split neatly in the middle.

“Well,” Harry said weakly. “I guess it’s better than Sectumsempraing it?”

Snape glared at him, but it was rather mild. “Idiot. As though shredding your present would even occur to me. Besides, that spell doesn’t work on inanimate objects.” He unfolded the paper and dragged out its contents, lifting it by the fan-shaped web into the air.

And then proceeded to stare at the contraption of woven leather and feathers.

Harry wasn’t sure he had ever seen Snape quite so mystified. Not that his expression was full of confusion. No, it was perfectly blank, utterly devoid of anything, frozen in a strange parody of incomprehension, as though he wanted to ask, but didn’t quite dare to. When endless seconds trickled by, and he was clearly no further to unravelling the mystery in front of his eyes, Harry couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Uhm,” he said, shifting a little on his feet. “It’s a dreamcatcher. It’s a Native American thing, originally. Kind of like a protective charm, you’re supposed to hang it over your bed, and the idea is that any nightmares get caught in the web, but the good ones are allowed to filter through. Which is undoubtedly nonsense, but --” fuck, fuck -- “Anyway, this one’s imbued with all sorts of tranquility spells and the like. It’s probably still bloody useless, but...”

Oh God, what had he been thinking? It was cheesy as hell. It was inappropriate as all get out. He was an idiot, an idiot who should never be allowed to go shopping for presents, ever. He rummaged desperately inside his bag, dragging out the second wrapped parcel, and practically threw it at Snape.

“And I thought it might be a bit stupid, so I got you that new book you’ve been going on about as well. Ignatius Noble’s Treatise on Alchemical Potion Formulas and their Relation to the Fundamental Laws of Brownian Motion, fresh off the shelves at Flourish & Blotts.”

Hermione had given him a rather odd look when he’d lugged the thing up to the register, and Harry had deeply regretted not leaving enough time to make a trip down to Diagon Alley on his own. He decided it was best not to mention that fact.

Snape was still staring at the dreamcatcher, smoothing down one of its feathers as he rested it on the still-wrapped book. “It’s incredibly thoughtful,” he said, not looking at Harry. “As is the book. Thank you.”

Oh thank fuck, he didn’t hate it. Harry breathed a sigh of relief as Snape walked to the chest of drawers, setting his presents on it before opening the top drawer and pulling something out.

“Yours isn’t wrapped,” he said as he walked back over. “I fear my appreciation of the finer points of festive cheer, such as wrestling with ungodly amounts of Spello-tape, is rather lacking.”

But Harry wasn’t really listening. He was gazing at the small vial Snape pressed into his hand with the most bizarre sense of deja vu. Fine wisps of silver white matter uncoiled inside it, sinking down only to rise again.

“Memories?”

“They’re of your mother,” Snape said. “It occurred to me that in focusing on crucial points within our relationship, most of the ones you have seen were less than... pleasant. These are... more of an accurate reflection of the truth, of who she was as a person. I thought you might like them.”

Like them. Love them wasn’t a strong enough word. Harry fought hard to swallow through the sudden lump in his throat. His eyes felt a little damp; he blinked quickly several times to disperse the moisture. The memories swirled steadily within his grasp, shards of the mother he had never known. She, who had died for him.

“I think,” he managed, after a long moment, “I think that’s the best present I have ever got in my life.”

Snape cleared his throat rather unnecessarily. He was fiddling with his collar when Harry looked up, his eyes flicking lightning-fast between Harry and the door.

Harry didn’t give him a chance to escape. He drew him down for a kiss, instead, a long, slow, deep one that trickled warmth all the way through him. It was far easier to express his gratitude this way, when words would never suffice. It was probably one hell of a lot easier for Snape to accept it, too.

Harry broke away regretfully, before things could get too heated. He wanted to stay, to drag Snape off to bed, or perhaps down to the sofa, but it was too much of a risk. Nothing to be done about it.

Nothing that could have erased the stupidly wide grin on his face, either.

“Merry Christmas, Severus,” he murmured, when he withdrew.

Snape startled a little; it took Harry a moment to replay his words to figure it out.

“Oh,” he said. “I’ve never actually called you that before, have I?” It seemed a little strange that he hadn’t, but perhaps it wasn’t. He’d never really addressed people by name all that much. It felt rather awkward.

“Not really,” hedged Snape. “Just the one time.”

Harry stared at him in befuddlement.

“When we... in the kitchen. I’m not surprised you don’t remember, you seemed rather occupied with other things, at the time.”

Harry burst out laughing. And then kissed Snape again, just briefly, just because he couldn’t not. “May I?” he asked. “I mean, if I’m not in the midst of coming my brains out.”

Snape sneered at him. It wasn’t at all convincing. “I don’t know, Potter, what do you think? Let’s see, you are privy to my deepest, darkest secrets. You have finagled your way into my house, my kitchen, and my laboratory. You sleep in my bed. It seems rather preposterous that I should forbid you the use of my given name.”

Harry grinned. Snape brushed his hand along the side of Harry’s neck, just once. “Off with you, then. I’m sure you have countless mince pies to eat, endless tales of family joy to regale you through the day. Don’t give yourself a hangover; I won’t be there to provide you with a sobering draught in the morning.”

“I brewed some in preparation back at school,” Harry said, making his way over to the door. “Merry Christmas, Severus,” he repeated, just before he stepped through it.

“Merry Christmas, Harry,” he heard, as the hinges creaked shut behind him.

---

“Oh,” Harry whispered, more than a little short of breath. He seemed rather incapable of not making noise when he was in bed with Snape. It was strange; he’d had years of surreptitiously wanking in a shared dormitory to build on, had never been all that vocal during sex with Ginny. But the moment Snape laid his hands on him, all of that flew straight out of the window.

He was currently flat on his back on Snape’s bed, completely naked and decidedly aroused. Snape was bent over him, himself down to only only his black trousers -- and didn’t that make a nice change, to be able to run his hands along the jut of his shoulderblades -- kissing and licking his way slowly down Harry’s chest towards his stomach.

Torturously slowly, more like.

When Snape’s hands skimmed the V where his legs merged with his groin, one smooth movement from his hipbones down, Harry couldn’t help it. His thighs fell open of their own accord, spreading wide in silent invitation.

“Please,” he gasped. “Fuck, please, could you... would you...”

Snape froze halfway down his stomach, then withdrew, propping himself up on one arm to look at Harry.

“You want...” he began. “What precisely is it you want?”

“Anything,” Harry said fervently, but that wasn’t exactly helpful. “I... your fingers, if you could. Inside me. If that’s all right, I mean. Oh please, say it’s all right, I’ve been wanting --”

Snape cut him off with a firm kiss. “Give me a moment,” he murmured when he pulled back, one hand trailing absent-mindedly across Harry’s chest as he got out of bed. He touched him more often like this, nowadays, casually and without obvious intent, as though it had become second nature. Something warm always uncurled inside Harry’s chest, whenever he did so.

He watched Snape rummage through the bedside cabinet, anticipation thrumming sharply through his veins. For one truly disgusting moment, his mind flashed to the idea of implements left behind by previous inhabitants of the cottage -- Snape sure as hell wouldn’t have stockpiled lube for his own purposes, that much he was certain of -- but no, the small jar he returned with was one of the ones he favoured for his own creations. Harry recognised the thick amber glass, spelled to be impervious to the elements.

“You brewed lube,” he said, unable to restrain an amused smile. “You actually brewed lube?”

Snape flushed up to his cheeks, and down to his collarbones. It looked rather lovely on him. “It seemed inevitable, at the rate we were going, that we would need it sooner or later. I figured it would be best to be prepared.” He dipped two fingers into the pot, sliding them between Harry’s legs. Harry sighed when a fingertip circled him cautiously, with notable hesitation. “You will tell me if I hurt you,” Snape added, voice tight with tension.

“Promise,” Harry said, holding his gaze steadily. “But you won’t, I can promise that, too. Have been doing this rather a lot as of late, on my own.”

“Have you,” Snape echoed, as though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

“God, yes.” Harry couldn’t restrain the burst of laughter that bubbled up within him. “Applications Professor McGonagall never intended her lessons to be used for, let me tell you.” The corner of Snape’s mouth quirked a little at that, as if helplessly, some of his tension draining away.

And then Harry’s eyes slid closed because Snape’s finger was sliding inside him, so easily that he couldn’t hold back a sigh. He pressed back instinctively, forcing it deeper, hips twisting into the delicious intrusion, his head tilting back against the pillow. He hadn’t been kidding when he had said that he’d wanted this for a long while, pretty damn close to the get go, in fact, before they’d ever kissed. Curiosity had always been one of his weaknesses, and in this, it had not so much killed the cat as led to a rather startling revelation. The first time he’d experimented with his own fingers, he couldn’t imagine for the life of him how it hadn’t occurred to him sooner. It was delicious; it was addictive; he’d missed out on years of vastly improved wanking sessions.

Snape’s mouth trailed damply up the line of his neck. Harry’s cock hardened, impossibly, further; he could feel a damp trail where it rested against his stomach.

“Another,” he panted heedlessly, knowing little else but the need for more. “Oh fuck, please, I need...”

Snape complied, too gently, far too gently. Harry twisted his hips, but he couldn’t get them into the right position on his own. “If you curl your fingers a bit, towards yourself, there’s --”

“You mean like this?” Snape murmured close to his ear. His fingers sought, a bit awkwardly but ultimately successful, pressing and stroking until Harry gasped with it. “I do have some basic knowledge of anatomy, you know.”

“Great!” Harry babbled incoherently, “Fantastic! Never stop reading, please.”

Snape barked a laugh against his neck, thick and rich and sweet. Then he twisted his fingers again, still gently but in just the right way, and again, and again. Harry pushed back against them, writhing and undulating beneath Snape until he was fucking himself on his fingers, until his back arched with it, until every part of him was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. They got up to three, at some point, and by the time Harry reached for his cock, unable to stand it any longer, he barely got three solid pulls in before his orgasm was pulsing through him and over his fingers, taking all conscious thought along with it. Snape kissed him during, swallowed his moans and his sighs, tongue stroking roughly over the roof of his mouth before gentling in stages, his fingers slipping from Harry as his body relaxed.

He was watching him, when Harry opened his eyes, with a kind of voracious intensity. His tongue dampened his lower lip, once; Harry could feel how hard he was where he pressed against the curve of his hip.

Harry navigated him smoothly onto his back, stripped away the rest of his clothes with Snape’s assistance and then proceeded to suck him off. It was less clumsy than he had managed the first few times he had done this, but still just as messy.

“God, I love making you come,” he whispered once Snape was finished shivering beneath him, Harry’s head resting on his chest. He could feel the gradual slowing of Snape’s heartbeat, like this; he loved that part immeasurably, too.

“You do,” Snape said. Harry didn’t miss the note of disbelief that crept in with the words, whether intentional or not.

He shot a stern gaze at Snape. “Of course I do,” he said. “What, did you think it was some sort of imposition?”

Snape looked at him as though frankly, he’d had no idea what he was supposed to think of it.

Harry sighed a little, letting his head sink back down against skin. “You enjoy it when you touch me, don’t you?” he asked. “You like making me feel good?”

This question seemed easier to answer. “You know that I do,” Snape said. His hand came to rest on Harry’s head, carding through his hair.

“Well, then,” Harry said. “It’s exactly the same for me.” He spelled the lights out and drew the covers over them, slinging one leg over Snape’s and pressing into the warmth of his body. He felt pleasantly drowsy, in that way that meant sleep wasn’t too far away.

Just before it could pull him under, though, a thought came to him, oddly persistent. He breathed the question against Snape’s skin, quiet enough that he could easily pretend not to have heard it. “What does it feel like for you, when I touch you?”

Snape didn’t respond for so long that Harry might have thought him asleep, if not for the steady motion of his hand through Harry’s hair.

“I’m not sure I have the words,” he said haltingly. “It’s... it’s terrifying, almost, how much I... it’s wildly unsettling. But not... not in a bad way. Not in a bad way at all.”

Harry pressed his lips against Snape’s chest, a gesture made sloppy with tiredness. He inhaled the scent of his skin and let himself drift, let the pull of sleep blur the edges of his mind, let it begin to draw him from consciousness.

“You know how it feels when you perform magic without a wand, without intending to? You’re angry, and the mirror shatters. You fall from a height, but you don’t hit the ground. And whatever happens in that moment is precisely what you... but you have no control, none whatsoever. It’s a little like that,” he heard Snape whisper, just before he knew no more.

---

The familiar flash of blond hair caught at the corner of his vision on a Monday, as Harry was making his way towards the library on his own. At first, his mind utterly failed to make the connection -- there were plenty of blond students at Hogwarts, after all -- but three steps down the corridor Harry froze, looked back over his shoulder, and then promptly sprinted after the figure striding swiftly out the front door.

“Malfoy!” he said breathlessly, as he caught up with him. “What on earth are you doing here?”

Malfoy didn’t stop in his stride. On the contrary, he picked up speed. He shot Harry a vicious glare, one that clearly transmitted the words Go away. Unfortunately for him, Harry had got rather used to that kind of look.

“None of your fucking business, Potter,” he spat. “Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be holed up in a corner somewhere, having a nervous breakdown?”

Harry took in the sight of him. Malfoy looked paler than he had ever seen him, except for possibly that night in the girls’ bathroom, when he had been crying. Thinner, too. There were deep, dark smudges beneath his eyes; his hair was nothing like the perfectly coiffed style it had been. His robes, too, looked unkempt, all-over wrinkled as though he couldn’t be bothered with a simple smoothing charm.

“No,” Harry said. “I only get the occasional horrendous nightmare, these days, where all the people who died for me accuse me of murder. The panic attacks are getting better, too. Thanks for asking.”

Malfoy shot him a disconcerted look, as if Harry had gone completely off his rocker.

“Seriously though,” Harry said. “What are you doing at Hogwarts?”

Seriously though,” Malfoy imitated in mocking notes, “I’ve already told you. It’s none of your sodding business, so go away, would you? It’s fucking creepy, the way you’re pretending to care.”

Harry kept walking. “What makes you think I’m pretending?”

Malfoy’s only answer was to laugh. It was a horrid, hollow sound. Harry studied him as best as he could whilst still keeping pace -- they were moving rather swiftly -- but Malfoy’s face was a mask, lips compressed in a tight line, jaw clenched with tension. He’d been coming down the stairs leading to the Headmistress’ office, hadn’t he, when Harry had first caught sight of him? Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle began to drift towards him.

“You came to see Professor McGonagall,” he said. “You’re one of the students who’s been retaking the year with long-distance classes, aren’t you?” The final piece slotted into place, with a certainty Harry felt to his bones. “She’s worried you’re going to drop out, isn’t she? That’s why she cited you here, in person. She wouldn’t have made you come for any other reason, she’s not that insensitive.”

“Fuck off,” Malfoy said. Harry saw his hand clench tightly at his side. “How many times do I have to tell you that this doesn’t fucking concern you? Just shut the fuck up and fuck off on the high horse you rode in on!”

They were almost past the wards. “I’m not on a high horse,” Harry said. “Believe it or not, I’ve kind of been where you’re at, and I know that giving up isn’t the way to go. You can’t just quit, you’ve always had so much potential, you can’t just waste that --”

Malfoy whirled on him with the suddenness of lightning. “And even if I did, what of it? It wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference.” He laughed again, the same lifeless sound, and he was trembling now with barely suppressed anger. “You think potential’s going to get me anywhere, these days, Potter? I’m not you, I can’t just waltz into whatever job I bloody damn well please, so don’t presume to know you’ve got any idea of what it’s like. You think it’s easy, for Slytherins, after the war? We’re vermin, we’re outcasts, every single last one of us. Even the ones who don’t have this --” he whipped back the sleeve of his robe, displaying the faint lingering shadow of the Dark Mark on his arm -- “to brand them for the rest of their lifetimes!”

Harry gazed back at him evenly. Funny, how not so long ago, he would have been the first one to cast the stone. Somehow, it all seemed less clear, these days, no sharp delineations between black and white any more, just grey, just choices and mistakes, just flawed, imperfect human beings.

“You’re right,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like being in your shoes. I’m not you, and it’s different, even if not as different sometimes as you probably think. But what I do know is that when one door slams shut in your face, another one usually opens somewhere else. It may well be hidden, and one hell of a struggle to get there, but that doesn’t mean you don’t fight and claw until you damn well get to it.” Malfoy sneered at his words, and the gesture was so resoundingly familiar, reminded him so strongly of someone else entirely, that Harry couldn’t help his next words. “You think Snape would have wanted this for you? You think he would have wanted you to lie down and just give up, when it got tough? We both know he wouldn’t. He would have told you to fuck ‘em all, to stick it to them and prove them wrong through action, he would have --”

There was only the briefest glimmer of Malfoy’s eyes in warning, before he had his wand out. The spell hit Harry so fast, so out of nowhere that he barely managed to get his shield charm up in time, stumbling and falling to his arse in the snow.

“You don’t get to say his name!” Malfoy shouted. He was trembling all over now, his wand hand shaking so hard that he probably couldn’t have fired another spell, even had he tried. “You don’t get to talk about him like that, Potter, you fucking hear me? You haven’t the right! He died for you, he fucking died, for you of all people, and you don’t get to use him as ammunition, not him, not when he deserved so much better!”

A noise tore loose in the back of his throat with the last word, something choked, something bitter, something Harry could empathise with only too sharply. And then Malfoy whirled on the spot, taking the last few steps past the wards at a run. He Apparated out of existence before Harry could so much as open his mouth to protest that he agreed with that last statement entirely.

---

“I ran into Malfoy today,” Harry said later over dinner at the cottage. “The younger one, obviously.”

Snape’s knife faltered briefly in its path through his steak. It was the tiniest moment of hesitation, covered so smoothly and quickly that Harry might well have missed it, had he not been paying such close attention.

He watched Snape bring a bite to his mouth, watched him chew, swallow, take a sip of his wine. When several minutes had passed like this, and Snape had still not acknowledged his words with so much as a glance, he spoke again.

“You’re not the slightest bit interested in what happened?”

“No,” Snape said, the lie rolling off his tongue like butter. He continued eating, as though nothing untoward had happened, and Harry was sharply reminded of just why he had been such a good spy. His face was impervious, impenetrable; Harry suspected his mental shields were thrumming at full capacity.

He saw Malfoy in front of his mind’s eye, his passionate, angry defence of Snape, and suddenly his blood was boiling hot with anger.

“Bullshit,” he ground out.

Snape remained silent. Harry’s hand clenched around his knife.

“Don’t do this,” he said.

Snape pushed his plate away from him. “I’m done,” he said, as though he were talking of dinner, promptly rising from his chair and heading out of the room.

Harry’s fist met the table in helpless frustration. God dammit, he loved the man, but sometimes he wanted to... punch him solidly into next week, was what.

He found him in the basement, a small fire lit beneath his cauldron, chopping steadily away at something Harry didn’t care enough about to identify.

“You don’t get to just walk out on me like that,” he said. It was a tremendous effort to keep the anger out of his voice.

Snape didn’t bother in return. “And you don’t get to persist in hounding me with topics when I have made it plain that I do not wish to speak of them,” he snapped.

Harry bit his lip, so hard that it hurt. “Yes, actually I do. When you’re being a complete and utter prick about something, I get to tell you, sometimes. Definitely with this.”

Snape’s glare could have cut glass. “You think I carry some kind of obligation still, then, is that it? You think I owe Draco Malfoy, you think I owe any of them?” He threw his knife onto the bench; it clattered loudly as it rolled over several times before it came to a halt. “Haven’t I done enough? Haven’t I given and sacrificed, and twisted myself out of shape for longer than I care to remember, do I genuinely not deserve an ounce of peace, for once in my life? Am I never going to be even, is that what you’re saying?”

Harry sighed. He should have guessed this was about guilt; he knew Snape well enough by now to figure it out. “No, you stupid prat,” he said with an odd mixture of exasperation and fondness. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. Of course you don’t owe anyone anything, bloody hell, you of all people. And if I genuinely thought that peace was what you had here, like this, if I genuinely believed you were happy, then I’d drop the entire damn thing, because that’s all that I want for you. But you’re not. You’re just not.”

“I’m not,” Snape said, with a vicious spitefulness. “I take it you have gazed straight into the depths of my tarnished, shimmering soul, and come to this conclusion, yes?”

“Your tarnished, shimmering -- oh for fuck’s sake, are you even listening to yourself?” Harry carded a hand through his hair. “It’s simple fucking psychology. No man is an island, and all that. You can lie to yourself as much as you damn well like, you know, but you’re not fooling me. You can tell yourself till the end of time that you don’t give a shit about anyone else, except possibly me, but that doesn’t make it true. Careful, Potter, those were your very own words when you thought I was going to make fun of what the Slytherins are going through. You’ve always given a damn about them, and you know it. I used to see it as blatant favouritism, back in school, and in a lot of cases it was, but it was never that simple, was it? You were fighting their corner, because nobody else would, because you wanted to give them a chance that too many of them might never get, right? The way you reacted when I nearly killed Malfoy, we both know that wasn’t just for show. You were shit-scared for his life, at that moment, and you don’t feel that way unless you actually care.”

Snape was still glaring at him, but there was a different edge to it now, something frail, something breakable. “Stop,” he said tightly.

“No, I bloody damn well won’t,” Harry said, not ungently. “Because this is the other side of the coin, and I know it’s the one you can’t wrap your head around, but so help me God, I’ll ram it in there with a truck, if I have to. There are people out there who care about you, too, other than me. Malfoy is one of them, I know that for sure. He attacked me, you know, when I mentioned your name -- don’t worry, I didn’t say anything to let on you’re alive, and he didn’t hurt me. But he flew into a blinding rage, when he thought I was taking your name in vain. He’s grieving. Over six months after the fact, and he’s grieving as if it happened just yesterday.”

Snape’s gaze fell to the workbench. His fingernails were digging into the wood, Harry saw from across the room.

“Professor McGonagall’s another one that springs to mind. She came to your funeral. She hid it pretty well, but she cried. I’m sure she’s got all sorts of regrets stored up, about the way it all ended. There’s bound to be more, as well. I haven’t been running around polling people on their opinion of you, because it wouldn’t exactly be unobtrusive, but there’s people out there who consider you worthwhile, people who consider you a friend. Heaps more who could, if you gave them the chance.”

Snape’s laugh sounded suspiciously like Malfoy’s. “And infinite numbers more who consider me a stain upon society, I have no doubt. What do you suggest, that I swan back into the Wizarding World, and it will welcome me with open arms? Even you can’t be that naive. I still killed Albus Dumbledore. I allowed students under my care to be tortured.”

Harry’s mouth twisted, a sharp ache spreading throughout him at the reminder. He didn’t know how Snape had done it and somehow not lost it. He would never have been able to do the same.

“They gave you a posthumous Order of Merlin, you know,” he said. “They recognised that you did it for the right reasons, ultimately.”

“Yes, I do read the papers. I am also aware that public opinion is as fickle as a teenage crush. It’s one thing to romanticise acts of war on behalf of your side when the perpetrator is sadly deceased. It’s a whole different matter altogether to suddenly have him living openly amidst your closest and dearest. The Ministry and the Wizengamot bend with the will of the people, make no mistake about it.”

Harry sighed. “Kingsley just got into office, so I wouldn’t bet my life on it,” he said. “Some of the sentencing has been surprisingly lenient. The Malfoys are still free, if penniless and severely restricted in their use of magic, except Draco. But yes, you’re right, it might well not be smooth sailing. You’ve got enough proof on your side, though, between memories and oaths under Veritaserum and people who are respected willing to testify for you, should it come to that. And I get why you don’t want to go through all that again, but you won’t be alone, this time. I’ll be beside you every step of the way, and in the event that it all goes tits up, we can still... elope to Argentina, or something. I’m not letting them cart you off to Azkaban, if that’s what you’re worried about. We can take it in stages, we don’t have to sort it all out at once.”

Snape’s shoulders slumped. “I’m not ready,” he said roughly, still staring firmly at the wood under his fingers. At least they were no longer digging into it as desperately. “It’s... I’m not ready.”

Harry walked over to him, grasping his hands in between his own. “Okay,” he said. “If you need time, then I get that. You deserve it, and it’s not like I can force you to do anything. Just... just promise me you’ll think about it?”

Snape snorted, sounding a little more like his normal self. “It isn’t as though the thought hasn’t occurred to me prior to this,” he said, drawing his hands from Harry’s grasp to resume his chopping. “I am well aware that the... change in the status of our association rather changes the game somewhat. At the very least, you cannot keep lying to your friends indefinitely. Even if it didn’t go so completely against your nature, it would prove damnably inconvenient in the long run.”

Change in the status of our association, that was even better than thing. Harry couldn’t help but grin stupidly.

“You can call it a relationship, you know,” he pointed out. “It’s not going to disappear suddenly because you do. And I missed you over the holidays, too.”

Snape scowled. Thunderously. Harry grinned some more, both because the reaction was so very him, and because it confirmed that he’d got it spot on. Learning Snape was a bit like what he imagined immersing oneself in a foreign country to learn its language must be like; utterly bewildering and terrifying at first, but once you’d got the knack of it, it came easy and without much conscious thought.

“Did I ever tell you that I was present at Draco’s birth?” Snape asked after a moment.

Harry was too fascinated to care much about the obvious deflection the statement presented. “No,” he said, with undisguised amazement. “You were that close to them then, at the time?”

Snape scoffed. “Not bloody likely. I happened to be invited for dinner, when Narcissa went into labour two weeks prematurely, during dessert. I attempted to make my excuses, naturally, but it rapidly became obvious that it was going to be an extremely swift birth. She couldn’t travel and the mediwizard was never going to get there in time. Lucius was falling apart rather spectacularly, and somebody had to take charge of the situation, for the poor woman’s sake.”

Harry tried to picture it, but his brain kept blurring on some of the details which were simply too far outside the realm of his experience. Other aspects were blindingly bright, however; Lucius tugging his perfect hair out of shape as he stared helplessly at Narcissa; Snape shouldering him aside with an unimpressed glare. “That must have been... something.”

This time, Snape’s snort came close to an outright laugh. This close on the heels of their previous conversation, Harry considered it nothing short of a miracle. “It rather was. I will never forget the look on Lucius’ face when I told his wife to spread her legs.”

Harry burst out laughing himself. “Oh God,” he gasped. “That’s beautiful. I mean, as long as it didn’t offend her, obviously.”

Snape smiled a little. “She wasn’t overly concerned with such matters at the time, I believe.”

No, she probably wouldn’t have been. “What... what was it like?” Harry asked. “I mean, the actual birth part. The delivery.”

Snape made a face. “Messy,” he said. “Extremely painful, to judge by the noises she made.”

He made it sound like he’d hated it, his features transmitting only disgust, but there was something else, too, something less superficial etched in the lines of his mouth, around his eyes.

“You loved it,” Harry accused. “From the bottom of your black little heart, you loved the whole thing.”

Snape sighed, but he didn’t object. “The way Narcissa looked at Draco, when I handed him over, it was... extremely humbling to witness. Suffice to say, I wasn’t in the least surprised to find out she betrayed the Dark Lord for his sake. She always did love him more than...” he broke off, shaking his head.

Harry revised his opinion. Undoubtedly Snape had cherished the experience, but it also must have been immensely painful for someone like him, all at the same time. Was anything ever simple about him? Harry suspected not.

“Regardless,” Snape continued. “She and Lucius fought like cats and dogs for several weeks, arguing over whether I would make a suitable godfather.” He snorted, as though the idea was still preposterous to him. “Lucius objected vociferously on account of my lineage, of course. In the end, they settled for a compromise, in that I never received any official titles, but Narcissa insisted that I become actively involved in Draco’s life. I was not in the least bit thrilled with this unexpected development, naturally, but I was hardly in a position to refuse such favours from them, of all people.” He shook his head. “I never intended to do more than fulfil my social obligations, but the brat somehow trampled his way into my affections with all the subtlety of an elephant, when I wasn’t paying attention.”

Harry couldn’t help but smile a little. “Yeah,” he said. “Us brats tend to do that at times.”

Snape froze in his chopping to send him a deeply horrified look. “Please do not point out our age differential ever again, and definitely not in this context. It is a deeply distressing concept at the best of times. I avoid thinking about it at all costs, for the sake of what little sanity I have remaining.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Harry resisted the urge to slam his forehead into the countertop. But hey, at least Snape had felt free to call him openly on it, right? He’d never done that before; it had to signify some sort of progress.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was impressively dumb, even for me. I didn’t mean that at all the way it sounded.” He took a deep breath. “I’m not Draco, you know.”

“No,” Snape said, still glaring at him. “You are most decidedly not.”

He grabbed a handful of chopped whatever -- Harry still didn’t care what it was, it wasn’t a night for it -- and weighed it out carefully, before dropping the pieces one by one into his cauldron, stirring counter-clockwise. Harry watched him silently for a while.

Finally, Snape sighed minutely. “He isn’t doing well, is he?” he asked, as though he already knew the answer.

Harry frowned with the memory. “No,” he said. “No, he looked like hell, frankly. He never out and out confirmed it, but I’m dead certain he was there because Professor McGonagall’s worried he’s going to drop out of his studies.” He sighed himself, scratching absent-mindedly at a stain on the bench. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a desperate hope to cling to, but perhaps some of what I said to him will sink in, no matter how much he didn’t appreciate hearing it at the time. Who knows.”

“Which was?”

“Well I... I pretty much told him that just because something’s hard --” he smiled a little, unable to help himself -- “that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Told him that if one door slams closed, another one opens somewhere, you just have to keep looking for it. I said that you wouldn’t have wanted this for him, that you wouldn’t have wanted him to just lie down and give up, just because the world’s out to get him right now. That you would have told him to stick it to them, and prove them all wrong by showing that he’s much better than anyone ever gave him credit for.”

When he glanced up, Snape was no longer looking inside his cauldron, but staring directly at Harry.

“It is immensely disconcerting when you do that, you know,” he said.

“When I do what? Know what you’re thinking? Say what you would have said, if you’d been there?”

“Yes,” Snape said. “That.”

Harry smiled at him with unabashed fondness. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Half the time I haven’t the faintest idea of what goes on up in that head of yours. Especially when you’re reading convoluted treatises on magical theory or whatever else strikes your intellectual fancy that week.”

Snape snorted and went back to his brewing.

“How’s that book I gave you, anyway?” Harry asked. “You know, the one on Brownian motion, or whatever it was. Any good?”

“It is compelling in places. The theories he posits are dreadfully flawed in certain areas, but that was rather to be expected. Truly incisive rational thought is a quality much in want, even in highly literate circles. Sometimes, especially so.”

I love you, Harry thought fiercely, for no particular reason. He didn’t say it. “See,” he pointed out gently, instead, “there’s another reason to rejoin the masses for you. You could delve into academic discourse with your red quill drawn, and go on a rampage. You could write scathing letters to the editors of potions magazines. You’d have an absolute blast, I’m sure of it. Bound to be infinitely more satisfying than first year essays.”

“Oh do be quiet,” Snape said, but it lacked any heat. He stayed silent for the remainder of time it took to finish his potion, and Harry watched him contemplatively, wondering if Snape was at all thinking about taking some of his own advice, for a change.

One could only hope.

---

Harry awoke in the middle of the night. He felt strangely cold; when he slung his arm drowsily towards Snape’s side of the bed to pull him close, his hand met only only the cool linen of a pillow. He blinked fuzzily in the dim illumination of the fireplace, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to his mind. Why wasn’t Snape asleep? He couldn’t quite figure out what had woken him, either -- definitely not a nightmare, no, not that.

It took several long moments for the faint sound filtering through the door to register properly. He stumbled out of bed, trying to place it as he opened the door. Was that music?

It was. The soft strains of a guitar echoed up towards him, dulled by the wood of the living room door. Harry crept down the stairs silently, carefully. He couldn’t make out the words, or at least not until he turned the doorknob gently, as stealthily as possible, pushing the door open slowly.

It creaked slightly on its hinges, but the sound was swallowed by the voice of the singer.

Did they get you to trade, he queried plaintively, your heroes for ghosts?

The music was coming from what appeared to be a Muggle record player, a battered-looking old thing standing in front of a bookshelf. Snape was sitting on the floor before it, knees pressed to his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs as tightly as the black dressing gown wrapped around his form. He looked lost, somehow, small huddled up on the floor like this.

Harry stepped into the room without a moment’s hesitation.

Cold comfort for change? the vocals accompanied him as he made his way over to Snape, Did you exchange, as he sunk to the floor beside him, a walk on part in the war... for a lead role in a cage?

Harry’s mouth twisted a little, the words striking a chord deep inside him, resonating with perfect clarity. Snape didn’t react to his presence immediately, his eyes fixed to the spinning black disk, the needle running along its tracks. His face was a study in impassivity, utterly devoid of anything. Harry knew him well enough by now not to be fooled, though, to know that it signified a churning mass of emotion hidden underneath, somewhere.

A guitar solo picked up, a delicate, mournful melody. It sent shivers down Harry’s spine; he hugged his legs to his chest much like Snape was doing.

“Your mother used to love this song,” Snape said, so softly that Harry could barely hear him over the music. “I haven’t been able to listen to it since... since she died.”

Harry didn’t have time to contemplate that, before the guitar gained strength and urgency, sweeping him up in the tune and away from his thoughts. How I wish, how I wish you were here, the singer exclaimed, and Snape’s eyes slid closed with the words. We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground. What have we found? The same old fears. Wish you were here.

Harry’s heart ached inside his chest, a dull, throbbing sort of pain. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what Snape must be feeling. Gutted probably didn’t come close, but it was the best estimation he could come up with.

“Do you... do you still miss her?” he asked, into the backdrop of the solitary guitar.

Snape made a choked sound, caught somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “All the damn time,” he said, as though the admission had lain silent inside him too long, dying to get free. “All the damn time.”

Harry reached over, prying Snape’s fingers loose from his leg to intertwine them with his own. Snape’s eyes opened; he stared at their merged hands. “And then I wonder,” he said, “whether I merely miss... the part of myself that I left with her. And it feels like I’m besmirching her memory.”

Harry rubbed his thumb over Snape’s hand. He couldn’t have said what he felt, in that moment. It wasn’t quite sympathy, nor empathy, and yet it was both, was so much more besides. It was a strange, layered thing, dark and bright at the same time, and hideously, hideously complicated.

“I don’t think...” he began. “I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think anything ever is, frankly.” He sighed, thinking of the memories Snape had given him for Christmas, those new glimpses he’d gained of their relationship. “I don’t think she’d have begrudged you that, had she known,” he said. “No matter how it all ended, she did love you, you know.”

“She did,” Snape echoed, as though he wasn’t quite certain whether to make it a question or a statement.

Harry gripped his hand tightly. “She did,” he said, without a doubt in his mind.

The song had trailed off in the background, the whistling echoes it ended on giving way to a more up-tempo, but no less yearning tune. Snape unfroze from his position and lifted the needle from the record, then replaced it, with infinite care, in its protective sleeve. He stared at the album cover for a very long time; the burning man shaking hands with his mirror image.

Harry brushed the back of his knuckles against Snape’s neck as he rose to his feet. “Come to bed,” he said gently.

Snape gazed up at him. “Yes,” he agreed, setting the record aside.

They fell asleep with their limbs in a tangled mess.

---

Snape was already three fingers deep into him, when Harry could no longer restrain the urge.

“Could you...” he rasped. “Would you... oh God, could you... if you want to, that is...”

Snape’s head rose from Harry’s chest. “What?”

Harry didn’t bother to try and unravel whether he was genuinely missing the obvious, or simply stalling for time. He had neither the energy nor enough coherent thought.

“Fuck me,” he breathed.

Snape stared down at him, his lips parting. He stared for so long that it was starting to feel a little weird, with his fingers still all up inside Harry. He squirmed a little beneath him. This turned out to be a mistake; the motion brought the tips of Snape’s fingers in contact with his prostate, sparking heat all the way through him. Harry couldn’t hold back a moan, his head pressing back against the pillow.

Snape watched him through it as though mesmerised, before slowly withdrawing his fingers.

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “If you don’t want to, that’s cool. We can just --”

Snape shut him up with a kiss.

“I... yes,” he said, when they resurfaced. “Yes... I... yes.”

Well. Three yeses, it couldn’t get much more definite than that. Harry smiled up at him with a certainty he no longer quite felt. “I think I’m pretty much ready to go.”

Snape frowned. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t --”

He broke off when Harry guided his fingers unerringly back into their previous position, pushing them steadily inside. His eyes widened a fraction when he slid one of his own fingers alongside Snape’s. The stretch was a tight one, but unbearably delicious one, too, thrumming tension all the way through him.

“See?” It was a challenge to keep his voice even; Harry didn’t fully manage it. “No pain.” He bit his lip. “Fuck, really, really no pain.”

This time, Snape’s fingers slid from him with obvious reluctance. They brushed against the curve of Harry’s hip, still lube-slick; the touch reverberated down to his groin.

“Do you need to...” Snape began. “Is this going to be easier if you --” His hand made an aborted motion that signified turning over.

Harry stamped down the bitter suspicion with all the might he could muster. It had no place here, not like this, not in this moment. “This should be fine,” he said, infusing his words with a confidence he didn’t entirely feel. He’d never actually done this, himself, but the logistics shouldn’t be that hard to work out, right? He was pretty damn limber, and he wanted them face to face for this.

Fuck want. He needed them face to face for this.

When Snape’s hand reached for the jar of lube, Harry pushed it gently aside. “Let me,” he said, slicking his hand before reaching between them. Snape’s cock was encouragingly firm in his grasp when Harry took hold of it, his hips twisting instinctively forward when Harry thumbed the underside of the head. He took his time, stroking Snape until his eyes fell closed, until his arm seemed just a little less steady, where it held him up beside Harry’s chest.

“All right?” he murmured, when he withdrew.

Snape nodded tightly.

There was a bit of an awkward muddle of limbs, before they managed to find the right position. Harry shifted his hips, and on second thought, grabbed a pillow to stuff beneath him; Snape watched him with a helpless sort of fascination. Harry guided him into place, and then Snape was sinking into him, with an agonising slowness that burned through every part of his body.

Harry wrapped his arms around him, his hands coming to rest against Snape’s back. The muscles beneath his hands were tense, Snape’s whole body pulled tight as a bowstring, trembling finely all over. Their eyes held each other throughout.

“You all right?” Harry asked, when Snape finally stilled, all the way inside him.

Snape attempted a glare, but it failed rather spectacularly. “Stop asking me that,” he bit out. “I’m fine.” He balanced himself more securely on his forearms either side of Harry’s head, shifting the tiniest bit. The motion brushed the tip of his cock against Harry’s prostate, causing Harry to emit a noise that sounded suspiciously like a whimper. Contrary to his protestations, Snape promptly froze. “I’m not... I’m not hurting you, am I?”

Harry swallowed a near-hysterical laugh. “Trust me,” he said thickly. “You’re really, really not.”

Snape relaxed notably. “I do,” he murmured, one hand skirting over the pillow to slide into Harry’s hair. Harry’s heart swelled about ten times inside his chest with the words, his ribcage expanding with a sharply drawn breath. Before he could come up with a response, though, Snape was already kissing him, licking deep into his mouth. He kissed Harry as though he wanted to devour him, as though his life depended on the connection, as though he could never, ever stop, and Harry was more than content to just lie there and accept it. Partway through, Snape finally began to move, tiny, hesitant tilts of his hips, so tightly controlled that Harry could feel the strain of it all the way up in Snape’s shoulders.

He let his hand slide down Snape’s back, grasping ahold of him, guiding him through the movements, encouraging each slide to grow longer, deeper, firmer. It was slow, so impossibly slow when his body was crying out for speed and force, but it was also perfect like this, so enmeshed, just a little awkward, so honest. Every part of him felt lit on fire, a gradual burn unravelling him from the inside out, bit by bit, piece by piece.

“Good?” he managed, somehow, when they finally broke for air.

“You have... no idea,” Snape rasped. He looked absolutely unhinged, his eyes wild and wide, a strand of dark hair clinging to his temple. Harry brushed it out of his face, tucking it behind his ear; when he smoothed his hand down the curve of Snape’s cheek, he turned into the touch as if on instinct, as though he belonged there, pressed close against Harry’s skin.

Harry couldn’t have found words for the pressure that threatened to burst him wide open, clean through the middle, although the knowledge of it sang through his blood like a mantra, filling him up and dragging him under as surely as the heat of Snape inside him. In the absence of speech, he slung a leg over the body above him, pulling Snape sharply against him on the next thrust.

Snape made a sound like he was dying, his head falling to the curve of Harry’s neck. It was such a raw, unchecked note that Harry needed to hear it again, right fucking now, so he dug in the heel of his foot, and again, and again, until Snape flowed with the motion as though he were water, his hips jerking helplessly forward. Harry arched his back and met him on every downstroke, gasping in air that smelled of musk and Snape and sex; soon, they were one moulded tangle of limbs, pushing and pulling and meeting in time. Harry’s cock was a line of fire where it pressed between their bodies, screaming for friction, but he ignored it. He wanted come like this, just like this, and anyway, the moment he laid a hand on himself it would be over, and he wasn’t ready for that, not yet, not quite yet.

Snape’s skin grew slick to the touch, hot all over, his moans increasingly desperate. He was never this loud, usually, but even as Harry relished each noise he could feel Snape was holding back, clinging tightly to the shredded remainders of his control. It was there, in the shivers that raced through his back, in the trembling of his thighs, in the hold of his hand in Harry’s hair, so tight that it might have been painful, had Harry not been so close.

“‘S okay,” he slurred, somehow, half-drunk on pleasure, trailing his fingers down the length of Snape’s spine. “I’ve got you, I’m here, let go, let go.”

Snape thrust into him once, twice, and then he broke; all around him, inside him. Harry felt it, such sweet sharpness that whatever frail threads had held him together spun into nothingness between the instant of knowing and the next, and fuck, he was coming, so hard that it hurt but so good, so good, and it wasn’t stopping either, it just went on and on and on...

The first breath he drew was a shaky, tremulous thing, not helped by the fact that Snape was a dead weight against his chest. His heart galloped insanely behind his ribs; when he traced his fingertips over the side of Snape’s neck, his pulse echoed his own. Snape shuddered weakly beneath the touch, but he didn’t move, didn’t shift an inch.

Perhaps they could just stay here like this for the rest of all time. Harry was more than okay with that notion.

His legs, it turned out, once sensation began to return to him, were less agreeable. His thighs burned with the unaccustomed strain of this position, and so Harry let them slide down from Snape’s back, shifting beneath him. Snape withdrew immediately, if slowly, as though he couldn’t quite get his limbs to cooperate. Harry sighed a little when his cock slipped out of him, feeling strangely bereft.

Snape’s knuckles brushed over his cheek when he went; Harry was surprised to notice that they came away wet. For a split second Snape looked just as bewildered as he himself felt, and Harry smiled helplessly up at him in fear of it being misunderstood, his lips seemingly incapable of forming sound.

But Snape didn’t look scared, or guilty -- no, nothing of the sort. He looked... actually, Harry hadn’t the faintest idea. Months after months of studying the subtlest quirk to his mouth, the slightest shift of the lines of his face, and Harry had never seen anything remotely like the expression Snape was currently wearing.

“Excuse me,” Snape whispered, and then he rolled out of bed.

Harry watched the door swing on its hinges in his wake. He didn’t feel rejected, not for one moment, felt only a terrible, wrenching uncertainty, the horrible fear that he’d made a dreadful mistake in asking for this, that he’d gone too far. Should he leave Snape alone? Perhaps it would be better to give him some peace, but no, he couldn’t possibly, not if there was even the slightest chance that he might have misinterpreted Harry’s tears, something he couldn’t rule out.

He hastily threw on his clothes, and padded downstairs on bare feet. The front door stood ajar; Snape was perched on the stone steps, naked as the day he was born, arms wrapped around his legs. The night air was biting, though the last of the snow had disappeared some time ago. Harry shivered just looking at him.

“Jesus,” he said. “You’re going to catch your death out here like this.”

“I’m not cold,” Snape said, but he didn’t protest when Harry grabbed a pillow and the blanket from the lounge, just let himself be shifted mutely as Harry stuffed the former beneath him and wrapped the heavy wool around his form.

Harry sank down to the step beside him. “I didn’t cry because you hurt me, you know,” he said. “It was nothing like that.”

“I know.”

Harry stared at him helplessly. Snape rubbed a hand over his face; it was somehow the most vulnerable gesture Harry had ever witnessed. “I’m sorry,” Snape said. “This is ridiculous, you shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of nonsense.”

“It’s fine,” Harry said. “It’s okay, really.”

Snape shook his head, and he looked lost again, so lost. “It isn’t, though,” he said. Harry was about to protest, when he added, in the barest of whispers, “It wasn’t. It wasn’t okay at all.”

Harry lifted a hand to reach out, withdrew, then reached out again, then hovered, torn sideways and twisted, unsure. In the end, he brushed his palm faintly against Snape’s hair, the slightest contact imaginable.

It turned out to be the right thing. Or, at the very least, not the wrong thing, because Snape leaned into the touch, and then a little more, and then he buried his face against Harry’s chest as though it was the only safe place, the only safe place in the world. Harry wrapped his arms around him and held him, because it was the only thing that he could do, even if it wasn’t nearly, nowhere close to enough.

It took him surprisingly long to realise Snape was crying, given how close they were at that moment. He didn’t cry like Harry had ever seen anyone cry before, no shuddering, gasping breaths and messy outbursts of emotion. He cried utterly silently, only the slightest hitch in his breathing giving him away, the dampness that seeped through Harry’s shirt. He cried as though he never had done, or maybe like he’d forgotten, at some point, and never regained the knowledge and Harry felt sharply, all of a sudden, that that was right, that he hadn’t, in years, not since Lily died, in far, far too long. That Snape had taken his tears, every single last one of them, had thrown them into rage and bitterness and iron shields of control, that maybe, this right here didn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

Snape was whispering something, in between breaths, a phrase repeated like a mantra. It took Harry several long moments to work it out, almost as long again to make sense of it. He was so young, Snape was saying, and it didn’t seem to make any sense that he would talk of himself in the third person, until Harry remembered something he’d read and it clicked into place. It explained other things, too -- how calm he had been, when he had first told Harry, how utterly unaffected he had seemed. How far he’d fought to remove himself from it, although in all the crucial ways, it had never left him.

“Yes,” Harry said, stroking Snape’s hair, “you were.” And, after a beat, “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

Snape did shudder against him, then, a bone deep tremor that ran all the way through him. And Harry wondered, if maybe for the first time in his life, if only for the fraction of an instant, Snape actually believed it, too.

---

“I lied to you, by the way,” Snape said to him out of nowhere one morning.

Harry frowned as he drew the scones from the oven and cast a quick cooling charm over them. He wasn’t sure what threw him more: the non-sequitur itself, or the fact that Snape had made it whilst he was still only halfway into his first cup of coffee. He hadn’t been kidding when he had first told Harry -- what felt like ages ago, now -- not to speak to him until he’d had his morning dose of caffeine. Occasionally Harry broke that rule, nowadays, but Snape never spoke until he’d at least taken a sip of his second helping of his unsweetened, industrial-strength wake-up call.

Clearly this was important enough, though, for him to break the pattern. Harry shot him a quizzical look.

“When I said that I had never told anyone else.” Snape gazed contemplatively into his cup. “Well, technically it wasn’t a lie so much as an omission. I never did speak to him about it, at any point.”

Harry’s mind scrambled around several wild guesses, pointedly ignoring the one that he suspected most strongly. “Who?”

Snape took a sip of his coffee. “The Dark Lord, naturally,” he said, his voice remaining even. Mostly. “After he returned. It was a tactical masterstroke, really. What Legilimens would doubt that he had full and unhindered access to somebody’s thoughts, if they were allowed to see the one thing that person was clearly most desperate to conceal? My position was extremely shaky before; I don’t think he questioned my loyalty much at all, after. No matter how hard Bella tried to convince him of the error of his ways.” The corner of his mouth quirked upwards, humourlessly.

Harry, who had been transferring the scones to a plate, now stood frozen, the very existence of breakfast completely forgotten. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it, Snape trotting out glimpses into his past as though this kind of shit were normal.

Probably not. Didn’t mean he’d ever stop listening, though.

“That’s horrible,” he said, after a long moment’s silence.

Snape shrugged eloquently, a hint of something like embarrassment seeping through. “It was necessary,” he said. “In a way, it was just another in a long line of transgressions. Compared to certain other things, it barely even registers.”

Harry nodded his silent agreement, dumping clotted cream into a serving dish. “I’m still bloody glad I killed the damn bastard, though,” he said with a vicious sense of satisfaction.

Snape toasted him with his coffee cup. It was a weird gesture on him, especially coming with a genuine smile, as it did. “You have my undying gratitude, I am sure.” Even Snape’s inflection didn’t manage to turn the statement into anything close to sarcastic. He took another sip of his coffee before setting the cup aside, rubbing his hand over the inside of his left arm through his robes. “It’s growing fainter by the day,” he said.

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “I noticed.”

Snape didn’t respond, as though he had approached his limit for introspective conversation for one morning. He did grab a scone when Harry carried them over, however, even if he sneered at it rather contemptuously.

“Scones and clotted cream are for high tea, you do realise,” he said. “It is positively indecent, to start the day with such a degree of indulgence.”

“Says who?” Harry said. “I’ll have scones for breakfast if I bloody damn well please. I’ll have porridge for dinner, too, if I happen to fancy it, and dessert before the main course. And coffee at midnight.”

Snape cut his scone into two perfect halves. “Not if you want to sleep in my bed, you won’t,” he said. “You already kick me enough, as it is.”

“I do not!”

And you snore.”

“I -- you hog the covers,” Harry said, with a triumphant grin.

Snape glared at him. Harry slathered his -- fully intact -- scone thickly with cream and jam and bit into it with relish, grinning some more for good measure. Snape kept glaring, but the effect was rather ruined by the helpless twitch of his mouth.

Harry hoped he’d never grow used to Snape’s smiles; every time he managed to elicit one, it felt a little like a miniature sunrise inside him.

They ate in silence for a while. When Snape had finished his coffee, he cleared his throat, as though he was working up to something. “I have considered your proposition,” he said.

Harry stared at him blankly.

“About my much fabled return to the quagmire of the public eye?” Snape said. “Honestly, it wasn’t so long ago that you insisted it was the cure to all ills.”

Harry considered protesting -- he had done nothing of the sort, and Snape knew it -- but in the end he settled for the middle ground of a fondly exasperated look. Hopefully it would get the message across without adding unnecessarily to Snape’s tension.

It failed to achieve the desired effect. Snape brushed crumbs around his plate with his knife for a while, arranging them into complex geometrical patterns. Harry waited, determined to be patient, even though he was thrumming with nervous anticipation himself.

“Blast it!” Snape said. “Are you actually going to make me say it?”

“Hey,” Harry said. “I’m not trying to make you do anything. I’m mostly trying not to make assumptions you might consider presumptuous, is all.”

“The rest of your wretched Gryffindor triangle,” Snape snapped. “Invite them. In case that wasn’t obvious enough for you, yes, I am referring to that braindead Weasley and the insufferable know-it-all.”

Harry was momentarily too bowled over with delight to react to the insult. “Really?”

“Did I say it in Mermish? Weasley. Granger. Bring them here; I’ve already adjusted the Unplottability of the place. If the damnable exercise ends in bloodshed, I will absolutely refuse to be held responsible.”

Harry shot him a shrewd look. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, a teasing note creeping into his voice. “We can work a little on appropriate ways to address them in the first instance, don’t you think?”

Snape buried his face in his hands as though he already regretted the decision.

---

It was a beautiful spring afternoon when Harry walked out of Hogwarts’ grounds, Ron and Hermione firmly in tow. The sun was shining brightly with the first warm rays of the year; the birds were chirping in the trees; flowers were blooming by the side of the path in bright shocks of colour everywhere.

So why were his palms clammy with sweat, his heart-rate just a notch higher than he liked?

It wasn’t as if he didn’t trust Ron and Hermione, or Snape, for that matter, at least not individually. He just wasn’t sure he trusted them together, to get on with each other in the way he desperately, desperately needed them to.

“You know, Harry,” Hermione said from beside him. “This is honestly a little weird, all this cloak and dagger stuff, dragging us off somewhere without giving us the slightest hint as to what it’s about.”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “Come on, you can’t tell us anything? Prepare us, or something?”

Harry came to a stop as he felt the wards slip away past him. “You’ll see in a minute anyway,” he said, for what felt like the billionth time. “It’s nothing bad, really.” He took a deep breath as he held out his arms on either side of him. Hopefully he’d not mess up Apparating; he’d never Side-Alonged two people at once before.

Ron and Hermione grabbed onto him and waited. When a long moment had slid by, and they were still in the same place, Hermione gazed at him rather expectantly. “Well?”

Harry took another deep breath. “Just... just promise you won’t get too angry, yeah?” he said, and then, before he could convince himself otherwise, he focused his mind and drew them away.

“Why would we get...” Ron began, as soon as they blinked into existence, only to trail off on a gasp.

But Harry didn’t care much about that, barely even listened, because Hermione dropped his arm as if scalded the very same moment. She inhaled sharply when he turned towards her, her eyes closing then opening in one slow blink. In the next instant, she was already moving, striding, no, flying towards the cottage, the ground swallowed swiftly beneath her feet. “You!” she said, voice trembling as she approached Snape, who stood in front of the cottage with his arms crossed squarely over of his chest. “You complete and utter bastard, you unmitigated son of a bitch! You made me think Harry was crazy!”

She ground to a halt in front of Snape, and promptly followed the last word with a decisive slap to his cheek. Harry’s eyes widened in alarm as he raced towards them, but Snape was quicker than her when she swung anew, grabbing her wrists firmly with both hands.

“Kindly desist from assaulting my person, Miss Granger,” he said. “I can assure you, Potter had already gone well off the rails before I ever entered the picture.”

They wore matching glares, when Harry reached them. It was a little bit creepy. “He’s right, Hermione,” he said. His lips quirked wryly. “And he did kind of put me back together again, you know.”

“Oh do cease your fanciful melodrama,” Snape ground out through clenched teeth, not bothering to look at Harry. “I did nothing of the sort.”

Hermione, however, had stopped struggling against Snape’s grip with Harry’s words, and as if Snape’s denial of them was the last bit of proof she needed, finally dropped her hands completely. Snape let go of her; she squared her shoulders, her chin jutting forward defiantly. “Well,” she said, still glaring, “I suppose I ought to thank you for that, then. He could use all the help he could get, at the time.”

Snape sneered. Hermione turned her glare towards Harry, although it was more exasperated than properly angry now. “I can’t believe that you didn’t tell me. You just let me believe that you’d dreamt it, all this time!”

Harry cringed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to lie to you, I honestly didn’t. But I kind of had my reasons.”

“Yes, I can see that.” She crossed her arms, and went back to glaring at Snape. Something in her gaze turned speculative, but before Harry could examine it too closely, Ron’s voice piped up beside them.

“Bloody hell,” he said, as though he was still grasping for coherent thought. “Snape, you’re... alive.”

Snape’s jaw clenched. “Yes, Weasley,” he said. “How very kind of you to finally join the rest of us. Do you require another moment, perhaps, to wrap what little brains you possess around the fact that my being alive means that I didn’t actually die in the first place?”

Harry shot him an admonishing look. Snape pretended not to notice it, but Hermione’s eyes narrowed a little at the sight. She didn’t comment on it, though. “Yes,” she said instead. “How did you manage that, by the way? I’d quite like to know. Amongst a whole host of other things, of course.”

“Why don’t we head inside?” Harry suggested. “We can all sit down, and I’ll make us some tea. Sound good?”

Brilliant,” Snape muttered. “Feel free to offer your friends the use of my home, my groceries, and my bloody bank account, whilst you’re at it. It’s not as though any of them belong to me.”

Harry resisted the urge to elbow him lightly in the side as they made their way through the door. As much as he got the feeling that Hermione wouldn’t have been overly shocked, he really didn’t want to give Ron a heart attack, either.

---

“So...” Ron began, a fair while later. He was perched against the counter in the kitchen area next to Harry, both of them idly watching the spectacle taking place across the room. Somehow, as soon as the questions and explanations were out of the way -- the issue of Harry disappearing overnight having, miraculously, not come up once -- Hermione and Snape had managed to get into a debate about the fundamental laws governing magic. Or something of that ilk; Harry had lost track of the conversation rather quickly, as, he suspected, had Ron. Right at this moment, both of them might just as well not exist as far as the other occupants of the room were concerned. Hermione was standing her ground pretty impressively, it had to be said, with Snape snarking and sniping at her at every turn, navigating his way around her arguments like quicksilver.

Harry had to smile a little at the thought. He knew he’d been right; Snape had missed delving into the finer points of some totally obscure corner of theoretical knowledge.

“Hmm?” he prompted Ron, when he didn’t follow up on his opening. Harry probably ought to be paying more attention to him, really, but it was difficult when Snape looked so... animated, just a few feet away. It might have made him jealous, had he not known better.

“So,” Ron said, shooting him a rather quizzical glance. “Thing is, Hermione developed a whole bunch of theories over the year, what with you taking off all the time, especially overnight. One of them was that you were... that there was, you know, someone.” He paused for a moment. “But that one was obviously wrong, right? I mean, you couldn’t possibly, not with...”

Harry bit his lip. For the flash of a second, he considered denying it, simply because he was more afraid of the potential reaction than was entirely reasonable. But no, screw that, screw it sideways; they’d have to accept it eventually, one way or the other. For some reason, though, saying the actual words seemed an impossibility, which was mildly hilarious, given how recently he’d mocked Snape for not calling it a relationship.

His silence did the talking for him, regardless.

“Oh bloody hell,” Ron said, a look of horror spreading across his face. “I wish I hadn’t asked. That’s just... that’s... I mean, Snape, that’s just... eugh.” He shuddered.

Something twisted sharply inside Harry’s guts. It wasn’t a nice feeling. “Don’t,” he said tightly. “Please don’t, okay? I... I get that it’s a shock, trust me, I do. It probably looks weird as all hell from the outside, but it isn’t, not really. Just trust me on that.”

Ron seemed to take that in. He made an impressive effort at smoothing his features, Harry had to admit. “Okay,” he said slowly, after a long moment. “I think you’re utterly whacked, of course, but if it’s that important to you, then I suppose...” He studied Harry for a long moment. “He’s been good to you, over the last year, what with everything, yeah?”

Harry ducked his head, smiling a little. “Yeah,” he said, before looking back over across the room, where Snape was stabbing the air viciously with his finger whilst making a point. “Actually, I think we’re kind of good for each other.”

Ron made a face. “I absolutely cannot wrap my head around the idea of Snape being good with anyone,” he admitted. “But I guess if you’re... happy, then that’s all that matters.” He shook his head. “Fucking weird, though.”

Harry grinned, bumping his hip against Ron’s casually. “Thanks. Don’t worry, I understand that it’ll take some getting used to. I don’t expect you to become best mates, or anything.”

Ron looked utterly at a loss for words at that. A moment later, his face darkened. “He better not bloody hurt you, though,” he declared, with an undertone of hostility. “Like, I swear, if he’s just using you as a sure-fire ticket to get back to the Wizarding World without too much trouble, then I’ll --” he broke off when Harry dissolved into helpless laughter beside him.

“It’s nothing like that,” Harry said, between laughs. “Honestly, it’s not like that at all.”

Ron nodded faintly. “Right.” He scratched his ear, appearing still more dazed and confused than anything else. “Harry’s shagging Snape,” he said beneath his breath, as though trying to convince himself of the fact. “Snape’s shagging Harry -- Merlin, I’ll never get used to this!”

Harry grinned helplessly. “Give your brain some time to assimilate the concept. As revelations go, this one’s bound to profoundly alter some of your established notions of how the world works.”

Ron’s mouth fell open. “Now you’re officially freaking me out. You’re actually starting to sound like him, too.”

“Really?” Harry asked, smiling at the idea. “I hadn’t even noticed.”

---

“That didn’t go too badly,” Harry said when the door had finally closed behind his friends, leaving only him and Snape in the lounge. Hermione had given him a long, searching look when Harry had insisted on staying behind, but he wasn’t all that concerned about it. If she hadn’t already put two and two together -- which would require some sort of massive tear in the fabric of reality -- then Ron would undoubtedly tell her the instant they were out of hearing range. And if Ron had been willing to accept this, then Hermione was unlikely to kick up a fuss.

“My cheek begs to differ,” Snape said, picking up the detritus of used tea cups and carrying it over to the sink. “Miss Granger is stronger than her physique would suggest at first glance.”

Harry grinned, leaning up against the counter beside him. “I don’t know, the two of you seemed to get on pretty well there, near the end.”

“Her understanding of the seven pillars of magical equilibrium is fundamentally flawed. She needs to stop believing everything that she finds written in books, or she will never become capable of genuine academic discourse. The ability to recite memorised facts does not equate to critical thinking.”

“You do realise I don’t even know what the seven pillars of magical equilibrium are, right?”

“Evidently that's the reason I keep you around,” Snape said dryly. “The pathetic limits of your knowledge provide me with a delightful, not to mention wholly accurate sense of intellectual superiority.” He thrust a washed cup at Harry.

“Yeah, yeah,” Harry said as he took it and reached for a tea towel. “You keep telling yourself that. We both know you love me, really.” Snape glowered at him, but he didn’t protest. Harry focused on drying the dishes for a moment, if only so he could stop grinning like a loon before he spoke again. “Ron figured it out, by the way. Well, not so much figured it out as asked me a direct question which I couldn’t precisely lie about, but you know, same difference.”

Snape nodded. “And Miss Granger undoubtedly arrived at much the same conclusion the moment you attempted to manage my behaviour towards them with a spectacular lack of subtlety.”

Harry studied him intently for a moment. There was a certain amount of tension in Snape’s shoulders, just as there had been in his voice, but it was difficult to work out the precise degree of discomfort he was in. “Is that... all right with you?”

Snape’s mouth twisted. “That depends. Is Weasley already plotting my death in excruciating detail?”

“No,” Harry said. “No, he was pretty decent about it, actually. I mean, obviously it’s a bit of a shock --” Snape snorted -- “and he was a little suspicious of your motivations, but I managed to convince him that’s not an issue. He wants me to be happy, so he’ll accept it. I doubt Hermione’s going to view it much differently. If anything, she’ll probably have fewer hang-ups. She was never as dead set against you in the first place.”

“Well then,” Snape said. “It is clearly one of those inevitabilities to which I will simply have to submit. You’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve; it would require an exceptional depth of delusion to believe that the news of our... relationship --” he spat the word as though it were a curse -- “would not spread like wildfire.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The Prophet will undoubtedly run an expose, if they ever find out. I must be completely out of my mind.”

Harry ran his hand up the lines of Snape’s back with a firm touch that was hopefully at least a little reassuring. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, yeah?” he murmured, turning Snape towards him by the shoulder. “Thanks, by the way. I know that this isn’t easy.”

Snape made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. “Nothing about you is ever easy, Potter,” he said. “It appears to be your sole goal in life to drive me to distraction.”

“Hmm,” Harry acknowledged with a warm smile. “In all the best ways too, though, right?”

And before Snape could answer, he drew him down for a kiss.

---

Epilogue

A shock of platinum blond hair peered through the crack of the front door as it opened partially, startling the occupants of the room out of conversation. A split second later it vanished again, only to be replaced by a cultured drawl.

“Severus,” said Draco, “I hate to alarm you, but you appear to have an infestation.”

The door opened fully. Snape only shot them a cursory glance as he breezed into the cottage. “Yes,” he said, with a resigned sort of displeasure, dumping bags of groceries on the kitchen counters. “They have a tendency to do that. Mark my words, Draco: never open your door to a single Gryffindor in welcome. Not only will they refuse to leave you in peace ever again, they will swiftly proceed to drag in their wake neverending hordes of friends, acquaintances, and quite possibly pets. They congregate. I suspect it to be a genetically embedded flaw that is beyond redemption.”

“Hey,” Ron said, from where he was camped out in front of the fireplace. “Four Gryffindors does not a congregation make. And definitely not an infestation!”

Hermione sniggered into her tea cup; Professor McGonagall smiled. Snape chose not to deign Ron’s comment worthy of an answer. It was a good thing, Harry figured, that by now Ron probably didn’t expect him to.

He set his own cup down, and moved over to where Snape was unpacking groceries. “Did you get the --”

“Yes, I got your blasted avocados. And the chilis, and the limes. You can proceed to make your dubious dishes of indeterminate origin and poison us all with them.”

“Guacamole’s from Mexico, not indeterminate origin,” Harry pointed out helpfully. “And I haven’t poisoned you once in all the time you’ve been eating my food.”

“Yet,” Snape said. He was wearing Muggle clothes, having been in town -- old shopping habits died hard. Harry had discovered he liked them on him, or him in them, more like; his habit of tucking his shirts neatly in meant the smooth fabric of his slacks put the jut of his hipbones on display. Harry’s gaze fell on them inevitably; his hands rather wanted to follow.

Snape shot him a glare which informed him that he’d followed Harry’s train of thought precisely, and did not approve of it in the least. Harry gave him an exasperated look in return, before retreating to his place beside McGonagall on the sofa, firmly away from temptation. “How’s Penny doing?”

“Who’s Penny?” Draco asked from where he was perched awkwardly on the edge of the sofa. The awkwardness probably derived more from the company than anything else. “And what kind of name is Penny in the first place?” He sneered contemptuously.

“Penny is the Muggle proprietor of one of the market stalls,” Snape said, still putting away groceries. “She is well, if her incessant nattering is any indication. She asked after you.” He glanced at Harry, his lip curving downwards in obvious annoyance. “Or rather, she asked after my son. Heaven forbid that her outdated, pathetically limited perception of the realms of human experience ever be allowed to align with reality.”

Harry smiled into his tea cup. He knew he should be offended on some level, but Penny was pushing seventy and sweet despite her ignorance, and besides, it was frankly... adorable how defensive Snape got about the running misconception.

Apparently Harry wasn’t the only one to think so. “You know,” McGonagall said to him in a stage whisper, “you really have done wonders for his mood. The change in him is remarkable, I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t seeing it with my very own eyes.”

“Minerva!” Snape snapped from behind the counter. “I am right across the room! I can hear you perfectly well, you realise.”

“Naturally,” McGonagall said, turning around on the sofa to send a warm smile his way. “Now, Severus, it is hardly anything to be ashamed of. It is delightful to see you so happy for a change, just as I have always known you deserved.”

Snape shot her an ominous glare. “I need to change,” he bit out, before promptly stalking out of the room.

“You consider that an improvement?” Ron asked, once he was gone.

“I don’t know,” Hermione said. “He didn’t hex her for saying it, did he? Don’t think he would have let anyone get away with that when we were in school.”

“I assure you, compared to some of the staff meetings I have witnessed, this hardly registers,” McGonagall said.

“Oh man,” Harry said. “That must have been beautiful. What?” he added at Ron’s disbelieving look. “I like him when he’s snarky.”

“Ignore Weasley, Potter,” Draco said. “He doesn’t appreciate the finer things in life. Though I have to admit, as hilarious as it was to watch him thrash you three to bits in class, it wasn’t anywhere near as fun on the few occasions he had to break up House parties in Slytherin.” He made a face. “Damn effective, though.”

“You didn’t work out ways around that?” Hermione asked.

“With Snape?” Draco said. “No Granger, we’re the cunning House. The suicidal idiots, that’d be you.”

“Oi, that’s my girlfriend you’re talking to, there. Show some respect. Anyway, you’re clearly biased, and Harry definitely is. Come on, Hermione, back me up on this.”

Hermione stirred her tea unnecessarily. “I don’t know,” she said eventually. “I mean, it’s horrid when he decides to really lay into you, obviously, and I don’t think it was fair to do it to children at all. But it kind of... grows on you with time? Most of his insults do have a certain flair.”

Harry laughed at Ron’s betrayed expression, knowing full well that it didn’t go further than surface annoyance. As they began to bicker, he rose from his seat and snuck out of the room. He met Snape at the bottom of the stairs, wearing his customary robes once more. “There you are,” he said with a smile. “I was wondering how long you were going to hide up there.”

“I wasn’t hiding. I was merely changing.”

“Yeah, thanks for that, by the way.” Harry leaned back against the wall, drawing Snape towards him by the hips.

Snape’s eyes narrowed. “Potter, what are you doing?” he asked lowly. It wasn’t the best tone to use to discourage Harry, not remotely.

“Thought that was obvious. I missed you.”

“I was only gone for a few hours.”

“Yes,” Harry agreed, sliding a hand along Snape’s neck and into his hair. “But you rushed off in a hurry this morning, so I didn’t get to properly kiss you. And you came to bed late last night, when I was already asleep.”

Snape shifted a little, though not away. “I’m making progress on the Wolfsbane,” he said.

“I wasn’t complaining. Just saying.” He drew Snape down towards him.

“Harry,” Snape said, an inch from his lips, when they should by all rights be kissing already. “We are right --”

“...out of everyone’s sight. I won’t get you all worked up, promise. Saving that part for later.”

Snape sighed, and then melted against him, their lips brushing softly. Harry made sure to keep their kisses light, easy, comfortable, familiar. Still, one kiss turned into two and then another, and for all that their embrace wasn’t overtly sexual, it still became close, Snape’s hand winding into his hair, their bodies moulding together. Kissing Snape was a bit like gravity, that way.

“You know,” an amused voice interrupted them partway through their fourth -- it might have been fifth -- kiss, “I could make an absolute fortune from selling pictures of this. Probably enough to buy back the Manor.”

Snape broke away from Harry’s lips to glare at Draco, although he didn’t retreat fully. “You could also die a horrible, painful death,” he said.

Draco’s hands went up in the air instantly. “Hey, hey, just kidding. I promise.”

“Kidding about what?” Ron asked, appearing behind Draco to glance curiously over his shoulder. His eyes widened a little as he took in the scene. “Okay, never mind, not sure I want to know.”

“What a tremendous blessing,” Snape said, letting go of Harry and stepping a good foot backwards. “Honestly, is it such an impossibility to get five minutes of peace in my own house?” He cast a brief, if rather longing glance at the stairs.

“Don’t even think about it,” Harry said. “You should head back into the lounge. Professor McGonagall was quite keen to see you, when she arrived.”

“She’s asked you to call her Minerva how many times now?” Snape asked. “I need to feed the ducks. There wasn’t any bread, this morning.”

Harry ducked his head on a smile. When he had first found out that Snape did feed the ducks -- to a rigid schedule, every morning at 10 am precisely -- he had laughed for a good solid five minutes, whilst Snape glared at him all the while. I don’t see what’s so funny, he had insisted, Albus spoiled the damn things rotten, I am merely cleaning up his mess, as per usual. They looked decidedly underfed when I arrived, and I refuse to let any of them die simply because they have become too stupid to find their own nourishment.

“I can feed the ducks,” Harry said. “Could do with some air, actually.”

“I’ll come with you,” Draco said. “It’s a bit weird making small talk with your employer on a weekend.” He frowned. “Especially if she keeps asking intrusive questions.”

“Me three,” said Ron, with a glance at Draco. “The moment you left, her and Hermione started talking about... frankly, I’ve got no bloody clue what they’re talking about, but it’s complicated.” He nodded at Snape. “Probably right up your alley.”

“If you fail to appreciate this mysterious topic of conversation, that is undoubtedly a strong point in its favour,” Snape said, before shouldering past Ron and Draco into the living room. Ron rolled his eyes as he went; Harry laughed and got the bread from the kitchen.

“You know,” Ron said a little while later, as the three of them were chucking scraps of bread into the pond, to the delight of the chattering ducks. “Never in a million years would I have believed anyone who told me that one day, I’d be feeding ducks with a Malfoy outside Snape’s house.” He shook his head.

Draco sneered. “I assure you, Weasley, I feel much the same way.”

“Just so long as we’re on the same page then, I guess. How’s the teaching assistant stuff going, anyway?”

“Fantastic,” Draco said grandly. “I am a true natural at imparting information, of course. You see, the ability to think comes with illustrious breeding, rather than chucking out as many children as humanly possible.”

Ron shot Harry a mildly despairing glance. “Honestly, how the hell do you stand it, all day and night long? I’d be going spare if I had to put up with this kind of nonsense on a regular basis.”

Harry grinned at him. “Learn to fight them with their own weapons, sometimes? It’s kind of fun, once you get into it.”

Ron contemplated that for a moment. “What, you mean like ‘Brilliant for you Malfoy, I’m sure you’re having a blast favouring your own House to ridiculous extents’?”

“I do nothing of the sort,” Draco said haughtily. “I provide a much needed source of inspiration for young, directionless Slytherins caught in the turmoil of extremely trying times.”

“He means he’s their unofficial counsellor,” Harry said, smiling. “Wouldn’t have believed it myself, but he’s not half bad at it, either. They actually listen to him. Well, the younger ones, at least.”

“I’d ask where you get your sudden vicious streak from, Potter, but sadly I know only too well. Severus has a lot to answer for.” Draco threw his last piece of bread at the ducks. “Speaking of whom, I think I’ll head back inside. McGonagall or not, the company has to be better in there then out here.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ron said, much to Draco’s obvious consternation. He smiled sweetly. “If only because you don’t want me to.”

“Like I said earlier: infestation.”

“Yeah, yeah. You coming too, Harry?”

Harry shook his head. “No it’s fine, I’ll join you in a bit. Can’t forget about the guacamole.” He watched them go, the strange picture they made side by side, no wands drawn. Then he sunk to the sandy outcropping by the pond, watching the ducks glide smoothly over its water. As much as he loved having his friends -- and yeah, he supposed Draco got counted in there, these days -- over, it was still nice to get the occasional breather, just a bit of time away from social interaction. Though he hadn’t had a panic attack in months, and only the very occasional nightmare, sometimes it still got a little too much, the noise and chaos of people, especially in a house as small as this one. The first couple of weeks of his apprenticeship had been so unexpectedly stressful that he’d pretty much locked himself away from everyone but Snape, simply because the exhaustion had worn him down to his edges.

But that was okay. He was getting used to it, learning to recognise the warning signs that suggested he slow down for a while, and how to handle those select moments when he needed to push through it for practical reasons. Snape gave him a wide berth when he needed it, and he in turn did the same. And even if that broke down sometimes, if it wasn’t always perfect; even when they collided because they were too similar in some, too different in other ways... It wasn’t the end of the world. They always made up, in the end, and hiccoughs along the way were just life; everyone had them.

He sat by the pond for a while, back straight and breaths even, watching the flickering water. When he got to his feet and headed back to the cottage, muted laughter echoed from inside, interspersed with heated discourse. For a brief moment, before he opened the door, he rested his palm against the worn wood, feeling the notches and indentations beneath his fingers, remembering how lost and uncertain he’d felt the first time he’d come here.

And Harry smiled.