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There is a time much later, much much later, when Harry will ask Hermione how to begin.

He will show up outside her flat in the middle of the night, rain dripping down his back, clinging like fingers to his hair and eyelashes. It will not be the first time he does this, not the first time he raps desperately on the thin oak door, not the first time he presses his forehead to the small glass window, feverish hot despite the chill of the rain.

Hermione will answer the door (Ron doubtlessly sleeping or on his arse or something) and Harry will wave the roll of parchment at her, run hands blacked with ink across his face, and ask her how to begin. What word, what sentence could pull all the others forward (what word besides "sorry I'm sorry I'm so sorry.").

"How do you start this story? How can anyone possibly - "

Later on, he will choose to start the story here, on his twentieth birthday, but really it is no beginning at all. He could go back to the memories, liquid silver and mirror-sharp in the tiny stoppered vial, or he could go back to hurled hexes and "don't call me coward," or farther still, the shuttered expression on Snape's face (panic panic fucking-panic) when he met Harry at the door, face freshly stomped on and flaked with blood, or back and back and back (counter-cursed, leg-wounded, Dark Arts-fancying).

He could go back earlier still.

But he does not. He starts on his twentieth birthday, head full of alcohol, belly full of food, and blinding in love with Ginny Weasley. They're a perfect couple, people say it all the time ("Do you two have to be so damned happy? It's enough to make you ill..."). The way they're always touching, fingers interlaced, growing on each other like vines, clinging, clinging. Because that's what love is, right? Constant need and fear and please don't leave me, arm around the other to make sure they're still beside you, catching their eye to make sure it isn't wandering. Love.

And what does it matter if they hold each other most nights, instead of messing about? They respect each other, that's what it is, and the sex was never really mind-blowing. Quite often Harry's exhausted by his full day of classes, anyway, eyes crossed with the fine print of various textbooks, and sleep is the only option, really, curled around each other like cats, like children.

In love and intoxicated and twenty years old, Harry receives a present.

"It was left in the Dumbledore family vaults, you see," the wizard says softly, clutching the package tightly in his gnarled fingers. Harry isn't sure when the old man arrived, who even let him in, only that he's very much here now. "To be delivered on this very occasion. It was rather difficult to track you down, or I might have arrived earlier. I thought that a man with your, hm, history, would leave a trail wherever he went, but that was not the case, not at all. The Dumbledore family is certainly lucky to have one such as myself, for whom there is no greater thrill than that of a challenge -"

"They certainly are," Harry agrees, not to interrupt but rather to speed the process along. It's been a lot of build-up thus far, and certainly a man's allowed to spend his birthday with friends, rather than strangers who refuse to leave the front hall. "And it's greatly appreciated, really."

"Of course, of course. I realise this indeed must be a surprise - a present from beyond the grave, from a man you no doubt admired until, hm, the bitter end, a man whose name is the stuff of legend even today, even -"

"Harry." Ginny peers into the hallway, and widens her eyes surreptitiously when she realises the uninvited guest has not yet gone. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -"

"Don't worry," Harry grins, "this should only take another minute."

Ginny smiles at him, the way she smiles at no one else in the world, and goes back into the sitting room. The elderly wizard wrinkles his nose and eyes Harry seriously.

"I can see you're a busy young man, so I'll take up no more of your time. It is my great honour to present to you... your birthday present. Courtesy of one Albus Dumbledore." A small bundle of velvet is thrust into Harry's hands, and something in him shivers. The gift isn't cursed, he can tell right away (can smell the bloody things like gasoline in the air), but it's... something different. Magic is palpable around the package, almost too thick, saturating the velvet and the air and his own fingertips. He stares, but otherwise does not move.

"Well?" the wizard beside him hisses, foul breath wafting into Harry's nostrils. "Aren't you going to open it?"

There is something about the urgency that seems strange and disconcerting, but it's as if Harry can't say no. He fumbles with the dark blue cloth until he finds an opening, and his trembling fingers slowly reach inside. Something cold slips into his hand, and he lifts the object to the light, expecting the worst. Instead -

He finds a watch. A pocket watch, tarnished, on a long gold chain. A pocket watch, that is not ticking.

"It's a watch," Harry says dumbly, looking up at its deliverer.

"A fine watch," the old wizard remarks, "good quality, excellent facing -"

"Yes. It's - very nice," Harry continues, examining his gift. He frowns. "It's not running." He taps the back of the watch, winds the key on top of it, and waits for the ticking to commence. Nothing happens or changes, and Harry gives the watch a slight shake in frustration. "I can't seem to - did Dumbledore leave any instructions? Is there anything else - did he want you to tell me something, or -"

"My my. One would think you weren't, hmm, satisfied by the generous token Albus Dumbledore saw fit to leave you. No, Mr. Potter, this is all. And now that I have completed my task, thankless though it may be, I will bid you a good evening."

"Are you sure?" Harry stops the wizard from turning toward the front door. "Are you sure there was nothing else? A note, maybe, or -"

"Mr. Potter," the wizard hisses again, removing Harry's hand from his shoulder, "I am always sure. It is my job to be sure."

Harry frowns again distractedly, but then shakes his head. "Of course. I'm - sorry. Thanks so much. It's just so - surprising."

He follows the elderly man to the doorway and watches as he hobbles down the front steps.

"I never got your name, sir. I'm terribly sorry."

"My name is a thing of insignificance. The important thing is your name, and of it I am well aware." The wizard turns from the pavement and raises a bony hand in a half-hearted farewell. "Many happy returns, Harry Potter."

Harry nods and closes the door just before he hears the crack of Apparation. Ginny comes back into the hall at the sound of the latch catching and shakes a hand through her red hair.

"Now what was that all about?"

Harry clenches the watch in his hand. For a moment he thinks he feels it tick, gently, but realises it is only the beat of his own pulse. He nods at his girlfriend and slides the cool metal object into his trouser pocket.

"He was a - friend of Albus'. Just wanted to wish me a happy birthday." The lie comes almost too easily to him, and Harry is slightly disconcerted by that. There's no reason for it, no purpose in not telling her about his strange present. Harry convinces himself he'll come clean once he's figured out what it is for. Ginny has enough things to worry about at any rate. She'll feel better without the threat of strange magical objects hanging round the house.

Then again, sometimes a watch is just a watch.

"He could have stayed for some cake. Merlin knows he stayed long enough already."

Harry chuckles and slings his arm loosely over Ginny's thin shoulders. Together they make their way back to the sitting room (a perfect couple) where Ron is shouting about something, you can hear him through the walls, and Hermione is laughing the way she only laughs when she's drunk, and Bill and Fleur are already fighting, and Neville has probably slunk away unnoticed and - life is familiar. Life is soft.

The watch remains a dead weight in Harry's pocket for months, riding along in the current of his movement. He forgets about it most days but keeps it with him, for a reason he cannot even explain to himself. And then one evening, just after Christmas, Harry agrees to meet George for a pint in some dodgy suburb of London. George is always somewhere doing business, and drinking more often than he's not (Concern will grow among his family members, but the fear is just a tiny seedling at this point.). Of course, because he's late and it's raining, Harry gets completely turned around, wanders down this street and that (it's all flats and warehouses), stomach grumbling, cursing George for reasons that have only to do with his own foolishness. As he turns the corner, he sees the dim lights of a pub, and for an instant thinks he's found the elusive meeting place, but of course he is mistaken. He vows to himself that if the people inside haven't heard of the bloody "Hound and Gryphon," he's Apparating home and making up some sort of polite excuse. And as he steps closer to the wide pub doors, glowing light like warmth as they swing with a gust of rainy wind, he feels it. Like a heartbeat or a pulse, or a slight tightening of his skin.

The watch starts to tick.

Before he realises what's happening, he is gone.

Part One: Ten Past

 

When Harry Potter enters the Great Hall in his First Year of Hogwarts, Snape wants to punch him.

It is terrible and true. Severus Snape - a man of thirty some-odd years, a man who places the highest value on his small modicum of dignity - wants to punch an eleven-year-old boy. At the very least, slap. The sensation is so great, so overwhelming, that he nearly rises from his seat, and it is just by the slightest margin that he is able to restrain himself. As it is, his fingernails leave tiny half-moon imprints in the wood of the High Table; they scrape through the dark oak to reveal the light grain underneath - white, bone white, the colour of Snape's hands. He wants to wrap those hands around Potter's slim throat, to yank him across the hall by his hair, to twist his arm behind his back until it breaks, to shake him and thrash him and spit and snarl how dare you do this to me, to show him what it is like to be manipulated and humiliated and made a fool of again and again and again and again -

He does not even think of his wand. Not once. No Killing Curse, no Cruciatus, this anger is not magic; it is corporal and dull and heavy as a dead limb.

He puts on a good show through most of the feast, nearly biting through his tongue and trembling beneath his overlarge robes. When the whole affair is finished, he excuses himself very politely, and walks calmly and silently to the dungeons. He moderates every step, controls the expansion of his lungs, meticulous even in fury. When he finally reaches his rooms, he steps inside, sets the various locking spells and protective charms in place, and then stands absolutely still. He stands this way for so long he feels his pulse actually starting to slow, his need to breathe lessening little by little, his hands and feet and ill-featured face turning grudgingly yet steadily to stone.

He is then sick down the front of his dress robes, and sick again into his hands before he can make it to the loo. He heaves into the basin, doubled-over with pain and fury and embarrassment, emptying the meagre contents of his stomach until tears run down his face and his mouth tastes like burnt paper. Out of ideas, he returns to his sitting room, casts a quick cleaning spell, and drinks a full tumbler of firewhisky, only to be sick again all over his settee. After that, there is no stopping him. He cleans and vomits, drinks and smashes small glass objects. He shreds a pile of back-stocked first year essays, tears them into tiny scraps of paper, savagely and with trembling fingers, hissing under his breath and aching for more alcohol. He throws a chair across the room, just because he can, he sweeps the phials from his desk, then his quills, and then the inkpot - which shatters violently on the stone floor, makes a stain as dark as blood, makes the sound of someone weeping.

He does not sleep.

In the years that follow, he takes what little pleasure he can in making the boy's time at Hogwarts as unpleasant as legally possible. While doing so, he learns that Lily Evans' son is as foolhardy, arrogant and stubborn as his father ever was. Snape learns that Harry Potter is useless at potions, has a nasty temper, cannot focus for the life of him, has no respect for his superiors, and would have been killed long ago were it not for the help of his friends and sheer dumb luck. Snape learns all this.

And he loves him anyway.

(January. Severus is 25, Harry is 20.)

The first time, it is Severus' birthday.

Christmas may be weeks over, but grotty pieces of tinsel and flickering lights still hang loosely on the shabby pub walls around him. To add to this indignity, the occasional Christmas song keeps playing softly on the largely ignored stereo-system (Someone must have made a bloody tape and forgotten all about it.). Severus is alone, twenty-five years old, and for all intents and purposes, it is sodding Christmas.

He's had a bit to drink.

There is no reason for him to be there. Alone he couldn't help, and didn't much want to, but he easily could have had the obligatory pint (or ten) in Hogsmeade and saved himself a drunken Apparation. There is no reason in the world for him to be this close to Spinner's End, surrounded by the same unemployed, unwashed men and women he grew up with. There's a table full of men in the corner that he is sure used to drink with his father, on many a night that his father would come home and kick the living shite out of his mum. Severus has not yet had the requisite amount of ale to start thinking about murdering them all, but he's well on his way.

Yes, Hogsmeade was an infinitely better choice. If Severus had not been violently hated by a good deal of the wizarding world, then perhaps he would have made that decision. And surely there were better Muggle pubs than this, places silent and dark and inconspicuous, where a man could be alone and miserable without drawing attention to himself, without standing out for not swearing loud enough, not grabbing at the barmaids, or sloshing ale around or frequently leaving to piss all over the front entrance.

Maybe even Muggle pubs with halfway decent music.

("It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank...")

Even mid-January, the song elicits a favourable response from the drunken masses. Someone even has the gall to slap Severus on the back, breathe something hot and indecipherable in his general direction, before lurching away across the floor. Severus curls closer in on his tiny table, rage and disgust curdling what alcohol he's so far managed to keep down. He's punishing himself, and he knows it. He's punishing himself by refusing to forget exactly where he came from, what kind of person he really is. If it hadn't been for the magic, he'd probably be one of these blokes in a few years, working at the mill, spending his pay at the pub, and slapping his wife around if she didn't like it. As it is, he escaped to a different world, where he managed to indebt himself for life to a powerful and deceptive old man, as well as murder the only -

He stops that thought before it finishes. It is his right, surely, on his bloody birthday, the same bloody day every bloody year for twenty-bloody-five -

He's had a bit to drink.

So much to drink that he pays no attention when the doors of the pub swing open, letting in a gust of damp wind. People have been coming and going all night, and Severus isn't much bothered that it's someone he might know. He drains the last of his pint, and shouts across the bar for another one, feeling the room spin pleasantly. Nearly there, then (it's his bloody birthday.).

And that is when, over the swearing and shouting and Christmas melodies ("They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold"), against all odds and reason, Severus hears the sharp intake of breath behind him, a small gasp, like someone is in pain. And he (against all odds, why should he sodding care, it's his bloody birthday) turns on his stool, eyebrows furrowed with a glare, turns to look behind him and sees -

Well, no one. No one of note anyway. There is a young man standing behind him, soaked to the bone with rain and leaving more than a small puddle on the dingy stone floor. He is slim and strangely dressed, with green eyes and an oddly-shaped mouth; it isn't that he is particularly handsome, but there is a strangeness about him that draws your eye and holds it, catches your gaze whether or not you want it to.

Severus realises that he is staring, and it takes a second to realise the man is staring right back at him. Staring as if horrified and fascinated and shocked, and Severus feels the sudden desperate urge for confrontation. He's lived through a war, and in this bloody area for how long, it isn't like he hasn't picked up a few things here and there, and surely to god he's not the ugliest sod this chap has ever seen. Top five maybe, sure, but nothing to warrant this sort of attention. Some sort of insult flickers on Severus' tongue, he can already taste it, and it's his bloody birthday, and he's had too much to drink, and the green-eyed man strips him bare with his wide gaze, makes him feel like he is slowly being dissected and studied and carefully consumed, and his heart pounds in his chest and the room spins and -

The man spins on his heel, one shaking awkward motion, and heads back out into the rain. It mists against Severus' face as the door slams shut.

Severus turns back to his table, anger and indignation still rippling against his skin. He was always a terrible drunk, all heat and no fire. It's good that he can admit it, even now (A coward, a coward - it rings in his head like a child laughing, and his fingers tighten around the full glass that's been placed before him.).

The rest of the bar continues its various conversations and Severus wills himself to relax. No one talks to him, except to tell him the amount he owes, and no one looks at him until he clears his throat to order. This is more like it. This is the life Severus is used to - invisible, silent, and unremarkable (unless one is remarking on his hideousness, "good god but yer ugly," his dad wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, stinking of whisky and chips and flat beer, "just trying to decide which part of you is ugliest, Snivvy," Sirius Black hisses from across a row of desks, and is still brilliant as a beacon, bright as a star).

With these thoughts in mind, his fresh pint disappears a lot sooner than he would have liked. He's aching for a fag (it's his bloody birthday), so he jerks his thick jacket roughly around his shoulders, and stumbles out into the street. It is only raining lightly now, but it is cold, and his fingers tremble around the cigarette packet. He suddenly wants very much to be in his rooms at Hogwarts, hidden and encased by layers of thick stone. In his hurry and state of intoxication - he's fine to Apparate, though, really, he's fine - he is a bit more careless than usual. As it is, he doesn't see the men until they are already upon him.

"Well, what do you know?" (clocks him against the back of his head), "Severus fucking Snape" (knocks him hard against the brick alley wall). By the time the word "Death Eater" has escaped a pair of large sneering lips, they have taken his wand. Severus feels it slip from his fingers at the murmured spell, thin polished reed that fit perfectly into his hand, and for a moment is almost impressed that he has been found.

Of course, by that time, it is too late.

*  *  *

(The werewolf closes in, huge and rotten holes chewed into skin, fur matted with filth and blood, and light is pouring out of its mouth, green green light, the colour of a curse, and Lily Potter is screaming and screaming somewhere in the distance, and Snape spreads his arms, let the wolf have him, doesn't move or reach for his wand or try to fight, let the wolf come, and the green green green pours and pours like blood against his skin -)

"Snape -"

(The werewolf's claws sink into him and he does not even feel it, they disappear inside his body as if he were water, tepid milky bathwater filled with hands and claws and spilling over, green, cresting green green green -)

"Come on. Open your eyes."

(Let the wolf come, let it -)

"Snape. Open your eyes."

Severus opens his eyes - and is not dead. It is with his usual mixture of surprise and disappointment that this fact hits him. The surprise and disappointment fade, however, and are slowly overtaken by pain. Severus closes his eyes. He is in a bed, it seems. In bed, and alive, with a head that must be slowly splitting open, ripping evenly down the middle.

Fucking fucking fucking hell.

"Don't - don't try to - speak, or anything," says a voice he does not recognize. Severus opens his eyes again, trying to focus. It is a mistake and he regrets it instantly. His eyes slam shut.

"You're - you're all right, I think," continues the voice. "If you hadn't woken up soon, I would have - I would have called someone. I think your arm was -" the voice stops suddenly, as if there are some things it cannot bear to say.

"Broken?" Severus manages, his throat rough.

"Um. Yes. But I mended it."

Ah, so his caregiver is a wizard. That is some small comfort. Except that it is not.

"Where - where am -"

"Your house. I can't believe I even got us here in one piece, I've never been. I've just - well -"

In his house, in Spinner's End, surrounded by dingy walls and greying curtains and the stench of poverty - it is finally too much. Severus opens his eyes and keeps them open, focusing sharply regardless of whether his body wants to cooperate. Someone swims in his vision, perched awkwardly on the edge of his bed - a young man. He's not entirely familiar, but not completely unfamiliar either, and Severus fights the urge to be sick and his vision wavers and -

"You're the man from the bar," he gasps. His tongue brushes his bottom lip and he tastes dried blood.

The man in question widens his eyes, as if waiting for Severus to say something else. Eventually, he nods.

Yes," he says grimly. His hands are knotted in his lap.

The man from the bar. The man who stared at Severus like he had never seen a living being before, stared in a way that made Severus furious and terrified, the man from -

"How the fucking hell -" Severus hisses, but will not be dissuaded from obscenity, "do you know where I live?"

The stranger is silent for a moment. Severus feels panic start to build at the back of his throat, thick and bitter. He reaches out with his mind, pushes at the stranger's skull, only to be knocked back with a wave of nausea and pain. Legilimency later, then.

"How the fucking hell - " he repeats himself, increasing his volume because it is his only available option.

"I - I know you," the stranger cuts him off. "I know you - kind of. Um."

"Kind of. Um," he sneers, unable to keep the edge from his words.

"I - " the man's mouth opens and closes, "I knew - Lily Potter."

There is a loud silence in the room, rushing in painfully and suddenly like water through a broken window ("You are a witch. I‘ve been watching you for awhile -").

"I'm her - cousin."

Silence is inadequate.

"Get out of my house," Severus spits, trembling with the energy it takes to raise his voice. He tries to lift his arm to gesture furiously, but there is too much pain, and he abandons movement for the moment. The boy looks dumbstruck and opens his mouth to speak, but Severus will not have that.

"Is there some difficulty? Get. Out. Of. My. House."

The young man stands, hands rising defensively.

"I don't -"

"And I do not need help from a goddamned relative of Potter! How did you find - no, don't even answer that, I don't want to hear it, and I don't want you in my house, get out -" Spit flecks against his lips (he has no control when he is furious, none at all) but he does not care. Those sodding eyes are so green, it's a wonder Severus didn't recognize the boy instantly.

"What? Wait, just a -"

Severus throws back his sheets and rises, ignoring the throbbing in his arm and in his head, lurching towards the young man.

"I don't need your help, and I don't need your pity, and this is my fucking house, do you understand? Where the fuck is my fucking wand - " He desperately pats his clothing, before he remembers, it was taken, it was taken, oh jesus -

"Here, I got it, it's -

His wand is suddenly in the boy's hand; Severus snatches it and jabs it instantly into the stranger's throat, harder than he needs to. He could kill him. He could.

"This is my fucking house," he hisses, and the young man meets his gaze. He does not seem nearly as afraid as he should be. Severus jabs him with his wand again.

"Listen," the man chokes out, leaning back slightly, "I know you don't need my help, all right? I know, it was chance that I was even there, that I - saw you -"

"I can take care of myself, I was perfectly -"

"I know," the man says again. "I know that. And I didn't come looking for you. I just - I know who you are. Lily - she told me about you."

"And what exactly did she tell you?" Severus hisses, and again he can feel the anger bubbling within him, running red-hot and liquid in his veins, closing tightly around his throat.

"She told me - you were friends." The man presses his lips together but otherwise goes very still. "You're Severus Snape."

Severus' line of sight is suddenly filled with the image of a red-haired girl, a wide half-moon slice of smile ("bloody hell Sev, is there anything you don't know?") white fingers tucking hair behind an ear, nervous habit, teeth chewing softly on a lower lip ("what are you looking at?").

"Lily - Evans was not my friend," Severus stammers, his stomach lurching with guilt and hate and lager. It is much too hot in this house.

The boy frowns. "Okay."

"Get out."

The boy's expression changes suddenly, from unhappy caution to unhappy fear, and Severus vaguely hears him say something but can't make the words out; the room is much too hot, and his heartbeat much too loud, and the floor tilts and the ceiling lowers and there is nothing after that, nothing at all.

*  *  *

He wakes with a start, scream strangled in his throat, to find he is not alone.

Green eyes peer down at him from the edge of the bed, and Severus jerks his hand under his pillow for his wand, his nightmare of white masks and smooth faces still flickering behind his retinas. His wand is not beneath his pillow, his fingers clench and tremble, and he tries to recall exactly what this stranger is doing in his room.

He remembers all too quickly.

"What are you still doing here?" He tries to put the appropriate amount of heat in the question but is really very tired.

The boy blinks, startled. "Oh. You're awake." Relief bleeds into his voice, and Severus curls his lip.

"Shall I repeat the question?"

"Well." The young man is wringing his hands again, a completely ridiculous habit. "That is - I didn't know if you should be - by yourself. They hit you pretty hard - I just wasn't sure - I didn't want you to sleep too long, and who knows how you would react to the healing spells - I mean -"

"Are you going to reach a point, or should I continue sleeping?" He expects the young man to retort, to flinch or frown at him. He does not expect him to blush in an extremely interesting way, a soft pink spreading from his cheekbones all the way into the collar of his shirt.

He - does not expect that.

"Are you thirsty at all?" the man asks instead.

Severus is. "I'm fine." But damned if he'll accept more charity from a cousin of Lily Evans. Speaking of which. "What's your name?"

The boy opens his mouth weakly and no sound comes out. Severus has no time to waste on idiots, helpful or not, and (since he is feeling a little better) he raises an imperious eyebrow. Even at twenty-five, his eyebrow can reduce children to tears.

"H - Harry. Evans. Harry Evans."

Harry sodding Evans.

Severus squeezes his eyes shut against a sudden throbbing in his temple.

"What - what's wrong?"

"You," Severus manages weakly. "They - they named their child after you? Didn't they? They bloody well did, they bloody..."

He runs out of words. His lungs shudder inside his chest, his ribs tighten like long pale fingers, nearly stopping him from breathing. He does not know why, why it is so much worse that this man is named 'Harry' rather than Will or George or Henry - but it is. It is so so much worse.

He rolls achingly onto his side, and his head gives a throb of protest.

"I'm -" Severus begins and then stops suddenly. "I want to go to sleep."

"Are you all right?" comes the nervous voice behind him.

"I want to go to sleep," Severus hisses, pinching the bridge of his large nose. "Go away."

"Right. Um - can I get you anything?"

"Go away, damn you," Severus says again, mouth against his pillow. He does not care if the boy ransacks the place, or steals the silverware, or murders him in the night, just as long as he gets the hell out of his room. He wants to sleep, sleep and forget the whole bloody nightmare, but he waits instead, waits for the soft breathing behind him to stop or fade or disappear.

He waits. His arm aches.

Eventually, the floor creaks as Evans moves toward the door. When the latch clicks softly, Severus realises he has been holding his breath. He does not know why. All he knows is his head aches, and his body aches, and there is a strange smell in the room, of tea and rain and soap and things half-remembered, things damaging and crippling and better forgotten ("What are you looking at? I'm looking at you.").

He closes his eyes, and his dreams are full of high brick buildings.

Winter wakes him.

Cold light streams through his threadbare blinds, and Severus blinks sleep from his eyes, rubs his hands over his face, surprised to feel as tolerable as he does. His arm only aches dully, no great pain at all, and after twisting it this way and that, he feels satisfied that (against all odds) Evans was at least a fairly competent mediwizard. Hesitantly, he tries to sit up in bed and, when the room does not spin, he moves to stand up. It goes fairly well, surprisingly well, and Severus wraps his tatty dressing gown around himself. He finds his wand on the dresser and jams it in his pocket, before pulling on a pair of thick woollen socks (bloody Spinner's End, like an icebox) and heading down the hallway.

In the bathroom, he splashes water on his face, brushes his teeth, all without looking in the mirror. He's become quite brilliant at it really, can go for days without coming upon his own stark and sneering reflection. On any other day, he would wash himself and dress and get the hell back to the school. Any other day. There is something about this morning, however, and the newly healed ache beneath his skin, that sends him down to the kitchen.

Spinner's End is his house and it is a strange place. It has been his house since his mother died, four years ago (his father long since gone to one place or another, and good riddance, a pity it took him as long as it did to bugger off). Severus sits down at the kitchen table and stares at the worn wooden surface. He was here just at Christmas (choosing low temperatures and bad memories over polite and uncomfortable colleagues), but the house still surprises him. He traces the marks on the table as if he has never seen them before. It would be only too easy to repair the scrapes and gouges, a wave of the wand really, but somehow it seems wrong. The scratches, the scars, they fit Spinner's End. There are burn marks on the sofa, from his father's dropped fags. There's a dent in the sitting room wall, where a particularly heavy object was thrown during a fight. There are several clusters of small holes in the kitchen table, where the tines of a fork pierced through the wood in the early stages of an argument. It seems wrong to say a few words and make all this vanish, erase the history, the marks his father left, like bruises in his house.

Marks on skin may heal, but houses do not forget.

That's enough reminiscing to do him till next Christmas. Severus rises, toes starting to curl with the cold, and goes to the cupboard. He hadn't planned on returning for quite some time, and it is obvious; there are a few assorted boxes of crackers, some canned things, but nothing that resembles a half decent breakfast. He lights the stove to start the kettle boiling, and has retrieved the pot and a chipped mug when he realises that he is out of tea. Out of bloody tea. The morning after his birthday, the morning after an attempt on his sodding life, and he -

"G'morning," comes a soft voice from the front hall. Severus starts, and his hands clutch instinctively at his robe, pulling it more tightly around his narrow frame. He does not know why he does this - does not know why he instantly feels mortified and naked and much too easy a target -

"Hullo?" Harry Evans peeks his tousled head into the kitchen. Severus forces himself to remain calm.

"What the hell are you -"

The young man flinches, more nervous this morning than Severus can remember him last night.

"I know, I know, I should have left. I just - I was looking for something this morning and -"

"You spent the night here?" Severus' mouth hangs open in outrage.

"On the sofa. I'm sorry I didn't ask, I just thought you shouldn't be alone with a head injury, and then I noticed - you didn't have much to - for breakfast - that is -" He hefts a brown bundle in his arms.

"You noticed I - you went shopping?" Severus stutters, furious shame rushing hot to his face. All semblance of reason vanishes. "You bought - how dare you? You - you needn't insult me in my - in my own sodding home. I am perfectly capable of - it's just been - and what makes you think it is any business of -"

"I know that! Stop it. I know that. I just wanted to do this. To repay you for letting me stay the night -"

"You had no right -"

" - I had nowhere else I could have gone," the man finishes in a rush. "I thought I owed you this much. It - wasn't supposed to be an insult."

Severus scowls at him, wields his most ferocious expression as if it were a blade, until Evans briefly lowers his green eyes to the floor. When he finally meets Severus' gaze again, a strange almost-smile flickers on his mouth.

"I brought you tea," he says quietly, and Severus knows Evans has won, and the man must know it as well. Insufferable. It's one thing to be humiliated but another to be humiliated by a stranger in one's own home.

Tea, however, is worth some modicum of sacrifice.

"I'll have you know that we are not 'friends', or any similarly ridiculous thing," Severus grumbles, wishing he could stop sounding like an old man for once in his life. "I don't know why you insist on -"

Evans is laying things out on the work surface behind him and throws an anxious look over his shoulder.

"Does that mean you're not going to tell me how you want your eggs?"

Severus hesitates. He is not in the habit of having eggs made for him.

"I really - I would not - " He trails off.

"I'll just do scrambled then, if that's all right." The young man turns back to his groceries, leaving Severus with his mouth hanging just slightly open. He does not know what to say after that, and Evans seems perfectly content to keep working in silence. For the next twenty minutes or so, Evans makes breakfast, and any attempt of Severus' to be of use is gently but decidedly rebuked. Tea brews. Bread toasts. Severus sits in his chair at the kitchen table, wondering at what point after breakfast he will be able to ask his guest to leave. Is it ungracious to eat a man's food and then turn him out into the street? And since when did he of all people worry about what was or was not gracious? It is decided; after breakfast the man is gone, and good bloody riddance -

"There you go. Full English." Evans sets a ridiculously heaped plate on the table in front of him and gives a nervous little half-smile at Severus' evident disbelief. It is the half-smile that tells Severus something is wrong. It is the half-smile that twitches in the pit of his stomach, that burns hot and uncomfortable against his cheekbones.

"Are you all right? You've gone quite red," Evans comments idly while he goes to retrieve his own plate.

"It's the tea. Very warm," Severus manages, averting his eyes.

Evans seems to accept this, and the two do not speak again for a long while. Somehow, breakfast gets eaten, and dishes get washed and dried in an extraordinary amount of time, and before Severus has time to think or complain or act like his usual self, they are sitting on the front steps of Spinner's End. There was a reason, Severus is sure, there was a reason they ended up here, a question that needed answering, or directions, or something perfectly reasonable. Can't quite recall what it was, but there was certainly a reason. Just as there must also be a reason Evans has not left yet.

"How long have you lived here?" the man in question asks softly, shifting on the cracked concrete.

"Nearly twenty-five years," Severus replies, refusing to divulge more information than necessary, or ask a reciprocal question. That would seem a little too much like a conversation, and there are some things that - and with Lily's cousin -

"Where are your parents now, then?" Evans continues, oblivious, "They leave you the place?"

"So to speak."

Evans says nothing and Severus feels the silence rest heavily between his shoulder blades. It makes him strangely angry, and he feels the intense urge to push Harry Evans off the steps and go inside and slam the bloody door in his face. Instead he says, "My father left when I was fifteen. And my mum died."

Evans is quiet for a long time. He opens his mouth as if to say something, and then closes it quickly. Opens it. "I'm - I'm sorry about that."

"Yes, well - she was quite ill. It was not - it was -" Severus cannot think of how to finish that sentence. He has given away much too much already.

"You should leave," he manages, after a moment.

"Yeah." Evans inhales deeply, though Severus cannot think why. Surely the scent of concrete and garbage and the working-class is enough to make anyone's stomach roll. "How's your arm feeling?"

"Fine. It really - it has not bothered me at all."

"That's good, then. I couldn't concentrate entirely when I set it last night. I was more than a little - I was pretty worried."

"You set the arm very well, regardless," Severus says, before he realiseswhat he is saying. He flinches inwardly.

"That sounded an awful lot like a compliment. You'd better be careful, there, or I'll start to think you're keeping me around for more than just the groceries." The boy cuts off, and snaps his mouth shut. "Not to say that - I mean - I wasn't trying to -"

"Could you form a coherent sentence, do you think, if your life was at stake?"

Evans laughs, apparently grateful for the rescue. "I shouldn't think so. It would have to be something more significant than just my measly existence. Your arm, perhaps."

Severus feels an inexplicable stab of pleasure at this remark and thinks of his arm, bone still aching with the freshness of the break. He thinks of his arm, pale and white, the sleeve rolled up and a wand tracing magic like lines of ants into his skin, his arm, pale and -

Severus' mouth goes dry. His heart seizes in his chest.

"My arm," he hisses, unable to look at the man beside him.

"Yes?"

"Did you - you must have - " Heat rises to his face.

Evans somehow knows what Severus is talking about, without him ever having to finish the question. He presses his lips together. "Yes."

Severus can find nothing to say. He stands quickly, ungainly with haste, and turns to go inside. Harry rises, catches his arm in a fierce grip.

"Listen to me -"

"Let me go -"

"Listen to me!" Evans shouts, shaking him.

"Piss off!" Severus snarls in his face, teeth bared like an animal about to fight.

"No!" the man shouts back, and Severus opens his mouth to say something awful but Evans beats him to it. "Now listen to me, Severus goddamned Snape - it isn't possible to be a wizard in England these days and not know that you were a bloody Death Eater! It isn't a shock to me, do you - "

"Don't touch me!" Severus spits, yanking his arm back and pushing Evans away from him. Evans responds with surprising force, clamping his hands down on Severus' shoulders and shoving him up against the front door so fiercely the wind is knocked out of him.

"Now shut up and listen to me for one goddamned minute! It isn't a shock I said, I know what you were. What you were, Snape, do you hear me? It's over, it's done with - anyone that read about the trial knows that you were - were really with Dumbledore, okay?"

"You don't know anything -"

"Well maybe I don't, but I had sodding - family that got killed, all right, so you can stop screaming at me in the middle of the sodding street, and just deal with the fact that I saw your sodding Dark Mark and it's sodding okay. Okay? Christ!" Evans breathes out a long sigh, deflating suddenly and rapidly, and Severus feels that sigh all along the roots of his hair (The scents of tea and dish soap cling to Evans like fingers.).

They stand in silence, until Evans realises that he is still holding Severus against the door and releases him quickly. Despite Severus' intentions, which had included storming into the house, bolting the door and leaving it at that, he finds himself rooted to the spot. He does not move.

Evans runs an agitated hand through his already tousled hair.

"I'm sorry," he says softly, something Severus was not expecting. He feels his own stammer of apology bubble up inside him but crushes it. His face flushes with embarrassment and he studies the concrete beneath his scuffed shoes.

"It's fine."

"I shouldn't have yelled at you. I should - I should definitely not have grabbed your arm so hard. Is it okay?"

Severus nods abruptly. "It's fine." He should be going back to Hogwarts, he really should. He'll need the evening to mark, and the rest of Sunday for lesson plans, and the presence of Harry Evans is only making him behave more and more strangely. Their meeting - or visit or whatever it was - should have ended hours ago.

"I should -"

"Would you like a drink?" the younger man interrupts, looking conspicuously ahead of himself. Severus' train of thought is entirely derailed, and he stares at the man. Who is very obviously refusing to look at him, almost as if he's nervous. Which is ridiculous, of course.

"I -" Severus thinks of the best way to phrase his denial, "suppose."

He nearly clamps a hand over his mouth when he realises what he has said. He refrains, however, when Harry Evans looks over with the full force of his smile, beams down at one Severus Snape like a light from the heavens, like the wide glow of a new and ageless moon.

Which is ridiculous.

Of course.

*  *  *

"Are you getting drunk?" Evans asks him after his second pint - or is it third? Severus shakes his head.

"Certainly not. It's only - what bloody time is...? Six-thirty. Much too early to be drunk. Much too. Early."

"Of course."

"Of course."

"So I'll assume it's just my winning personality that has put you in a better mood. And not the beer."

"Let's not go that far. I've never had a very good head for the stuff."

"It's because you're so skinny. The barmaid could lift you with one arm."

"I'm sorry, Mother. Shall I put on a jumper, in case I catch a chill?"

Evans chuckles, and it would be too easy to join in. Severus barely restrains himself.

"How old are you?" he asks, after a moment.

"Twenty. Why?"

"You seem - much younger than that. I would have thought you were seventeen, perhaps. Except for -"

"What?"

"Nothing." (Your eyes.) "It's - never mind. You just seem very young."

Something flickers in Harry's gaze, before he shakes his head and has another swallow of beer. "Must be my youthful exuberance."

"More like inanity," Severus mutters, and regrets it instantly. His regret is short-lived, for Harry Evans barks out a small, surprised laugh.

"It could be that as well," he says smiling, "or the hair. It's always been a little - you know."

"Ridiculous?"

"You can stop anytime. I'll be fine, I promise."

"No doubt." Severus finishes the last of his pint and stares unhappily into the glass. Evans must notice this, for he laughs again.

"Another?"

Severus looks up sharply at the man across from him. "Surely you have somewhere else to be." He has lost track of the number of times he has said this during the course of the day. He has also forgotten at what point the sentence shifted from a real and earnest desire for Evans to leave him the bloody hell alone, and became - something else.

"Not really. To be honest."

Severus shrugs his shoulders at this and watches Harry cross the crowded floor, heading toward the bar. He returns much too quickly; Severus barely has two minutes to gather his thoughts together. The young man sets the glasses on the table, and smiles at Severus in a way that is both surprising and alarming. As if they were long lost friends, or close relatives just seeing each other after years of painful separation. It is altogether mystifying (though not completely unpleasant).

"I like this place," Harry says over the din of the pub, glancing at their surroundings.

"I don't know why you would. I hate it."

"It's grown on me." Evans grins again at him, and Severus has to swallow several times before he can speak again (The air in the pub is really very dry.). "I want you to know - it was good to meet you. Really - good.

"What are you prattling on about?"

"Don't talk, just drink." Harry glares at him in mock disapproval. "You should know - you were important. To my cousin. Really -"

"I will not discuss Lily Evans." Severus tries to keep the edge from his voice but cannot. He does not mind that much.

"I know. I'm - sorry." Evans sighs, rubs a hand over his face. "I just thought I should say that it was nice to - meet you. Surprisingly nice."

"So you're finally buggering off, eh? This is goodbye?"

"Not hardly. I did just get another round. I don't know if you noticed, and I won't be going anywhere until these are done. Maybe another for the road."

"You may be developing a problem there."

"I have some time to kill."

"No pressing appointments?"

"Well - you might twist my arm."

Severus almost smiles again, but replaces the useless expression with a well-worn scowl. The boy hardly seems fazed, and it is his continual infuriating and idiotic grin that proves to be Severus' undoing. Something hurts him suddenly, twitches like pain in his hands and in his mouth, and he speaks before he can stop himself.

"Evans," Severus murmurs, all of a breath. "Last night. It was - appreciated." He does not know why it is so hard for him to say thank you, as if the word itself is laden with burdens and debts, as if thank yous are for people who are generous and sunny and will never know what it is to be always in the wrong. Severus had to thank James Potter once, in a room full of Gryffindors and a werewolf and the filthy Sirius Black. Now when he even thinks of the word, he only tastes bile and terror.

Evans studies him and apparently reaches a decision.

"You've had too much to drink."

"You may be right. Nevertheless. I am in your debt."

Evans is silent, licking his lips for a moment. Severus cannot quite understand why that is significant.

"You don't owe me anything," the young man says slowly, "you will never -"

"Fuck you," Severus hisses, anger rising like adrenaline. "Do not presume to tell me what I owe."

Evans meets his furious gaze, and the rest of Severus' diatribe dies stuttering on his tongue. The room seems to spin, and suddenly all Severus can hear is their breathing, heavily in unison, just staring at each other while the people around them fade into grey and static. Something enters Evans' gaze then, a hardness, a melancholy that was not there previously. It is a gaze that speaks of dark days and darker magic, a gaze no one so young should ever be capable of possessing.

Severus is not so young.

"I have to tell you something," Evans says softly. "You aren't going to like it."

"I am hardly surprised."

"It's just -" The boy breathes deeply, flattens his palms against the table. He opens his mouth, and then snaps it shut again. Opens it. "I'll be right back. Stay here, yeah?"

Severus glances at his newly filled glass. "Where would I go?"

Evans nods and rises from the table. He smiles once, with just the corner of his mouth (the way a cat would smile) before heading off in the direction of the gents'.

Severus waits. He takes a drink, and in the bottom of his glass he can still make out the slight quirk of a feline smile, flickering in amber, turning away in a crowd.

The boy does not come back.

It was Christmas Eve, babe,
In the drunk tank,
An old man said to me,
"Won't see another one,"
And then he sang a song,
The Rare Old Mountain Dew,
I turned my face away,
And dreamed about you.

The Pogues

"Fairytale of New York"

 

Part Two: Twenty Past

Harry Potter makes his way through the bustling streets of Hogsmeade, trying half-heartedly not to get killed. It has been a long time since he last visited the town and a great deal has changed. Hogsmeade was becoming a bit of a wizarding tourist trap, really, what with being so close to Hogwarts and having its history linked with the Second War. It is quite a bit bigger than Harry remembers, and overpriced novelty shops have sprung up throughout its narrow streets, selling Hogwarts merchandise and historical collectibles. There is even a small, shabby museum, but Harry decides he will give it a miss (The wax figurines always make him look taller and more muscular than he is, or ever will be, and the experience usually ends up being slightly disheartening.). He spies the Hog's Head, looking drab but ever the same, and his heart sings for just a moment (For just a moment he is back in school, sneaking in under his invisibility cloak, laughing with his mates about an essay or exam, having ridiculous crushes on Cho Chang and Ginny Weasley -).

The moment ends abruptly as he passes the old establishment by. He had suggested the meeting be held there, but the Head of Department was firmly against it (having rigid dietary restrictions he was certain the pub could not possibly accommodate or understand). When Harry reaches Accio Flavour (he suppresses an eye roll, if only for the sake of the earnest and uncertain maitre-de), he finds the place exactly as he imagined. The walls are cluttered with novelty items and copies of famous wizard artwork, and the staff wear both identical uniforms and smiles that do not reach their eyes. Harry spots Charminder Singh, Hogwarts' new headmistress, at the far corner of the restaurant, sitting with a man who must be the Head. Steeling himself (you can do this Harry Potter, Boy-Who-Lived, twenty-seven years old, father of two) he approaches their table.

"Ah, Mr. Potter." Singh turns her large smile on him. Despite being at least in her late fifties, the witch is still alarmingly pretty (but altogether too clever to be generally well-liked). "A pleasure to see you again. Do have a seat."

The man sitting across from the Headmistress anxiously gets to his feet and extends a hand before Harry is able to do much of anything.

"Edmund Honeycutt, Head of Public Relations, at your service, sir. May I say, and I hope I am not too bold, that it is indeed an honour and a privilege to meet you face to face at long last." Honeycutt is middle-aged and slim, with nondescript brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Almost everything about the man could be described as average; everything about the man makes you start to forget him. "I hope that one day in the very near future your face will be a common sight within the walls of the Ministry itself; we are always looking for men and women of your calibre, who have proven themselves time and time ag-"

"You're drooling on his shoes, Mr. Honeycutt," Headmistress Singh interrupts, to Harry's joint relief and mortification.

Honeycutt sputters, face flushing, and Harry takes pity on him, giving his hand a firm shake.

"The pleasure is mine, sir. And I'm not sure about the Ministry. I've a few more years of study left, and I'm getting quite fond of constant debt. I don't know how I'll give it up."

Honeycutt laughs, a thin and reedy sound, and returns to his seat. Harry sits across from the older man and woman, feeling a bit like he's at a job interview. They order from the harried witch serving them, and she has barely turned her back when Honeycutt is laying a large envelope on the table.

"Please take a look at this, Mr. Potter. I think you'll be quite pleased."

Harry reaches inside the envelope and for a moment feels a chill of dread run up his spine, and he is eight years younger, at his birthday party, fumbling through the velvet of a mysterious package with no idea what is coming -

"Well?" Honeycutt's eyebrows are almost rising off his forehead. "What do you think?"

Harry glances at the sheets of parchment as he slides them from the envelope and tries to suppress a sudden flinch. They are drawings. Every one, with various degrees of shading and from various angles, depicts a giant hand rising from the earth. The hand is pointing a wand straight up into the sky, and is encircled and supported by dozens of other, smaller hands, helping it keep the wand aloft.

"It's -" Harry searches for words, avoiding Honeycutt's eager smile and Singh's unreadable gaze. "It's - what is it?"

Honeycutt's expression falters, but only for an instant; one almost would not notice.

"What is it?" he repeats, incredulous, "Why, my dear sir, it is a memorial. It is your memorial! To commemorate the tenth anniversary of your triumph over darkness, and those who were lost aiding you in that final battle. I've had quite a few artists working on it, and this is by far my favourite, you know, everyone holding the wand together, helping in their own way, perhaps not directly but -"

"Where is - where is this going to be? You're going to build this?" Panic pounds in Harry's temples.

"Build it? My goodness, it was finished weeks ago - twenty feet high, solid granite, and Headmistress Charminder has kindly donated space for it in the Hogwarts courtyard, hereafter to be known as the Hogwarts Memorial Gardens. It will be a grand gesture, don't you think?"

"It's going to be at - Hogwarts?"

Singh favours Harry with a look. "We are hosting the upcoming tenth anniversary celebrations, as I'm sure you are well aware. And the Ministry has been quite - shall we say - generous of late."

"The school had to be involved," Honeycutt agrees heartily. "It is the site where the whole event occurred, the heart of things, so to speak, and the Ministry is so glad that Headmistress Singh here has been amenable to the idea. Just imagine, Mr. Potter - hundreds of witches and wizards from the world over, all coming together to celebrate, and you, the Boy-Who-Lived, at the head of it all, saying a few tasteful words in front of this glorious statue -" Honeycutt slaps his hand against the table near a sketch. " - before 'whooosh....'"

Harry stares at Honeycutt, desperate to determine what 'whooosh' will mean. Honeycutt's quirked eyebrow signals disaster.

"We release the doves."

"Good lord."

"I knew you'd be moved, and I am so glad. Everything else is coming along swimmingly; all that remains is the confirmation of your participation." Two sets of eyes stare at him, and Harry's gaze darts between them like a startled fish.

"I -" He wets his lips. "I'm not sure. All that publicity seems - I wouldn't want to take attention away from the event itself. And this is quite short notice, it's only weeks away, really. I'll be there, of course, but I don't know if I should - " He gestures helplessly at the sketches. "And my kids will be there, so -"

"Not to worry there. The place will be swimming with Aurors, best security money can buy, you and your family will face no danger. Oh, do say yes. The event will not be the same without you. A brilliant event, yes, but it will lack a certain something that I fear cannot be found elsewhere."

"I -"

"In the spirit of peace and cooperation -"

"I - "

"To honour those who died in that great battle -"

"I -"

"The Ministry has pledged a quarter of a million Galleons to the Hogwarts library," the Headmistress interrupts. "Contingent on your participation, of course."

Good lord. This time, Harry resists saying the phrase out loud. Honeycutt's bland face swims in his vision.

"I'll think about it," Harry manages weakly, and the older man claps his hands.

"Splendid, splendid. You shan't regret this, my boy. Not for a moment."

Harry does not suggest he is filled with regret already, though he is certain Singh hears the words as if he spoke them.

"You'll do honour to their memory," the Headmistress says quietly, but Harry barely hears her, and the table is suddenly overwhelmed by servers with plates of food.

It isn't until he is home that night, in the small flat he and Ginny share with the kids, that he starts to think about it. Ginny has taken the boys to the house of some woman at her office (who had horses, or some nonsense. Her name was some type of fruit - Peach or Cherry or something. Harry couldn't really recall.). His feet trace the narrow staircase to his bedroom, a tiny room cluttered with his books and desk and single bed ("What will the kids think when they're a little older?" Mrs. Weasley had pleaded, "They'll want to know why their parents sleep in separate rooms." Harry had promised they'd raise the children on fifties sitcoms, and they'd think nothing of their parents' living arrangements. Mrs. Weasley did not find that amusing.).

Harry sits down at his desk, alone in his small room, and his fingers start to reach for the cloth bundle before he is even aware of it.

He holds the watch in his hand, cool to the touch and heavy as a stone. Funny how such a little thing can change one's life so completely. Funny how such a little thing could break one's heart. And he thought it so simple at first, all those years ago, thought in a week's time he'd have unlocked its magic. Thought he'd been given a key - a way of saving Fred and Lupin and Tonks and Mad-Eye and - Dumbledore, even. And dozens more, hundreds more, perhaps he'd be able to stop the Second War entirely, rescue all those who were hurt or damaged or died needlessly at Voldemort's wand.

Save Snape, of course.

In the end, though, what had happened? Nothing.

("I can't help you, Harry," Hermione says unhappily from across the table. "What if you end up dying instead? What if Ron or Ginny do? What if You-Know-Who wins the War because you're trying to change things that shouldn't be changed?"

"You changed the past before," Harry argues. The watch sits in the middle of the table, and Harry feels the urge to grab it and run.

"Not like this. Not to this extent. Changing the course of a war? You can't do it."

"Ron, mate, talk some sense into her."

Ron gazes back at him, eyes flinty and hard, the way they always get when you talk about the War. Harry knows he shouldn't do it, but he does anyway, and feels ill from more than just the burnt steak and kidneypie. "Think about Fred -"

"Don't manipulate him like that!" Hermione cries out, and Ron shoots her a glare.

"I can decide these things for myself, thanks. I'm not some daft kid."

"I think you should leave it alone, Harry," Ginny says quietly, her first real contribution to the discussion. Harry feels the urge to tell her to stay out of it, frightening and overwhelming in its sudden intensity. He swallows it, shakes it out of his head, and tries again.

"Can't any of you see - why would Dumbledore leave me the watch if he didn't want me to do this? He wants me to save everyone, I know he does -"

"Dumbledore's asked enough of you," Hermione murmurs, which Harry ignores. "Maybe he just wanted you to meet Professor Snape - as a man. So you could see what he sacrificed."

"All this, just so I can chum around with Snape? Don't be ridiculous, there has to be more to it -"

"I loved my brother," Ron says suddenly, and the table goes silent. Everyone turns to look at him, staring down at his plate, playing unhappily with his napkin. "I loved Fred. He shouldn't have died. I wish it'd been me that - " he breaks off, for a moment. "But I think Hermione's right. I think - it's too much, Harry. Dumbledore wouldn't want this. He would want you to live your life, let the past stay the past."

"Ron -"

"Those that died, well, there must have been a reason. They died for something, they were willing to die for something. And trying to save them all, well, who knows what else you might change?" He looks defensively over at Ginny. "I loved Fred."

"I know. I know you did."

No one says anything for a long while. Harry sits at the table, pushing his pie around and around his plate, feeling strangely angrier and angrier. Did no one there understand? Well of course they didn't, how could they? None of them had just seen Snape as an angry, insecure twenty-something. None of them had drunk in a pub with him, or seen his swollen face after a group of their sodding allies kicked the shite out of him. If Hermione had seen this, if Ron or Ginny had, there'd be no way they would sit here, telling Harry he had to let this young man die. No one understood but him, and if he had to do it alone, then he had to do it alone.

"If you won't help me," he breaks the silence tersely, "I'll figure this out by myself."

Three sets of eyes stare uncomfortably at him.

"Something brought me back to the present last time. Something I did, or the length of time I was there, or - something. I'm going to figure out what, and then I'm going to tell Snape everything."

Ron's eyes widen. "He's going to hex you into next week, mate."

"No he won't, he'll -" Harry pauses. "All right, he probably will. But I don't care. I'm going to do it. And if you three won't help me, then - then -" Anger tightens in the base of his stomach, the image of Snape's bruised and blackened face flashing behind his eyes (look at me, look at me.). "If you won't help me, then you can fuck right off."

He crumples his napkin and throws it onto his plate, chair screeching as he pushes away from the table.

"Oh, real mature," Ron mutters, and Harry glares at him as he walks away.

He had not listened to his friends and still it had done no good. And now what was he left with? A broken sodding watch.

A broken sodding watch and a letter. Undelivered.

(September. Severus is 25, Harry is 21.)

Lucius Malfoy might be thirty-one, but he grows more beautiful by the week, hair as blond and fine as when he was a boy at school. Disgusting, really. He stands out in the Crown and Hand as if he had wings, or two heads, and Severus feels himself becoming more reticent, more withdrawn. He hates Malfoy, he really does, has since First Year (after he got over the fawning devotion that all young Slytherins initially experienced). Malfoy is cruel and cold and manipulative - but worse than that, he is lovely, and his loveliness is what makes him dangerous. At least ugly people (like Severus himself) have the decency to make their corruption visible to the world.

"I cannot understand how you tolerate this," Lucius was saying, none too quietly. "Really, Severus. You know that I appreciate your company, but I believe next time I will choose the locale."

Severus barely restrains his eye roll; Lucius can act as elegant as he pleases, but he will convince neither of them that he is here on anything other than business.

"You wanted to meet halfway."

"Halfway between the school and my estates, yes. Halfway between hell and Manchester, no." Lucius curls his lip. "Quickly, quickly, before a karaoke night breaks out."

With a well-practiced raise of an eyebrow, Severus slides the small vial into the centre of the table. Lucius snatches it instantly, casting a haughty glance at the surrounding patrons.

"You could be a little less obvious," he spits, once the vial has been safely hidden within his robes.

"Please. If anyone is making a display of themselves, it is you, what with all your paranoid glances over your shoulder. There are worse activities going on here tonight than illegal potions supply."

"Be quiet. Just tell me - this will work?"

"Of course it will work. I'm not an idiot. Two drops in warm water, a good half-hour before you think you will be - needing it, and the rest will take care of itself. You will not have similar problems again." Severus cannot resist. "Though I hear it's perfectly normal."

Lucius does not glare, does not frown, only the slight twitching at the corner of his mouth belies any sort of annoyance.

"I cannot imagine that you, dear Severus, have the experience required to speak to what is normal or otherwise. Do correct me if I'm mistaken."

Severus could vehemently deny this fact, swear up down and sideways that he bedded half the Slytherin second-years, and see what Malfoy has to say to that. But he does not. He meets Lucius' cold gaze with his own, and they stare unblinkingly at each other until the blond man smirks and looks away.

"I thought as much. How unfortunate. You know that you can pay for sex these days? Perhaps you should look into it."

"Ha bloody -" And he stops. The words dry up like sawdust on his tongue as the doors to the pub open and a dark-haired, green-eyed man steps hesitantly inside. He is wearing different clothes, and his hair is a bit shaggier - longer against his forehead - but it is the same man. Harry bloody damn-him-to-hell Evans.

"What? What is it?" Lucius hisses. "Struck a nerve, have I? You've gone white as a sheet."

"It's - " Severus debates how much of the truth to tell Lucius, wonders idly whether he can call the evening to a close and get rid of his companion without having to introduce him to the man who is weaving through a crowd of people like he is a lost child (or has already put a few away). Who is looking up, catching Severus’ eye, and breaking into such a wide and ridiculous smile that Severus feels the ground shift beneath his feet, feels his heart twist like a clumsy piece of fabric and rise up into his throat.

No one has ever smiled at him like that. No one. Ever.

Severus tries to put the man in his place with a well-practiced scowl, enough to keep most people farther away from him than they need to be. After all, Evans is no friend of his. Evans found his company so intolerable that he couldn't even think up an excuse to leave, had to slip out of the bar under the guise of going to the toilet. Yet here he is, smiling at Severus as if he were a long lost friend, or the sodding love of his -

Severus flinches, and rises to his feet, planning his hasty retreat. He is too late.

"Snape," Harry Evans calls, over the din, "Snape, I can't believe -"

Of course, Severus is too late; Lucius instantly turns to look over his shoulder, disbelievingly, seeking out the source of the fond greeting. As he nears their table, Evans' face blanches; the young man's mouth hangs open in a strange sort of shock. Were it anyone else, Snape would assume Evans had been struck by Lucius' smooth and polished beauty. As it is, the young man's expression looks more like - horror.

"Why, Severus," Lucius smiles winningly, "where are you going? You must introduce me to your - little friend."

Severus sits, like a terrier (Lucius bloody Malfoy). Evans stands at their table, mouth opening and closing weakly. He looks frantically at Severus, while Lucius' gaze slices him to ribbons. Severus tries to seem unconcerned (ignoring the poundingpoundingpounding of his heart, like a sodding timpani).

"Lucius Malfoy, Harry Evans." He can think of nothing else to say and curses himself inwardly. He should have pretended he could not remember the man's name, should have made Evans introduce his bloody self, as if he was nothing but a hiccup in Snape's life, a vague forgotten acquaintance barely noticed in passing.

Lucius, however, has forgotten nothing.

"Of course, of course. Lily's beloved cousin. What an honour to meet the man in question. Our Severus has scarcely spoken of anything else for the past nine months." Lucius presses his lips together, in what appears to be a smile but is meant to be a warning. "Rather rude of you, wasn't it, to disappear without saying goodbye? The way he's been going on about it, one would think he were a jilted lover."

Severus' mouth goes instantly dry, and he stares at Lucius in white-faced horror. Lucius' lips press together again, in obvious satisfaction.

"Um -" Evans does not seem capable of responding, "well."

"We'll need more to drink, of course, if we're going to be sitting together, reminiscing for the remainder of the evening. I'll purchase the next round, let you two get reacquainted. Unless of course -" Lucius feigns concern, "you have somewhere pressing to be, Mr. Evans? Somewhere that might require your immediate and sudden departure?"

Severus stares pointedly at the table, unable to witness Evans' reaction to this, unable to bear another second in the company of these two men. He is surprised, however, when the younger man breaks out in a soft laugh.

"Call me Harry, please. 'Mr. Evans' makes me feel like you're my professor, back at school. Of course, given the age differences, perhaps it's not so -"

"I'll get the drinks, shall I?" Lucius interrupts coldly, rising to his feet.

Severus remains focused on the tabletop, does not look up or say anything, even when he hears Evans slip quietly into the seat beside him.

"I am so sorry."

Severus will not reply.

"You have to know how sorry I am. I didn't know that I would have to leave - so quickly. If I could have come back - if I could -"

"It's no concern of mine, believe me," Severus finds words, miraculously. "I had not expected you to baby-sit me for the remainder of the evening. You forget that I had been trying to rid myself of you for the greater part of the day."

There is another small silence.

"I didn't forget that."

"At any rate - my dear friend Lucius always takes it upon himself to embarrass me as completely as possible, so you must not expect too much truth in anything he says." Severus wets his dry lips. "And it was nearly a year ago."

"I'm surprised you remember my name."

"So am I."

Evans does not say anything for a few moments, only stares and stares at Severus, like he is absorbing every detail through his pores. Severus does not know how he can bear it, and his fingers twitch for his wand.

"How have you been?" the young man asks, and Severus is shamefaced with the urge to forgive him.

"Piss off," he murmurs, saying it quickly, like a stitch that needs ripping out.

Lucius is still at the bar, hidden in a mass of portly gentlemen, and Harry Evans flinches like some sort of injured bird.

"There are things you have to know -"

"I don't have to know anything," Severus spits before he can fully think about it. "For Christ's sake, go before he brings the drinks."

Evans still lingers, stupidly, pathetically, and Severus feels an inner part of himself twinge in annoyance.

"Are you having a difficulty with the concept? I could assist you -"

"I'm fine, thanks." Evans rises, runs a hand through his ridiculous hair. Severus looks away. "Could you give me just one -"

His wand hand reacts before he does, laying the thin instrument delicately on the sticky surface of the table. He's not about to wave it around in a Muggle pub, but he's sorely tempted, and settles for reminding Evans of the wand's presence, there, just there, where it could easily be snatched up and employed in casting one of hundreds of curses.

Evans' gaze flickers from the wand on the table, to Severus' sneering expression, and back again. Lucius' cultured voice is audible in the background, shouting dismissively at the bartender. Not much time then.

"You seem pretty upset for a bloke who barely remembers my name," Evans says after a moment, cold and clean and straight to the bone.

"I'm sorry, can you only depart when you are lying about your return?" Severus spits, hating how childish he sounds but unable to stop. "If that is the case, by all means, tell me you'll be back in fifteen minutes."

"You don't understand -"

"No, I don't. Nor do I care to. Cheers, then."

Evans fusses with his hair again (a nervous gesture, Severus is beginning to realise. Not that he cares.).

"Fine," Evans manages. "Fine. But this isn't over."

"Brilliant and original as ever, Mr. Evans."

Evans rolls his eyes and leaves, pushing through the crowd and thankfully avoiding Lucius' roving eye. Severus watches him leave and has a brief aching flash of the smile Evans bestowed on him when he first entered the pub. Wide and warm and unabashed, rather like the man himse -

Enough, Severus.

Lucius, of course, is completely irate, then annoyed, then sulky ("Am I never to have a moment's entertainment?"). His plans for an evening of psychological and emotional torture now dashed, he drinks his wine quickly, and Apparates five minutes later without so much as a goodbye. Severus is not bothered, glad for the time alone. He finishes his own drink slowly, and his mind keeps coming back to Harry Evans ("this isn't over") and the last time he drank alone in a dodgy pub. Harry Evans and the kicked and mangy dog that is Severus' heart, so eager for any kindness that it will butt its head against the knees of a perfect stranger. It's disgusting, really.

When he finally leaves, it is with no small regret; sometimes he forgets what it is to be surrounded by adults and not screaming adolescents. Regardless, it is raining hard on the pavement outside, and he increases his pace (He has never liked the rain, and the bone-deep chill that follows it. Evidently, he was not a creature built for England.). A particular shady lane catches his eye, the perfect place to Apparate unnoticed. As he enters, casting furtively around for an amorous couple or eager addict, he hears a soft moan.

And it should come as no surprise to him. Really. It shouldn't.

Harry Evans lies on the ground, barely conscious, bleeding from a nasty gash on his head. His glasses are broken. His pockets are turned out. His wand, however (sodding Muggle toughs, Lucius may have been right about this area), is lying unharmed on the pavement beside him. Severus' fingers twitch around his own wand, and the pull of Apparation tugs on him, urging him away. It serves Evans right for waiting in a dark alley.  Hadn't he ever watched a bloody film, seen a sodding crime story on the telly?

He strides past the young man, sneer curling his thin lips, not bothering to turn around even at another quiet moan of pain. Confident he is mostly alone, Severus is poised to disappear, when his arm twitches in discomfort (brief heartbeat of panic, the Mark, the Mark, before he realises it is not skin, but bone). His arm always aches when it rains, or when it is particularly cold out, and Severus rolls his shoulder, willing the worst of it away.

His arm had been broken. The bone had been snapped by a boot, or a brick wall, or something else difficult to think about. His arm had been broken and someone had mended it, someone lying in the muck of a rain-drenched alleyway, barely conscious.

Severus waits. His stomach twists. He curses under his breath.

Minutes later, he arrives outside the grounds of Hogwarts. Minutes after that, one Harry Evans is deposited without ceremony onto a small and uncomfortable sofa.

"In the morning, you're out," Severus mutters to himself, brushing the young man's hair back to perform a healing spell. "You are not a stray cat, nor I a kindly old woman."

Evans' unconscious body has no rejoinder to this, so Severus continues.

"One night, do you hear? That's it."

Somehow, he doesn't quite believe it.

*  *  *

In the morning, there are classes to teach. Severus checks in on Evans to make sure the fool is sleeping but alive, and departs for the Great Hall and breakfast (a meal he rarely partakes in, but cannot think of anything else to do. He cannot sleep with Evans in the next room, and does not want to stick around for too long, in case the man wakes up and awkward conversation is needed. No, best to leave immediately, and hope that Evans wakes and sees himself out before tea).

When he returns to his rooms over lunch, Severus finds he is not so lucky.

Evans is sitting on the same sofa, showered and dressed. He jumps to his feet when the door opens.

"Oh! Hi. Good morning - er - afternoon, I guess." He runs a hand through his hair.

"You're up, I see. Excellent. I will show you out."

Evans' face falls briefly, before he recovers with a small nervous smile.

"Are these your rooms at Hogwarts?" His eyes scan the outdated furniture, the shelves and shelves of books that Severus cannot bear to part with (Clothes and photographs he could burn or bury, but books are books.).

"Yes, well, nothing terribly exciting. No chains, no whips - contrary to the belief of many of my students." He nearly trails off when he realises this comment could be considered banter. With Harry Evans? Unthinkable. "Shall we?" He motions toward the door.

Evans does not seem to notice. He moves idly through Severus' front room, examining the photographs above the fireplace, the embossed spines of a few decaying textbooks. Severus watches him for a moment without meaning to; despite his nervous sincerity, there is an ease and grace to Evans' movements. Some hidden quality that makes you want to watch him, makes you forget that you are watching him until he speaks or does something stupid and brings you back to reality.

"Records?" Evans crouches on the ground beside a (apparently poorly hidden) box of vinyl, "Er - Muggle records? I would never have thought that -"

Severus tastes dread against the back of his throat. "What didn't you think?"

"That you - listened to music."

Severus takes a small and sharp breath inwards. That he might be thought the kind of man who - didn't listen to music. Shakespeare rings in his ears (He loves no plays, as thou dost, Antony; he hears no music -). "I listen to music," he says sharply, and Evans nods, evidently surprised at the vehemence in Severus' voice.

"I can see that." His lips quirk. "The Clash... Bowie! This record's brilliant. Dylan, of course..."

"I have classes to teach, in case it had not occurred to you. I cannot stand around comparing our mutual tastes in Muggle music. And I would have thought you would be more concerned about the events of last night. Your wallet is gone."

Evans seems far too amused by this. "I doubt it's going to do anyone much good. My cards are a little out of date." Severus wonders if the man wasn't concussed last night during the altercation. He repaired the head wound adequately, but now he suspects Pomfrey should have been consulted.

"Be that as it may - "

"How long have you been teaching here?"

"Nearly five years, not that it is any of your -"

"Do you like it?"

Severus snorts. "Hardly. But I didn't have many other options, did I?" He stops when he realises there is no reason for him to be divulging this information to a near-perfect stranger. Evans does not have a wand pointed at his throat. Evans has not slipped Veritaserum into his tea. There is no excuse, none at all.

"What? What do you mean?" His guest is handling Blonde on Blonde rather roughly, and Severus finds himself gritting his teeth.

"Being a murderous Death Eater does not exactly complement one's resume. And delightful as this little conversation is, there are other forms of torture to which I must attend."

Evans looks up suddenly, lips curved into a strange sort of smile.

"You know, you're really - quite - funny. I didn't expect that."

"Does not listen to music, no sense of humour - with the opinion you have of me, Evans, one wonders what you must have been told -" Severus' words stutter and die. He has not spoken of Lily Evans around her sodding cousin and he will not, he will not.

Evans fills the silence quickly. "Good things. Only - always - good things." He stops, fingers dancing over record spines. "Thank you, by the way. For last night. You could have left me bleeding in an alleyway."

"Your vanity will not thank me. There might be another scar, I'm afraid."

Evans' hands stop moving. He turns paler, if that is even possible. "What?"

"There was a gash on your forehead, from some sort of blunt object. I'm not certain you remember. I healed it sufficiently, but the skin is still fresh. There may be a mark."

"Oh." Evans lift a hand to his hairline, hesitating. "Oh," he says again.

"I noticed - on your forehead -" Severus does not know why he is suddenly so uncomfortable, as if the young man's strange concern is somehow catching. It is not as if he did anything wrong. It is not as if he stripped the boy bare and examined every inch of him. It is not as if -

"Yeah," Evans interrupts, "it's - an old scar. Hit my head, when I was young."

"That explains a bit." Again, too much like banter. Compose yourself, Severus. "Now that you have sufficiently expressed your gratitude, I would appreciate it if you'd get out."

Evans waits a moment, hand still moving against his hairline. Severus inexplicably feels as if he is witnessing some private, hidden moment and wishes Evans would stand up already. He knows where the door is. Perhaps he needs a bit more motivation.

Evans wets his lips. "I know you're still angry -"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"- but I don't suppose - we could go somewhere? And talk, for a bit. Privately?"

"Evans," Severus sighs, rolling his eyes, "what is it you are under the impression we are doing?"

"Oh. Yeah." Again, that interesting blush. Severus is quite surprised he has not forgotten it, surprised he recognizes the slow travelling flush of colour as if he has seen it since they last met, seen it behind his eyelids or in his sleep or -

Oh god.

"Get out," he hisses, cursing the heat that rushes unbidden to his face. "I've made myself - I believe I was clear -" He cannot stop stammering (like a teenage boy, really). Anger or embarrassment always gets the better of him, makes him useless and awkward and completely ridiculous.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Evans approaches, and Severus feels the inexplicable urge to raise his hands in defence (do not let him touch me, do not), to push the unwelcome young man away or out the door or down the bloody stone stairs. "There are things that you have to know. I have to talk to you -"

"I have classes to teach, if you hadn't noticed -"

"Give me five minutes, just five minutes."

"I do not have time for -"

"Listen to me." Evans looms in Severus' personal space. Up close, he can see the new scar on Evans' forehead, still a delicate pink against the perfect white of his skin. Severus' fingers twitch compulsively.

"I - " the young man stops. His mouth opens. "I - " he tries again.

"Yes? I'm listening."

"Oh - god -" Evans manages, before doubling over. Severus thinks the boy might be laughing at first, until he realises the tremors wracking Evans' body, the heavy breathing and shaking are due entirely to pain.

"What is it?" Severus asks, anger completely forgotten, as if it were never there (a ghost, a shadow).

"Listen - to - me - " Evans chokes out, clutching his head in his hands. "You - have to -" His knuckles go white against his dark hair.

"What is it?" Severus says again, reaching out before he can stop himself.

"Don't touch me, oh god - " Evans flinches, jerking from Severus' grip, "My head, it's my -"

"Episkey," Severus tries, with a flourish of his wand. Evans gasps. "Restituo," he tries again. "Restituo!"

"Listen -" Evans whimpers, "I - know -"

"I'm going to get help," Severus hisses, moving quickly from the room. His hands are trembling with panic and adrenaline and something else, something unknown to him.

"Don't - leave -"

"I'm getting help," Severus says again, and is gone, out the door and racing through the dungeons. He strides rapidly, letting his long legs carry him as quickly as they can, eventually breaking into a run. When he reaches the infirmary, he is too breathless to explain, managing only a "Come - please -" to a shocked Madam Pomfrey before taking off again for his rooms.

Which are empty.

Severus makes several tours of them, even going so far as to peer beneath the sofa and his own bed, flinging open closet and wardrobe doors until Pomfrey asks, "Is everything all right, dear?" in a voice she usually reserves for the children with head injuries.

"Get out," Severus snaps, face hot with embarrassment and panic. Pomfrey "hmphs" and leaves, closing the door none too gently behind her. Alone, however briefly, Severus grits his teeth and calls out in the silence.

"Evans? Where the hell have you gone?"

There is no answer. He moves to his bedroom, and tries again.

"Evans? Evans?" And finally, "Harry?"

There is no reply. Severus exhales, and his breath is like thunder sounding through his empty rooms.

 

You say you love me and you're thinkin' of me
But you know you could be wrong
You say you told me that you wanna hold me
But you know you're not that strong
I just can't do what I done before
I just can't beg you any more
I'm gonna let you pass and I'll go last
When time will tell just who fell
And who's been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine.

- Bob Dylan

"Chances Are, You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine"

Part Three: Half Past

 

The Department of Quantum Magic is tiny, but then again, so is UWL (the University of Wizarding London, which Harry had chosen over the much more sprawling and popular University of Magical Arts, in Yorkshire). All his friends, of course, had been shocked (Hermione more than most) when he decided to keep going to school, rather than become an Auror. He had never been that keen on school when he went to Hogwarts, but after the War, things - changed. He told them all it was just until he figured out what he wanted to do, but really it was because he didn't want to fight anymore. He didn't know if he'd be ready to ever fight again.

"Dr. Hall?" Harry knocks on his supervisor's door, stack of graded essays in hand.

Eleanor Hall resembles no one so much as Luna Lovegood - if she aged thirty years, purchased several dozen cats and started dressing in the dark. She peers out of her office with wide eyes, a puff of incense smoke escaping from the opened door.

"Harry! How good to see you. Please come in."

He lays the marking down on her desk and clears a pile of books off a chair to have a seat.

"How have you been keeping? Not too busy, I hope?"

"Fairly busy," he admits. "A one-year-old will do that to you."

"Oh, of course. How could I forget? And are the two boys getting along well?"

Harry smiles despite himself, a helpless reaction when he thinks of his children.

"Surprisingly enough, yes. We're really lucky."

"Well that's wonderful. While I have you here, I just want to tell you I'm really enjoying some of your drafts thus far. You've hit on some really unique conceptions of time-travel magic."

("It's a bit of an obsession," Ginny tells him, frowning at his stack of textbooks. "And for what? The watch has stopped ticking, Harry. You don't know if you'll ever be able to go back again."

They have a huge row that night, basically the only fight they've ever had. And for what? For an obsession.)

"I'm glad you like it." Harry returns to the present. "It's all fairly rough, but I've been doing a lot of reading. I'm getting there. I think."

"Your ideas about the travel itself being connected to a word or a thought - I've never seen anything like this. Wherever did you get the idea, I wonder?"

("It's obvious, isn't it?" Hermione sighs, unable to stop herself. Harry won't quit talking about his second visit with Snape, and though months ago she swore she would not help, Hermione is very nearly putting up her hand. "The watch won't let you tell him about the future. That's why it pulled you away the first time, and the second time, right before you were going to tell him."

"But the pain - why did it -"

"Because you couldn't just disappear in front of him. He would know something was up. It can only take you back when you are not together."

Harry stares at her, lips parted. Hermione rolls her eyes.

"That's all you get, okay? I'm not giving you anything else.")

"Harry?" Dr. Hall is watching him, curiously. He comes back to himself, once again (He swears his mind wanders when he is in this office, possibly down to his supervisor burning more than incense.). "Are you quite all right?"

"Yes, I'm - fine. I'm sorry - just have some things on my mind."

"Well, that's to be expected. I hear you're speaking at the upcoming Memorial Day."

Er - possibly. Potentially." He hadn't even committed to the event, and already the bloody Ministry was advertising. It didn't bear thinking about.

"Isn't that nice for you. My partners and I are boycotting the event, of course - for reasons of our own. But I'm sure you'll do very well."

Harry gives her a smile he does not quite mean. He is getting quite brilliant at that.

The kids are at their gran's that night and Ginny off for drinks with some woman from work. In his room, Harry tries to read but has little luck. He retrieves a blank sheet of parchment in the hopes of starting the speech he has been all but forced make, but the words seem hollow. Empty. He crumples the paper up, chucks it away. He lies back on his bed, turns on the radio.

"Go 'way from my window, leave at your own chosen speed..."

He switches the radio off.

He remembers waking up in the present, after the second time he saw Snape. His mouth was dry and the world was spinning, and he knew if he fell down he would not be able to get back up, because Snape (who blushed when he drank tea) because Snape (who got intoxicated much too easily) because Snape (who would choke to death on a laugh rather than let it out) was dead. Was still dead. And Harry was, quite suddenly, devastated by this.

He knows he should have regretted Snape's death when he saw his memories in the Pensieve. When he realised the man loved his mother, had been spending his whole life trying to stop the Dark Lord and save the Boy-Who-Lived, and giving himself up time and time again for a cause that treated him like cat shit. He should have regretted Snape's death, and he did regret it, he did; it sat like a stone in his belly, like the world's weight against his back. And yet -

It hadn't burned so sharply before. Before he knew the threadbare texture of the man's sitting room couch. Before he knew how worn and scratched his copy of Young Americans was, or the way he started to grit his teeth when someone handled his Dylan albums.

It hadn't burned so sharply before. Like a wound, that will not heal.

A mark that leaves a scar.

(October. Severus is 26, Harry is 22.)

Laden down with his suitcase, lab kit, and armful of books, Severus does not notice the young man until he has sent him sprawling back on the pavement.

"Watch where you're -" he barks at the same time the fallen man starts to apologise.

"I'm so sorry, I -"

Harry Evans blinks owlishly up at Severus from behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. It takes a moment for it all to register. Severus drops his bags quite suddenly.

"You -" he manages, tongue heavy and sullen in his mouth.

"Snape!" Evans exclaims, face breaking out into that wide infectious smile. He turns his head quickly, as if suddenly unfamiliar with his surroundings. "It's - really you. It's been ages."

Evans gets to his feet quickly, brushing his palms against his jeans. Every time Severus sees the young man, Evans is wearing something even stranger. At the moment he looks damp, as if he stood in the shower with his clothes, or just walked out of a rainstorm. Which is ridiculous; it’s been perfectly sunny for most of the day. Not for the first time, Severus gets the strange impression that Evans has stepped out of another world entirely. He does not say this, of course. It seems he can momentarily say nothing.

"I'm sorry to crash into you like that," Evans says, gathering up a few of Severus' dropped books, "I was in a rush. I didn't think I'd see anyone I knew in - this area."

"Oh," Severus chokes softly. "Well."

Evans won't stop smiling; it is a bit obscene. He seems to have no intention of letting Severus move past him on the sidewalk.

"How have you been? How is - school?"

"As it ever was." Severus recollects his bags and moves to continue on his way. Evans steps in front of him.

"I'm sorry about the last time we saw each other. I was nothing but trouble, I'm sure. And then leaving so suddenly - I -"

Severus gets the impression the young man is coming up with this story quite rapidly.

"I have these headaches. This condition - and I need special medication - so I had to go and get some right away -"

"I have an appointment," Severus interrupts, brushing past the younger man. He is not going to stand there and let himself be made a fool of. For a few moments the only footsteps he hears are his own, and he smiles grimly, imagining Harry Evans left far behind him - left in the dust. And then there is a burst of movement and noise, and the man (elegant as ever) is again at his side.

"Your books."

"I told you, I have an appointment to attend, and I do not have time for the requisite -" Severus stops. Evans is still holding the books he collected from the pavement upon their collision.

"Your books," Evans says again, and Severus jerks the offending items from the young man's hands. In doing so, he drops the two other books he had balanced precariously in the crook of his elbow, and Evans is on his knees instantly, gathering them up.

"I would thank you not to handle my belongings. I am perfectly capable -"

"Whereabouts is this appointment of yours?"

"None of your business, certainly -"

"I've got nowhere to be. Maybe I could walk you there, if it's not too far. Give you a hand with all this - stuff."

You can piss right off, is what you can do (The words echo in Severus' skull, but he finds he does not have the fire to put voice to them. It has been a long and bloody week.).

"I do not require your assistance, thank you," he snaps, snatching the remaining books from Evans' arms. Tucking them firmly beneath his chin (and fully cognizant of how ridiculous he looks), he gives Evans a short, sharp nod, before turning away down the street once more. He makes it about twenty yards when one book slips from his grasp, causing the rest to tumble mercilessly to the ground.

Evans has caught up with him in a heartbeat. Or several heartbeats (For some reason, Severus' heart is pounding rather fast.). They crouch on the pavement together. Severus tries to gather his possessions as quickly as possible, which only makes his hands and fingers more graceless.

"Where are you going with all of this?"

"Once again, I have no wish or inclination to discuss this with you."

"Surely you could have - I dunno - shrunk these down? Carried them in your suitcase?"

Severus rolls his eyes, and rises. "You have a solution for everything, don't you, Evans? However did I get along without you for twenty-six years?"

"Twenty-six? You're twenty six. Of course you are. So that -" The younger man trails off absently. Severus has no time to waste on imbeciles.

"At any rate, I find that Muggle relatives react rather badly in the presence of magically shrunken books. In particular -"

"You've a Muggle relative? I didn't know -what's their name?"

Fucking hell. Muggle Maladies: A Compendium begins to slither through Severus' grasp.

"Listen. I am late enough as it is. If you promise to treat my books with some modicum of respect and stay blessedly silent, you may - you may accompany me." He means it to come off more insulting than it actually does. If he is to be burdened with the young man's company, Severus reasons, then Evans can attempt to make himself useful. Severus does not expect this tiny, grudging offer to register like pleasure across Evans' face.

"Silent as the grave, me," Evans promises, smile wide and warm as sunlight on stone.

"More silent than that," Severus snaps at him, but Evans' smile does not fall.

He fully intends for his guest to leave when they reach their destination. Severus would not subject just anyone to his great aunt's company, nor to the filth and stench of her council flat. However, Evans stays with him - opening the front doors of the concrete apartment building, silently ascending the staircase behind him. He makes none of the comments Severus is expecting, nothing about the shabbiness of the building, the smell of every tenant's dinner all mingled together, the paint peeling in strips off the yellowed walls. Evans does not even make a snide remark about Severus having a Muggle relative, though perhaps he already knew as much from Lily. Still, the company of Aganetha Snape is another matter entirely.

"You can just drop the books there," Severus mutters, having reached his aunt's rooms (Number 412, the iron '4' long since gone, its shadow vaguely visible on the door's discoloured paint).

"Do you want me to wait somewhere? If you aren't staying long, that is. Or, if you want some company -"

"Out of the question," Severus says, sharper than he means to be. "You've done quite enough. I would not take up any more of your -"

He is interrupted by a voice like a throat full of nails.

"Severus? Is that bloody you? Interrupting my programmes, as usual." A small and wizened old woman peers out of flat number 412. Aganetha is in fine form; her black hair stands up in all directions, and her clothes are stained with food. Her voice is another matter, and upon opening the door she coughs violently, then spits something awful on the ground. Severus is careful where he steps.

"Good God, you look like death warmed over. 'Ave you brought someone with you? I'm not a bleedin' hostel, whatever you might think. Don't just stand there catching flies, come inside, come inside." Before Severus can protest, his aunt has fastened her hands to Evans' arm and is dragging the poor man after her. Evans gives Severus a look of amused horror, before disappearing into the flat. Severus sighs, unsurprised that Evans has managed to again slip underhandedly into his life. Nevertheless, he follows.

His aunt has sat herself down in the sitting room's only chair, set up directly in front of a blaring television (the reception of which keeps cutting in and out). There are piles of magazines stacked nearly as tall as Severus, as well as envelopes upon envelopes of newspaper articles, clipped coupons, things found on the street. The windows have been blocked with numerous small pieces of cardboard, taped and glued together ("It's not safe," his aunt had told him once, "Not safe to have all those people looking in. They could see anything, anything at all." He had brought her curtains a short time after that, which she had insulted him viciously for, then sealed them in a bag and added them to "the stacks". She was like a dragon, curled around gold.).

Evans stands awkwardly in the middle of the room, trying to avoid knocking anything over, while Severus retreats to the attached kitchenette. He opens his small bag, taking out various frozen meat pies and tarts, and other items that should keep for a bit. He had the house-elves make some "Muggle food that could be easily stored" and this is what they came up with. Not that they'll get much thanks for it.

"What in the hells are you doing back there, crashing around?" Aganetha wheezes. "I can't hear my bleedin' stories! I'm not sure why I bother, mind - some people are too stupid for words. She's having an affair, you great git!" This last bit is shouted at the crackling television. When Severus glances back at Evans, the young man's eyes have gone very wide.

He puts the last of the food away and returns to the sitting room. His great aunt has little interest in anything other than the television until the adverts come on, so he and Evans stand in silence until then. When a man starts shouting excitedly about dish soap[d3] , Aganetha turns her bird-black eyes to her company.

"So who is this you've brought to see me? Your poofy little boyfriend?" She laughs like a rattle.

Severus feels himself go very still. He can tolerate this woman on her own; abuse is nothing new to him. It is difficult to have company, someone to bear witness. Evans has gone very red, and Severus feels his stomach clench.

To his surprise, Evans speaks first.

"Actually, Severus and my - cousin knew each other at school. I offered to help him carry all his books here." The man's voice is level, confident, and Severus rather wonders if Evans is no stranger to hideous relations.

Aganetha looks consideringly between the pair of them. "You don't look the type to have him, that's for certain." She coughs again, and pounds her chest. With a jerk of her head, she motions at Severus. "Queer as all get out, this one. You watch yourself, lad. Don't know why I let him in my house, liable to catch something."

Mortified, as usual, Severus glances over to see Evans' reaction to this last bit of information. Strangely, he does not look uncomfortable - more furious, than anything. He opens his mouth, and in a rush of fore-thinking, Severus cuts him off.

"How are your lungs feeling?" he asks his aunt, opening up his potions kit.

"Can't bloody breathe. Getting the headaches again, too. And I won't be eating any of the food you brought me. I don't need charity from the likes of you, and I don't want to know what your sort puts in your pies. Makes a body sick."

She always makes similar comments, but she always eats his food. Severus grits his teeth as Aganetha's programme resumes.

"Is breathing more difficult in the morning or at night?"

"Night. Shut it, will you? Gemma might be pregnant."

"The headaches - do they usually manifest at any specific time?"

"Afternoon mostly. Beastly things."

"What about your stomach? Any further problems?"

Evans watches the exchange, saying nothing, for which Severus is grateful.

"No, it's been fine since that nasty drink you gave me. Trying to poison me in my old age, I expect."

"May I take your pulse for a moment?"

"I'd be a fool to let you touch me. Christ only knows where your hands have been last." Despite this comment, Aganetha holds out her arm. Severus pinches her wrist between thumb and forefingers, and counts slowly. Satisfied, he releases her. He flips through one of his books, settling on the index, and then discarding it, unsatisfied. New editions were always a waste of time. He takes up another one of his favourites, Let's Make Muggle Medicine! and scans briefly through the chapter on respiratory ailments.

"I'm going to brew a solution for that cough. It will take a few hours, I should think, so I will return tomorrow. It should help your lungs as well. And you should visit a doctor -"

"A doctor? Why would I do that? Those people will kill you, and most of them is foreign. Dreadful sort of people. It isn't safe."

"Right." Severus rises, packs his bag. He gives a nod to Evans, who is still looking rather alarmed at the whole exchange. "That is sufficient for now, then. I will call tomorrow at approximately - ten? Ten-thirty?"

Aganetha barely seems to notice him. "Suit yourself. God knows you always do."

Severus moves toward the door and Evans follows, hands twisted and knotted together. He obviously has something on his mind but Severus does not want to hear it. Thankfully, he manages to let them both out the door without Evans so much as saying a word (while Aganetha sputters on in the background, "Yes, bugger off. Thought he'd never leave."). In fact, Evans does not say anything until they are both well out of the apartment, walking down the pavement toward a busier part of town.

"She shouldn't talk to you like that," he murmurs quietly, arms once again full of textbooks. Severus sniffs.

"There are a great many things she should not do. Nevertheless."

"Are you her only living relative?" Evans asks, unwilling to let the topic lie.

"The only one that will speak to her." Severus wants to stop talking, is finished with the conversation, but words run out of his mouth like bile. It is the effect of Harry Evans, really. It must be. "She was my grandmother's sister. She was seldom friendly with my family, but once she - behaved quite well. To my mother." He can remember it even now, his mother bruised and bloody-nosed in the corner, and Aganetha, his ignorant and spiteful great aunt, chucking her own nephew out of the house ("you stay away from her - imagine if your mam could see you now, she'd be bloody ashamed, you great coward -") like some mad, fearless thing, locking the door against Severus' drunk and cursing father, even while he raged, even while he pounded against the thin wood until it threatened to splinter.

The bastard had not returned home for nearly two weeks. During that time, Severus began to hope against all hope that he never would.

"What exactly does she think you do?" Evans asks after a moment, wrenching Snape out of the past.

"She thinks I'm a chemist."

Harry coughs out a small, sharp laugh, and they walk in companionable silence for a few minutes. Severus wonders when Evans will disappear this time, he cannot help himself. As if reading his mind, the younger man speaks.

"Where are you going now?"

Dusk is beginning to settle in the city sky, dark reds clouding the usual slate grey. Severus shivers with the unseasonable cold.

"I have a room in town. My aunt - obviously - has neither the space nor the desire for me to reside with her, but I will have to let the potion simmer for a few hours."

"Why don't you just Apparate back to Hogwarts?"

Severus cannot answer that, not really. He does not have an answer that makes sense, not even to himself. With a teacher's salary, he could do without the cost of bed and board every few months, but the hotel room still seems necessary. He has to keep this life separate from his other one. It was why he rarely returns to Spinner's End on holidays or weekends; he needs to keep his worlds as far apart as possible.

In response to Evans' question, he mumbles something about time and the young man seems to accept it.

"Do you - want to go for a pint, or grab some food, or - something?" Evans asks quietly. Once again, Severus gets the distinct impression that the man is nervous. He feels the touch of a headache at the back of his skull.

"I find I do not have much appetite following visits with my aunt. Perhaps another time."

"Right. Of course." They continue walking down the street. Severus' usual hotel is just a few streets over - a dodgy place, by any standard, but he's become quite used to it. He subtly begins to shift his bags, in the hopes of making it easier to repossess his books.

Evans must realisesomething is up, for he suddenly speaks again.

"I'll come with you, if you want. Just to help you get your books to your room. And I can give you a hand with brewing if you'd like. I don't know how much help I'll be - I've never been aces at it - but if you need a hand -"

Severus could stand some aid with this particular potion, though he does not say as much. Several ingredients need to be added simultaneously, and the snog-root in particular takes a ridiculous amount of time to peel and mince. He considers.

"That wasn't a come on," Evans explains in a rush, and Severus tries to stop his jaw from dropping. He hadn't even considered - would never even consider - "Did that sound like a come on? I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to -"

"No, of course not," Severus interrupts, unthinking and embarrassed for both of them, "I do not flatter myself that -"

He closes his mouth with an audible snap, nearly carving his tongue clean off. He does not risk looking at Evans, in case the man is blushing. The thought makes electricity dance like nausea in his stomach.

"Okay," Evans manages after a moment. "I just didn't want you to - be offended."

They are still walking. The after-dinner rush is starting to fill the streets, various silent couples hurrying home from the pub, tension written on their faces. Occasionally, a man and woman are laughing or kissing drunkenly, but most would quite obviously prefer to be somewhere else.

"Is it true, what your aunt said?" the young man continues, softly, "About -"

Good lord. It is not to be borne.

"About - you know."

"What?" Severus stops and turns, furious that he has been reduced to having this conversation with Lily Evans' cousin. "That I'm trying to poison her? That it isn't safe to see a registered medical professional? Or that I'm a pie-contaminating, disease-ridden homosexual?"

"Um -" Evans flinches. Severus' raised voice is attracting the glances of more than one passer-by. "The latter."

"So you can flee in terror? Ring for the police? I'll have you know that anyone who is not married, engaged or white as the driven snow is considered by my aunt to be a homosexual and Communist." He refuses to give any more of an answer; it is not Evans' business, nor anyone else's, one way or the sodding other. Though he's certain the answer is fairly obvious (Lucius knew even back at Hogwarts, when Severus was in first year. He was surprisingly decent about it, once horribly hexing a boy who casually referred to Severus as a 'greasy little fag.' Decent for a Slytherin, anyway.).

That was a long time ago, and Severus has almost stopped thinking of himself in terms of 'sexuality'. Apart from a few startling dreams and the occasional (guilty, frustrated, brutally efficient) wank, he has little experience with it.

Not that any of this is Evans' bloody business.

"I'll have my books back, thank you," Severus snaps, for lack of violence.

"Oh for god's sake." Evans twists away from Severus' outstretched hand, avoiding his grasp. "You get all out of sorts over the tiniest thing."

"The tiniest thing? How dare -"

"Must we always have this discussion? If you hadn't noticed, I was the one inviting myself to your room not thirty seconds ago."

(Electricity like nausea, heat like terror.)

Severus cannot think of a response.

"And it wouldn't matter to me," Evans adds softly, "either way."

Severus' anger dries up like leaves, quickly and suddenly, shrinking down to tiny scraps of orange and yellow. Neither men move. The offer rests against his tongue, flavoured with dread and dry air. This is bloody ridiculous. You ask that boy back to your room and you'll be murdered and robbed blind by sun-up. Severus bloody Snape. Don't you bloody dare.

"I do - in fact - require aid in my potions-making this evening." (Foolish, foolish.) "If you are still willing. It shan't be very entertaining, and I cannot promise any sort of tolerance for substandard skill."

"I'm shocked. You always seem so patient and understanding."

"Prat." Severus turns up the street toward his hotel, smirk beginning to twitch at the corner of his mouth, when he feels it. Just a slight brush against his jacket sleeve, for less than a second, with no great weight or passion behind it.

Evans nudged him. Jostled him, good-naturedly, the way a friend would. So lightly and so briefly that Severus could not even feel the heat of the other man's skin, but for some reason, the action seems vastly significant. Makes his arm go warm and prickling all over (nausea and terror forgotten); his fingers clench sporadically on the handle of his suitcase.

Evans turns over his shoulder to grin at him. "You okay?"

"It's - this way," Severus murmurs, shaking the odd sensation from his skin, striding down the cobbled street. Harry Evans trudges along by his side. As always, it is a surprise.

Later, much later, the potion is simmering on a small flame (Severus has the hotel room charmed with several ventilation spells) and Harry Evans sits drowsily in an armchair, head resting on his hand. Severus keeps looking over at him, small helpless glances (like sips of a drink that is too strong) while he cleans up his supplies. The young man's fingers still have small fragments of grape skin sticking to them, and there are a few pieces on his eyebrow, from when he rubbed his hand across his face. The gash on his forehead healed quite nicely since their last encounter, leaving no mark (Severus flatters himself that this was his doing), but the other strange scar is still visible near Evans' hairline.

Severus has always thought scars were lovely. The pale kind, smooth to the touch and flickering like candle flame, not the raised ridgey pink kind, like tiny child's fingers over skin. He has several of both, but the silver kind he never minded, thought in adolescence (ridiculous) they lent him an air of mystery. He had yet to realise that an air of mystery, or anything strange or extraordinary, was less than desirable in the eyes of his teenage classmates.

"How long does it have to sit for?" Evans asks sleepily from his chair, eyes fluttering open and closed at steady intervals.

"A good four hours." Severus pretends not to notice the peel on Evans' eyebrow. He places a cushioning charm on the last few glass beakers and stows them in his suitcase. He is surprised that Evans was as much help as he was. The man's skills were evidently mediocre, but he approached each task eagerly, and was never too incensed by Severus' more cutting criticism. On the whole, the man made a halfway decent lab partner, though Severus would never have said as much.

"Hmm," Evans murmurs softly. It is only near midnight, and Severus will be awake for several more hours, then up around dawn; can never stand sleep, really, or the nightmares that inevitably follow it. Too much sleep makes his body feel sluggish, like he's had too much wine, makes his fingers and toes swell like he's sat too long in a hot bath. He much prefers his sharp, angular existence (always on the fine edge of exhaustion, but at least he knows where his edges are).

Evans, on the other hand, seems seconds away from dozing off. An obvious symptom of easy living; the man probably has never lain awake a night in his life, probably dozes off the moment his dark head hits the pillow, and dreams of cake and tea with cream.

"You're nice, you know," Evans says absently, eyelashes fluttering.

Severus allows himself to flinch. "I am not."

"You are. To your aunt. Even though she's awful."

He will not disagree with this.

"And to me," Evans continues, head nodding forward. Severus does not move for a long silent moment, until he realises that the young man has fallen asleep. His shoulders are moving evenly, heavily, in a fashion only sleep can induce.

Severus watches his potion simmering. The scent of herbs and fruit fills the air, thick and pungent, almost like mulled wine. He is not nice to Harry Evans. He does not even like him, can barely stand his company for more than an hour. Thank Merlin they do not have to see much of each other. Thank Merlin Evans appears and disappears again before one even notices he's there.

"I am not nice," Severus snipes at the sleeping man. At least Evans had the good grace to fall asleep in the chair; Severus would not take kindly to sharing a bed in the room that he paid for, and he shudders to think what Evans would have thought in the morning. If they had shared a bed. Which they would not have. And are not going to.

"I do not flatter my-" Severus murmurs, before cutting himself off again. He sometimes forgets that he isn't alone and cannot natter sharp things under his breath without being considered mad. He clambers up onto the bed and stretches out, doing his best to ignore the soft breathing that follows him across the room. Evans will probably be gone by morning, maybe (if Severus is lucky) even gone before he wakes.

The potion bubbles quietly, soothingly, a lullaby for a Potions Master. Except now there is soft and steady breathing accompanying it, and the strange harmonies make Severus' hands long to do unfamiliar things, make them clutch at each other and tug at his collar and cover his face.

He calms himself by thinking again of Evans, and the man's inevitable and imminent departure. That does the trick; the thought is so pleasant that it makes Severus' stomach clench, and he rolls onto his side to lessen the ache.

Unexpectedly sharp.

*  *  *

The morning comes as mornings must.

Severus wakes before Evans does (unsurprising, given what he knows of his character), washes and dresses before his guest has even stirred. Upon his return to cognisance, Evans seems quite rightly embarrassed of his dozing off, but does not have the good grace to look as if he spent a night in a chair. Severus would be rumpled and out of sorts, his neck bent uncomfortably, his hair standing up. Evans on the other hand, looks completely refreshed, rather flushed and lovely, and -

And nothing.

Severus decants his potion while the man moves around the room, restless, fidgeting.

"Would you like me to come with you? Back to your aunt's, I mean?"

Severus nearly chokes. "So she can assume we spent the night together? Excellent suggestion. You might cast the Killing Curse on me now, rather than putting me to the trouble of performing it on myself."

Evans laughs softly, but continues his tour of the tiny room. "How often do you visit her?"

"More often than I'd like." Severus grits his teeth, but again cannot stop talking. "Every other month."

"And does she ever - is she always - the way she is?"

Severus feels the unexpected urge to quirk his lips, but resists. "That is indeed a way to put it." He fills another vial with the thick blue liquid. "I am tempted to put the memory of each visit in my Pensieve. At least that way I will not -"

"What?" Evans interrupts sharply, with such intensity that Severus stops what he's doing and looks up. The man has gone completely still and is staring at Severus like he just burst into flames. "What did you say?"

"That I would put my memories in a Pensieve. Then I would not dread each visit quite as much. It was an attempt at humour, I do not -"

"A Pensieve."

"Yes. Have you -" Severus is momentarily flustered. "Was your education that woefully inadequate that you have never heard of one?"

"I have to go. I have to buy a Pensieve." Evans looks desperately for his coat, grabs his wand from the arm of the chair. "I have to - yeah."

His moves quickly to the door, and Severus gets to his feet (in an inexplicable bout of foolishness) to see him out. Evans lingers in the doorway, eyes wide with something unnamable.

"Listen, I - could we meet up later, do you think? Will you be in the city for a bit?"

"Longer than I would like, I'm sure."

"I'll find you then, yeah? I'll find you."

"That really won't be necessary."

Evans has obviously been inspired by something; he cannot stop talking, and his fingers twist against each other. "I'll find you, and - buy you breakfast maybe, or lunch or -"

"Good lord, you needn't. It's not the morning after -"

The words are out before he can stop himself, and before he realises what he is saying. Evans meets his eyes suddenly, in the doorway of his hotel, and their locking gazes are like a punch to Severus' stomach; he feels something rise in his throat, and his knees start to give, and his heart stumbles, lurches as if it were drunk -

"What I mean -" is as far as he gets before the words die on his tongue. Evans opens his mouth to say something, but no sound is formed; instead, the man takes a step forward, a small shuffle that feels like a heartbeat, and Severus thinks he might be sick, right here, right now, all down the front of his robes and the hideous hotel carpet.

"Don't," he hisses under his breath. Evans stops moving, a question curled across his face like parchment. Don't - what, Severus? He hasn't done anything.

"I do not -" Severus says, and Evans steps closer (one fluid, impulsive motion) and kisses him.

And the world goes white.

(In sixth year, Potter is not at the start-of-term feast. He is not there, and Severus sits and twists in his seat, pulse racing and teeth on edge, until the message arrives for Hagrid. Of course, Hagrid is up and ready to fetch Potter instantly, but Severus is so awash with relief and despair that he brushes past the oaf, mumbling some excuse that no one thinks to question, all the while feeling Dumbledore's cold eyes boring like maggots into his back.

When he reaches the gates, it is all he can do not to reach out and throttle the boy, what was he thinking, using that cloak on the train and bloody fucking hell what if he had not been found, what if -

Potter's face is covered in blood.

Severus feels curses rush to his lips, and his hands clench fists at his sides, and he is heinous to Nymphadora Tonks, but he does not care. And he hates Harry sodding Potter, hates him with a passion that cannot be cooled by cold water or dark magic, hates that Potter is capable of making the dreaded Severus Snape pine and panic. But more than that, hates that he cannot reach up and wipe the blood away and tell him, tell him everything.

'You knew me, once. You knew me. You carried my books.'

And since he cannot do this, cannot do anything, he reduces himself to hatred. And he hates Harry sodding Potter. Always.)

It is over in a moment, a sweet hot brush of lips, before Evans gasps (as if he is in pain, or scalding water) and jerks away. They stare, unseeing, at each other.

Severus has never been kissed. Twenty-six years old and he has never been kissed.

"Oh - god," Evans says softly.

Severus cannot move his lips.

"Oh god," Evans says again, colour leaping like flame to his face. "I don't know what I was - I'm so sorry -"

"Just - let me -" Severus speaks softly without realizing it, and at the sound of his voice, Evans flinches. They stare at each other, and then Evans is clutching at him again, pressing his lips to Severus' thin ones, and this time there is a tongue darting into Severus' gasping mouth, a small wet tongue licking against his own, and Severus knows he moans, knows he makes a lost and keening sound, and thinks he might die of shame (if he can ever tear himself away from this delirious kiss).

"I have to go," Evans breathes, and Severus' lips are damp and his eyelids threaten to flutter, but still he feels Evans' hands slip away from him.

He tries to form words. "Go, then." His voice is hoarse, mouth dry with lust.

"I'm - so sorry," Evans repeats. He does not move for a moment, then takes a step back, then another, then another, before turning and all but running down the hall.

He's sorry. As if that explains it all, as if that explains the prickling at the back of Severus' eyes and the chill that shivers up his spine and the way Evans' tongue slipped like honey into his mouth.

The hotel carpet is green and red and bright bright blue, diamonds moving and intersecting, a jumble of clashing colours like vomit or the back of Severus' eyelids when he has a headache. He reaches out suddenly, clutching at the doorframe as if he might fall down. He closes his eyes (he was kissed, was kissed) and when he opens them, it is a new world, a world that knows the exact shape and pressure of Harry Evans' mouth.

("I'll find you then, yeah? I'll find you.")

"Go then," Severus repeats quietly to himself, and the words are like glass against his tongue.

 

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

W. H. Auden

"As I Walked Out One Evening"

 

Part Four: Twenty To

There is a thick piece of paper glued to the brick wall on the way to the restaurant (Hermione was mad to try it, but it had to be tonight, for some odd reason.). Ron steps hurriedly in front of Harry and tears it down, but not before Harry sees the grinning skull and winding snake protruding from its mouth.

"The Mark," he says softly.

"How could they put one up in this area without someone noticing? Bastard must have just left - wish I'd seen him. I'd give him a mark he wouldn't soon forget."

"My hero," Harry grins, and Ron rolls his eyes.

It's funny, but Harry was almost getting accustomed to seeing the Mark at bus stops and in alleyways, pasted on sidewalks or in dingy washrooms. There had even been some painted on a couple of flats near to Harry's, although most people thought those were the work of some bored kids. The Marks themselves were nothing new; they had been showing up for years around the wizarding world, pasted on walls or painted on buildings in the night. This last year, however, they had become much more prevalent; one even saw them in Muggle areas from time to time. The Ministry still didn't know if a large number of wizards and witches were involved, or if just a handful of nutjobs were trying to be rebellious. Either way, not many people were pleased (Harry had always known it, though he might have wished he hadn't: you stop one Dark Lord, squish him beneath the heel of your boot, and three more rise to take his place. On and on and bleeding on.).

"'Mione tells me you're speaking at the Memorial Day." Ron doesn't sound all that impressed, but at least the Mark is forgotten. "That true?"

Harry groans. "Unfortunately, yes. There's going to be a big statue unveiled. You should see it Ron, it's horrible."

"Not another one of you with your shirt off?"

"No, thank god. Lots of hands, holding a wand - I don't like to think about it. And there will be doves."

"Ever subtle and classy, the Ministry is. Probably just an excuse to sell more merchandise."

Harry chuckles, and Ron continues.

"Speaking of merchandise, there's this Hogwarts jumper Dad's been wanting, but the things are bloody expensive. Maybe if you've got some pull at the event, you could get us a couple of Galleons off. A good Christmas present, that. Maybe I'll get one for Mum as well - they've got the day the War ended on the back in gold -"

"Ron," Harry interrupts, aware his friend is starting to babble. He abruptly stops walking. "What's going on?"

"Nothing. The restaurant is just around the block, don't want to keep Hermione waiting. Apparently they do a great chicken curry -"

"Ron," Harry says again, watching his friend's face for the slight shifting of eyes, the flushing of cheeks that always betrays his nerves. Something strikes him. "Who's coming to dinner?"

"Well, me and you, obviously. And Hermione."

Harry says nothing, lets Ron sweat it out.

"And you - did I already say that?"

"Yes." Harry grinds his teeth together, waiting for the inevitable.

"And me... andthisblokeHermioneworkswith - Harry, don't run off!"

Harry has already turned on his heel, marching back the way they came. Ron hurries after him.

"You can't do this!" Ron shouts at him, "You can't just leave! Hermione booked these reservations weeks ago. Do you have any idea what a snit she'll be in?"

"It serves her right," Harry mutters, and keeps walking.

"Come on," Ron whines, keeping pace, "it doesn't have to be a big thing. It's just dinner, with a guy that Hermione knows, and - she tells me he's a stand-up bloke - you don't have to get married or -"

"Ron." Harry stops, and his friend instantly runs into him. "I'm not interested. Okay? I don't know how many more times I have to say it."

Ron is silent for a moment. "At least once more, I guess."

"I'm going home."

"She's going to murder me. And then you. But first me." Ron sighs. "What do you want me to tell her?"

"Tell her to stop this. Just because I haven't had a date in awhile -"

"Harry - you've never had a date."

Harry had forgotten that.

"Ginny's seeing people," Ron manages, obviously hugely uncomfortable.

"Ginny's not seeing anyone," Harry snaps. "Who's Ginny seeing?"

(The whole thing is her idea. She's always wanted kids and getting married will only make it easier to adopt.

"Neither of us can have who we want," she says softly, and Harry wonders briefly whom Ginny wants but cannot have. "But I do love you. I've always loved you. And even if we can't have the people we want, we can still have a family."

They get James when he is one, and he is perfect, and gorgeous, looks just like Harry; no one can imagine a lovelier baby. And then two years later - James' mum contacts Harry and Ginny, says she’s had another baby, and she can’t keep him, and how do you tell your child you could have given him a brother, his real brother, but you said no, how could you ever say that -)

"Who's Ginny seeing?" Harry demands, incredulous.

"Well, Plum. From work. Obviously." Ron is turning an alarming shade of red.

"And if she's giving it a go, everyone just thinks - maybe you'd be - happier -"

"I'm perfectly happy," Harry retorts, harsher than he means to be (Bloody Plum, from work? Why the devil didn't she tell him?). "Completely sodding blissful. Never better. I'm going home."

He turns again and walks away. Ron sighs heavily behind him.

"I'm telling her you've got food poisoning. Again," he calls after Harry.

Harry ignores him, keeps stomping along the pavement because it makes him feel slightly better (if look somewhat ridiculous). So what if he hadn't dated anyone since - since Ginny, really? What did they expect him to do? He couldn't make himself want someone he didn't want, and he wasn't about to try, making polite awkward conversation with some chap he'd never see again. And it was great that Ginny was dating again, bully for her and all that, but it didn't mean Harry wanted to. It didn't mean Harry would ever want to, ever sodding again. And it didn't mean he wasn't perfectly content with his life, his school and his kids and his single bed and he was completely soddingly back-breakingly happy so everyone could piss right the fuck off goddamn them -

(Harry is jerked back to his own time the second he tries to extract the memories from his mind. The Pensieve shatters in his hands, shards of stone slicing through his palm, and he drops them, gasping.

Next time, he will not be so careless, will not wait to be called away. He collects his memories of Snape‘s death and the War and Dumbledore and Voldemort, and seals them carefully in a vial. Next time, he will not be so careless. Next time he will have the memories with him.)

Blind with rage and misery, he doesn't see the young woman until he is nearly upon her. She is leaning up against the wall of a building, doubled over in a violent coughing fit. As he approaches, willing himself to calm down, she wipes tears from her eyes with chapped fingers.

"You all right?" he asks, and the woman clutches at herself, whimpering.

"Hey," he says softly, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She turns and looks up at him, eyes bloodshot, bottom lip split and starting to bleed.

"Is there anything I can do?" Harry asks her, and the corner of her mouth quirks.

"Stupefy," she whispers, and Harry's world swims into darkness.

(February. Severus is 27, Harry is 22).

The next time, Severus sees the man first. Harry Evans is leaning up against the brick wall of a building, under a large black umbrella. Severus does not have an umbrella, and will not risk a spell in such a public place. He crosses the street carefully, shivering at the trickles of water that run through his hair, landing coldly on his skin (Later he will ask himself why he did not think to walk away, why he crossed the street at all. There is a child's joke in that.).

"Evans," he shouts over the raindrops on the pavement. "What in Merlin's name are you doing here?"

It cannot be a coincidence, it simply cannot. So close to the sodding Ministry, the man must be there for official reasons, or some type of similar nonsense. Or perhaps (don't be absurd) perhaps (you stupid useless fool) perhaps he knew Severus would be there. It was sufficiently well-publicized, perhaps -

"Waiting," Harry smiles his odd half-smile, the one Severus is becoming more and more familiar with. The last time he saw Evans' smile was the instant before he turned and walked away. The time before that was seconds before they - kissed (He can still barely think the word.). They kissed. And then Evans turned and ran like his house was on fire.

"For whom, may I ask?"

Evans opens his mouth and hesitates. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

Severus could be a good deal more intoxicated and still not be prepared for this conversation.

"It's a sodding downpour, in case you hadn't noticed. And the pubs are closed."

"What are you doing here, then?"

Severus inhales sharply before he can stop himself. So he does not know. Or is feigning ignorance (a tragedy, that, when Evans does the real thing so very well).

"The Ministry," Severus says quietly.

"Really? Oh. Helping them with something - potions-related?"

Severus curls his lip. "Don't be stupid."

Evans still stares at him blankly. "Hogwarts business, then?"

For Merlin's sake. Rain is running down Severus' face, which only serves to make him angrier. "Of course bloody not. You think Albus Dumbledore would send me of all people on official Hogwarts business? I was being questioned by the Wizengamot, as if you didn't sodding know."

Again, Evans makes him say entirely too much and think entirely too little. Disgusted with himself, Severus turns and walks away.

"The Wizengamot?" Evans tears after him. "But why? Dumbledore spoke on your behalf - that was ages ago."

"It was certainly not ages ago!" Severus hisses in Evans' face, stopping and turning to loom over him, "It has not yet been ten years. And while you may think a single word from Albus Dumbledore is enough to undo decades of tarnish on one's reputation and soul, I tell you now that it is not."

Evans leans back in a bit of panic. He is obviously not so certain as he was before.

"Your sentiment only belies your age," Severus sneers, and continues walking down the street. Has his life been reduced to running from Harry Evans? (The kiss beats one hot pulse of rhythm in his memory before it can be stopped.)

"You seem a lot older than the last time I saw you," Evans calls after him.

"And you are ever the same." There is a silence as Severus keeps walking. He anticipates the outburst, the protests that will come.

"Snape."

Severus does not turn around.

"I have firewhisky."

Something slows down before stopping entirely. It takes a moment for Severus to realise that something is himself. He turns around once more, almost dizzy with the repetition. A few yards away, the slight figure of Harry Evans stands underneath a large umbrella. Watching him. The man's face is obscured in shadow, but the lights of a passing car suddenly illuminate a small, nervous smile. The car also sprays Evans with an unholy amount of rainwater, squealing its tires as it speeds through a junction.

"Oi!" Evans shouts after the car, Severus momentarily forgotten. Severus feels the corners of his mouth twitch. Evans is completely ridiculous, even (or perhaps most especially) when he is trying to be winning.

"Expect you think this is hilarious," Evans mutters, approaching Severus.

"You are impossibly suave."

"You forgot charming and intelligent."

Severus barely represses a snort of laughter. He notices that Evans is carrying a small satchel, the source of the proffered firewhisky. He considers.

"S'pose I'll have to find a public toilet somewhere, to cast a halfway decent drying charm. Too many Muggles around here," Evans continues, though Severus could swear his face is flushed. Evans moves quickly and is soon much too close. His breath smells a bit spicy, mulled wine or blackberry mead, and only the edge of the umbrella separates them.

"You really have nowhere to stay? Once again?"

Evans shakes his head, and the rain falls even harder, as if in response to his pitiful situation.

"And you don't have a broom, I suppose?"

Evans shakes his head again, then frowns suddenly. "Hey, don't worry about me. I'll be okay. You don't have to stand here in the rain. I'll - figure something out."

"You are completely impossible."

"You forgot handsome and very tall."

This time the chuckle escapes Severus' thin mouth, and he tries to cover by faking a cough. He is not certain Evans is convinced. He feels strange for some reason, as if things he is not even aware of are spinning rapidly out of control. His face feels hot, even in the cold rain, and his stomach rolls in fear of the blotchy patches of colour no doubt rising to his cheekbones.

Evans is watching him with what appears to be hesitance. His mouth quirks suddenly and there is humour in it.

"Well you could at least stand under my umbrella," he murmurs. "If you're going to be a while." That's all it takes, really.

"I have a room," Severus stumbles over his words, lips and tongue no longer willing to cooperate. "A room, in the inn just down - if you like. It's not - but if you wanted -"

The man's green eyes widen in a look of genuine shock. Severus is not surprised.

"You - what? You'd let me stay with you?" It is not disgust in the young man's voice.

"At least to let you dry off a bit. You needn't, if you'd rather -"

"No, um -" Evans blushes deeply, it's evident even in the lamplight, "that'd be great. That'd be - really, thank you."

Severus still will not share the umbrella, though the rain only increases as they walk.

"You won't fall instantly asleep in the only chair, will you?"

"Oh, shut it."

Evans jogs along beside him, stumbling almost comically to keep up with Severus' longer strides. Sometimes Severus feels like a beast beside this man, tall and clumsy and inelegant next to Evans' compact and graceful form. Sometimes Severus thinks he could reach over and crush Evans’ small skull with his own long and white-fingered palm. Sometimes he thinks back on the kiss with terror and hysteria, his thin ugly lips clinging weakly to Evans' perfect -

"You're so fast," Evans murmurs, and Severus remembers he is not alone.

"You forgot brilliant and imposing."

The younger man laughs right out loud, and in a moment of bone-bruising exhaustion ("Dumbledore has spoken on your behalf, true, but some of us are not convinced, Mr. Snape.") and unending shame ("We would appreciate it if you would not leave the city for the next few days, Mr. Snape.") and complete idiocy, most like ("May I ask, Mr. Snape, where you were on the night of June 4th, 1979?"), Severus feels his heart give a little lurch in his chest - his heart, damned and useless, bound tight in leather and forgotten as it is. Severus shakes off the dirt of the day, and feels his heart (or maybe not his heart, but something, some nameless want, long dormant in his chest) stir and wake. Roll its shoulders. Flutter its eyelids. Look around the world with wide new eyes at the sound of Evans' unabashed out-loud laugh.

"Don't."

"Don't what?"

Severus looks at Evans in alarm; he was not aware he said that last bit aloud. Evans stares back at him, eyes a bit obscured behind foggy glasses.

"Nothing," Severus snaps, a bit harsher than he means to. Evans happily ignores him and they continue to the wizarding inn a few streets over. At some point (Severus cannot recall when exactly), he realises he is no longer being rained on. That when he looks up, he no longer sees the dark and rolling clouds; instead, the black canvas and wire of the underside of an umbrella fills his line of vision.

He finds he does not mind so much. Evans avoids his gaze.

*  *  *

They toast the Ministry.

They toast Severus' mother, and Aunt Aganetha. They toast Leticia Somnolens, creator of the Draught of Living Death, and Bartleby Goodman, inventor of the Hawkshead Attacking Formation (Severus has never been a Quidditch fan, but he is willing to let this slide.). They toast Albus Dumbledore. They toast Merlin Ambrosius. Before long, the bottle of firewhisky has dwindled and Severus is feeling quite pleased with himself. One would almost think he had not spent the day having all kind of aspersions made about his character. One would almost think he had not spent the day snivelling on his belly, apologizing, pleading (One can only say, "I was young and stupid, stupid and young," so many times before it begins to taste like tree bark against the tongue.).

Somehow in the proceedings, it is decided that Harry Evans will stay the night. Severus cannot remember if he makes the decision or if Evans himself does (he would not put it past the man), but somehow the decision is made. Then there is the great debate about the lone bed, and how Evans can certainly sleep on the floor or in the hard-backed armchair, but really the bed is big enough for two and they're both blokes, after all, and they will only be sleeping (The kiss pounds in Severus' peripheral vision, like light, like heat.).

They toast Lily Evans.

From then on, everything is a disaster. Severus looks too long as Evans shrugs out of his jacket, pulls his jumper up over his head (The man's stomach is more than Severus can admittedly bear, he looks away.). Evans takes an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom, having a bath or shower most like. When he finally emerges, clad only in a thin t-shirt and boxer shorts, he fairly radiates warmth. Severus is convinced his skin would burn were he to even brush lightly against the other man, so he lies down on the opposite side of the bed, as far away as he can be without sleeping on the floor. An idea which is getting more and more appealing.

They shut off the lights and hours pass, hours Severus spends with his eyes pressed tightly shut, damning himself to hell if he even thinks of looking at the man next to him, at the curls of dark hair against the white pillow case, or the mouth opened ever so slightly in sleep. He can smell Evans' breath whenever he exhales, can feel it on his lips, and in his eyelashes. He cannot sleep. He will not open his eyes.

The scent of Harry Evans is delicious.

Panic sets in, as it always does. He is exhausted, and he cannot sleep, and he cannot remember the last time he lay in bed with another person, does not want to breathe too loudly or move too frequently, and damned if he's going to open his eyes, even for a second, even to just glance at the boy's profile, even to see the imprint of his face upon the pillow, his hand open on top of the quilt, his neck his neck -

Severus opens his eyes, and a pair of large green ones are staring back at him.

"Can't sleep," he chokes out much too quickly. Evans blinks sleepily back at him but doesn't say anything. The only sound in the room is their tandem breathing, and the man's scent makes Severus' nostrils twitch. Evans breathes out and breathes in, and Severus feels it to the soles of his feet.

"You were asleep for a while there," Evans murmurs after a moment.

"No, I wasn't."

"You were. You had a nightmare, or something."

Severus cannot believe he had a nightmare that he has no recollection of. They usually linger long after he is awake, hang heavily in his memory like so many swinging bodies. "You shouted a little at first. I was going to wake you up, but then you got very quiet. I couldn't even hear you breathing."

"I have - bad dreams," Severus manages, feeling strangely ashamed of this admission, for any kind of weakness. He is glad for the dim light, certain that the position does nothing to reduce the size of his nose, the thin unpleasantness of his mouth. Evans breathes out, and breathes in, and does not seem to notice.

"I didn't know that," the young man murmurs. "I do, too."

They do not speak for a long stretch of time, but the sound of their breathing seems to echo across the badly papered walls. It is very noisy in what should be a silent room, or maybe it just seems very noisy to Severus. He opens his mouth to say something, but has no idea what that something might be. Harry moves his head closer, almost imperceptibly.

"What do you dream about?" he asks softly, and Severus shudders.

"So - many things." A sea of smooth white masks flashes in his vision, swallowing over Lily Evans and his own decaying mother and green eyes and dark hair and a smile that sparks something in him like flint against stone -

Harry's forehead creases suddenly, his expression so pained and soft that Severus' breath catches in his throat. It is unbearable. It is intolerable.

"I cannot," he hisses before he can stop himself.

"Cannot - what?" In the dim light, Evans' eyebrows knit together.

Severus' hands tremble, his mouth burns. "Why are you doing this?"

"I don't under -" Evans breathes hotly, and Severus can no longer stand the separation between their mouths. He does not know how to approach a kiss, so he just leans in and takes it, dying of thirst and shame all at once.

He kisses Harry Evans.

It is not masterful, and he knows this. He does not move his lips, not really, just presses them desperately against the other man's before wrenching himself away, willing the ground to swallow him up and mash him to pieces. He gasps out an unsteady breath and searches the face before him desperately, for some sign of distaste, some twist of cruel humour. He cannot find any, but his heart is pounding so fast he feels dizzy, and his hands are trembling, are shaking (he knows it), and he cannot gather his wits enough to breathe again, cannot find the strength to move, and his lungs swell up in his chest, pressing against his ribs, against his skin -

Before Evans leans forward and kisses him. Severus tries not to flinch, but he cannot help it, and the soft mouth is gone from his own in seconds.

"Are you - all right?" the man breathes, looking gorgeously unhinged.

"Oh god," is all Severus can reply, and Evans quakes against him.

"Do you -"

"Oh god," Severus says again, trying not to sound too desperate, too terrified, and suddenly he is being kissed again, kissed so fiercely and thoroughly that he has to moan, and when he opens his mouth he finds a tongue inside it; Harry Evans' tongue licks softly against his own, and his large hands come up uselessly to clutch at Evans' nightclothes. When Evans rolls on top of him, Severus grows hard so quickly he sees white behind his eyes.

This, then, is how it happens. This is what people do every day, reach out and touch other people, pull themselves flush against warm bodies, like it's as easy as breathing. This is what Severus waits for (at night when he moves against his mattress, breathes obscenities into his pillow as if it were the warmth of a neck, as if there were someone to hear him). This is what Severus wants (on the rare occasions when he takes himself in hand, pretending his palm is someone else's, staring up into the emptiness of his ceiling in the hopes of seeing eyes staring back).

"Oh god -"

Their bodies find each other so easily and so quickly that Severus has trouble believing they have not done this before. Or he would have trouble believing that, were his mind not skipping like a stone across water, oh god oh god, it was so easy; not nearly as terrible or as lonely as he imagined. He had always imagined loneliness - someone taking something and laughing at him, pleasure hard-edged with pain. He did not expect it to be easy. He did not expect to want - anyone, anything - like this.

"What - what are you wearing?" Evans pants damply against Severus' neck, pulling back for a moment.

Severus desperately tries to remember. "Nightclothes."

"What did - where did these come from?" Evans is still breathing heavily, but a small smile twitches on his lovely mouth.

Severus glances down at his heaving chest, to see the dark flannel pyjamas, buttoned tightly to his throat.

"Transfigured," he manages, "while you - in the bath -"

"That is -" Evans' mouth twitches again, but he seems to change his mind. "Can I - would you take this - off?" The man's face is so flushed that Severus reads the blush even in the darkness. He tugs gently on one of the top buttons.

Severus would say "yes" to anything at this point, and without bothering to think of his marked and sallow skin, he moves his fingers shakily to the buttons of his nightshirt. Evans tries to help but both their hands are trembling, and Evans is still grinding helplessly into him and Severus thinks he might come before his shirt is even off, just trapped in a tangle of limbs and fingers. When only the last button remains, both men try to undo it at the same time. Evans laughs at this, and lifts Severus' hand to his mouth, sucking gently on his fingertips. Severus tilts his head back and gasps his approval.

They pull the heavy shirt off his shoulders, and before Severus can begin to think or panic, Evans is kissing his neck, biting gently at his collarbone, tiny gestures that seem keyed to melt Severus' brain. He gives up trying to do or say anything, just lies back in shell-shocked pleasure, melting into the mattress, giving himself up to the tentative and wholly overwhelming caresses of the man on top of him.

"Can I?" Evans whispers, and when Severus is able to process sound he realises Evans' mouth is poised above a nipple. Severus goes dry-mouthed and boneless with lust, and at the first touch of a tongue against his chest, he cries out and arches his back, taking Evans' face in both hands and drawing the man back for a long, deep kiss.

Evans' thigh rubs perfectly between Severus' legs, perfectly perfectly against the softest and hardest part of him. It feels better than he knew it could, better than such a simple sensation has a right to - but more than that, the sounds coming out of Evans' mouth are driving Severus mad. He is making another person moan, whimper, writhe against him; more than that, he is making Harry Evans moan whimper writhe, Harry Evans, a man with dark hair and green eyes who is lovely and funny and ridiculous and sweet and beautiful beautiful -

"Beautiful -" Severus manages, shocked that he can make his mouth work, shocked that kissing hasn't robbed him of every coherent thought in his head. He thinks he may combust, light fire to the bed sheets with the force of sheer desire, this all-encompassing greed that he never before thought himself capable of possessing. If Evans keeps moving (there just there), if he doesn't stop - oh, don't stop -

"Sna - Severus, oh god -" Harry chokes and hisses, and at the feel of warmth and damp against his thigh, Severus comes helplessly, violently, digging his teeth into Harry's shoulder, curling inward on himself as oh god it's not stopping -

"Oh god," he cries, surprise bleeding into his voice, "oh - oh god -"

The world flashes white behind his eyelids, and he arcs upwards, once, twice, three times please yes please -

"Harry," he murmurs, softer now, and spirals downwards in a swoon. He manages to release the shoulder from between his clenched teeth and relax his white-knuckled grip on Evans' back.

He just made another man come.

He just came against the body of another man.

He is too bloody old to feel this good about it.

Evans rolls off him after a moment, and sprawls out on his back. He is breathing heavily, and Severus is certain he can feel Evans' heartbeat through the mattress, though they are not touching. Or perhaps that heartbeat is his own.

"Oh my god," Evans murmurs, when his breathing seems to be slowing. He sits up slightly and pulls his t-shirt off over his head, to discard it on the floor. His chest, his stomach are still entirely too beautiful, and Severus has to close his eyes against the sudden pang of longing.

"Oh my god," Evans says again. Severus thinks perhaps he should refer to the man as 'Harry' now, if only in his mind. He does not know if he will ever be able to manage it. The young man sighs heavily. When Severus opens his eyes again, he is being watched.

"You are completely - " he begins.

"Do not say it," Severus interrupts, too content to put much ire in it.

"It was going to be a compliment."

"I know."

They lie in silence for a moment. Evans casts a cleaning charm, quickly, and begins to move slowly closer. Severus pretends not to notice.

"You aren't too warm, are you?" the young man asks, curling himself against Severus' side. "Can I do this?"

Severus stiffens, tries to breathe normally. "Yes," he manages, through a throat gone very tight.

"Can I do this?" Evans hesitantly places a hand against Severus' chest, palm warm against his skin. Severus nods curtly. "This?" Evans tucks his chin into the crook of Severus' shoulder, sighing contently, and his bedmate strangely does not roll his eyes. Surely it would be appropriate, and yet he does not. He feels no urge to.

"That was brilliant, by the way," Evans murmurs, words beginning to slur. He yawns against Severus' neck, and Severus goes hot and cold all over, flushed with fever and chilled to the bone.

It is only when Evans' breathing is heavy and deep that Severus begins to speak.

"Where did you go to school?" he asks softly, into the dark room.

Evans makes a small snuffling sound, pulling Severus closer.

"Where were you born?" Severus lifts a hand and gently cards it through Evans' dark hair. "What do you do for a living?"

Evans slumbers on, somewhere far beyond Severus' reach.

"Quidditch is an absurd sport," he says quietly, testing the depth of his sleep, and when Evans does not stir or protest, Severus takes a sharp breath inwards. He chews on his lower lip, a habit he thought he abandoned when he left Hogwarts. Apparently not.

"I do not - mind you," he murmurs, so quietly he can barely make out the words himself. "Not so much." He nearly blushes in distaste.

Lucius always said Severus would make a fool of himself for the first person to relieve him of his lamented virginity. He was drunk at the time and waxing poetical, saying that Severus would fall in love with the first man who got him off, and wouldn't that be a tragedy, and he must guard against it. It seems to Severus, however, that perhaps he was in danger long before this moment ("the tea - very warm").

Evans cries out softly in his sleep.

"What is your middle name?" Severus whispers to him, but the man has no reply.

*  *  *

In the morning he wakes early, Harry Evans still twined around him like exotic vines. For a moment Severus panics, cannot recall how he came to be in this situation, in bed with this complete stranger. It comes back to him quickly, and he fights with the dual urges to flee the room and kiss his way down the skin of Evans' chest. Evans kissed his chest after all - licked and bit his collarbone as if Severus tasted lovely. The thought of Evans' tongue on his nipple is quite suddenly too much; Severus stares down at his pale chest in wonder, as if finally aware of his own body. He never realised it could feel so much, never imagined that his neck or arms or fingertips could be the source of so much sensation. Why did they never tell you this in school?

Evans' dark hair tickles his cheek, and Severus is suddenly filled with an inexplicable sadness. He cannot say why. Perhaps because he hadn't done this years ago, that his past was a series of nights spent alone and isolated and contentedly ignorant of the wonder of his own nipple. Perhaps because of something more than that, something he cannot name.

He untangles himself from the young man in bed, and his skin tightens at the loss of warmth. Evans radiates comfort like a space heater; it would be all too easy to just enfold him in his arms, and sleep for the remainder of the day. However.

He bathes and dresses, and still the young man slumbers. Left alone for the moment, Severus stares at himself in the mirror, trying uselessly to arrange the hair in front of his face in a more appealing manner. No matter what he does, it hangs limp and greasy in his eyes, and he is certain he is not nearly as tolerable-looking as he must have been last night, with Evans' vision and mind fogged with alcohol. He doesn't care about his appearance, not really, has learned to value his mind above all else and scorn beauty in any form. Beauty is not earned; it is not sharpened or honed, not like the mind. Beauty is a fluke, a random chance, one that says nothing of an individual's character. Severus is not beautiful, nor does he care to be. It's just -

He cannot imagine Harry Evans ever watching him lie curled on his side in the early morning light, and feeling his heart clench so violently that breath becomes difficult. He cannot imagine Harry Evans becoming lightheaded at the softness of Severus' own hair, the smoothness of his skin. And it is not important, not really, but -

He cannot imagine it.

When he leaves the bathroom, Evans is awake in bed, propped up on his elbow.

"Morning," he says quietly. He blinks rapidly, looks down, and Severus realises that Evans is nervous. Nervous - or sorry. He vows that if the man uses the phrase "was a mistake" he will burn the inn to the ground.

"Did you sleep all right?" Evans asks. Good lord, soon he will be making comments about the weather.

"Yes."

"I slept surprisingly well, actually." Evans does not even wait to be asked. "Better than I have for a long time."

"You - must be very pleased." Severus does not know how to respond. Everything is going wrong; he can feel himself growing agitated and hostile, and cannot seem to stop. He wants to clap his hand over his mouth and leave the room.

"Is everything okay?" Evans asks, and Severus curls his lip.

"I should return to the Ministry. See if they have need of me."

"Oh. Okay. Right." Evans scans the ground for his shirt. "Do you want some breakfast, or are you in a bit of a rush? I could buy you -"

"Not necessary." Severus begins to gather up his few belongings, willing his hands not to tremble. "You can see yourself out, I'm sure."

Evans' head snaps up, and he rises from bed at this, not bothering with his shirt. He moves toward Severus like the embodiment of desire, half-naked and pale and flushed with warmth. Severus thinks now that the whole night must be due to some spell, cast specifically to render Severus crippled with lust, shattered into pieces of red glass. He feels his hands lift unconsciously, as if they would reach out, and he forces them still.

"What's going on?" Evans murmurs, moving closer. Severus flinches.

"Do not touch me," he hisses, "I have to go."

"Stop this." Evans stands between him and the door. "If last night made you - uncomfortable - we have to talk about it. Or I won't know, I'll just keep on thinking it was -"

"Evans, I may be standing before the Wizengamot today. I have no time to discuss your ill-advised, alcohol-inspired fumblings." Severus feels he may be sick. He moves toward the door, but Evans will not get out of the way.

"I liked it," he says evenly, as if he has never even considered shame, "I wanted it. I wanted you."

"You were intoxicated -"

"I was not."

"You were. And you are in my way."

Severus would push him out of the way, but cannot imagine touching him. Instead, he looms over Evans, staring down imperiously at him.

"I know what you're doing. You're trying to scare me away."

"Am I?" Severus narrows his eyes. "And what were you expecting? A romantic declaration? Is your sexual experience that limited that you confuse a one-off with some sort of relationship?" When Evans looks shattered, Severus tries to snort a laugh. "How unfortunate. Of course, given your age -"

Evans moves away from the door at this and begins to gather his things. Severus feels his heart break cleanly down the middle, one fatal slice, more painful than he imagined. It is better this way, of course. It would only get worse if this continued.

"A pleasure, as always," Severus says over his shoulder as he opens the door.

"Piss off," Evans calls after him, his voice soft and broken. Severus does not turn around, keeps moving down the hall, does not so much as glance behind him. If he did, if he had, then he would not keep walking, he knows it. If he saw Evans' head bowed, cheeks flushed, hands clumsy with humiliation, he would walk back into the room, grab the man and press him against the wall in a feverish kiss, not caring if the door was open, not caring if anyone saw, only wanting and wanting and wanting, more than he thought he'd ever want, more than he thought he knew how.

But he does not turn around, and the separate halves of his heart rattle dryly in the cage of his ribs. On the way down the stairs, he punches the stone wall, and his knuckles split and bleed.

The trial at the Ministry goes as well as can be expected. A few days later (still a free man, will wonders never cease?), a message arrives at Hogwarts for him, claiming that a package was left at the front desk of his previous hotel. When Severus arrives to collect it (cringing inwardly the entire time), the clerk hands him a tightly sealed envelope.

"Man said there was a memory in here," he mutters carelessly. "Didn't give his name."

Severus knows it is Evans, regardless, can practically smell the young man’s hair and skin on the paper envelope, and avoids opening it for more days than necessary.

He needn’t have waited.

The useless clerk must have bashed the envelope around some, because all that's left is a shattered vial, the memory long dried up and turned to powder. Severus feels an inexplicable twist of fury (not that he cared about the contents of the memory, surely not. He just cannot handle poor customer service.).

What in Merlin's name had Evans wanted him to see?

He tilts the crumpled envelope, and fills his palm with dust and broken glass.

 

I had nothing
and I was still changed.
Like a costume, my numbness
was taken away. Then
hunger was added.

Louise Gluck

"Mutable Earth"

Part Five: Ten To

"Harry - Harry, love -"

He is swimming through a long blue tunnel, up and up and up to where light shimmers on the surface. A red-haired woman bleeds into his vision, and fades quickly away.

"Harry -"

The voice is familiar. Where are they? He is at the kitchen table. He is in a hospital bed. He is at the kitchen table. He is - 

("I kissed someone."

Ginny's lips twitch just once, before she presses them together. "So did I."

He stares at his girlfriend, still cradling a mug of tea in her hand, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

"Who?" Harry demands, willing his face to turn red, his pulse to race. Willing himself to feel the anger that he - does not.

"I -" Ginny considers. "I don't want to tell you that."

Harry tries to think of the worst possible person that Ginny could kiss, and cannot come up with much of anything.

"Do I know him?"

Ginny curls the corner of her mouth, but her eyes are sad.

"It was a woman, Harry."

"Oh." He tries desperately to think of the last time they made love. Why can't he remember that? Surely it hasn't been more than a few weeks - a month maybe, or a bit more - "Oh. How did - that go?"

She laughs bitterly. "Not well. Not well at all, actually. It was one of my more terrible ideas."

"So - she's not interested." He does not know how to have this conversation.

"No. Decidedly not."

"But - " he wracks his brain for the way this is going to end, "but you are."

Ginny smiles now at him, the type of smile one bestows on a particularly foolish child, a child one cannot help but pity and adore.

"And who was he, then?" she asks.)

Harry opens his eyes.

His wife is sitting on the edge of his narrow bed, brow furrowed with concern. When she sees he is awake, she smiles wearily.

"The children are at my mum's," she breathes, "and you are a right git."

Pain flashes hard in Harry's line of vision. "What happened?"

"You never came home last night. I thought you were out on a bender with Ron, and was quite pissed off, let me tell you. And then Mungo's called about six this morning, saying they found you on their front steps."

Harry squeezes his eyes shut. There was a woman, a blond woman -

"Am I - is everything -"

"Still intact?" Ginny raises an eyebrow. "Seems that way. You were Stunned, the healers know that much, and they found a sedative in your bloodstream, but that's about it. Someone must have roughed you up a bit; you've got bruises all over."

Harry sits up slightly, wincing at the stiffness of his muscles. Ginny is right. His arms are both peppered with smudges of green and purple. He looks a fright, and feels it.

"A sedative?"

"Probably just wanted naked pictures of you." Ginny tries to make a joke but her face is still very serious. She is scared, Harry realises. "You're allowed to go home, at any rate, since they can't find anything wrong with you. A few Aurors are going to come round  later, to ask you some questions. If you feel up to it."

Harry feels like he might fall back to sleep at any moment, but it would be better that happened in his own bed than between the scratchy Mungo's sheets. He tries to smile at his wife.

"Let's go home."

He is surprised to find reporters crowded around the hospital entrance, and a barrage of flashes go off as he makes his way down the stairs, leaning heavily on Ginny. No doubt there will be a 'LOVERS UNITE UNDER CRISIS' headline in the Prophet tomorrow. Best not think about that yet. As he waits for Ginny to pull the car around (She's mad about her Prius; it's hard to even get her on a broom these days.), he notices that a Mark has been painted on one of the hospital doors. An employee is at work casting various cleaning charms with little to no success, and Harry watches him idly for a moment. Ginny soon pulls up beside him, honking her horn like a madwoman, and Harry forgets about it.

He goes straight to bed, when they get home. His skin hurts, and he is too hot, and his fingers twitch against the sheets, aching for something to hold. And he knows what he wants, of course he does, but he resists. He's been doing so well for so long. It's been months. Months.

After wrestling with his sheets for a few more moments, he rises and goes to his desk. He retrieves the watch and slips back beneath his blankets, heart finally slowing, breathing finally easy. It is an old habit, one he started nearly four years ago and had been trying to give up for a similar length of time. Spending night upon night with the watch clutched tightly in his hand, just in case it started ticking again, just in case his sheer force of want willed it to happen.

It hadn't ticked for years. He used to wake up at night, dreaming he had felt it move, desperately casting Lumos and squinting in the darkness to make out the still second hand. For the last few months, he'd managed to leave the watch in the desk, only getting up in the night a handful of times, when he imagined he'd heard a faint ticking sound from across the room, the soft mechanical noise that signaled his imminent departure.

He's been doing so well. So well.

Harry holds the watch close against his chest, and sleeps.

(March. Severus is 28, Harry is 23.)

He is holding the letter in trembling hands, and in the back of his mind thinks, 'Where is Harry?' The words rush to him unbidden, unwanted, and he feels no shortage of resentment toward them, but they are out, they were thought, and they cannot be unthought. Severus is so used to the man showing up at a significant moment in his life, that he cannot believe this one has been overlooked. He feels the hand on his shoulder in his mind first, so it takes a second to realise with a shock that the hand is real.

"Severus..."

Severus turns around to meet Harry Evans' gaze, and the young man trails off.

"My- lord, what's the matter?" he whispers. Severus does not know what he looks like, but he can assume the worst; he's been drinking for the past hour or so, and awake for at least the past few days. He imagines red-rimmed sunken eyes, sallow skin, a weak and trembling mouth - nothing that out of the ordinary.

Harry Evans, on the other hand, looks perfect (as he ever does). The man slides easily into a chair at Severus' table, leaning on his elbows to draw himself closer. Severus wordlessly passes him the letter, and watches as Evans' green eyes move haltingly across the page. After a brief moment, he looks up, and slides the letter back across the table.

"Your dad. I'm so sorry."

Severus nods, mutely. His throat feels too dry to form any words, and he drains the last of his ale from the smudged pint glass.

"Did you - did you just find this out?"

Severus clears his throat. "A cousin -" he manages, roughly, "owled me a few days ago. Said that he was sick. Said that I should come if I wanted to - say anything or -" A cool hand runs across his face, over his eyes, and it takes Severus a second to realise it is his own. "And I did not go, because - what I had to say was - it was not -"

He does not know how to finish that sentence. Evans doesn't interrupt, doesn't even nod in pathetic empathy, just watches him carefully. Just listens.

"And now they tell me he is dead. And the funeral is tomorrow." He breathes shakily in and out. "I was not even aware that he was - still alive."

"Are you going to - go?" Evans asks after a moment.

"Yes. Yes, I believe - yes."

There is another silent moment, and Severus studies the markings on the table in front of him, moving one long, white hand against the rough whorl of wood.

"The last time we met," he begins roughly, "the things I said -"

Evans shakes his head. "It's all right." He seems so much older, and yet it has not been quite a year since they last saw each other. Despite that relatively short time, the younger man's eyes are tired, his face a bit unshaven. He winces before he asks his next question. "Did you get my package?"

Severus nods. "It was broken, I'm afraid. The innkeeper was evidently careless with it."

Evans freezes for a moment, face reflecting an emotion Severus cannot put a name to.

"It was a memory."

"I gathered as much. Of what, may I ask?"

Evans looks pained and raises one hand to trace the scar on his forehead. "Nothing important."

They are quiet again. Severus feels his head swim with a litany of questions - how have you been, where have you been, who have you been with - but he swallows them. The tension between them is so thick his skin is vibrating with it. And he thought - or perhaps he'd hoped - that after all this time, Evans would not be able to cast that same spell on him, making him dizzy and angry and frightened all at once, making him say too much and do too little. And after all this time, it has only become worse.

Evans' shirt is a deep blue, the colour of the sea in the Mediterranean. That is where he is meant to be, Severus decides, sunning himself on white sand, not bogged down in the long winters of England.

"The funeral," Evans says after a moment. He stares down at the table, following the grain with his fingertips just as Severus was doing only a moment ago.

"Yes?"

"Do you want - company?"

Severus shakes his head, no, but says, "Yes," the word bitten out as if his lips were sore. He does not look up for Evans' response, but he can feel the nod of acceptance from across the table, and something inside him caves just a little.

They Apparate to Spinner's End that night, and Severus lies awake, twisting in damp sheets while Evans sleeps on the sofa downstairs.

Some hours later, Severus stands before the casket of Tobias Snape, the man's countenance waxy and unnatural. He looks better than Severus remembers, although that might be due to the intense application of posthumous cosmetics. For the large part, Severus does not recognize the pale, shiny face of the man in the coffin. And he has nothing to say to him.

Harry Evans squeezes his hand.

(He thinks there was a moment, once, when he and his father sat on the front steps of Spinner's End and his dad taught him all the constellations he could name, probably making up more than half of them. He thinks this happened. He can remember laughing, a heavy arm around his shoulders and the names of stars like incantations on his lips, "the dragon, the twins, the warrior." He thinks this happened. He's fairly certain that it did.)

After the service, a short and clinical affair, Severus feels cold all over, and exhausted, like he hasn't slept in years. He drinks several cups of tea during the wake, a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to rid the chill from his bones. Aganetha was apparently invited but does not make an appearance (According to a cousin, she did not think it safe.). Evans gets no small number of glances from relatives, but Severus isn't much bothered. Let them think whatever they like; he has not seen most of them for upwards of ten years, and many people he does not recognize.

No one from his mother's side attends. It is just as well.

When they finally leave, after more tea and a few stale sandwiches, Severus sways on his feet, and Evans has to take his arm as they walk through the car park. Even after Severus has regained his balance, Evans does not let go. They take a taxi through the city and rent a room at a suitably inexpensive hotel. And still Evans does not let go of his arm.

("Are you certain you wouldn't rather go home?" Evans asks, and Severus shakes his head, wondering if he might be ill. The last place on earth he wants to stay tonight is his father's sodding house.)

Evans purchases some bread and cheese and wine, a bottle of which Severus locks with himself in the bathroom. He runs a bath as hot as the water will go, so hot it hurts to step inside, so hot his skin aches as he immerses himself. He cannot get warm, and he drinks wine straight from the bottle and sinks to his eyebrows beneath the surface of the bath, wondering how long he could stay under, and if he'd have the strength of will not to resurface, even when the world started to go dark around the edges. He tries a few times, but his lungs always get the better of him.

(He is fairly certain his father built him a fort once, cobbled together some old timber in their tiny back garden so Severus would have a place to himself. There was even a small swinging door, found outside a pub, he thinks, and Severus could close that door and pretend the rest of the world had just disappeared, live in another place entirely until he was called for supper. He thinks his father worked on this fort for several days, even tarred the roof to keep out the rain. He is fairly sure this happened. Nearly certain.)

"You all right in there?" Evans knocks on the bathroom door.

"Outstanding." He downs another gulp of wine and submerges his body again in the water. When the temperature starts to cool, he drains the tub and refills it. He feels like a lobster, skin red and bright and fresh. He wonders what Evans might think of him if he could see him at this exact moment, whether Evans would laugh at Severus' pinkened skin or kiss the damp hair on the back of his neck.

He drinks more wine to avoid the obvious answer.

Since last they met, Severus had to be sure, so he picked up a stranger in a Muggle club. He would not risk a wizard pub; there would be too great a chance that whomever he took home would have ulterior motives that involved teaching queer Death-Eater-pieces-of-shite lessons they wouldn't soon forget, or something equally contrived. So he went to a Muggle club and waited until most everybody was highly intoxicated before seeking out a slightly below-average-looking bloke and blowing him in the loo. It was disgusting and he hated most of it, and still he got hard (especially when they kissed) and still he came down the fellow's throat, thinking of someone else, whispering another name in his head, over and over, the chorus of a song.

He had to be certain, had to know whether he was mad for Evans, or if he was mad about being touched, just as Lucius said. The answer he discovered was not the answer he wanted, and it only raised more questions: How did he let this happen? How could he have been so stupid?

"Still doing okay?" There is a soft rap on the bathroom door.

"Decidedly not," Severus mutters, but only to himself.

When he finally emerges (in a cloud of steam and damp and warmth), the dingy carpet tilts beneath his feet. Harry Evans is lying awake on the still-made bed, and he looks up in alarm as Severus approaches. Severus has had too much wine, and his useless father has just died, and at the heat and pressure in the young man's eyes, he unravels like thread.

"Where the - hell have you been?" he manages, regretting the question even as he speaks it.

"What?" Evans sits up on the bed.

"You know - you know what." The words make perfect sense in his head; it's just his mouth that doesn't want to cooperate. "You know bloody what."

"I certainly do not." Harry rises, moves to Severus' side and offers his arm. His arm? Ridiculous, when Severus is so obviously in complete control. He pushes Evans away slightly, pushes and yet somehow clutches onto the fabric of his jacket. His hands are evidently rebelling as well.

"Woah. Steady on there." Evans puts his arms out, as if Severus were a swooning maiden, waiting to be caught.

"Where the hell have you been?" Severus hisses again, forgetting for a moment just why these words are so important.

"I don't understand -"

"You've been gone for over - over a goddamned year!" Severus snarls, suddenly furious, suddenly shaking with liquor and rage. "You've been gone, and you haven't even - said anything or - done anything - and then you show up, you bloody show up and go to my useless twat of a father's funeral, and then - then what? What is this? What are you doing here -" He pushes Harry away from him again, and moves toward the bed as if to escape, before he realises that the door is on the other side of the room, and he can barely walk. He'll Apparate, that's what he'll bloody do, he'll find his wand and he'll get the hell out of this pathetic little room, before this stupid man can say another stupid word.

"Severus," Harry hisses, "stop it. You don't -"

"Don't talk to me! You do not get to speak to me; you cannot just suddenly show up out of nowhere and expect me to be thrilled to - where do you go? Where do you go for years upon years, while I - while I -" Severus looks frantically around the room, a sea of bare surfaces. "Where the hell is my bloody wand?"

"Accio Snape's wand." The words are out of Evans' mouth before Severus can think to stop him. The boy catches it deftly in the air and tucks it into his trouser pocket. "You're not going anywhere tonight. You can't. Look at you - you're obviously drunk, and you're upset, and it's okay -"

"Give me my wand," Severus snarls, red flashing in his vision as he sways back towards Evans.

"No."

"Give me my wand."

"Make me," Evans retorts, and Severus swings at him. His fist connects with air, as opposed to pale skin and a beautiful mouth, and the momentum spins him slightly. Hands wrap around his waist to steady him, and Severus tries to push those hands away, tries to disentangle himself from Harry's limbs and elbows, but in doing so his fingers just grasp handfuls of rough fabric, and then there are hands on his shoulders pushing him or pulling him, and he lashes out with his teeth and bites wherever he can, and it just happens to be a long white throat, and the taste is so rich, so intoxicating that he can't stop, won't stop, places hot vicious kisses up and down its enthralling length -

"Oh fuck - oh -" Evans whimpers, and Severus realises whose neck he is attacking, and slams the boy roughly up against the hotel wall.

"Where the hell do you go?" he hisses, kissing up the line of Harry's jaw. "Where do you go - goddamn you -" as he swirls the tip of his tongue into the delicious shell of the man's ear. "Goddamn you, goddamn it -" as he fists a handful of Evans' impossibly black hair.

"I'm in love with you," the wall whispers at him, but it isn't the wall, it's the goddamn boy crushed up against it, and Severus' heart lurches in his chest as if it would take off, would attempt a short and hopeless flight.

"I'm in love with you," Evans whispers again, and Severus mouths the hollow of his throat, where a pulse beats the erratic patter of rain on pavement.

Cool hands push the hair out of Severus' eyes, and then he is being kissed, kissed by a mouth that is the opposite of funerals, and a tongue twists with his own, and Severus wants to touch every piece of the man in front of him, wants so many things at once that he feels he may tear himself apart. Instead, he finds the button at the collar of Harry's shirt and yanks with both hands; Harry is jerked roughly forward and buttons scatter across the carpeted floor. Other, smaller hands are fumbling with the buttons of Severus' own shirt, and he tries to peel Harry's white t-shirt over his head, and tries to keep kissing him, is desperate to keep kissing him; he feels like he could drown in Evans' mouth the way he feels magic in his hands and in his wand and the way potions ingredients combine to create something beautiful and deadly, and fuck oh fuck - something is sucking on his collarbone, and Severus' knees nearly give way, but there is a man there beneath him, someone pulling him down gently, someone making room between hipbones and pressing inches of white skin against Severus' own imperfect body.

"Fuck me," Evans says up against Severus' teeth, throwing his glasses heedlessly to the floor.

"Where the hell have you been?" Severus snarls, tearing open Harry's belt, yanking trousers roughly down his slim hips.

"Away," Harry gasps, arching his back to let his trousers be completely removed.

Severus is pissed and infatuated and heartbroken all at once. He presses hot, vicious kisses up the length of pale thighs, until Harry gasps and cries out, and Severus thinks he may come from that sound alone. Harry pulls the remainder of Severus' shirt off his shoulders, and Severus slithers up the other man's body to claim his mouth in a brutal kiss - uncaring that he's shirtless with the lights on, scarred and skinny, uncaring that the hotel carpet is no doubt rough against Evans' gorgeous back, only concerned about the taste of the man's mouth, he could bottle that flavour and live off it for years, but it wouldn't be the same, would never be the same.

He realises suddenly that Evans has undone his belt and trousers, and his hand is skimming across Severus' stomach, lower and lower, past the band of his pants, and the younger man is gasping for breath and Severus feels he may lose consciousness, when did it get so hot, when did the ground begin to shift beneath him -

He cries out when Evans' hand circles his cock; he has never felt anything like this, the warm and calloused skin of Evans' palm, and he knows he is going to come, knows it before his body does, and with a fluttering of his eyelashes, he pulses warm and sticky in the young man's hand, shouting himself hoarse, and pressing his feverish forehead against Evans' bare chest.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he moans as he returns to himself. Evans says nothing, only pushes Severus over onto his back, and clambers on top of him. He sets to work on Severus' trousers and pants, pulling them down over his hips, then past his knees, then off his long pale feet. Severus does nothing - simply allows himself to be undressed, still shaking with the aftershocks of his orgasm. And when Evans pulls back slightly, just enough to slide his own pants off his lean body, Severus feels himself start to harden again, his pulse start to quicken, and his hands reach out shakily of their own accord (Well, he's twenty-seven. Not so old, not yet.).

It occurs to him that he is seeing Evans naked for the first time. That he himself is naked with another man. Also for the first time. Evans' cock is average-sized but thick, flushed and red and delicious-looking. Severus has never before felt his mouth water, only knew the phrase as a phrase until this moment, when he suddenly wants something in his mouth so badly that his lips are wet.

He tears his eyes away from Evans' cock, moves his gaze up over the flat stomach, over tight nipples and a long pale neck, Evans' body like a sculpture, like a painting -

"You have to fuck me," Evans whispers, settling astride Severus' body, pinning him to the ground with a series of deep, biting kisses. "You have to. I want you to."

"Yes," Severus gasps, "god, yes -"

Evans murmurs something under his breath and then guides Severus' hand to his cock, then his balls, then back farther until Severus is sliding one finger deep into his arse, where it is slick and warm and impossibly tight. Severus' cock hardens further, and he gasps again, lightheaded with arousal and something else, some keen sense of loss. Evans whimpers astride him, moving his body against Severus' finger, rocking and rocking against him until he cries out suddenly, body rigid with electricity, "Oh shit, shit," and Severus leans upward to kiss him, lick against the roof of his mouth while Evans rolls his hips, rocks again and again against Severus' hand.

"Another," he begs, and Severus panics for a moment - it won't fit, it can't fit, it's too tight - but his middle finger slips almost effortlessly in beside his forefinger, and Evans moans almost as if he is in pain, but hisses, "Yes yes yes -"

Severus watches the man on top of him, colours flashing before his eyes he is so breathless, so hard he thinks he might come again before he is so much as touched, and when Evans hisses for another finger, Severus does not even hesitate, just slides a third inside as easily as the second. Evans stiffens at this, stops moving for a moment, bows his head and gasps.

"Wait - just a second."

Severus waits, and soon Evans is moving tentatively once more, up and down against Severus' fingers, hips moving slow circles, head thrown back and eyes squeezed tightly shut.

"Okay," he breathes a come-on, "okay," against Severus' lips, and there is another murmured spell, and Severus again thinks he will come without a hand on him, come at the look in Evans' eyes, heavy-lidded and green the way the Killing Curse is green -

"Please," Evans whispers as he reaches for Severus' cock, positioning it between his legs, "I have never - so it might -"

"I have never," Severus manages, his own confession sliding between his teeth before he can stop it.

Evans gives him a look, but there is no judgement in it, no hint of laughter. Evans looks at him like he's seeing Severus for the first time, looks amazed and enraptured, and before Severus can start to feel more embarrassed than he already does, Evans is nodding, nodding and guiding Severus' cock into his body.

Severus flinches with panic as the blunt, weeping head is pressed against Evans' tight opening (don't come, don't come, don't hurt him), and then suddenly he is inside, a small push and he is sliding past the muscle, lungs and heart and body in an instant vice-like grip because oh it oh feels so good -

He stills himself, just the head of his cock inside, but still he thinks he might come like this, without another movement, just the slow beat of Evans' pulse encircling him. He fights to get control of himself, his treacherous body, as Evans pants, reaches up to cover his face, and begins to sink lower and lower, taking Severus deeper, thighs trembling (Severus cannot tear his eyes away), stomach muscles clenching (Severus cannot tear his eyes away), slow trickle of sweat making its way down his neck (Severus cannot tear his eyes away, not now, not ever, never.).

And then Evans is seated on him completely, Severus' cock sheathed inside of him. It is like nothing Severus could ever have expected - it is completely - it is -

"Is it - all right?" he manages.

Evans curves his spine for a moment, placing a small, breathless kiss on Severus' lips, and another on his forehead.

"Yes oh - yes," he murmurs, straightening up once more and arching his back with a whimper.

"Does it - am I - hurting you?" Severus cannot believe he is actually forming coherent sentences. Although maybe he isn't. Maybe it's just his feverish imagination and he's babbling nonsense, lips bitten and bleeding, tears streaming hot-cold from beneath his eyelids.

"No, it's - no it's - oh god oh god -" Evans lifts himself slightly, before pressing back against Severus, and the tightening and slick heat make Severus' spine curl.

"Oh -" he cries, "it's too much, it's -"

Evans lifts himself slightly again, and when he slides back down, Severus lifts his hands to his face, covering his eyes against the onslaught of pleasure - so fierce it is almost pain. He has to move, he has to, but he bites down on the inside of his cheek, desperate to resist just a bit longer. He feels Evans' cool fingers against his and lets his hands be pulled gently away.

"Don't," Evans whispers, "I want to see you, I want to -"

"Oh god," Severus moans again, as Evans rises and falls, rises and falls, and Severus lifts to meet him, desperate to make the man cry out again, wanting him to want this, to love this, to want him -

"Yes yes yes oh -" Evans is babbling now, riding Severus in earnest, flinching every time Severus twists a certain way, lifts up just - there, "OH oh oh oh -"

Severus tries to keep his own desperate cries imprisoned behind his clenched teeth, hypnotized by the rise and fall of Evans' body, the movement of his mouth, the colour at the base of his eyelashes, all seemingly hardwired to drive Severus mad. He's going to come, he's so close he feels it in his teeth and he cannot bear it -

"I'm going to - I'm going to -" Evans cries out on top of him, and Severus (who cannot believe he has lasted this long) sits up to kiss the man, pressing inwards with his tongue, and at the first splash of Harry's come against his chest, Severus follows, more pleasure than he thought his body could feel (he'll go deaf and dumb with it), pulsing inside the tightness of Evans' body, chest slick with Evans' own come, mouth gone slack with sensation and Evans' soft voice "oh god oh - god Severus-"

In bed, he kisses Harry's eyelids (Harry is the only title appropriate now, the only name his mouth can hold), he kisses Harry's neck, he licks the underside of his bicep, trails his tongue into the hair of his armpit (salty, bitter, sweet) until the young man laughs.

Lucius always said he would make a fool of himself over love.

"You are not allowed to fall asleep," he murmurs into Harry's stomach (Severus cannot seem to stop touching him, but also cannot bring himself to try very hard.).

"I never fall asleep. When have I ever fallen asleep?"

The hotel blankets are rough against their skin, but Severus pulls them up around his neck, still unable to get warm. He is certain the carpet has scraped his back raw.

"You are not allowed to fall asleep," he says again, but even as he says it, he feels his own eyelids sag. Surely not.

Harry leans over and gives him a slow kiss, the kind that lingers long after the two mouths have separated. Severus blinks at him with foggy eyes.

"You're nice, you know," Harry murmurs, and Severus kisses him to shut his mouth. He kisses his scar then, too. He has long ached to feel the soft patch of skin beneath his lips, and this moment is as good as any. Harry moans when Severus does so, moans as if no one has ever kissed him there before.

"This scar," Severus begins, "is quite -" He cannot yet manage it. Harry does not seem to mind so much, and falls asleep long before Severus finds the courage to say "lovely."

*  *  *

He wakes to find himself being watched. Harry is propped up on his elbow, watching Severus as if he is the only thing that exists in the world.

"I've had an idea." Harry's eyes do not flit around like distracted birds, not like they usually do. They rest on Severus directly, steadily, startling in their focus.

"Have you?" Severus mutters. "What time is it -"

"Still early. Couldn't sleep." Harry winces. "Sorry if I woke you."

"You didn't." Severus wants to kiss him, but cannot remember how that might be accomplished. Last night has blown his head clean off.

"Severus." Harry keeps staring at him, and Severus' heart gives an unexpected lurch. He wants to stop this moment. He could live in this moment; let Harry Evans watch him for the rest of his short life. "I meant it. Last night. I meant it."

Severus' face goes very red; he can feel the heat rise to it.

“Was it - all right?” Harry asks softly, “Did you -”

“You have no idea.” Severus uses every ounce of his courage and briefly touches Harry’s neck, traces his fingers for a moment down its elegant, corded length. Harry watches him, and Severus wonders who he sees. Surely not the person Severus sees when he glances in the mirror. Surely not the pallid and contemptible Potions Master of Hogwarts school, or the sullen teenager from Spinner’s End. Who, then?

“Your skin is very white,” Harry murmurs, looking unexpectedly tender. “It’s like milk.”

“The underside of a fish, more like,” Severus snorts. He wants to touch Harry again, his hands want to touch Harry again. He feels the urge in his bones and in his skin.

“I like it.” Harry raises an eyebrow, looking surprisingly mischievous. “You know what else I like?”

He is on top of Severus then, pinning him to the bed and kissing his way slowly down his neck. Severus lies back, mouth open in a soundless moan. Harry presses kisses across his chest, pausing to lick and suck on Severus’ nipple. The sensation makes Severus go nearly blind with lust; he had forgotten, how had he forgotten that? When Harry bites down, Severus cries out, shamefully, and he covers his mouth with his hand.

Harry pulls away for a moment, grinning up at him, “You like that,” before turning his lips and teeth and tongue to Severus’ other nipple, making his body quake and back arch. Trembling, he cards a hand through Harry’s dark hair, resisting the urge to squeeze tightly or pull. He cries out again as Harry nips at him, and lets out a long low moan as the man’s explorations continue, his kisses moving down and down and down, small tongue tickling the hairs on Severus’ stomach.

“Can I -” Harry murmurs against Severus’ skin. “I want to -”

Severus only moans again, not prepared for anything like this. He was stone-hard when he woke this morning, and hardens even further as Harry licks a path up his inner thigh. He cannot do this, cannot stand it -

At the first slow slide of Harry’s lips around the head of his cock, Severus nearly wails. It is not at all like the man in the club, where everything had been hurry, faster, and the smell of bleach and urine. Harry isn’t trying to get him off as quickly as possible; he is exploring Severus’ body like he loves it, like it’s fascinating. He traces the underside of Severus’ cock with the tip of his tongue, travelling up, around the head, and then swallowing him back down again. Severus throws one arm across his face (lest Evans should see his eyes roll back in his skull) and with the other, clutches handfuls of sheets, feeling like he might regain some semblance of control if he just tears hard enough at them.

“Harry...” he breathes, the name a plea and a prayer, “oh god -”

Harry’s small hands dance lightly up Severus’ thighs, and Severus spreads his lengths, wanting everything, wanting more, wanting -

“Stop,” he moans, “Oh, stop, I’ll -

Harry begins sucking in earnest now, no delicate strokes of tongue, but hard wet suction. One hand rises to grope the base of Severus’ shaft, squeezing tightly, almost too tightly, and his other hand moves downwards, moves under his own body -

“I’m sorry.” Harry tears his lips away for a brief moment, face flushed. “Is this - can I -”

“Yes, yes, god yes,” Severus cries out, beyond shame, and is engulfed in warm wetness once again, caressed with fingers and tongue while Harry grinds against his own hand.

When the young man starts to moan, Severus is undone completely; the vibrations trip some switch inside him, and he barely has time to give warning (“I’m - oh god, I’m -”) before he comes almost violently, shouting out in pleasure and surprise as Harry swallows him down and down, moans deep in his throat but keeps sucking, stroking, cradling Severus within the heat and tightness of his gorgeous mouth.

Harry eventually pulls away, and Severus hisses as his softening cock is exposed to the cold air. He cannot think straight, can only reach out with trembling fingers as Harry climbs up his body, leaving a sticky trail on Severus’ skin. He finds he does not mind so much. When they kiss, Harry’s mouth tastes sharp and bitter, and Severus feels arousal shoot through him again, shocking in its heat and intensity. It seems, where Harry is concerned, there is no end of it.

For a moment, Harry lies collapsed on top of him, hair tickling Severus’ face, and smelling faintly of citrus shampoo. He allows his arms - slowly, hesitantly, to creep around to Harry’s sides. When they make it that far, he lets them move slowly to the young man’s hips, and from there they travel up to stroke softly down his spine. Severus holds Harry against him while the man slows his breathing, and Severus gradually relearns speech and math and the names of colours. He holds on tightly, and lets his eyes fall softly shut.

"I want you to use Legilimency on me," Harry says quietly, and Severus’ eyes snap open in alarm.

"What? Why -"

"Because there is something that I cannot - tell you. Something you need to know." Harry’s breathing is still heavy.

Severus has no reply. He feels a chill run through him, even in the warmth of the blankets.

"You have to be on top of me."

"That can be arranged," he replies, before snapping his mouth shut. Harry looks shocked for a moment, and then the corner of his mouth curls.

"Rather insatiable, aren’t we?”

Severus silences him with another kiss (As a strategy, it works surprisingly well.). He rolls Harry beneath him, trying to suppress the low pulse of arousal that comes with being pressed against the young man's skin. And being in the same room as him. And in the same city.

"No matter what happens, don't leave. You have to promise this. Can you promise me?"

"Harry, you're -"

"Just please. Just say you won't leave."

Severus watches Harry for a moment, reads something in the man's eyes that he does not understand. He feels it is important for him to say no at this point, feels it somewhere in the pit of his belly. Something is wrong.

"I promise," he whispers.

"Do it then," Harry murmurs, squeezing his eyes shut. "Do it now. Please."

Severus does. He reaches with his mind, tentatively at first, and retreats immediately when Harry gasps in pain.

"It's okay," Harry breathes heavily, "don't stop."

Severus tries again, moving slowly into Harry's mind, pushing just slightly at the man's defences. Harry starts to tremble beneath him, gritting his teeth, sweat trickling down the side of his neck.

"Don't - stop -" Harry manages. "Please don't -"

Severus pushes further and sees a flash of himself, turning, pressing pale lips together, sees Hogwarts move blurrily past, sees Harry younger younger younger still -

Beneath him, Harry gasps again, back arching. Severus clamps his hands onto the young man's shoulders, concentration wavering, tears prickling at the back of his skull. He sees Lily Evans, arms wrapped around that idiot Potter. He sees faces he does not recognize, sees the Shrieking Shack loom before him as Harry starts to weep helplessly.

"I can't do this -" he hisses, and sees himself, in the far corner of Harry's mind, face lined and hair longer, sees himself like a burn mark on a film reel, sees himself and pulls back, quaking -

"I - love you," Harry gasps, and there is blood running from his nose.

"No," Severus cries out, "no."

And the man is gone, slipping through Severus’ fingers like ashes.

And I realised that night
that the hall light
which seemed so bright when you turned it on
is nothing
compared to the dawn
which is nothing
compared to the light which seeps from me while you're sleeping
cocooned in my room
beautiful and grotesque
resting
the night we got kicked out of two bars
and laughed our way home
I thought:
I would offer you my pulse
I would give you my breath
I would offer you my pulse.

Ani Difranco

"Pulse"

Part Six: Midnight

At night, Harry Potter dreams of a man dressed in black, with shoulder blades sharp as wings, and hair that spills like ink across his face. Sometimes he wakes to find his sheets damp and sticky; sometimes he wakes to find his face wet. Either way, he wakes.

Five years, Harry. Five years.

The letter was Hermione's idea. He had not seen Snape for months, and he knew that the next might be the last time he ever saw Snape, if he didn't think of something, if he didn't find something that worked. He couldn't afford to make a mistake. He couldn't afford to get pulled away one more time.

In a fit of drunkenness, he showed Hermione the memories.

("He loved my mother, Hermione, he basically told me as much. And I - and I -")

He didn't need to finish the sentence, she wouldn't allow it. And after one viewing, after submerging herself in the murky waters of Snape's memories, she looked at Harry with tears shining hot in her eyes.

("When was the last time you looked at these?")

He hadn't actually looked at them for years; it was too hard, it was too much. Especially since meeting Snape as a young man. He couldn't bear to see the events that led to his death, couldn't bear to see Snape weeping in Dumbledore's office, or shamed and broken at the Headmaster's feet.

("Oh, Harry," Hermione whispers, face unreadable. "They're fake.")

And Harry had no response. Could not say a single word.

Hermione came up with the letter then, that night. Despite all her protestations at the beginning, she had looked at the memories and looked at his face, and told him they would figure everything out. They would find an answer. Like his life was just another question and all she had to do was raise her hand.

("Maybe magic - is the problem. If magic won't work, maybe it's time to try something - Muggle.")

It had been so ridiculous, that Harry became convinced it was the right course of action. When he had arrived back in the present after the Legilimency incident, three of his ribs had been cracked, so that was no good. Maybe it was magic that was the problem. Maybe this solution was so simple, so absurd, that Dumbledore wouldn't guard against it. Maybe this was the only way.

Of course, it was an impossible letter to write. He didn't know where to start. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know how to possibly finish it, how he could write goodbye without losing his mind (it has to work, it has to work), how he could hope to save hundreds of lives with just a few sentences.

More than that, how he could tell Snape the truth.

(You're going to hate me, but -)

(I'm sorry I lied to you, but - )

(I want to kick your dead father in the teeth, and buy you groceries, and carry your books whenever you need me to, and wash your hair, and help you brew potions, and tell the world that you take care of your horrible aunt -)

He wrote about a thousand drafts, littered his floor with crumpled parchment, developed calluses and permanent ink stains on his wrists and fingers. He carried a copy on him at all times, just in case he was called away unexpectedly.

And then one day - letter in hand - he was.

(August. Severus is 34, Harry is 24.)

Albus Dumbledore wanders the nearly empty corridors of his school. Every now and then a house-elf scurries by, but on the whole the place is still. The only two staff members who have returned from their summer holidays thus far are Rubeus and Rolanda, but the latter is out on the pitch as usual, and the former off cavorting with his beasts no doubt. Severus would normally be skulking around in the dungeon, but he is visiting Durmstrang at present, comparing syllabi with the newly appointed Potions Mistress (a lovely young witch right out of school, if Albus recalls correctly. No doubt she is currently in tears.).

He much prefers Hogwarts brightly lit and bustling with students, but it is still peaceful during its summer months - high stone ceilings that echo each step an old man takes, staircases free to shift and swivel at leisure. Albus makes his way to his office, passing rows upon rows of empty portrait frames (It seems many of the usual occupants had also chosen to take a bit of time off, and who could blame them?). After he scratches Fawkes and helps himself to a butterscotch, he realises that it is nearly time and has to move rather quickly to his desk. Half-moon spectacles resting on nose, hands folded, nonchalantly glancing at papers and -

"Ah, Harry."

Harry Potter appears in his office with a quiet puff of air, eyes wild and body tense. He looks frantically around before fastening his gaze on Albus and not letting go. Merlin, the boy has grown. Albus frankly never believed he'd reach more than 5'8".

"No." Harry speaks as if the word is being ripped out of him. Albus had not expected being greeted thusly.

"I'm sorry you find my presence so upsetting, my boy. I for one am rather pleased to see you."

"When is it? How far back have I -"

"I believe that it is two weeks before you start your fourth year with us." Dumbledore smiles fondly. "And look at you now, my goodness. Not the Boy who Lived, certainly -"

"Where is he?" Harry interrupts, and Albus is again taken aback.

"I assume you are speaking of our dear Severus." He nods sagely, fingers wandering across his cluttered desk. "Shortbread, Harry? It really is quite excellent. Also gives you something to do with your hands in social situations."

"Alb - Headmaster. Where is he? I have to talk to him, you have to let me -"

"He is not in the school. In fact, currently our Potions Master is away on an errand." Dumbledore pauses and his eyebrows knit together for a moment. Had the boy held hopes of one more meeting with his once-hated professor? Most unexpected. "Have a seat, my dear boy."

"No."

"There is much to discuss -"

"No," Harry says again, standing motionless before Albus' desk. "Tell me where he is."

"I'm sorry, truly I am, but there simply is not time. You will be only with me briefly, and we must accomplish many things. Please, sit."

"No," Harry whispers, eyes lost. Again, most unexpected. "This is the last time. This is the last time, isn't it?"

The boy is clever, no question about that. Dumbledore inclines his head.

"I'm afraid so."

"But - why? Why would you do this? I thought I would get one more time with him - I have to tell him what's going to happen! He's going to - he's going to die, Albus! Nagini -"

He should have stopped this sooner. Ignoring the sorrow that lightening-forks through his chest, Albus holds up his hand. "Stop, my boy. Please."

"No, I won't! You have to know -"

"If you say one more word about the future, I will be forced to leave the room, and you will spend the remainder of your time here conversing with the portraits." He cannot know, and he knows he cannot know and still the temptation weighs so heavily on his old bones. No. Let things play out as they will play out. It is the way it must be. He regrets the shattered expression on Harry's face, and tries to soften his tone. "They're not all that bad company, my boy. Particularly Mirabella Hoodwink, the elderly witch in that silver frame - has the most amusing riddles, not all of them school-appropriate, but I daresay -"

"He's going to die," Harry repeats softly, and Albus goes quiet. Oh, Severus. It was not unexpected, not really, but it saddens him to have his suspicions confirmed. Albus adjusts his spectacles with a slightly trembling hand.

"We all of us die someday, Harry Potter. Even you, I'd wager, though I have been wrong about you before."

Harry sits, boneless, in the chair opposite. He stares into space, eyes focusing on nothing.

"He deserves - more than this. Better than this. And I wanted -"

"And what about what Severus wants?" the Headmaster says quietly, hands steepled on his desk. "Do not underestimate your professor. He has been in control of his destiny for many years now. He does not need saving, any more than you or I."

"Why did you do this, then? If you knew I wasn't going to be able to make a difference? What purpose could this - this whole thing - possibly have served?"

"Surely it is obvious at this point." Dumbledore peers over the rim of his spectacles. Of course Harry Potter took this experience as another opportunity to save the world. Sometimes he wondered how the boy could walk upright with all the burdens he laid on his own shoulders. "I wanted you to meet Professor Snape as a man. To observe his ill-treatment, so that you might know what he sacrificed. And what sort of a life he chose to lead."

The boy slumps in his chair, and Albus struggles to think of something that might comfort him. He is normally quite excellent at this type of thing, but he was not expecting Harry to be this distraught. Or this tall.

"I know it is difficult to lose a person one cares about. I know that all too well. I hope you do not regret the experience I have given you."

Harry glances up, and Albus is disturbed to see the young man's eyes shine.

"He left me some of his memories. After he - at the end."

"Did he?" Albus is filled with genuine surprise. He had hoped that perhaps the contact with Harry - free of expectations and familial history - would convince Severus that the boy deserved his protection. But Severus was a notoriously private person. What memories would he ever deign to leave Harry Potter? "My word. And did you learn a great deal?"

"I did. I -"

"You see now that sometimes those you perceive as enemies have their own obligations to fulfill. One's loyalties are not always visible on the surface." He absently pulls on his beard. "The heart is a curious thing, Harry."

Harry reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a heavily creased envelope. He smiles, almost bitterly at it, and Albus is displeased to see such an expression on a face so young.

"I had a letter for him," Harry murmurs.

"He can never get it, you see now. There is too much at stake when one tries to change an event of such magnitude. You must be content in the fact that Severus made his own decisions, and followed the path meant for him. But perhaps - in the future - you might have more patience for those - shall we say, prickly - individuals. Each of us has stories unfathomable to those around us."

The boy makes a brief expression of pain, and Albus examines his own pocket watch.

"We're nearly out of time, dear boy. Whatever you are feeling at this moment, you must know that it was a pleasure to see what a man you will become. A true pleasure."

Harry's face softens for the first time in their visit. The corner of his mouth curls, and Albus sees a shadow of his mother there, smiling out through shades of green.

"It was good to see you, Headmaster. I suppose - I suppose you want the watch back." He retrieves the gold watch, and Dumbledore smiles at it fondly but waves it away.

"I appreciate the offer, but I have one just like it in the family vaults. Nearly identical, I think now. It will one day make an excellent birthday present. No, the watch is yours. Consider it - a gift."

He watches Harry begin to blur slightly, as if the air around him were suddenly very thick.

"Headmaster," the boy gasps, rising.

"I shall not say goodbye, but farewell. Until we meet again, Harry Potter."

"Headmaster," the boy says again, blurring further. Dumbledore watches the famous green eyes glance around the room, before fixing one last time on him. "Please -"

Harry's voice is growing distorted, and Albus can still make out the envelope, clutched in the boy's hand.

"Please -" the boy says one more time, and then is gone.

Albus waits for a moment, getting accustomed to his newly empty office. Please, the boy had said. Please.

"An interesting development, wouldn't you say, Fawkes?"

Fawkes screeches softly, and Albus nods.

"Most interesting indeed."

*  *  *

Blood gushes in spurts from Snape's neck, pulsing pulsing with each beat of his heart, pulsing with each gasp of breath he takes, and he does not know why (he's been expecting this, is not surprised, is not afraid, is ready), but he fights to live, for a moment he fights against the darkness that billows from the corners of the room, presses his fingers against his ragged throat, feeling no pain, only seeping coldness as he staggers and falls to the ground.

And then Harry Potter is standing before him, like an answer to a question, a wish Snape made out loud, and with a strength he does not know he has, he grabs the boy's robes, pulling him close. "Take...it... Take...it..."

He cannot die with Potter hating him, Potter with his white skin and small mouth and "You're nice, you know," and Harry Harry -

Blood trickles wet against Snape's palm and his mind spins (Harry's green eyes at the foot of his bed where the hell is his wand) and the ground tilts (warm hand open against his chest, he is in a bed, he is on the ground, he is in a bed) and he - lies.

The darkness curls like ink across his vision and he makes up memories, sending them spilling out of his mouth and his eyes, memories of Lily, memories of Albus, things that happened and things that didn't happen, and Harry is collecting them somehow, gathering them in his hands -

He cannot die with Potter hating him, but neither can he tell him - tell him everything, how could he tell him and he cannot die, not yet, not yet, not yet. Snape feels his heartbeat slowing, staggering as it has only a few times in his life (Harry smiles at him across a pub full of people and it is like a spark of flint on stone, hot and hard and shining) and breathing is too hard too heavy too -

"Look... at... me..."

Harry does.

And Snape falls headlong into wide fields of green green grass (is not afraid, is ready), lies down in fresh air and sunlight with the spinning world warm against his back.

 

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days.

Frank O'Hara

"Animals"

Part Seven: Memorial

The day of the anniversary celebration dawns warm and bright, under a wide cloudless sky. Harry nervously shuffles his papers, reading his speech over and over, while Ginny and the boys wait in impossibly long lines for ice-cream and face-painting. The statue is every bit as frightening as Harry could have hoped, though he isn't so heartless as to be completely unaffected by it. Against its base is affixed a large plaque, listing the names of those killed in both wars. He stands before it for a long moment. James and Lily Potter. Albus Dumbledore. Remus and Nymphadora Lupin. Fred Weasley. Harry's heart pounds in his chest and he reaches down, brushes his thumb briefly across the tiny mechanical font: Severus Snape.

Ex-Headmistress McGonagall smiles at him from across the sea of people, and Harry smiles back. She looks the same as she ever did, except maybe a bit less tired. Retirement will do that to a person. She is wearing one of the commemorative jumpers Ron was so keen on, though she does not look that pleased about it.

Hagrid gives him a back-breaking hug, eyes already red with weeping. James is quite in love with the giant man, and follows him everywhere, clutching the hem of Hagrid’s manky old coat and listening enraptured to stories about dragons and spiders and great hairy beasts. As long as the boy isn’t trod upon or eaten by Fang, Harry’s fine with it.

Ron is off with George, trying to scam their way into free merchandise, and Harry spots Hermione alone under the shade of a tree. Or as alone as anyone can be in the middle of a jostling crowd.

"You'll be brilliant, by the way," she tells him when she sees him. She has apparently forgiven him for the dinner incident.

"I think I'm going to be sick."

"Come now, Harry. You defeated the most powerful Dark Wizard of all time. You can surely handle a bunch of politicians and their families."

“I don’t know. They are slightly more terrifying. And there are altogether more of them.”

Hermione laughs and leans against him for a moment, before frowning. She squints into the sunlight.

“Your wife is coming,” she murmurs, a strange look coming over her face. “I shouldgo and find Ron before the speeches start. Good luck.”

Harry waves after her. Something happened with her and Ginny, some fight or something, because the two have been acting strange around each other for years now. They’re rarely in the same room, if they can help it, and hardly speak when the other one is present. It makes for very awkward dinner parties.

“Ello, handsome.” Harry scoops Albus out of her arms and gives him a kiss. He is disturbed to see the boy has a painted lightning bolt on his forehead and black circles like spectacles painted around his eyes.

“Down,” Albus shouts, “down down down -”

“He’s been wanting to run around all day. But there are far too many people here. He’d be off like a shot.”

Harry tosses his son in the air, and the boy shrieks in delight.

“It’s fine for you to throw him around, but try carrying him for hours in this heat.” Ginny sighs, relaxing for a moment, while Albus tries earnestly to break Harry’s glasses. “How is Hermione doing?”

“She’s fine. She -”

They are jostled apart by a heavily breathing Edmund Honeycutt, who appears as suddenly as if he Apparated.

"I'm so sorry to interrupt, truly I am, but we are almost ready for you, Mr. Potter." The man beams, wiping sweat from his brow with a spotty handkerchief. "If you would be so good as to follow me to the stage."

Harry widens his eyes.

“You’ll be fine,” Ginny laughs, as she grudgingly hefts the one-year-old back into her arms. "You're Harry bloody Potter."

"I bloody well am." Harry grins at her (still somewhat unconvinced), and hurries after Honeycutt.

When they reach the platform, a slight hush has descended over the vast crowd. There is a large crate on stage, from which Harry can hear a vague cooing and fluttering of wings.

“You have your wand on you?” Honeycutt asks him, and Harry nods.

"The top will lift off as soon as the bindings have been severed," the man murmurs, motioning to the crate. "If you would be so kind as to do the honours, following your speech."

Harry nods, a bit shaky on his feet.

“You needn’t worry, Mr. Potter. You are the Boy Who Lived. It’s you they want to see.”

With a wink that speaks to far more personality than Harry would ever have expected from the man, Honeycutt moves to the podium, mopping his brow before casting Sonorus and speaking.

"Ladies and gentlemen." He smiles his average smile. In the audience, Harry sees Headmistress Singh, looking unimpressed. She will be speaking later, no doubt. Harry also spies Ron and Hermione near the front, with George Weasley, who seems a bit worse for wear. The rest of the Weasley clan is around somewhere, and the occasional burst of red hair in the crowd is enough to alert him of one’s presence.

He forgets for a moment that Honeycutt is speaking. Harry’s hands are clammy and he rubs them on his trousers.

"It is my great pleasure and privilege to welcome you to this most special event, the Tenth Memorial Day celebrations. Ten years ago today, You-Know-Who’s reign of fear and chaos was ended, here, at this very school, and it is that event that we gather here to recognize every year. Most of you probably recognize my face, but for those of you from elsewhere, I am Edmund Honeycutt, Head of Public Affairs. Before we begin today's festivities, I would like to welcome Mr. Harry Potter to the stage, to say a few introductory words. Mr. Potter, if you would."

Harry's stomach sinks into his feet, and for a moment he forgets how to walk. Each step to the podium feels like his body is made of lead, and a sea of eyes fasten on him. Something is going on at the back of the crowd, and Harry strains to make it out. If someone's pissed and rowdy already (he just prays it isn’t a Weasley), it is going to make for an interesting party.

"Hello," he murmurs after casting his own Sonorus, and his voice booms over rows and rows of people, slightly distorted. He swallows. "I'm - very pleased to be here at the Tenth Anniversary Celebrations and Memorial Day. I'm especially pleased to be here for the unveiling of this commemorative statue, the -" He squints at the name Honeycutt jotted down for him. "The - Heaviest Wand."

There is a polite smatter of applause from the crowd, and Harry frantically scans his notes, trying to make sense of them. His hands are sweating so badly the ink is starting to run.

“Being here, with all -” He squints to make a word out. Smears of ink spread wherever he touches. “Being in your -”

This is ridiculous. Harry folds his notes, puts them into his pocket. Behind him, he hears Honeycutt make a slight choking sound.

“I can’t read my notes,” he says softly, and there is a gentle murmur of laughter from the crowd. A couple of people are still pushing each other, far in the back. “But I still want to say - being here, with all of you, makes me realise exactly what’s important. Makes me realise how -” He struggles. “- how good it is that Volde -”

The crowd goes very silent. He can see Hermione staring up at him with wide, nervous eyes. He sighs.

“Voldemort,” he says deliberately, and there are nervous whispers from the gathered audience. Again, Honeycutt makes a not completely happy noise, deep in his throat. “It’s just a name. It doesn’t have any power. And the bearer of that name no longer has power, either. He was just a man. And we defeated him.”

He can see his son sitting high on Hagrid’s shoulders. Hagrid blows his nose with a sound like a foghorn, and James smiles delightedly. At the back of the crowd, someone shouts something inaudible. Harry continues.

“In the end, we defeated him together. With courage. And skill. And - love.” In his mind’s eye he sees Snape, biting down on his lips to keep from smiling. He sees Snape’s dark pyjamas, buttoned tightly at the throat.

"We - all of us - lost people we cared about. And this fine school lost a Headmaster. Lost - two Headmasters. But I'm sure if - if everyone on that plaque were here today, they would know how worth it their sacrifices had been. And how loved, and missed they are." He hears Hagrid let out a loud sob. James is petting his head.

"I should keep this short, so you can start enjoying yourselves. I just hope you know that - I'm so very grateful I can be here, with all of you today. To honour and celebrate and - miss - those who cannot be." In his mind, Severus Snape is sitting across the kitchen table, white fingers wrapped around a teacup. Snape is sitting on the front stepsbeside him, frowning down at his hands. Snape is standing in the rain, though Harry has an umbrella.

"Thank you," Harry concludes, and there is another brief polite smattering of applause. Well, it wasn't the best speech he'd ever heard, but at least he didn't throw up. He casts a Quietus on his booming voice, and steps back.

"Mr. Potter, if you would." Honeycutt's gets to his feet, and Harry lifts his wand. The commotion at the back of the crowd seems to be making its way closer to the stage; someone is shouting, but Harry cannot make out the words. He sees several Aurors leave their posts by the stage to investigate.

"Go on, Mr. Potter," Honeycutt says, rather impatiently, and when Harry hesitates again, the older man has his wand out in an instant, severing the bindings on the crate. The lid rises, and someone in the crowd yells something ("Potter!") and the crate bursts open with a flash of smoke.

Smoke that shouldn't be there. Harry opens his mouth, and suddenly feels a tingling in his skin, the kind of feeling you get just before a part of your body goes numb. Something is wrong... he knows something is wrong, but he doesn't much care, the ground looks so soft and he could sleep for a thousand years, if they'd let him, sleep until he looked like Dumbledore, and there is a flashing light at the corner of his eyes, before someone flies at him, knocks him off the stage.

"You must drink this," a voice hisses in his ear, and Harry can barely see, only white hair and dark fabric, "drink this you bloody - stupid -"

Cold glass is pressed against his lips and something bitter is running down his throat, and Harry chokes and gags and struggles to get away -

"If you spit this up -" the voice threatens, and spells are flying around them, back and forth like fireworks, and people are screaming (people are screaming) and the warm weight is suddenly thrown off him, the stranger sent flying backwards.

Harry struggles to his feet, dizzily, each step nearly a fall. Where are his children - he cannot seem to remember their names - and there is an older, white-haired man lying crumpled a few feet away. As Harry approaches, the man suddenly looks up, going very pale and hissing "Honeycutt, it's sodding Honeycutt," and Harry turns just in time to see Honeycutt brandishing his wand like a knife ("Avada Kedavra!") and the white-haired man shouts "No!" (a no Harry feels in his teeth, in his fingers, which are shaking, which are multiplying-)

Something is very wrong.

Without any conscious intention, he stumbles to the left, barely missing Honeycutt's curse, and the white-haired stranger scrambles upright, searching desperately for his wand. Someone has disarmed Honeycutt, who is laughing horribly, and as the world spins around Harry, as Harry falls dizzily to his knees (there is something wrong with him, there was something in -), the Head of Public Affairs waves to the panicking crowd.

"Don't move!" a random Auror shouts, but Honeycutt just laughs more wildly.

"The Mark rises! The Mark rises!" he cackles, before lifting his hand to his mouth, and swallowing something quickly. He immediately begins to scream, grabbing at his throat, and the stage is swarmed with Aurors, and someone is carrying the white-haired man away, who is shouting "Wait! Wait, let me -"

And without any proof, without anything more than an approaching misty unconsciousness, and a feeling so sharp it stings, Harry reaches out as the man passes, whispers, "Severus," like he has never said the name before, whispers, "Severus," like the title of a song or a poem, reaches out with his hand and his mind, pushes -

The man flinches, and there is another shout from the crowd, and an explosion of light, and the last thing Harry sees is white hair growing longer and darker, nose and eyes and mouth shifting like clay before his closing eyes.

*  *  *

There is a small crowd of mediwizards and witches around a closed door. Two of them are crying. From inside the room, there is a loud crash, and the crowd flinches slightly.

"Where is he - I must see him - do any of you imbecilic - witless - incompetents realisethat - let me out of here at once!"

Down the polished hospital hallway, an old woman approaches. She is wearing a very fashionable jumper, and a few of the younger staff members nudge each other.

"All right, I'm here, I'm here."

Barnabas Crumb, a large dark-haired Auror, steps forward to take the woman's hand.

"Ms. McGonagall, I -"

"Yes, yes, you're very sorry, I'm sure." She eyes the locked room, from which a loud pounding is emanating. "I take it he's in there?"

"He won't speak to anyone," Crumb sighs, "Nearly injured one of the Mungo's staff members with a dinner tray. I thought - perhaps - a friendly face..."

"I'm sure you did," she mutters to herself. "You may as well unward the door."

"Have you - got your wand?"

"Of course, of course." She stands near the door, flanked by Aurors, as Crumb performs several unlocking spells.

A young mediwitch gives a small sob of fright, and McGonagall eyes her critically.

"Calm yourself, you silly girl," she snaps, reaching for the doorknob.

"Good luck," Crumb tells her, taking a cautionary step back.

"Luck?" McGonagall snorts softly. "With Severus Snape, one needs more than luck." She steps inside, and closes the door behind her.

The room is very white, with a bed in the far corner, and a tall, ranting man in the other. Ten years, she thinks, ten years since she chased this young man from his own school, ten years since that great bloody snake ripped his throat out and left him bleeding in the Shrieking Shack -

She feels tears spring to her eyes.

Snape hardly spares her a glance.

"I must see him. I must. Do you understand me?"

"Who?" she asks, stupidly. She knows the answer, or would know the answer, was she not so overcome with the length of Snape's hair and the lines around his eyes.

"Who?" Snape sneers, nearly shrieks. "Harry sodding Potter, that's who. Do you realise, Minerva, that he could have died today? Does anyone in this useless excuse for a place of medicine realize that? If I do not see him - if I do not make sure -"

"He's awake."

Snape stops pacing, stands shocked and still by the small barred window. And in that moment, Minerva McGonagall realises something. Something perhaps she should have realised years ago.

"Awake? How is he? Has he been ill, at all? Difficulty breathing, or -"

"Apparently, he's doing quite well." She pauses, at a loss for the specifics. "Perhaps I should fetch a mediwizard."

Snape snorts with disdain. "Do not trouble yourself. They are all completely incompetent." He resumes his pacing, muttering to himself. "Ridiculous...failed to recognize...what sort of useless facility..."

"Severus," Minerva says quietly, trying to regain his attention. "What - happened to Potter? How did you -"

"How did I - what?" Snape's eyes flash furiously at her. "How did I utilize the skills that even a dim-witted first year should possess?

Minerva is silent, and Snape continues.

"The signs of Paramuris in the system. Loss of consciousness. Inexplicable bruising. Yellowish tint to face and hands."

"I -"

"I read the sodding Prophet, I saw those bloody pictures of him - coming out of Mungo's after the staff sent him on his merry way. And because I am not completely witless, I wondered why anyone would feel the desire to inject Harry Potter with a completely harmless substance, days before the anniversary celebrations?"

Minerva wracks her brain for the effects of the potion in particular. Parum Muris. Little mouse.

"There is - another potion," she says slowly, horrified realisation beginning to dawn. "Isn't there? A potion that - if you combine the two -"

"They become fatal, yes." Snape pinches the bridge of his nose, obviously still distraught. "It is my belief, now, that second potion was the gas which came out of the crate."

Minerva raises her hand to her heart.

"They were going to murder him after his speech." Snape does not look at her. "In front of everyone."

They are silent for a few moments. If there was another chair, she would have felt the need to sit down. As it is, she stands by the door, wringing her hands, over and over again.

"It was lucky you were there," she murmurs, and Snape scoffs.

"I was very nearly too late." Snape seems to realise the truth of this statement after he speaks it, and a look of utter despair comes over his face. "I might have - he might have -"

"You did well." Minerva takes a few steps closer, the desire to touch the man's shoulder overpowering her common sense. Snape realizes her intention and flinches, even though she is still halfway across the room.

"You did well," Minerva says again, staying where she is. "You were not too late. He is alive. You have saved his life for the hundredth time, I imagine."

Snape lets out a short, scornful laugh. "Precious little thanks I've had for it."

The man must be nearly fifty, but Minerva still sees a teenage boy when she looks at him - awkward and short-tempered and fiercely protective. It occurs to her that there are things to say. Things she wishes did not need to be said.

"The last time I saw you -"

"Oh, for Merlin's sake."

"Do not interrupt me, Severus Snape. Let me say my piece, and then you may hiss and spit all you like. Only give me that."

Snape glares at her from across the room, but says nothing. Minerva steels herself.

"The last time I saw you, I - truly believed you had betrayed the Order. Betrayed Albus. I chased you from your school."

Snape crosses his arms, staring out the tiny window. "It was my job to be convincing," he says, so quietly she almost doesn't hear him.

"Some of us - should not have been so easily convinced."

They are silent. Minerva watches his profile, still strong, still sharp, despite the space of ten years.

"Could you ever forgive a blind and foolish old woman?"

Snape considers this, heat rising to his face. Never comfortable with kindness, was our Snape.

"I - may be persuaded," he says softly. He looks up, suddenly, and fixes his bird-black eyes on her. "Tell them to let me go."

Minerva is startled. "But - I was told you were injured. Your shoulder -"

"Dislocated, yes. Unpleasant, but easily mended."

"The boy - he will want to see -"

"I have spent too many years concerned with the desires of Harry Potter," Snape spits. Minerva watches as his face grows even more flushed. "I want to go home."

Minerva presses her lips together. "Where is home for you?" She pauses, frets a bit. "Where have you been?"

Snape sniffs. Stares again out the window. "Away."

"I will - see what I can do." Minerva moves back toward the door. "Try not to abuse too many of the staff members while I am away."

Snape says nothing to this, only stares in silence at the fragment of blue sky visible through the curtains.

"And Severus," Minerva begins uncertainly, hand on the doorknob.

He glances briefly at her.

"It is good to have you back." She opens the door, and leaves him alone with his window.

*  *  *

It takes a week for Harry to find the man.

("Gone? What do you mean, gone? He can't have, he - why didn't -"

"He was released within hours of your arrival here. His injuries were largely superficial."

Harry clutches fiercely at his hospital gown, his bed sheets.

"Where - where is he?"

The mediwizard takes pity on him, revealing far more than he legally should.

"He is in the country, if that is any help. The Ministry has insisted he stay in England. For the present.")

They would not let Harry go, however. The poison in his system had started to spread by the time Snape gave him the antidote, and even in those brief seconds it had wreaked havoc on his body. The left side was the worst; Harry could barely lift his arm, and his leg just twisted underneath him whenever he tried to walk. The Mungo's staff was doing the best it could, and gradually he regained feeling in his limbs, could almost hobble from one side of his room to the other.

It was not until a week following the ceremony that he was released. A day later, he stands in front of Spinner's End, leaning heavily on a cane (They say it should only be a few weeks before he's off it. It's rather embarrassing, really.). The windows of the narrow brick house are boarded up (one is broken), and it looks like no one has lived here in years. Harry is not convinced.

He limps up the cracked front steps (it doesn't seem so long ago, not really), and knocks on the door.

There is no answer. He had expected as much, and knocks again. There is the sound of movement from inside, and Harry's heart twists and clenches, Harry's hands raise self-consciously to his face, Harry's throat goes dry and his lips part weakly

The door opens a crack, and a dark, heavy-lidded eye peers out at him. There is a small hesitation, and the door slams shut.

Harry winces (no one said it would be easy), and knocks again. Unsurprisingly, no one answers, but Harry keeps knocking and knocking until his knuckles are split and swollen, back of his hand smudged with blood. At long last, the door opens again.

Severus Snape stands there, wrapped in a ragged dressing gown, ten years older. And alive. Harry feels as if he has been stabbed; the man is so gorgeous it is difficult to keep his eyes open, and not squint like he is staring at the sun.

Snape looks briefly from Harry to the cane and back again, before turning on one heel and disappearing into the house. He does not slam the door in Harry's face, however, which Harry takes as an engraved invitation to follow.

Snape is sitting at the kitchen table, hand covering his eyes, back hunched like he cannot possibly support his own weight. He's gained a bit since last Harry saw him, but it looks good; the Potions Master was always entirely too skinny, all ribs and elbows. Harry kissed those ribs, once. Knew the small size of Snape's body by touch alone.

It is strange to see Snape again, the way they always knew each other. The Snape from the past (or Severus, wasn't it? once, it was Severus) was skinny and pale, but he did not radiate the damaged-ness of the Snape that sits before him. Young Snape did not have eyes nearly that dark, eyes the colour of dried blood, surrounded by circles so deep they were nearly purple. Young Snape did not have cheekbones that stuck out at such sharp angles, or collarbones that could have been knives. And young Snape wasn't remotely as beautiful. Not anywhere close. No comparison, really.

It occurs to Harry then, as he is thinking his former professor beautiful, that perhaps he's been in love with the man for much longer than he originally thought. Perhaps none of this was new. And how ridiculous, how unfair, that he never realised until now.

"You're alive," Harry whispers, willing his voice to remain steady. He has not actually said the words out loud yet, not even in the privacy of his rooms, and he is amazed that he manages them.

Snape says nothing, and keeps his hand firmly in place. He could be a statue, were it not for the vein that twitches ever so slightly against his neck.

"You're - alive," Harry says again, getting used to the phrase.

There is no response, and he is not that surprised by it. He feels the desperate urge to keep talking (the urge he always feels when he is nervous), wants to fill the air with words, sounds, anything to absorb the silence that twists like glass into his palm. He latches onto courtesy.

"You saved my life," he says quietly. Snape makes a sound deep in his throat (it could be a cough) but does not remove his hand from his eyes. "I would have died at the ceremony, if you hadn't been there."

Snape does not move. Harry takes a shallow breath, feeling dizzy and bone-tired.

"Thank you. For that. And for -"

"Go away, Potter." Snape's smooth voice breaks Harry's concentration, and he falters over his words. Snape has not changed position, but there is a tightness in his mouth, a trembling in his hands that was certainly not there before. Harry realiseshe has not heard the man's voice in years, and something deep within him caves, releasing a rush of warmth and weakness.

"You're alive," he says again, the wonder of the words still fresh as a wound.

"Is it your intention to inundate me with the obvious?" Snape looks up suddenly, eyes flashing. Harry wants to crouch at the foot of Snape's chair, and smooth away his frown lines and kiss the dark circles under his eyes. The want builds until it overwhelms him, makes his hands start to shake.

"Where have you been," he whispers, hating the weakness in his voice, "for ten years?" He waits for Snape to tell him it is simply none of his business.

"Amsterdam," Snape says instead, and Harry is shocked to the soles of his feet. Both by the answer and the fact that he got any answer at all.

"Amsterdam?" he repeats. "Doing what?"

"That is simply none of your business." Snape cannot keep the edge from his voice. Harry waits, and after a moment of silence, Snape shudders and hisses, "Potions."

"Why didn't - why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you -"

"And why would I have done that?" Snape snarls at him. "I read the bloody Prophet. You married Ginevra Weasley and have two delightful children. I have my own shop, and an undamaged reputation, and a comfortable life. Why in Merlin's name would I have sought you out?"

"You sought me out a few days ago," Harry says quietly, and two spots of colour appear high on Snape's cheekbones.

"That is - altogether different. I had not intended on being taken in by Aurors, nor kept against my will in England. I had not counted on my new life becoming irreparably damaged and impossible to resume. I had not counted on any of this, although, knowing you were involved, I should have predicted the worst outcome possible," he finishes in a rush, then bites down on his lips.

Harry will gladly take anger over silence; with anger, he is on familiar ground.

"I thought - I thought you died." Just the small sentence makes heat pulse like tears in Harry's skull. "And I thought it was my fault."

"It largely was your fault, if I remember correctly." Snape bites down on his lips again, and Harry gets the impression he is trying to stop himself from speaking.

"How did you survive?"

Snape gives him a completely disdainful look, the type meant to make Harry melt into a hideous puddle and crawl back out the door. Harry does not melt and crawl, however, he is not afraid. What is there to be afraid of anymore? He thought Snape was dead. Nothing could be worse.

"Antivenin," Snape sighs after a moment. "And a Blood-Replenishing potion. Dumbledore was always ridiculously insistent that I carry them on my person."

Harry feels his chest cave slightly, feels his heart stutter beneath his skin.

"He was?"

"Yes, he - why in Merlin's name are you looking like that?"

"No reason. Nothing." Harry thinks he might need to sit down before his legs give out. He shifts his weight, leans on his cane. Snape notices this, and stares at him for a moment, before squeezing his eyes tightly shut.

"I am a colossal fool."

Harry's breath catches in his throat. "You forgot stubborn and self-important."

Snape is not amused. "You are - the spitting sodding image of your father. You could be his bleeding twin. And the scar - the scar -" He covers his face with his hands again.

"Severus?" Harry asks softly, after a moment.

Instantly, Snape rises from the table, knocking off a teacup, which shatters on the floor.

"Your bloody scar," he hisses, eyes wild. "The world knew about the scar, the sodding world. I cannot believe I did not even think - not for a second -"

"Why would you?" Harry cries out, desperately wanting the man to stop blaming himself. "Why would you have ever thought that? I lied to you -"

"You damn well did," Snape spits, looming closer, "You have quite the talent for it - hit your sodding head, what rubbish. And I believed you, I, like a halfwit and a fool -"

"You lied to me too," Harry retorts, anger rising in him inexplicably. This isn't how it's supposed to be, they aren't supposed to be screaming at each other, not yet. "You were going to just die without telling me, telling me anything! How could you do that?"

"How can you even ask this question?" Snape snarls, heat rushing to his face, "What could I possibly have said, Potter? What? When? Should I have approached you, perhaps, as a young boy of eleven, convinced you of the great and tragic love affair that had yet to happen between us? No, no, surely I could have restrained myself until you were, say, twelve. I can imagine the conversation we would have had at that particular point in time very well. Can't you?"

"Stop -"

"Or maybe I could have waited until sodding sixth year, confessed my utter and witless devotion to you while I was murdering Albus Dumbledore, or perhaps moments after that, when you were hurtling Unforgivables at me -"

"That's not fair!" Harry retorts. "That is not fair! I thought all these things about you - all these horrible, nasty things - because you made me. You made me, even though you knew, you knew -"

"What did I know, Potter?" Snape shouts into Harry's face, his voice booming in the tiny kitchen. "What could I possibly have known?"

Harry cannot think, can only act, so he grabs Snape's ridiculous bathrobe and kisses him. Let the bastard feel what he feels; let Snape understand what Harry cannot put into words. He kisses Snape, a bundle of stinging nettles and self-righteousness, forces his tongue into Snape's mouth, and though the man leans back at first, soon he is clawing at Harry's clothing, pulling him flush against his body, and biting deep searing kisses on his mouth. Snape presses Harry up against the doorframe in the kitchen, yanking at his hair and sucking on his neck, and Harry will be black and blue, he knows it, but this is what he wants, what he's wanted for years -

Snape suddenly jerks free from Harry's grip, and is halfway across the kitchen before Harry can remember how to speak. He is off balance, and his cane has been kicked to the floor somewhere, and his bad leg crumples underneath him, sending him falling to the ground.

Snape does not move.

Harry tries to find his cane and right himself with the minimum amount of shame. It does not help that Severus Snape is staring at him, hand pressed against his mouth and face gone very white.

When Harry is finally on his feet, Snape drops his hand.

"Get out of my house." His voice is level, and deathly serious.

Harry tastes blood on his upper lip. He runs his tongue over it, and sees Snape flinch slightly.

"Get out," Snape repeats himself, "go back to your wife."

Harry's body goes cold all over. He has no idea how to set things right. He has no idea where to possibly begin.

"Ginny and I, we aren't -"

"Stop," Snape raises his hand, stopping him. "I have no interest in the sordid details of your love life."

"We aren't together," Harry says it anyway, in a rush. "We haven't been for a long time. We're only married because - she wanted children and - but she's seeing someone else - and I -"

"And you what? You've been waiting your whole life for me, is that it, pining away in miserable solitude?"

It is indeed a way to put it. Harry does not know how to respond, so he simply looks at Snape, wishing the man could reach in and squeeze the truth from his wasted heart.

"I am expected to believe that?" Snape sneers, taking Harry's silence as his reply. "Do not mock me, Potter."

"I'm not mocking you," Harry protests. "For me - it was only a few years ago. It's all still fresh. I still feel the same -"

"Well, it was more than twenty years ago for me," the older man spits, teeth clenched together. "So you can imagine how my feelings might have changed."

Harry is certain that more than just his lip is bleeding. Surely there should be some wound, some visible mark left behind by an injury of this magnitude.

"I named my son after you," he murmurs, foolishly.

Snape snorts. "So I've heard. How charming."

"There's been - no one else."

Snape looks slightly alarmed, but quickly replaces the expression with a sneer. "It was years ago," he says roughly.

"I'm surprised you remember my name."

Snape stares at him for a long hot moment, and then looks away.

"So am I."

They stand in silence. Pain pulses in Harry's hip and he shifts his weight again. Snape glances over at him.

"Your leg - will heal?" he asks, tone as if he couldn't care less, but eyes narrow with concern.

"They think so. I've got these - exercises..." he trails off. He's forgotten how to speak. A question comes upon him suddenly. "Were you in love with my mother?"

Snape drops his gaze.

"I shan't answer that question, because it is simply none of your business. And I believe I asked you to leave."

Something strikes Harry as oddly funny, even as his heart is breaking. "You're always trying to toss me out of Spinner's End."

Snape blinks at him, then presses his lips together. "You seem - inordinately attached to the place."

"It grows on a person."

"It's a hideous house," Snape says tersely, studying the kitchen table. "Not meant to be lived in. Given half a chance, it would fall down around you, crush your skull in."

"I like it." Harry pushes his hair back. "I've always liked it."

"Goodbye, Harry."

Harry thrills at Snape's use of his first name, a brief pulse of electricity. His lips are still swollen with the violence of their kiss, and his tongue tastes like Snape - smoke and bitterness and tea.

"I'm coming back," he says softly. "You're not rid of me yet."

"Colour me unsurprised."

It makes the corner of Harry's mouth curl; he remembers this man. He missed this man. He wants to press his lips against Snape's small, unhappy line of a mouth, but cannot imagine getting away with it.

"Goodbye, Severus."

Snape gives him a terse nod before looking away, still standing frozen in the kitchen. Harry leaves. For now.

Severus peers out the front window until Potter has vanished from sight. He then pours himself another cup of tea (leaving the shards of the old cup on the floor), and sits back down at the kitchen table.

It was a mistake to come here.

It was a mistake to show himself, a mistake to let himself get so close to Harry that the man could undo his glamour simply by breathing his name ("Severus..." he said, "Severus..." and Severus had wished for a brief hot moment that he was that name, so he could roll like smoke off Harry Potter's tongue.).

It was all a big bloody mistake, but what could he have done? Let the man die? It was never an option, not for a second, and the very thought makes Severus' palms begin to sweat. Even the sight of that wretched cane made him feel ill for a moment - he was so so close, another few seconds and Potter might have fallen permanently, another few seconds and he might have been lost.

'You'll quake and tremble at the thought of his death, and yet you will not touch him?' a voice in the back of his mind asks him, sinister and soft.

Severus waves the voice away.

"It is wrong," he says to himself, studying his teacup. "Surely - it is wrong."

It is wrong to still want you like I do.

In all his (vicarious) experience with infatuation, Severus learned more than anything that it was short-lived. That though a man or woman might weep and pine for the object of their desire, any great absence would inevitably cure them of this affliction. Why, then, has this not been the case with his own heart? Surely his tastes were not that bizarre, his desires that abnormal. Why did Potter still have this effect on him, even now, despite all odds and reason?

Severus should never have let him get so close. In Amsterdam he was better able to resist his pull, contenting himself with the Prophet and the occasional picture in the gossip magazines (Potter was no longer the heart throb he once was, now that the wizarding world had been gripped by vampire-mania.). These outlets had been enough. Surely they had been enough.

Ten bloody years...

Two days following, Potter returns. Severus is so flummoxed by the sight of him, so out of his head with shock and longing, that he simply opens the door and lets the man inside.

Potter still leans heavily on his cane, and Severus still feels ill about it. No sooner is the younger man through the door than he sets to work in the kitchen, as if he can charm his way back into Severus' heart with another breakfast. Which is patently ridiculous (and did not work the first time. Certainly not.). Severus immediately regrets the dingy clutter of his home, immediately wishes he had made a bit more of an effort, but had been determined to prove to himself that he did not care what Potter thought, one way or the other.

Potter makes him breakfast, like he did so many years ago, and they eat together at the kitchen table. It has been a long time.

"Are the eggs okay?"

"Acceptable." Sometimes incivility is the only power Severus feels he has. It is obscene to be thusly reduced.

"How's your tea?"

Perfect, Severus does not say. Instead, he gives a small nod of acknowledgement, and hopes Potter will let him finish the meal in silence. He occasionally becomes aware that the young man is staring at him, and in those moments he is forced to use his most convincing glare until Potter turns his gaze elsewhere, however briefly. At one point, he feels a soft pressure on his hand, and realises Potter is touching him.

"Stop," he murmurs, jerking away. Potter snatches his hand back, as if burned. This happens more than once.

"I'm sorry," Potter says quietly, the third time. "I just do it without thinking."

"And that is different from the rest of your actions, how?"

Potter chuckles softly, shaking his head, and Severus feels warmth travel up his spine and into his hands. The young man is determined, it seems, to be bearable. The young man is determined to drive him mad.

"How long do you have to stay here?" Potter asks, finishing his toast.

"I'm sure I do not know. The Ministry apparently has questions for me, regarding my extended absence. I have to meet this afternoon with a barrister."

"The Ministry knows you were on the right side, though. I testified -"

"Good god." Of course he testified. Of course.

"I told them about the memories, and about - everything you had done." The passion in Potter's voice is surprising. "I didn't know then that the memories were fake. I didn't know until recently."

Severus waits a moment before replying. "I obviously correctly estimated how much you retained of our Occlumency lessons."

"That little faith in your teaching abilities?"

"Ungrateful brat."

Potter is thoughtful, which does not bode well. Severus waits in horrible anticipation.

"Why did you do that? All those things about my mother - it drove me crazy thinking that you - that she -"

"I told you before, I will not discuss her with you."

"It drove me crazy," Potter says again.

It strikes Severus now that Potter appears to be jealous. Jealous of his affection. The thought is so astounding that he feels tears well up in his eyes (Snivellus, they called him), and damns himself a coward and a fool. It is better to be alone than be humiliated. It is better to love in vain than to be laughed at.

The clock strikes in the sitting room, and Severus rises from the table.

"I must prepare for my appointment. Thank you for breakfast." The phrase tastes acidic.

Potter rises, starts to clear the dishes. Severus watches him for a moment. Without the cane, he has a noticeable limp, seems always on the verge of losing his balance. Severus had been later than he'd thought. It does not bear thinking about.

"I'll come back in a few days," Potter tells him, laying plates in the sink. "Make you lunch or something. I'm not the best cook -"

"Potter."

"- but I do a mean curry, and -"

"Potter."

"Don't," he says, hunched over the sink. "Just don't."

"Don't what?"

Harry turns on him, eyes slightly wild.

"I know what you're about to do. I know you, Snape. You're getting anxious and you're going to try to scare me away again. Try to make me regret -"

"I do regret it," Severus says it quickly, before he loses his nerve.

Potter looks like he's just been winded. He meets Severus' gaze, unflinching.

"You don't mean that."

"I am well aware of what I mean," Severus snaps, "I do regret it - I do - if I could take it back then I bloody would. Maybe then I would not have spent the good part of my life waiting for your return. Maybe then I would not have spent the last ten years in hiding from the only world I knew. Maybe then I could have done something of some tiny consequence -"

"You helped win a war!" Potter shouts in protest, "You saved countless lives. You've saved me so many times -"

"Saved your life, did I?" Severus hisses through his teeth, "That is remarkable, because you ruined mine."

Potter recoils as if he has been slapped. Severus has to catch his breath for a moment; his heart is racing out of control. He feels the urge to collapse trembling in his kneecaps, but frustration and despair drive him forward.

“Just one year ago I had a business, and a home, and was a respectable sodding member of the community. Had left everything behind, had left this -” Severus pulls up his sleeve, shoving the Dark Mark in Harry’s face, “behind. And now I’ve thrown it all away again, for you! To save your life, like a bloody stupid old man. I’ve sacrificed everything, given up everything, despite the fact that you - that you -”

Potter looks shell-shocked. He stands frozen by the sink, and Severus crushes the urge to comfort him as if it were an insect.

"You should leave," he says after a moment, his voice growing softer. He cannot look at the man. He thinks his heart might be about to stop; the pain in his chest can be due to no other reason, surely. "I have an appointment."

Potter still does not move.

"Evans -" Severus starts, then cuts himself off quickly. Their eyes lock across the kitchen, Potter's blazing shock and anger. "Potter," Severus amends.

"I'm sorry I ruined your life," Potter murmurs, words clipped and dull. "All I ever wanted -"

"Do not start apologizing to me, or we shall be here for the remainder of both our lives."

"You're right." Potter shakes his head. "Of course. You're right."

Again, he meets Severus' eyes, and Severus freezes in his tracks, wondering how difficult it would be to undo what he has just done, take back the words that hang over them both like storm clouds. And as he wonders, he is certain he feels the earth moving, its slow twist and ebb, carrying Harry Potter farther and farther away from him, no matter how he might try.

It's no good.

"I'll go, then," Potter whispers, and does not even give Severus a chance to reply. He hobbles out of the kitchen, walking as if his entire body is a bruise. Severus does not bother looking after him, does not even move until he hears the front door slam. It is impossible to think with the man in the same room, impossible to think with the man in the same city. He needs to get away from here, find a place where he can be alone.

It occurs to him that he has been alone all his life.

The breakfast dishes still sit in the sink, congealing. Severus throws a saucer against the wall with vicious satisfaction. The sound of breaking glass is a sound he’s heard before, one-hundred years ago, when he was an idiot professor at a school of magic, undone by a child (with his mother’s eyes).

*  *  *

Harry returns to Spinner's End a week later. He knows he should not. He knows he should not be there, that Snape meant what he said, and that all Harry has ever brought him was annoyance and heartache (with a probable emphasis on the former). He knows all this, and still he goes back, like a puppy or a kicked dog. One more time, he thinks, one more time to get him out of my system. One more time to forget about that mouth of his, those eyes, one more time to let him rant and abuse me and realize that I hate the bastard after all.

Just once more.

But when he reaches Spinner's End, there is no one there. The front door is open, and Harry enters, scanning for signs of danger. The house, however, is empty. Most of the furniture has been taken, the drawers and cupboards have been cleared.

Snape is gone. As far from Harry's reach as he was months ago. Except now Harry knows it.

A week later, Harry leaves his wife.

("I want Plum to live with me," Ginny tells him, tears running down her face (more upset about this than the time they'd both kissed other people). "I want this to work, I really do. I'm so - so sorry." She weeps, and he pets her head. It would have happened sooner or later. It had to happen eventually.

Two weeks later, Harry stands on the back porch of the house in Godric's Hollow.

("It'll need some work," the estate agent tells him. "It's been empty for a few years now. Part of the top floor missing. There was some sort of explosion, that's all I know about it, and all I want to know, mind.")

It will need some work. Harry stashes his bags on the bottom floor, seals off the top to avoid the wind and rain. For two straight weeks, he makes repairs, home renovation book in one hand, wand in the other.

Harry is in the garden, ruthlessly stabbing a spade into the still frozen soil, when he hears the crack of Apparation. He does not know what he expects, really; it could be one of a thousand people. As it is, the man who comes through the side gate is dressed all in black, and makes Harry's heart and lungs stop working for a small wrenching moment.

He rises slowly, but cannot possibly think of what to say.

"I have just met Plum," Snape mutters archly.

"Have you?" Harry's words are little more than air.

"I have. She was - most agreeable." Snape's expression conveys how little he values agreeability. "Apparently, you are now homeless."

"Well. I've got half a home." Harry gestures to the crumbling silhouette of his parents' former dwelling.

"I see that." Snape crosses the stone path to where Harry stands. He glances idly around the garden, no doubt looking for flaws. "And what will become of your precious infants?"

"I don't know," Harry admits, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Soon as this place is ready, we'll probably take turns with them. We'll have to work something out." Until then, Harry would miss his boys more than he'd miss his wand hand. More than he'd miss magic, if it came right down to it. He didn't know how he could bear to let them go, even if it was only for a while.

"We should have thought this through a little more," he continues, though he doesn't know why he's saying all this to Snape, "I guess she didn't count on falling in love."

"And you?" Snape says quietly.

"And me what?"

"Did you count on it?"

Harry wipes his hands on his jeans once again, just to keep himself busy. He laughs softly, and cannot keep the bitterness out of it. "I was already in love when we adopted the kids. I've been in love since I was - twenty years old." He hesitates. "Maybe longer than that."

Snape pauses, exhales sharply through his nose. "Have you," he manages after a second. "Longer than that, you say?"

"I was always staring at you," Harry says shakily, willing his blush not to become too ridiculous. "In class.  Surely you noticed."

Heat and emptiness seem to well up in his chest, and he cannot say anything more. He's tired of repeating himself, and tired of trying to breathe life into a frozen garden, and tired of sleeping alone, and tired of dreaming every night that a dark-haired man looms over him, trails white fingers across his chest, down his back, up his throat and deep deep into his mouth -

"Why are you here?" he asks, trying desperately to stop his current train of thought.

Snape is silent for a moment. He turns his attention to the spade at Harry's feet, and then looks somewhere far off into the distance. He opens his mouth, then closes it. Opens it.

"I was told I would always be welcome here."

"Who told you that?"

"Your mother," Snape says quietly, and it is all Harry can do to keep his hand from clutching at his chest.

"Were you in love with my mother?" he asks, not wanting to hear the answer, but needing to hear it, needing to hear it after all of these years and months and days of not knowing, not knowing -

"No, you idiot," Snape says quickly, not even pausing for breath, "I was in love with you."

At first Harry isn't sure he heard right, is positive it must have been a mistake. Snape blinks repeatedly, and for a moment Harry thinks there might be a slight trace of colour against his pale cheeks.

"She was my friend for some time, that is true. But you were - it was always -"

"You told me you regretted everything," Harry says softly, making no hasty movements. "I thought things had changed."

"Perhaps - perhaps not as much as I would have liked."

They are silent again for a long moment, not touching.

"There are many things that I can - bear," Snape continues roughly, looking everywhere but Harry. "I realisenow - to spend my life without you - that is not one of them."

Harry watches him intensely. Snape covers his eyes.

"Please do not make me continue," he murmurs, "I'm hideous at this."

Harry does not trust his voice. Snape turns to face him suddenly, and the heat between them makes Harry's heart lurch. He squeezes his hands together to stop them from shaking.

"It sounds pretty good to me." Harry smiles, and Snape smiles back, a smile all shock and unexpected pleasure. It only lasts a moment, but it is worth it.

"I am very old," Snape says quietly, brow furrowed.

"So am I."

"Don't be absurd. There's white in my hair."

"There is not." Harry pauses, hands longing to run through the hair in question. "If I hadn't been in danger - would you ever have come to me?"

Snape seems taken aback. Harry realises that they are moving closer and closer to each other, almost imperceptibly.

"I imagine there was always a limit on how long I would be able to resist you."

Harry blushes unwillingly. "You seemed to do all right for ten years."

Snape looks pained for a moment, and rubs the crease between his eyebrows. Harry stands about a foot away from him, and tries desperately to slow his breathing.

"Never think that it was - uncomplicated."

"You should have come sooner."

"I know that now."

"Can I kiss you?" Harry lifts a cold hand to Snape's face, surprised at how hot his skin feels, burning against his fingertips. Snape leans hesitantly into the hand, as Harry maps cool paths against his forehead, and down the side of his neck. Snape's lips part weakly.

"I - do not think -"

"Thirty years is long enough to wait for you." Harry smiles softly, fingers beginning to tremble, "Let me have this."

"Anything -" Snape's eyes flutter closed, a strange and delicate motion, as their mouths find each other.

It is funny, how quickly one remembers.

At first it is tentative, nearly chaste, with Snape's lips so thin and dry, and his hands barely daring to touch Harry's back, or his shoulders, and it's good - so good - but Harry knows he can do better, and he opens his mouth to Severus Snape, lashes out with his tongue and twines his fingers through oily strands of black hair (shot through with white) until Snape is trembling in a different sort of way, until the heat between them seals their bodies together, until Harry tears his mouth away to bite hot kisses up Snape's jaw line while the older man pants against his neck, his pulse jumping beneath Harry's lips in a staccato rhythm, a tarantella.

“I went to Spinner’s End.  I looked for you,” Harry murmurs, mouthing at the line of Snape's throat.

“Oh.” Snape pulls back slightly, a strange, unexpected look on his face. “You came - I did not think -” He stops, shakes his head, almost in amazement.

“Where were you?”

Again, Snape shakes his head. “At a hotel. The lawyer I met with the last time we - saw each other, has lessened my regret about returning to England. As it turns out, I’ve been left quite a large amount of money. By a great aunt you might recall.”

“She’s rather hard to forget.” Harry gestures vaguely toward the house, lips swollen and skin humming with electricity. "Shall we - do you want to -?"

Snape kisses him one more time, eyes half-closed and foggy, before pulling gently away. He keeps his hands clenched in the fabric of Harry's jacket.

"I thought - perhaps - I might stay here. For a bit. Watch you gardening."

Harry is taken aback by this, heart still pounding with pleasure.

"Watch me gardening? Why?"

"Because now - there's time."

And at the small and innocuous phrase, Harry feels as though a weight has been lifted from his chest, and he can finally breathe again. There is time now, isn't there?

Finally and at long last.

"I love you," Snape says, voice breaking only slightly on the second word.  A watch of sparrows take flight from the leafless apple tree.  Harry's heart goes soaring with them.

*  *  *

There is a time much later, much much later, when Harry Potter will ask Severus Snape how to end it.

They will sit in the conservatory together, and Severus will finally acquiesce to reading Harry's letter, finally take the creased and yellow pages, skim the words he was meant to see years and years ago. The boys will be with their mother, and Lily will be upstairs (finally, finally) napping.

Severus will read the letter once, twice, and once again.

"You've improper punctuation in the second paragraph. There should be a full stop after the bracket."

And Harry will kiss his husband then, a long slow kiss (it is not right to still want you like I do) that speaks of endless summers, and torn off buttons, and "git" and "brat" and lips to scars and fingers. And when they finally part, Harry will ask him.

"How do you end this story? How can you possibly?"

The beginning seems so simple, now. The beginning could be anywhere - could be the locking of eyes across a hall full of first years, could be a rainy night in a pub playing Christmas carols, could be a single mother on a train from Manchester to London, writing fine lines of desire between two people she has not met, drawing green eyes and hooked noses and "Look... at... me... (look at me, damn you, let me have this, just this -")

How do you end this story?

Severus folds the letter neatly in his hand. "You don't."

He kisses Harry, and the story doesn't end. It never ends. In fresh air and sunshine, or spelled out between hard covers, it is all the same.

Sunlight dims and vanishes. Pages brown and crumble.

Love leaves a mark.

How does it happen that our lives can drift
far from ourselves while we stay trapped in time,
queuing for death? It seems nothing will shift
the pattern of our days, alter the rhyme
we make with loss to assonance with bliss.

Then love comes, like a sudden flight of birds
from earth to heaven after rain.

Carol Ann Duffy

"Rapture"