"Come on, Harry, at least come and look at it."
Harry squinted at his friends as Ron pulled the curtains open, releasing a flood of evening light. Hermione's shadow covered Harry on the couch as she crossed her arms, hair tied up and still wearing her robes from the ministry. Harry rubbed at his own unkempt hair. He squinted up at them from the sofa.
"I'm busy," he said.
"Yeah, you are, buddy," Ron said, looking at him with slanted eyes.
"He wanted you to have it," Hermione said softly, sitting next to him. "Do you really think it could be that bad?"
"Besides, I don't think you're allowed to sell it. Something 'bout ministry secrets and such," Ron said. Hermione glanced at him and was silent. Harry sighed.
The next morning, Harry caught himself on his hands and knees, clutching a steep, green hill shining with dew that soaked through his robes—his friends appearing suddenly at the top of the slope. Harry scrambled up the spring-damp grass to reach them and stood up, shivering in the breeze that shocked him after a day (a week?) indoors. He pressed his hands to his knees with dizziness. The manor crouched beneath them, white walls seeming to soak up the eastern sun.
Harry folded his arms in his robes as they walked down, the air filling his lungs like icy water and the sun warming his back. Harry rubbed his head with vertigo as he stared up at the cloud-spotted sky. Vines crawled up and down the incongruous building and beyond, the grumbling sounds of Muggle motor vehicles could be heard in the distance.
"Are you going to keep it?" Ron asked him. Harry ran his fingers over the brass handle of the door, colder than the morning air with its metal folds full of half a century's worth of dirt and pollen. He wrapped his palm around it, and knew he would be staying.
"I have to, don't I?" he said.
A week later, Harry was beginning to have his doubts. Albus' sensibility was everywhere. It was in the airy, lightness of the living rooms and the luxury of the bathroom. Unlike Hogwarts which had for half a century been almost synonymous with Albus Dumbledore, with its dark leaking stone and corridors that radiated with ponderous magic, the manor was a cloudless and sterile place, full of blue and eggshell and well-placed windows. But Harry and Albus, as it were, and as Harry quickly found out, were not its only occupants.
"He lives here too," Hermione said congenially over breakfast. Whatever happened to portraits staying where they were painted, Harry thought miserably. His eyes flickered toward the empty painting above the dining room table, but there was no Snape to be found. Hermione caught his eyes and smiled wryly.
"Does he?" Harry asked darkly. He picked at his crepes hatefully.
Hermione frowned at the top of his head. "Harry, when are you going to take a bath?" she asked.
"So you've noticed the smell," said a low voice. Harry shivered and glared at the portrait looming above their table. Severus glared back as he glided into the gilded frame.
"Hello, Professor," Hermione said, staring up at the towering figure in black robes. His hair was long, past his shoulders, and Harry waited for the moment when she recognized the Snape they both knew and loathed from fourth year.
Hermione glanced at Harry. "You look well. I hoped we might get a chance to talk later," she said to Snape.
"Let me check my schedule," Severus said flatly. He walked out of the frame, taking a leather bound book with him.
"Can he do that?" Hermione asked aloud after a moment, examining the missing space on the painted bookshelf.
Harry speared the red berries on his plate, towering them on his fork. Something had to be done.
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you go into town today?" she suggested, taking in his wrinkled clothing and growing hair. "It might do you some good."
First was the dining room. Harry waited until Hermione left with one last doubtful glance. He cleared the dishes, leaving them on the floor for the house elves. He tore the sheet out of the nearest guest bedroom, leaving its bed's blankets in a tangle and climbed onto the table back in the kitchen to crouch cautiously in front of the empty portrait.
Harry pinned the sheet to the frame with a light sticking charm and took a step back on the table. The cool morning wind from the patio caught the fabric, and for a long moment nothing happened.
He was going to need a lot of sheets. Luckily, there were a lot of bedrooms.
"Stop following me!" Harry ran down the hallway and into the guest bedroom, sheet waving like a cape behind him. Severus stepped through doors and ran across sheeted and un-sheeted frames only to catch up with Harry in the bathroom. He pushed through the watercolor Greek chorus, shouting as Harry charmed his way through the locked door and into the third bedroom.
Harry stalked through the second floor hallway, paying no mind to the anxious tension building in his shoulders when he caught sight of a dark shape out of the corner of his eye, lurking in the 13th minister's portrait. "This is my house!" he shouted. The minister startled and Snape slid into the landscape across the hall and to Harry's left.
"By judicial fate alone, Potter," Snape said, loud enough to be heard over the pouring rain in his painting. He stalked out of the frame after Potter, brushing flower petals out of his hair and shaking water off his robes. At the base of the staircase, Snape reappeared once again in Nikola Tesla's portrait. Tesla shrunk to the edge of the frame like a pigeon disturbed on a railing, fluffing his feathers. Snape glared at him, nearly spitting with anger.
"What do you want?" Harry asked. He leaned against the wall at the entrance to the service corridor and the back door on his other side. "The third floor? The first?"
"Will you stay on your floors?"
Harry crossed his arms. "When I can," he said.
"Fine." Snape flung the painted tapestry back, and disappeared into the shadows behind. The cloth fell back without a disturbance Tesla resettled himself, watching Harry suspiciously as he rubbed the back of neck.
"Bastard," Harry said to the flung tapestry.
"Harry, we need you at the ministry," Hermione's voice broke through Harry's bubble of concentration and he let his quill fall to his parchment and the unfinished letter. Harry felt a spike of irritation, and was about to claim that he had in fact left the house recently when he realized she was calling from the ministry, which was hardly better. Hermione's face disappeared in a puff of flame as he stepped into the large fireplace, the rough hewn stones of it still sparkling.
"What is it?" Harry asked as he stepped through. Hermione was already across the room, talking to Kingsley, her back straight and confident. Kingsley nodded at Harry and stepped out. Hermione's aides seemed to relax.
"It's you," Hermione said, stepping over.
"What do you mean it's me?" Harry said, drawing his shoulders up.
Harry drew his eyebrows together as her sharp gaze flickered to the blank walls and for a moment he was reminded of his adventures with portraits. He glanced around her office suspiciously, recalling that the ministry would have yet another portrait of Snape, what with the exoneration. "I think I'll just show you," she said.
Harry shadowed Hermione as she stalked through the bustling ministry hallways, robes flowing behind her, and was privately grateful for the speed in which she swept him past wizards and witches whose eyes often followed his every step. She finally stopped three floors up, on the curving wall of the sprawling entrance hall. Harry let his eyes slide past the towering memorial and attempted to be as invisible as possible without magic in the public area. Harry read the gold plaque on the portrait in front of them, which read:
Harry felt his diaphragm and face freeze. Cursing Hermione, he took a deep breath and let his eyes travel up. "Hello, Headmaster," he said.
Albus' eyes were blue and shining with life. "My dear boy," he said. "I hope you're enjoying my little gift of solitude? No matter, I think there's someone you should meet."
Harry kept his face carefully blank as a familiar thin figure snuck out from behind a gaudy tapestry at Dumledore's gentle persistence. "It's me," Harry said, looking at himself.
"Yes," Hermione said, "He's not talking. He only wants to see you."
"It's all Snape's fault."
Harry flinched, spine straightening with discomfort where he sat against the wall of the tiny secluded office. Little Harry sat in the grass of an incongruously large portrait, its only occupant sleeping under a tree in formal wear of the 1880's.
"What do you mean?" Harry asked him, perplexed.
"He wouldn't let me in his frame," Little Harry said, crossing his legs underneath him. The wind ruffled his hair. Harry had refused to let them touch it the day he was painted.
"Why would you want to be in Snape's portrait," Harry asked automatically. His sixteen year old self was truly as unfamiliar as a stranger or a distant cousin, still thin and long-limbed like a spider, without the print of war on him still. Still ready to take on the world. "Never mind."
Little Harry shook his head. "You don't believe me, do you?" he said.
"Of course I do. I mean, you're me, aren't you," Harry assured him quickly. He rubbed his head where he knocked it on the desk. Little Harry nodded slowly. "Okay then. What did you see?"
"I didn't see anything. I heard Dobson selling his seat to Everett on the Fyrth trial. He was going to sit out and let Fyrth be exonerated."
"Where have you been?" Little Harry said.
In Hermione's office, Harry pressed his head into his hands, mind reeling from his encounter with himself. "I know it takes some getting used to," Hermione was saying.
Harry opened his mouth to say something suitably scathing and shut it again, at a loss. He stared at the wall as Hermione shepherded her small flock of aides out the open door, piling documents and scrolls into the last girl's arms.
"What's happening?" Harry groaned.
"The same thing that was happening when you were involved," Hermione answered. "Only now the conspirators aren't hiding behind masks." She paused as if ready to say more before shutting the door thoughtfully.
"So it's, whatever it is, it's true, right?" Harry asked her.
"Yes," Hermione said, folding herself into the chair behind her desk. "But we can't prove it."
He didn't answer. Him and Snape? Friends?
"He is-- was you, Harry," Hemione continued, "at one point. No matter what you might think, and he has all the capacity for trouble that you once did. I can't officially question him, but right now he is our only witness. To be honest, I wish it had been you—you, the real you. At least then we could have been able to do something about this.
"The Ministry is only... mostly.... better under Kingsley's watch. Aren't you glad you're no longer tangled up in this," she finished on an even tone. He blinked blankly at her. She sent him home.
"Did they tell you? What happened after, I mean..."
Harry woke up framed by moonlight, the sweat of nightmares wetting his hair and the sheets. A familiar black splotch lurked in the meadow on the wall and he found himself talking, Albus' too-real eyes bright in his mind, lighting up the ghostly shadows of politics and war and regret. Of Snape.
Snape barely glanced at him, buffeted by the wind in the dark landscape. "Yes," he said simply. "Go back to sleep, Potter."
Harry rolled onto his back, a sarcastic reply dying on his tongue.
"Will you leave?" Harry asked, tired from a day full of nothing to do in the quiet house. He stepped into the echoing bathroom, he could never quite think of it as "his" bathroom, only to find where Snape had disappeared to all afternoon.
"No," Snape answered. He pushed reading glasses up his nose and seemed to settle further into his chair. "This is my floor."
"And if I start a bath on the third floor I suppose you'll have a sudden need to pick flowers and dance with the chorus?" Harry asked. There were paintings everywhere. Snape glanced at him and didn't reply.
"I'm starting the water," he said.
"You do that," said Severus. He turned a page in his novel and Harry ignored him, undressing out of view of the frame, hoping he would lose his nerve and be gone by the time the bathtub was full. He poured half a bottle of thick bubbling soap into the water, ignoring Snape's quiet snort.
Harry sunk deeply into the bath until the sage scented bubbles tickled his nose, pulling his knees up as he touched bottom. He clutched the porcelain as his eyelids grew heavy and calming potion flooded his system through his over-heated skin. On each corner of the porcelain tub, miniature bronze mallards twitched and fluttered, metal separating delicately into individual golden feathers that fluffed into sparkling barbs. One of the ducks opened its beak and cried out, falling into the bathtub and upsetting the thick film of froth. Harry floated over to the edge of the tub in a thick haze, taking the bubbles with him as the tiny animals swarmed breaking the heavy silence with their small bird-noises.
"You can open your eyes," Harry said and wrapped his hands around his shins under the water.
Severus blinked slowly, focus moving from his book to rest on the island of Harry's black hair. His eyes followed the ducks listlessly.
Harry walked through a line of magically tied portraits, watching his feet and ignoring the disturbed twittering he left in his wake. Outside the ubiquitous frames, the ministry hall was empty and gleaming. His black hair stood even more on end than usual as he clambered through tapestries with the ease of familiarity.
"Snape, let me in," he said, feeling around the shadow-edges of the last painting. The boundary was just as unresponsive and unforgiving as a regular shadow should be. He climbed on his knees under the settee.
"Severus?" He sighed and leaned back against the chair, pulling his robes out from under his feet. "Come on, let me in."
A long moment later, Harry felt himself sliding backward into the shadow. He flipped over, and crawled in.
"Oh, hi," he said automatically. Snape looked down at him from where he was sitting on the couch in his appropriated painting. Somewhere in the entrance hall, Snape's portrait hung empty. Pulling himself out from under the couch, Harry dusted his robe off and sat down.
Dust swirled around them and not for the first time, Harry's thoughts weighed on existentialism but sluggishly. Knowing better than to break Severus' cloak of silence, he ran his palm along the couch, and attempted to remember a time when it had felt any different, if his memories were real at all—or truly the automated renditions of the artist. Harry smiled grimly, and glanced at Snape and his dark veil of hair.
In lieu of conversation, Harry reached out and placed his hand on the couch next to Snape's thigh. He was still as Snape's hand covered his solemnly.
"I'm not," he said.
"We're openly investigating your, um, his statement now that the trial is...," Hermione paused, seeing his lost expression. "Well, nevermind. Anyway, I don't think anyone noticed him listening, but we're not taking any chances."
"What am I supposed to do with him?"
"You don't have to do anything with him. Just keep him." Hermione crossed her arms in front of the heavy frame and Little Harry, who was innocently examining Harry's foyer. Harry looked at him warily. His portrait stared back.
"Do you have any idea how long it took us to get him back into his own frame?" Hermione said.
"What about Snape?" he asked.
"Snape will be fine."
"He'll kill me." Harry said, unable to imagine Snape's horror at another, teenage Harry invading his domain.
Hermione paused, letting one hand drop to the frame leaning against her thighs. "I'm sure it will be fine," she finally said. Hearing Snape's name, Little Harry looked up at them hopefully. Harry rolled his eyes.
Eventually Harry decided to hang the portrait up in the kitchen, next to Snape's library. Little Harry ignored him and poked about the edges of his frame like a wild animal while Harry secured his frame. He slipped behind one of the horrible ceremonial tapestries the ministry seemed to like so much, and nonchalantly reappeared in Snape's library with his hands in the pockets of his plain-black robes, eyes lifted to take in the new painting.
"Be careful," Harry warned him gravely.
Harry opened his eyes. His counterpart had finally left the kitchen and the candles were slowing flickering out in the shadowy dining room. Harry shook his head at his older-self. Was he always so serious? Harry was pretty sure even he got out more than the other one did. He spared a glance for his own setting—a formal sitting room with a window looking out at sunny Hogwarts towers, his chair facing the frame. He slid silently behind the tapestry and into the library. There was a whole new world out there, with Snape in it.
He's not your Snape, he thought to himself, and brushed himself off. He opened the library door and stuck his head in.
Every painting was new. Dumbledore must have loved his portraits, Harry thought, unlike the ministry and its hall after hall of identical tetchy and senile portraits. There were libraries, and bath-houses and parlors and rolling landscapes, most of them unpopulated. Harry shivered as he stepped onto the windswept lawns of Hogwarts and hurried behind a tree and into the next painting. He had wandered through dozens of moonlit, silent paintings, and had nearly given Nikola Tesla a fit, when he finally stepped into a roomy lounge where he could feel someone awake and breathing. Someone familiar. A herd of candles flickered in the center of a sphere of light on the coffee table and a black figure lay slouched across the couch, nursing a tea cup in his pale fingers. The view through the frame on the wall was pitch black.
Harry held his breath, heart beating loud inside his chest. Maybe this wasn't his Snape, not exactly-- his hair was a little longer, eyes a little more tired and sad as they watched Harry without an ounce of surprise in them. This Snape was closer to his time-period, for what it meant. This Snape had saved his life. Again. Harry gathered his courage and took half a step toward the quiet figure.
"Hi," he said.
"What are they doing!"
"Harry, relax. Please don't wake them up." Harry glared at the painting, itching to remove his copy's hand from its resting place on Snape's hips. He shook Hermione's hand off and crossed his arms.
"That's not me! I would never spoon with Snape," Harry said sulkily. He sat heavily down on his couch, and scowled at the painting framed by rain-streaked windows where Little Harry had apparently taken a liking to Snape, arms and legs mingling with Snape's on the Victorian couch in a lazy sprawl. Afternoon sunlight spilled over them in harmony with the daylight filling the room where Hermione and Harry stood.
"I think it's sweet," said Hermione.
"Just be glad we're not forking," Little Harry replied, causing Snape to snort, chest rising and falling under Harry's head. He pressed his face into Snape's shoulder.
Hermione smothered her laughter with her palm as Little Harry wrapped his leg around Severus' thighs. Harry's jaw dropped. "I hate you both," he said.