The first time they meet in years, and Harry can't claim it's completely accidental.
There's no question in it, for they recognize each other immediately. Harry will go months, sometimes years, without visiting the wizarding section of London, but when he comes, and particularly when he comes to The Leaky Cauldron (just for a drink, not to stay, never for more than a few hours), he rather expects to see someone from his old life, though he can't choose or predict who it will be. So it isn't completely accidental, but it isn't expected either, and he isn't prepared.
"Potter." Snape nods, and makes no move to approach him. He's leaving it up to Harry again then. The smartest thing Harry could do would be to walk away. That's what he always tells himself.
"Do you... ? Are you here alone?"
"No, I'm here with my latest consort, a nubile sixth-year with a talent for -- "
"Fine then," Harry interrupts, unable to take the sarcasm on top of the shock. "Since we're here alone and I'm still no good at this, I'll just… just have a drink with me, all right?"
Harry drinks port because that's what Snape is drinking, even though it's a hot day and he can get port anywhere, and as long as he's here he'd really rather have a cold butterbeer. There's something absurd about trying to seem mature or even attempting polite conversation with this man, but Harry perseveres. He feigns interest in news from Hogwarts, even though none of it is really news to him.
Even when Harry stays away, Hermione comes to see him often, and Harry always tells her he doesn't need her news bulletins, and anyway doesn't she have more important business to attend to? But she gives them anyway, and deep down he's grateful.
She keeps the disapproval out of her voice when she tells him of Fred and George's continuing success. They're millionaires now, pranks and love potions being a good deal more important to today's wizards than fighting evil.
She keeps him up to date on marriages, births, deaths, and Hogwarts staff changes. If a nubile sixth-year had taken his old place, Harry would have known.
"I thought about becoming a teacher too," he says truthfully. "I would have liked to, but it didn't work out. I mean, my education was good for when that was needed, but it doesn't do me a lot of good in the r -- , in the Muggle world."
"McGonagall would have been delighted to have you come and teach Defence."
"I guess." Harry shrugs, as if he hasn't thought back over that decision a thousand times. "They've abolished that position now though, haven't they?"
"They'd have found a place for you."
Harry nods. "I like what I'm doing now though. It's nice, helping people but... Just on a small scale, you know? One by one, helping them feel at home here. It's good."
If he were talking with a real friend he'd say how much it meant to him to have Hagrid and the Weasleys do that for him in the magical world. He'd say how he likes not having the weight of that whole world on his shoulders anymore.
But he's talking with Snape, and he knows how that would go. Some sardonic comment or other about how Harry always enjoyed being in the spotlight. Anyway, Snape isn't bothering to feign interest in Harry's life. They move on to subjects even more mundane.
The lines in Snape's face are deeper than they were, but his appearance has changed less than Harry's. His hair shows less grey. Of course, there are probably potions for that. (Of course, there are also dyes, if Harry would bother.) Snape has a few new scars since the old days, and Harry doesn't ask how he got them. The scar on Harry's forehead has never faded, and as his hairline recedes it's become more and more difficult to hide it behind a boyish fringe.
The lines are deeper, but the expressions that put them there are the same. Harry has to look away just as often as he always did.
He had it all explained to him, after. The promises Dumbledore had required, the pain it had cost Snape to fulfill them. It was all well and good to talk about necessary sacrifices. Harry had sacrificed plenty, had made choices. He had all the explanations he could do with, but that wasn't the same as forgiveness or acceptance. The most he'd managed, as far as acceptance, was walking away.
But he could never quite stay away.
Most visits to Diagon Alley are disappointing, and ventures into Knockturn Alley are worse -- the place has only gone downhill since the Dark Arts lost what popularity and prestige they'd had in Harry's day. Each time he goes home he resolves not to come back, and today is no exception; they don't arrange for another meeting. But Harry knows (thank you, Hermione) that Snape has spent his summers in a London flat since Spinner's End was destroyed in the last months of the war. It's more surprising that they haven't met before this than that they have met today. Well, if Harry didn't try so hard to stay away things would be different.
As he gets up to leave, Harry thinks of Lauren, expecting him home any time now even if she won't notice for a few hours that he's arrived. He thinks of his home; clean, safe, simple. No good or evil, no heroics or betrayals, just home.
He thinks of potions he once learned how to make and the ones he never did. He thinks of Snape's long, bony fingers around a stick, stirring a cauldron that did not leak, a potion that always turned out exactly as he intended it would. He remembers the touch of magical salve on raw, punished skin in the darkness of his professor's dungeon, and without turning around for another look he pushes out the door into the daylight of Charing Cross Road.
* * *
"You married a Muggle woman, I've heard."
Harry hadn't intended to come back so soon. It's only been two weeks, and now he wishes he had stayed away. It's so typical, just like Snape to reduce someone as complicated as Lauren to the label "a Muggle woman." To dismiss Harry's commitment to her as a failed attempt at normalcy.
"She's an immigration attorney," he answers, and sips his butterbeer, because fuck trying to eat and drink like a grown-up when he has no chance of convincing Snape anyway. "We met through work; we make a lot of referrals for legal aid. Lauren helps asylum seekers mostly, people who'd be in danger if they had to go back to their own countries."
But it is touching, Harry thinks. It's righteous and selfless and inspiring as hell and it's part of the reason he fell in love with her. Personal experience with torture had made Harry understand he didn't want it to happen to anyone else, ever. But Snape wasn't made that way.
"And she satisfies your needs?" It's not even necessary for Snape to smirk. The derision is always there on his face, in his words.
"I'm satisfied," Harry answers, not really sure whether it's true and not really caring. Snape won't believe him anyway. "What about your needs?"
"I know how to do without."
That's a challenge, of course, and they both know that Harry's not quite up to it. He's tried to do without one thing or another. Visiting this place, talking with this man again has stirred other cravings, and he does his best to resist, but he needs to make compromises. So he plays football instead of Quidditch. He drinks Italian sodas with butterscotch syrup. That weekend he visits a stylized dungeon instead of real one.
It doesn't satisfy.
* * *
Harry hasn't hung on to Hedwig. He sends a few notes from the public owlery in Diagon Alley and isn't surprised not to get a response.
The voice is out of place, and it startles him. He's always been Harry here at the agency. Some of the new clients, fresh off the boat, start out with Mr. Potter or Sir, but he always tells them we're all equals here in England, and if he's going to be helping them find a job or an apartment they should think of him as a friend. Snape has never been one to treat Harry as an equal or as a friend though.
Harry thinks of Arthur Weasley's ludicrous attempts to blend in amongst the Muggles as he stares at Snape, perfectly dapper in a black button-down shirt and trousers. He seems more at ease in Harry's office than most of the clients, even the ones who've been in the country for years, and Harry marvels that the man who always did his best to make him feel out of place in the wizarding world has no trouble locating or walking into this Muggle office, pulling up a chair, leaning toward Harry across his desk.
"This is the life you've chosen for yourself then?" Snape says softly. "You gave up your wand for a telephone and a desk and a stack of forms, and you want me to believe you don't miss what you had?"
Harry swallows, looks at the stack of forms closest to him, and thinks for a little while before beginning, "I don't miss casting Unforgivables. I don't miss watching my friends being tortured and killed…."
"The war is over, Potter. I haven't heard of an Unforgivable being cast in the last twelve years."
"I don't miss being the Boy Who Lived. Lauren loves me for who I am -- "
Snape laughs. "That woman has no idea who you are."
"Well, at least she doesn't think I'm a fucking hero. That's good enough for me."
"You know that it isn't enough," Snape says, "and you know that I never treated you like a hero."
They have lunch at the kebab place around the corner from the agency, and when Snape talks about international migration of wizards and the Turkish influence on British spells and potions his tone is distant, impersonal, and bored as ever, and all the while Harry is hearing Snape's unspoken promises, threats, and commands. He goes back to work alone, but he can't get the voice out of his head. There's something about the tone and the texture of it that still thrills Harry, still frightens him.
He ends up at the club again that night with the best substitute he can find -- which is really no substitute at all. Harry used to search out older men, but as the years have passed he's learned it's better to look for the build, the sneer, the voice. That night, patient and penitent on his knees, Harry doesn't even care that the man who shoves the whip handle in his mouth to get him ready to suck cock, the one calling him "stupid child", is probably ten years his junior. It's the voice that does it, the disdainful tone of every command; and it doesn't take any thought on Harry's part: he obeys.
"Yes, Professor," he says.
* * *
Harry didn't mean to turn his meetings with Snape into a routine. His trips to Diagon Alley have been sporadic in recent years. The neglected child's delight in a magical world that welcomed him, he's over that now. But seeing Snape makes him want to see Snape again, and makes him want other things he hasn't wanted in a long time. He doesn't try sending any more owls, but he understands that if he goes to The Leaky Cauldron on a Wednesday evening he'll run into someone from his old life, and he knows whom to expect now.
The last Wednesday in August they arrange to meet at a pub in Harry's neighbourhood to avoid the crowds of eager young students shopping for school supplies and stopping in the Cauldron for a breather afterwards -- Harry is uncomfortable with the crowds and Snape abhors the eagerness.
They both drink scotch (Harry has no craving for sweetness tonight) but Snape sips while Harry gulps, and for the first ten minutes neither speaks.
"You don't take the Hogwarts Express," Harry says.
"Not since I was a child, no."
"So you could as easily apparate back here to London. On weekends or… evenings, if you're not busy giving detention."
"Or you could as easily apparate to Hogsmeade. You are still a wizard, Potter. The ability doesn't atrophy with disuse."
Harry ignores this, orders another drink.
"I cheat on my wife," he says. "I cheat on Lauren. But I think you knew that already."
"I go to clubs." Harry's voice shakes a little, though he realises he's probably not revealing any big secrets here. They may not be friends or allies, but Snape knows him. "There are Muggle clubs where you can find men, and you can pay them to..."
"Potter." Snape has stopped drinking and looks as if he would like Harry to stop drinking and stop talking as well, but he makes no move.
"Not all the time," Harry says. "It's just like the magic. I can go for years without needing it, and then something comes up," like meeting somebody I used to know. "And I'll go to one of these places, and find someone who's willing to tie me up, for the money. And yell at me and..."
"Beat you," Snape says softly.
"And bring me off. But it's not the same."
"Nothing is the same without magic."
But it's not like he can go to a wizard for it. He's got enough rumours started just by showing up in Diagon Alley and talking to someone. Ventures into Knockturn Alley are worse, much worse. Being a nobody amongst the Muggles has its advantages though.
"I ask them to use rope for my hands, see." He rolls up the cuffs of his shirt. The marks aren't that obvious -- Lauren hasn't noticed them -- but if you know what you're looking for they're easy to recognize. "It's more work for them, but I like the feel of the rope better than metal or leather, and I bet you know why."
When Harry says he wants to call them professor, most men decide to call him boy, and that's all wrong, of course, but he can't very well ask them to call him Potter. There's no way they could get it quite right anyway.
"Will you stop saying my name and tell me what the fuck I'm supposed to do?"
"Go home, Potter."
It's not the answer he was expecting, but Harry's used to taking orders from this man. He goes, without another word.
* * *
And doesn't come back. Not that Wednesday and not the next. The school year's begun and there's no one else Harry wants to meet in magical alleys or pubs. He gets into a routine with some other men, in some other bars. Lauren starts to notice the marks.
The last week in September an owl shows up in the window of Harry's office. That Saturday he takes out his wand from the shoebox on the shelf in his closet. (He's kept it there along with two magical pictures of happy young couples -- James and Lily, Harry and Ginny.) And for the first time in fifteen years, he disapparates and apparates again, and it isn't hard. Like riding a bike, he thinks, and wonders what it would be like to try riding a broom.
Snape is waiting for him at The Hog's Head. This time Harry starts speaking before he's ordered a drink.
"I was fifteen."
"I believe I've instructed you before to say what you mean."
"You know perfectly well what I mean," says Harry. "The first time, the summer I stayed at your house..."
"I was fifteen years old! I wasn't ready for... "
A raised eyebrow. "Occlumency?"
"No, you bastard, for the sex, all right? I was too fucking young to have a grown wizard tying me to the bed and beating me with a switch, or any of the other… stuff you did."
Snape winces but doesn't comment on the imprecision of the last few words. "Oh, you were ready," he says. "You were practically gagging for it."
"For some discipline in your life, Potter."
"Just because I -- "
"I had an extensive library with an impressive amount of erotica. And yet you selected, for your own erotic stimulation, an animated illustration of an adolescent wizard tied up on the ground and writhing for the touch of an older one. Do you think it was coincidence that this drawing affected you more than the others?"
"No," Harry said quietly, looking down.
"Do you think it was because there was something wrong with you, some perversion that a more responsible guardian would have tried to cure you of?"
"I didn't..." he murmured. He'd tried not to think to hard on any of it. That had been part of what was good about it, not needing to think.
"It's very simple, Potter, and you needn't be ashamed of it. You needed someone to tell you what to do. You were able to tell me as much when you came back."
"What, the last time we...?"
"No, not the last time. I mean those delightful months before the end of the war."
"It doesn't get much clearer than the words 'Punish me.'"
"That was after though. That was when I'd already been…" fucked up, damaged, corrupted. Crucioed to the edge of death or madness and saved, by you. "That first time though, at your house, I. I never told you it was something I wanted."
"There was the occlumency, you remember."
"Oh, right. It was all right for you to rape me because you'd already raped my mind and found out I was nothing but a gutter whore who wanted it more than anything. That makes me feel so much better, professor."
"Oh, I see. You're traumatized, poor thing. I suppose you go and whine to one of those Muggle healers... What is it? Psychologist or psychiatrist? I can never remember which is which."
Harry only ever went to two sessions, six years ago, at Lauren's urging. It was a waste, of course. He couldn't very well tell the therapist that he was the hero prophesied to save the world from the Dark Lord if he didn't want to be considered psychotic, and so he quickly realised there was no real point in going.
"My object," Snape says, "is not to make you feel better. It is to clear up some causes and effects in your always weak and now apparently damaged mind. I did not insist that you obey my rules under my own roof because I desired to have a scrawny, naked adolescent under my power but because I understood you were in need of some rules and authority."
"Whatever you say, Snape." But if it isn't true, why did you come?
"Do you think anyone out there is normal, Potter? Do you think anyone who endured what we did could possibly emerge from it sane and whole?"
The we is a surprise. The rest is old hat: everyone's fucked up. Quit pretending you're so special.
"I am no longer your teacher and I'm no longer protecting you from dark wizards' attempts against your life. You are in no way obligated to do what I say or to spend any time with me at all, and yet you choose to. All your objections based on the issue of consent are now irrelevant. The only thing keeping you from getting what you want and need is your childish, stubborn insistence on being absolutely ordinary."
Harry's able to look up then but not able to speak.
"Something which you never were and never will be," Snape says, his gaze never wavering.
"I can't come back," Harry says, knowing it's a useless lie. He's already here.
"It's time to stop lying to your wife and to me and to yourself. Hogwarts is your home, Potter. You've known that since you were a boy. You can have what you want. You don't need to pay. And you don't need to go without magic either."
Snape has not seemed so insistent on anything since the days when lives were at stake. And it's just as painful to Harry now as it was then to admit that Snape is right. He wonders briefly just how much of what's happened in the last three months was accidental on Snape's part and how much intentional. Maybe Snape knew, somehow, that Harry would be coming to The Leaky Cauldron that afternoon. He didn't feign interest in Harry's life that day because he was busy feigning disinterest.
Or go back farther than three months -- maybe that illustrated book was left in a prominent place in the library on purpose. Maybe Harry's been playing into Snape's hands all his life, or at least since he was fifteen. Snape's hand brushes on his arm as they walk outside, and Harry decides he doesn't care.