Chosen One Disappears!
Harry Potter, the beloved Chosen One of the Wizarding World, has gone missing. Those closest to him remain close-mouthed but appear anxious.
As reported in recent weeks, Potter suffers from a miscast Love Curse received on his first day as the Defence Against the Arts professor at Hogwarts. "Lydia [Bulstrode, fourth-year Slytherin] cast the spell," reported Imelda Vane, a third-year student in Hufflepuff. "She fancies Professor Potter. We've all told her that she doesn't have a chance because he's secretly in love with my older sister. But Lydia won't listen."
Yet rumours continue to persist of a Dark plot to undermine Potter's popularity despite the seeming innocence of the incident.
Unxley Bulstrode, father of the misbehaving student, refuses to comment.
Lydia's sister Millicent Bulstrode, who attended Hogwarts with Potter, says only, "Serves the self-righteous bastard right."
The student herself has been observed staring at Prophet photos of Potter with a dreamy expression, saying, "He's so Trollin'." 'Trolling' seems to be a term of admiration amongst students at Hogwarts (See page ten, Why is Modern Teen Slang so Lame?).
Since the accident, Potter has become a recluse. Details remain scarce, but the Prophet has discovered that Healers at St Mungo's and as far away as the Vatican have been consulted without success.
And what does Romilda Vane, Potter's purported paramour, have to say about the Curse? (Story continued on pages four, seven and sixteen.)
Severus Snape snorted. "Well said, Miss Bulstrode the elder." He carefully folded theProphet and put it to the side. Delivery was sporadic; he'd save the rest of the paper for later. Picking up his whiskey, he closed his eyes.
"News from home?"
"Rumours, lies and gossip," Severus replied. "So yes, news from home." He opened his eyes a slit. It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but it looked as if O'Donnell were smiling. "Piss off," Severus invited.
"You've the worst temper of anyone I know," O'Donnell replied mildly. He crossed to the chair and bent his head to Severus's whiskey. "Lovely," he sighed, inhaling deeply. "Mother's milk."
"If your mother was an alcoholic Irishwoman. Oh, pardon me – she was."
"Something in that article upset you. Not that I plan to stay here and take your abuse." O'Donnell straightened and ran his hand through his tousled hair. "I'm off to the pub."
Severus watched as he disappeared, relieved that he was gone. O'Donnell reminded him altogether too strongly of another tousle-headed idiot who thought he was a hero. Neither of them was destined for a good end: O'Donnell's fate was already set in stone, as demonstrated by his current circumstances. Potter could hardly escape fate's whims, either.
Nor had he, it appeared. Potter had been Cursed. Severus closed his eyes and ran the gamut of love curses through his head. Only the very Darkest were incurable; no child should have the ability to cast one that strong. Either it had been a plot as the Prophethad speculated, or it was simply one of those unexpected and potentially deadly accidents that occurred where children, magic and lax fools who obviously couldn't control a classroom were gathered. His money was on the latter. Children were such unreliable assassins.
The whiskey was sweet and smoky. Severus slumped further into his comfortable chair.
No affair of his, though. Not anymore. Albus was gone, the Dark Lord was gone, and the Ministry thought that Severus was gone, which was just how Severus liked it. He still alternately hated and mourned Albus, but had not been fool enough to collect the portrait that the old wizard had bequeathed to him. He'd left that part of his life behind. He felt no need to make peace with it; he simply abandoned it. Life in front of a peat fire in a small stone cottage in Donegal, whiskey as needed and books to hand, was peace enough.
A knock at the door made him spill his drink. Cursing, he stood and crossed to the door, shaking drops of whiskey from his hand and weaving around furniture through habit more than sight, given the fire's weak light. He cast a Revealing Charm to see who was outside.
His landlord, a Squib named Joseph Malloy, peered out of the darkness. He seemed to be carrying something. "Mr Prince?" he called, sounding out of breath.
Severus yanked the door open. "What brings you here this time of night, Mr Malloy?"
"Not meaning to bother you, sir, but we've got a bit of a problem." Malloy's face was drawn and red. "Can I bring him in?" he asked, gesturing at the cottage with his head.
Severus's eyes dropped to the object Malloy carried. A man. Curious despite his better judgement, he stepped aside.
"Thank you," Malloy panted. He carried his burden to the small, tattered sofa and lowered it awkwardly. "Found him down on Rathmullan pier. He's pretty cold and wet. It's a pisser out there, and the wind and tide were up." He tried to arrange the man's limbs so that they weren't twisted under his body. "Have a blanket or two, do you?"
"Why did you bring a transient here?"
"A transient? No, sir." Malloy looked uncomfortable. "I'd take a transient down to Constable Wilson or Dr Singh. No, he's," he licked his lips and lowered his voice, "he's one of Your Folk. If you get my meaning, sir."
Magic. Malloy thought the man was a wizard. "I see." Even though Malloy was a Squib, Severus preferred not to perform magic around him. "You can leave him with me, then. I'll see that he's taken care of."
Malloy's expression was almost comically relieved. "Thank you, sir. It's just that – "
O'Donnell burst into the room through the open door. "Severus, there's been an accident. A wizard – "
"So I've been informed." Severus nodded at the figure on the sofa. "Mr Malloy was kind enough to assess the situation and bring the individual here."
O'Donnell started, then turned, seeming to just at that moment notice Malloy. "Thank you, Joseph," he said.
"My lord," Malloy said, bowing and looking uncomfortable again. "I knew as you'd want me to keep it quiet-like."
"You did right. Severus will watch over him." O'Donnell looked at Severus, who scowled.
"Then I'll be going," Malloy said, inching towards the door. "My lord. Mr Prince." He ducked outside, closing the door behind him.
Severus gestured and several candles flared to life and floated over to him. He was aware of O'Donnell's eyes on him as he Transfigured several discarded newspapers into blankets and cast a Drying Charm on the unconscious man, followed by a Warming Charm.
"They found him on the pier," O'Donnell said.
"I heard." Severus draped the blankets over the man and performed a Diagnostic Charm.
"The pier… it isn't a good place." O'Donnell's voice was grave.
Severus gave him a sharp glance. "Your own history hardly influences anyone else's."
"No. Right. Of course, you're right." But when O'Donnell looked back down at the unconscious man, his face was full of pity and fear. "It's just," he paused again and then finished, "such a cold, wet night."
It was plain to Severus that O'Donnell wasn't thinking in terms of this night's elements. "If you can't handle the situation, leave."
O'Donnell nodded and turned away. "That might be best," he said. "I'll stay out of your way." He left.
Without O'Donnell as a distraction, Severus could once again focus on the Diagnostic Charm. The man's temperature was dangerously low, though it seemed to be rising nicely as the Warming Charm did its work. Bruises, one particularly bad one on the man's head, which would need treatment. A broken collarbone and… something. Something Dark.
A Curse. He had a Cursed man lying on his sofa. Severus swore.
The hood of the man's anorak obscured his face. Taking a deep breath, Severus pulled it back.
Harry Potter lay on the sofa, eyes closed and face drained of all colour, as quiet as one of Severus's nightmares.
A foul-tasting potion was poured into his mouth. Harry swallowed automatically, then started coughing as some went down the wrong way.
Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain. He grunted.
"I know you're awake, Potter. Open your eyes."
The voice sounded familiar. Harry forced his eyelids open, sure he was dreaming.
He wasn't. Shock made him exclaim, "Snape?"
Except, what actually came out of his mouth was, "Do my eyes deceive me? Is that Snape looking steamy?"
He closed his eyes again, shuddered, and vowed – as he always did when he slipped – that those were the last words that would ever leave his mouth.
"Are you sane?"
Harry winced and opened his eyes again. Snape was looking down at him with a ferocious frown, which was almost the only thing familiar about him. He was wearing a thick wool fisherman's sweater, dark jeans and laced black boots similar to those he had worn at Hogwarts. His hair was long, neatly tied back and liberally streaked with grey, though it had only been five years since Harry had seen him last.
He looked at Snape's neck; the line of a scar was clearly visible above his collar. Yes, it was truly Snape, though Harry had no idea how he'd survived or why he was in Ireland.
"I asked, 'are you sane?'" Snape repeated.
Harry nodded. The movement made the pain flare and he raised a shaky hand to his head until a sharp pain in his chest prevented him from completing the move. He tried to see where he was. The room was nearly dark, lit only by some candles and a small, dirt-smelling fire. All he could be certain of was that he smelled like fish and seaweed, hurt like hell, seemed to be lying on a sofa and was being grilled by Snape, who was supposed to be dead. If it weren't for the fact that he'd just proven that he was still suffering from the damned Curse, Harry could almost believe that he was dead, too, though he fervently hoped that death wouldn't hurt quite so much.
"Still taking unnecessary risks, I see. Your latest adventures have left their mark. You've a broken collarbone and numerous deep bruises." Snape's tone was more condemnatory than concerned, as if Harry were faking his injuries.
Though he refused to speak, Harry had learned that people were usually eager to supply his words for him once they realised what had happened. He tried to communicate in a series of careful gestures, his left hand held flat and his right bunched and making wriggling motions above it. Snape's eyes blazed.
"Spit it out, man. What do you need?"
Cursing inwardly, Harry said, "Some parchment, quill and ink, and some pain-killing potion, I think." At least that one wasn't quite as bad as some of his utterances. "There's a pain in my head and by the way, aren't you dead?"
Harry felt himself go scarlet. Oh fucking hell, fucking Curse, fucking lovesick Slytherin fourth years. He couldn't fucking believe it. Just his fucking luck to end up on this fucking sofa, having this fucking conversation with this particular fucking man.
Harry glared. He hoped his expression was indicative of his contempt and anger at Snape for stating the obvious.
"Are you trying to make a fool of me?" Snape's lip curled. "Why do I even ask. Of course you are. Just like your father and the cur. Think it clever, do you?"
Harry shook his head sharply, then paled as nausea overwhelmed him. He turned to the side and retched seawater onto Snape's floor. Once the spasms subsided, he lay back, panting and trembling.
Snape Banished the mess and abruptly left the room. Returning, he thrust parchment and a quill into Harry's hands. "It's a self-inking quill. Talk. Now."
Harry struggled into a sitting position, pausing as his head swam again. Settling back against the sofa's arm, he painfully began to write.
Snape snorted. "Of course you are. However, rumour has it that it's a love curse, not a rhyming curse."
How did you know?
"I didn't lose the ability to read when I voluntarily went into exile, Potter. The Daily Prophet is available all around the world."
Oh. Harry started to shrug, but thought better of it when the pain flared again. Pain-killing Potion? he wrote hopefully.
Snape pulled a bottle from his pocket and handed it to Harry. He rolled his eyes as Harry gulped down the bitter potion. "You didn't even check it, you fool. I could have poisoned you."
His body blessedly pain-free, Harry couldn't care less. No. You'd have to dispose of the body. He frowned. How did I get here?
"A question that I would also like answered," Snape said. He sat. "A villager carried you up from Rathmullan pier, half-drowned. I have no idea how you arrived there, however."
Harry looked at the fire, remembering his bitter escape from the Wizarding World, full of people who looked helplessly at him with pity and, at times, a slight contempt. A man Cursed by a child. It was only through sheer luck and Hermione's ingenuity that no one had discovered the full extent of the Curse and made it public.
Which had led to Harry's fierce desire to leave the magical world behind. His actions merged together: a black market identity, travel arrangements, a motorcycle, a pub, a vague memory of an Irish voice challenging him to a 'burnup' – then nothing but the feel of the motorcycle thrumming between his legs and speed and rain in his face. The others had fallen behind; he remembered laughing, and the call that seemed to come from the dark road in front of him that changed from tarmac to cobbles to wood… and nothing. He sighed.
Snape didn't need to know any of that.
Poor travel advice, he wrote.
Snape looked at him sharply. "From whom?" he asked, suspicion dripping from the words.
Marcus Flint. He has a…
"I'm quite aware of Mr Flint's business." Snape's eyes narrowed. "What name did he give you?"
"I'm no longer Severus Snape, I am now Stephen Prince." Snape seemed somewhat grim. "If you interact with anyone here, I'll expect you to remember that."
"Didn't I just say that? Why did you choose Ireland?" Snape seemed to imply that Harry had an ulterior motive of some sort.
Two choices: Ireland or Easter Island. I understand the language in Ireland.
Snape's face reddened. Harry looked at him thoughtfully, then made a shrewd guess.Those were your choices, too, weren't they?
"Mr Flint is about to have an unpleasant encounter with a dissatisfied customer," Snape confirmed grimly.
Why did you come here? He underlined the 'you' twice.
"Because the statues on Easter Island all looked like Lucius Malfoy," Snape said. "Why do you think? But you haven't answered my question about the Curse."
Harry fought down an impulse to burst into laughter, only because he couldn't actually believe that he was having a reasonably civil conversation with Severus Snape. She hiccoughed, he wrote.
While she was casting, she hiccoughed. It changed the spell. I – Harry's hand fell and he looked away.
Hermione wasn't there to run interference. Snape would find out sooner or later – sooner, if Harry brassed him off and had to defend himself from Snape's magic. Sighing deeply, Harry wrote, I lost my magic. I can't cast spells. Not even wordless magic. When I've tried, the rhymes are in my head. The Healers don't know why.
He'd never written anything more difficult.
Snape barked with laughter. "You didn't lose your magic, you fool. You simply lost your ability to make it do what you want it to do."
Harry felt like he was going to explode. The only thing that kept him from screaming at Snape was the absolute futility of trying to express his feelings with the Curse tying his tongue. He scribbled furiously. What's the difference between losing magic and losing the ability to do magic? Either way, I can't do magic!
"Don't be fool enough to put that in writing," Snape said, and waved his hand over the parchment. The words disappeared. "Writing has a strange way of living past its use. Even when it's as illegible as yours. I've made the parchment self-erasing, since you don't seem to have the proper instincts to protect yourself."
Harry ran his hand through his hair, trying to calm down. Look. Thanks for saving my arse again. Just tell me where my 'bike is and I'll go away.
"Bike?" Snape looked blank.
My motorcycle. The one I was riding, Harry added sarcastically.
"I think he's referring to his means of transport."
Harry jumped at the sound of the unknown voice and twisted, trying to see whom it was. He felt a grinding sensation in his shoulder and froze.
"Of course he is," Snape replied. "However, Malloy said nothing about a motorcycle."
"That's because it's in the sea," the voice said. Its accent was clear, quite plainly upper class, but with a whisper of an Irish lilt laid over the clipped words. "I doubt anyone knows it's there, since the tide is up and the storm has prevented the fishing boats from setting out. Do you want it back?"
Using more care this time, Harry turned far enough to finally see the speaker.
He was a young man, a few years older than Harry, but surely no older than thirty. He was dressed in a leather jerkin, his cloak made of fine wool, his hair wavy and thick. There were laugh lines around his eyes, but Harry also thought there was something of suffering and pain in the tight grooves around his mouth and across his forehead. Attractive, and looking at Harry with the same active curiosity that Harry displayed towards him.
And he was a ghost. Harry glanced at Snape.
Snape sneered. "As if introductions are necessary when one party is dead. However, Potter, meet the very late Earl of Tyrconnell, Hugh Roe O'Donnell. Otherwise known as 'The O'Donnell,' otherwise infamously known as Red Hugh, the Prince of Donegal. I call him O'Donnell; you may call him 'my lord'."
Potter looked absolutely gormless, lying like a beached seal, his anorak half-twisted around his body where the blankets had fallen away, his glasses askew, his fingers covered with ink.
"Potter can't speak without sounding like a poorly written nursery rhyme," Severus continued, pleased by Potter's predicament. "I doubt he can hold his own in a three-way conversation at the moment."
O'Donnell gave Severus another of the affectionate and knowing glances that annoyed him so much, then looked back at Potter. "Please, call me Hugh. I've heard of you, of course."
At Potter's questioning look, Severus's irritation grew. "O'Donnell wasn't a wizard, but even Muggle ghosts become imbued with magic," he said. "He knows about the recent troubles. However, I have no intention of spending the rest of my days being the middleman in multi-way conversations. Potter," he said, turning his attention on the young fool, "you're free to throw yourself off cliffs, roadways or even the pier again, if you so desire. A quick Obliviate and you can be on your way."
Potter looked panicked. A place inside Severus twisted, but he ignored it. He deserved his peace, and the brat – the man – was anything but peaceful. Not that he himself was exactly peaceful. And the whiskey wasn't helping anymore….
"Severus," O'Donnell said, his voice calm, "Mr Potter will be stranded since his conveyance is in the sea. We could attempt to rescue it – "
"I've already considered that." Severus glared. "I'll go down to the pier and Banish it. The last thing the Muggle authorities need is to waste their time and energy on a fruitless search for a body should they find the wreckage."
Potter face scrunched up, his eyes expressive.
"There's a shed in the back. He could repair it and leave after." O'Donnell appeared to lean back against a chair.
Severus shot a look at the ghost, but O'Donnell's expression was merely polite. "Fine," Severus said. "Then he can sleep out there with it tonight. I'll not have him in here."
A stricken look crossed Potter's face. I don't have magic. I can't repair it, he wrote.
"Then you can leave the blasted thing there to rot, for all I care," Severus snapped. "You will leave, however."
"It's November. In Donegal. As much as I love this country, it's devilish this time of year. I should know." O'Donnell sounded grave, though a smile twitched across his lips. "I lost toes to the Irish winter." He looked at Severus. "The shed isn't heated. Unless you propose to set a Heating Charm on it and renew it at regular intervals, it would be easier for everyone if Mr Potter were to remain as a guest in the cottage. There's an extra bedroom."
"It's next door to mine!"
"And you refuse to sleep that closely to him?" Something must have crossed his face, because O'Donnell's eyes narrowed and he looked speculative. The damned ghost. Like Albus, he was a leader, used to watching the eyes of his men as he prepared them for battle. "Curious," O'Donnell murmured. He looked at Potter, then looked back at Severus.
"Of course not." Severus knew he'd been manipulated, but a part of him was relieved by the outcome of the discussion. At least he'd not gone down without a bit of a fight. These days it was more important to preserve his dignity than it was to win an argument. "Potter," he snapped. The boy – the man – jumped. "You'll use the second bedroom. You'll fix your damned motorcycle by whatever means possible or procure another mode of transport and be away from here within a week."
Potter slowly sank back onto the sofa and nodded.
O'Donnell's gaze darted between Severus and Potter. "Severus? While he's here, perhaps you could help him find a cure for his Curse, too," he suggested. "At least allow him to use your library for research."
Potter's face lit like the sun.
Severus was suddenly furious at O'Donnell for getting the fool's hopes up. "A formal curse may have a counter-curse, though they're rare. Potter's case is different. The witch that cast it on him was trying to cast a love curse, but inserted an element not usually integrated into spells. It may be impossible to counter."
The hope in Potter's face fled, leaving him grim.
O'Donnell gave a noncommittal grunt. "You speak in nursery rhymes?" he asked Potter. Potter nodded, looking embarrassed. "I may know a way to help. Would you mind saying something? I'd know better, then."
Potter searched O'Donnell's face and then wrapped his arms around himself, pulling the blankets closer. "If you could help, you'd save my life. This damned Curse cuts like a knife."
"Not a nursery rhyme, just a couplet, and a simple one at that." O'Donnell looked thoughtful. "I knew a man once. He only spoke in iambic pentameter; he said that a witch had Cursed him. When I knew him, he was searching for a cure. I've heard rumours that he's an earth-bound, now, too. Maybe he found a cure in his lifetime. Maybe, if he did, it could help you. It couldn't hurt to try. I'll send off a message and see if he can't be tracked down."
"Your eternal optimism is the mark of a fool," Severus spat. Potter needed to learn to be a realist. There were other ways that Potter could access his magic, but, knowing Potter, he'd refuse to learn them as long as he had hope of overcoming the Curse. "No wonder you were so easily assassinated."
O'Donnell seemed to freeze a moment before standing straight. "Touché, Severus. After all, false hope is worse than trust." He disappeared.
Severus whirled to meet Potter's angry gaze. Potter started scribbling.
"Stop writing at once. I'm not inclined to read your rants. The spare bedroom is two doors down the hall to the right." Severus stalked into his bedroom and slammed the door.
He listened to Potter making his slow way into the room next door. Once he heard the creak of Potter's mattress, he slipped into his own bed.
There was a full teapot – obviously under a Warming Charm – a plate of scones, some marmalade and a book waiting for Harry when he left his bedroom the next morning, but no Snape. Feeling much better than he had the previous night, he set about finding cups and a plate.
After pouring himself some tea, Harry sat at the tiny wooden table and picked up the book. "Making Magic Work for You: Advanced Studies in the Art of Natural Casting," it read. He opened it.
In modern magic, the standard method of casting is to manipulate or navigate the flow of magical energies through proscribed verbal and non-verbal commands in the form of integrated, standardised spells. Constructions such as wand movement, body movement, encrypted incantation, the precise measurement and combination of natural materials, mechanical constructs, etc., combine to direct inherent personal and environmentally extant magical energies. Intent is all but disregarded except in the advanced Dark spells such the Cruciatus Curse, the Imperius Curse and, of course, the Killing Curse…
Harry closed the book.
"Good morning, Mr Potter," Hugh said, drifting into the room.
Harry reached for the parchment and quill that he had brought with him. Harry.
"Thank you. Harry, then." Hugh nodded in a friendly manner. "Severus will be out for the day. He asked me to convey his regrets and to turn your attention to the materials that he left for you on the table." He smiled. "I see you've found the book."
Harry grinned and shook his head, pushing the book away.
"Yes, I expect it's somewhat academic. Severus seems inclined towards that type of reading material." Hugh glanced out the window, where a clear blue sky belied the previous day's storm. "Are you feeling up to a walk? We won't have many days like this for a while."
Harry nodded and, picking up the parchment and quill that Snape had given him the night before, followed Hugh outside.
The ghost nearly vanished in the bright light. A brisk wind was blowing off the sea and Harry pulled his anorak tighter around him. He followed Hugh up the side of a steep slope covered with dried golden grass and littered with lichened boulders. The climb took effort; by the time they were halfway up the mountain, Harry had unzipped his anorak and could feel his cheeks flushing from the exercise.
A few minutes later, they reached the top. Hugh paused. "Here," he said simply. Harry caught up to him.
Below him stretched the wild Irish coastline. Lough Swilly bit deep into its heart, Rathmullan huddled along its western edge and underlined by the curve of its long, pale beach. Harry could hear the crash of the ocean waves against the shores at the mouth of the lough, but the waves in the lough were smaller, though the sun glinted off the spray of them. A pier jutted deep into the lough, dark and wet with the memory of the previous night's rain and the spray from the morning's waves. Something about the pier made Harry shiver; again, he felt the memory of something calling to him as he raced through the night.
Hugh looked down, his face unreadable. "It's changed since I was young. The bogs have been dried out and built upon. You see hardly any horses. The farms are bigger, the houses, too. Roads and trees and electrical lines. But the rocks are the same, and the wind and the sea." He looked at Harry and suddenly a boyish grin crossed his face. "Follow me. There's a lee around those boulders," he said, tilting his head to the side. "The wind won't be so bad and the sun will be warm."
They made their way to the back of the great rocks, where soft, dry grass offered a haven out of the wind. The sun had burned the night's rain away, Harry noticed. Hugh lay down and Harry stretched out beside him.
For the first time in weeks, Harry didn't feel the need to struggle to say something. The warm sun soaked into his body. Far above them, he could see a hawk turning slow circles through the air. Occasionally a bit of wind found its way past the sheltering rocks, but only enough to counter the surprising strength of the winter sun. Harry could barely see Hugh lying next to him, except for his booted feet, given substance by a bit of shade from the boulders.
"Ghosts are bound to places, you know," Hugh said, his voice quiet. "I died in Spain, but I found myself here, bound to Rathmullan. I was glad of that, though my memories of the place aren't all happy."
Harry looked at him for a moment, then pulled the parchment and quill from his jacket pocket.
I read about you when I was young. You were a prisoner, right? How did they capture you?
"They kidnapped me off Rathmullan pier." Hugh's eyes strayed downwards to the village. "An act of betrayal, combined with the idiocy of youth and privilege. I was fifteen, a king's son. I thought I knew everything. I was showing off to my friends." He sat up. "I was a fool. Once we reached Dublin, they manacled us in a cell, made us beg for our food and sleep in our own waste. I had always considered the English my enemies, but there, I came to hate them, so secure in their casual cruelty. My people needed to be free of them."
Harry shifted. I'm English, he slowly wrote. And Snape, too.
"Things have changed. I've learned a lot about hate since then. Besides, I think we're very much the same kind of men," Hugh said, looking over at Harry. "You've fought cruelty to free your people. Nationalities mean nothing to those who believe in freedom, true freedom."
Harry thought about Hugh's words and nodded.
They remained silent for several minutes. The wind danced around them, Harry's hair ruffling while Hugh's wavy locks shimmered untouched by sun or wind. The breeze brought with it the smell of the sea, something that Harry had always imagined but hadn't actually seen until he'd arrived in Ireland. This sea wasn't the sea of his imagination, however; this sea was grey and wild, throwing itself against rocks old as time, still standing tall and sharp against the ocean's power. A land of magic, different to the tamed magic of Hogwarts, deeper.
Irish wind. Irish sea. Irish stone. And beside him, the ghost of Ireland's hope.
Though he'd not been taken with the rest of Ireland, Donegal was different. Harry thought about staying there, when he got his magic back. He imagined himself getting to know the people of the village, working, perhaps as a builder, so that he could surreptitiously use his magic to bind stone and steel into strongholds for the families who would live in his creations. Perhaps he could keep some of them safe…
Safe. He thought again about the pull he'd felt while racing his motorcycle last night. His breath caught, and he sat upright and wrote furiously.
The pier. There's something wrong with it. Something Dark. It called me.
Hugh looked at him sharply. "You heard it? Yes," he said, "though no one else that I know realises it. It's Cursed."
Harry shivered. Perhaps his Curse and the pier's Curse called to each other. Maybe that was why he knew of the Dark magic tied to the pier.
Hugh was watching him. "The pier is the site of betrayal and the fall of my kingdom. I think – " he turned again towards the village, " – I think that's why I'm still here. I've got to break the Curse and save my people."
What will break the Curse?
"I have no idea." Hugh shook his head. "I haven't been able to figure it out. But when I became a ghost, I was tied here, not to my own home. I once talked to a witch who lived in Severus's cottage. She told me that curses are often broken by their opposites. I can only speculate, but perhaps the Curse of a pier that was the scene of the betrayal of a king and a country would have to be balanced by the presence of magic tied to great loyalty and love. At first, I'd hoped –"
Harry raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
Hugh looked away. "There was another Earl, Hugh O'Neill. He helped me to escape prison, then fought by my side. I'd hoped that when Hugh passed beyond the world, that he would join me here and that we would break the Curse together. But he went on and left me behind."
Hugh's voice held more than the sadness of a man left behind by a comrade. Harry looked closer. Even though Hugh was nearly transparent in the bright sunlight, Harry could see he looked lost.
You cared for him, Harry wrote.
Hugh nodded. "But I never trusted him. He freed me, but he had betrayed the clans before, even as he betrayed the English for me. He was canny. He knew how to act, what to say, to make people think he was with them. The entire time we fought together, I waited for him to betray me, too."
Harry felt stunned. Snape. It was just like he'd felt about Snape, never trusting him. He looked at the ghost. Hugh understood, perhaps better than anyone else. Harry bent over the parchment.
Do you regret it?
"More than anything else in my life," Hugh replied, his voice hushed. "I wish I could have trusted him. I wish I could have told him. But we were at war. I'd already learned my lesson about trusting those I shouldn't. I couldn't afford to make a mistake."
I'm sorry. Harry felt stupid writing the words, but didn't know anything else to say.
"Thank you." Hugh smiled. "You know, I've never told anyone that. It helps to share it." He stretched out beside Harry again. "I feel better."
Harry played with the quill and wrote nothing.
"He speaks of you often," Hugh suddenly murmured. At Harry's questioning glance, he continued. "Severus. He has no one."
Harry dropped his eyes.
Hugh looked at him shrewdly. "You've been adversaries for a long time, haven't you?"
A snort of laughter escaped Harry. Since before I was born.
"As were Hugh and I. Yet he saved me."
Snape had saved Harry from death. Numerous times. Harry pulled the feathered end of the quill through his fingers. Strange enemies, he and Snape.
"I think," Hugh looked over the sea, "that Severus needs saving."
Harry froze. His eyes dropped to his hand, where the old scar still read 'I must not tell lies.' He stared at it, tense.
He'd once thought the same. In fact, he'd fought for it, working furiously to clear Snape's name posthumously, to have him recognised for his role in the War, to have him honoured for his courage.
It hadn't worked. Yes, on the record books at the Ministry of Magic, the charges against Severus Snape, Death Eater, had finally been dropped. But he had not been exonerated. His portrait would not hang in Hogwarts and his name would not be placed on the scroll of heroes. Harry suspected that the only reason he'd even won the concessions he had was because Snape was believed to be dead and Ministry personnel were growing tired of Harry's impassioned and persistent pleas.
He shook his head and took up the parchment again. He's saved himself.
"He's buried himself," Hugh corrected. "Do you know what he does all day? Reads. Drinks. Watches the fire. But he throws aside the books after only a few pages. It's easier to measure his imbibing by the bottle than the glass. And the fire holds no secrets other than as a reminder of the existence of the flames of Hell. Severus knows that all too intimately already. He's more of a ghost than I, though he still breathes."
Thinking hard, Harry wrote, He won't want my help.
"That doesn't mean he doesn't need it," Hugh replied. He looked over at Harry and changed the subject. "He's right about curing your Curse, you know. I shouldn't have got your hopes up."
Harry shrugged. I understand. What happened to that man?
"The man who spoke in iambic pentameter?" Harry nodded and Hugh laid back, hands behind his head. He grinned. "Drove the gaolers mad. But he was better than any of us when it came to getting food. People loved to listen to him, and though we were shackled, we could reach our hands out of the windows of the cells to take what they gave us. He always shared. They took him away my second year in captivity. I don't know what happened to him, but I've heard that his ghost is in England."
They lay in the warm sun a while longer, until shadows covered Harry's legs and the warmth faded.
Potter didn't come in until the sun was nearing the horizon. Severus ignored him walking through the tiny sitting room, but listened as Potter went into the kitchen. He emerged a few minutes later with a plate of bread and cheese and a bottle of butterbeer and took the chair across from Severus.
Severus sipped at his drink and forced himself to read the book in front of him. When Potter had finished eating, he spoke.
"Did you read the book I left out for you?"
Potter shook his head. His face was wary.
"It's a book about performing magic through intent. You would do well to heed it, if you want to remain a wizard. Of course," Severus injected as much contempt as he could into his voice, "perhaps you prefer being the next best thing to a Squib."
He could see anger spring in Potter's eyes, but the man maintained his control. Potter looked away and bit his lower lip, then took up the parchment and quill.
I found a mechanic, he wrote. Hugh had Mr Malloy make the arrangements.
"Hugh." Severus imbued the name with as much contempt as possible. "A word of advice: don't allow his recklessness or the 'romance' of his life influence you. He's dead. He has nothing to lose."
Potter looked angry. He's Cursed, too.
"It has nothing to do with you or me. He was Cursed from the moment some fool believed a prophecy applied to him and set him on the road to martyrdom."
Severus could see the effort that Potter made to calm down. The scowl slowly disappeared from his face and he took up the quill again.
Why do only some people see him? The pub owner did, and so did Mr Malloy, but nobody else seemed to.
"Squibs, being of the magical world, can see ghosts. There used to be a magical community in this part of Ireland, but it was destroyed during Cromwell's conquest. Malloy and O'Neal – the pub owner – are the descendents of the few magical folk who escaped the sword."
Potter nodded and remained quiet, turning to watch the fire.
Severus looked at him thoughtfully. He'd rarely ever seen Potter quiet and was surprised by how relaxed he felt in Potter's silent presence. It reminded him of quiet times spent studying with Lily, who had often had similar questions about how the magical world worked. Potter's face was animated like Lily's – it seemed impossible for him to hide his emotions. The passion was there, too, the flash of the green eyes, the tilt of the head, the firm set of the jaw. All of the things that Severus had loved best about Lily, now sitting in front of him in the form of her son, not hostile like it had been after that hateful word had slipped from his mouth and shattered their friendship….
With a start, Severus came to his senses. Potter was Lily's son. He was most definitelynot Lily. In fact, he could hardly be attractive, given his resemblance to his father. Severus glanced at him again.
Staring into the fire in the darkening room, Potter looked less like his father and more like his mother. The curve of his cheek, the brush of long eyelashes, the intent gaze. Severus felt a stirring in his heart and his breath caught for a moment as he imagined himself touching that cheek, feeling those lashes brush across his skin. Potter wasattractive, he realised. Almost like his Lily. Almost.
But not. The image of all he had thrown away sat in front of him in the guise of all that he'd never have. Lily or her son, it made no difference: neither could be his.
He stood so abruptly that he spilled his drink. The heady scent of whiskey permeated the room. Potter looked up in surprise, his eyes darting to the overturned glass before flying back to Severus. He frowned in confusion as Severus sneered.
"If you refuse to read that book, I wash my hands of you," Severus said. He whirled and left the room.
He was surprised when Potter followed him into the kitchen with a determined look on his face. Potter thrust the parchment in front of him.
What's that all about? Not the book!
"Of course it was about the book! I want you out of here, Potter, the sooner the better." Severus knew he was lying, which made his anger flare higher.
Harry glared at him and scribbled. The 'bike will be fixed in a week. I can stay at the pub. They have rooms. He snatched back the parchment and left the room.
Severus followed. "Don't be a fool! Without your magic, you'll be killed as soon as a Dark wizard recognises you."
Potter whirled, still glaring, and slapped the parchment against the wall. As if you aren't in danger, too? I bet you can't even do magic half the time! he wrote.
"What are you talking about?"
The drinking! I've only been here for a day. But the bottle by your chair is nearly empty. It was full last night.
"I'm always in full possession of my wits," Severus said. "Unlike you."
That's such shite! Potter ran a hand through his hair, smearing ink on his forehead. He stuffed the parchment into his jeans and headed towards the door.
Severus cast a locking spell.
The door stayed closed, though Severus could see that Potter was putting all his strength into opening it. He whirled, his finger pointed accusingly.
"Yes, I'm doing that. Tell me, Potter. Do you see a wand?"
Potter's eyes darted to Severus's hands. Severus held them up for Potter's inspection, spread wide, empty. Potter's eyes widened and he looked up at Severus.
"That is what I am trying to tell you, idiot," Severus said. "I cannot use my wand for fear of detection, nor can I show my face in the wizarding world to procure another. My only recourse is wandless magic."
Potter pulled the crumpled parchment from his pocket and flattened it against the wall.They've dismissed all charges against you.
"Potter, they think I'm dead. If I should suddenly reappear, those charges would be re-filed in a moment. Wandless casting allows me to use my magic in complete anonymity."
Severus saw the word 'impossible' flash across the page, followed by a spate of writing. He crossed the room to read over Potter's shoulder as he wrote.
It's impossible! I told you! The incantations turn to rhymes in my head!
"I'm not using incantations!"
You have to be.
"No, I don't." Severus waved his hand and the parchment fell blank. "I'm using my will. I intended for that door to lock, and it did. I intended for that parchment to be blank, and it is. There are no words in my head. Simply intent."
Potter's shoulders slumped in disbelief and the parchment slipped to the floor. He turned to Severus; his eyes held a look of desperate hope. He looked back at the door.
"If you promise to study – to study – you may continue to stay here, with me."
Slowly nodding and still looking stunned, Potter went to the kitchen and returned with the book. He picked the parchment off the floor and sat back down in the chair by the fire. With one last glance at Severus, he opened the book and began to read.
Relief flooded Severus. He retrieved his glass from the floor and took up the bottle, intending to pour himself a fresh drink. Light glinted from Potter's spectacles, but when Severus looked up, Potter was staring down at his book. Still… He put the bottle and the glass down, sat, and took up his own book.
They sat like that the rest of the evening, silent except for the whisper of turning pages and the settling of the peat in the fire. After several hours, though, Severus caught Potter barely suppressing a huge yawn.
"Go to bed," Severus said. "You'll crack your face in half if you try that again."
Potter snorted. He gathered up his parchment, quill and book. Looking at Severus thoughtfully for a moment, he nodded and left the room.
Severus looked at the bottle of whiskey. Perhaps a drink, now that Potter had retired.
"You don't need it," a quiet voice said from behind him.
"Mind your own bloody business," Severus retorted, but he kept his tone mild.
O'Donnell drifted into the chair that Harry had vacated. "He's a fascinating man."
"He's a stubborn, idiotic fool with more luck than a vat of Felix Felicis." Severus put down his book.
"I talked to him today. About you," O'Donnell said deliberately.
"If you're trying to provoke me, you'll need to be more specific."
"You're wasting away here, Severus. When you first arrived, you were exhausted; now, you're frustrated. Harry is the same. Have you looked into his eyes? He looks as if he hasn't slept in years." O'Donnell paused. "He looks just like you."
Severus studied the ghost. "You've been spending too bloody much time at the pub. Haven't I told you that television will rot your judgement? Amateur psychologist now, are we? My, how the centuries have flown."
O'Donnell looked at him without rancour. "I don't need to have watched television to know what a man looks like when he's defeated. You both may have successfully vanquished your enemy, but it appears to have been at the cost of your souls."
"What do you know of souls, ghost?" Severus narrowed his eyes. "A good Catholic man like yourself, walking the Earth. What about Purgatory? What about Heaven and Hell? Don't you believe that's where souls end up instead of sitting in my bloody chair, spouting nonsense?"
"I've been watching you tonight," O'Donnell continued imperturbably. "You look at him, and you see something that you lost. Something that you want. He's an attractive man."
"I cannot believe I'm allowing you to talk like this to me," Severus said. "Go away. Now."
"He respects you. Deeply."
"And Potter told you that."
O'Donnell shook his head. "No. He didn't say anything. But his face speaks for him."
Severus thought of Potter's open face again, and clenched his jaw. "He's a fool, then."
"Are you saying you're unworthy of his respect?"
"I'm saying that any respect Potter has for me is based solely in pity and guilt." Severus reached for the bottle of whiskey and splashed a portion into his glass. "He's a shallow little egotist."
"Good lord, man, do you hear yourself?" O'Donnell exclaimed. "I'm telling you, he cares for you. Harry may be a simple man, but he is not a shallow one. He feels things deeply. His heart is capable of great love, and he wants to give it. Why shouldn't he learn to give it to you?"
"You endorse two men finding love together? You're destined to go to Hell, my Catholic friend. In fact, as far as I'm concerned you may begin your journey there now!" Severus gulped the whiskey down, its cool burn hitting his stomach and spreading quickly through his body. He poured another drink.
"You're right, I am destined for Hell!" O'Donnell arose from the chair to hover at Severus's shoulder. "But I speak from experience when I say that love is precious, Severus, no matter where it is found. And if it's found in the arms of another man, then so be it!"
Severus glared, but put down the glass. "You're telling me that you had a male lover when you were alive."
"I – no." O'Donnell appeared distraught. "But I could have. I didn't, not because the Church would condemn me, but because I condemned myself. I never trusted him, so I lost him. It was only after I died that I found that he was loyal to me, to my country, to my people. Don't make the same mistake I made. Please. Don't end up walking the Earth looking for the one you lost!"
"Romantic claptrap," Severus snapped. "I have no intention of becoming a ghost."
"Nor did I," O'Donnell replied. "But here I am. And now I see exactly the same thing about to happen again. Don't let it, Severus. Your heart is too deep to allow you to die without fulfilling its needs."
"Leave!" Severus shouted. "Immediately!"
Giving Severus one last hard look, O'Donnell left.
All difficulties with Snape aside, Harry was sleeping better than he had in years. The next morning it evidenced itself in the form of a morning erection that demanded his attention.
Cursing that he couldn't cast a Silencing Charm, he began to stroke himself, careful to remain as quiet as possible, though it was difficult to muffle his groan. Oh, yes. It had been much too long.
He spat into his hand and wrapped his fingers around the velvety soft skin of his cock. Every time the purple head emerged from the foreskin, he swept his thumb over it, collecting the slippery liquid and smearing it down his shaft.
Closing his eyes, he fantasised about a woman with a soft mouth, with full lips and a wicked tongue. Her hair would be unbound, draping across his stomach in warm, silky waves, tickling him, dragging across his cock. Dark hair, thick. Maybe she would wrap it around his cock, work it against his prick as she pumped.
He bit his free hand to keep from moaning aloud. Yes. Oh yes.
He saw it plainly in his mind: long hair, hot mouth, dark lashes brushing across white skin, a strong hand pumping even as the dark head bobbed up and down.
Harry could feel his climax build. God, he'd missed this.
He imagined what it would be like if, just before he came, Snape would look up and watch Harry with his black eyes and would use his tongue to…
Harry clenched his teeth and arched off the bed, coming hard even as his heart pounded wildly.
Snape! Oh God, he'd just come to the thought of Snape. Snape, sucking him off.
He collapsed back on the bed, his hips still jerking a bit as he shuddered through the end of the powerful climax.
He lay, panting, willing himself to forget what he'd just done, but it didn't work. Mouth dry, he desperately pulled on the ratty robe that Snape had given him and escaped to the bathroom, where he wanked again to the thought of Snape rubbing his prick along the crack of Harry's arse in the tiny shower with its half-hearted dribble of water. After experiencing his second powerful climax in a matter of only a few minutes, Harry's legs trembled as he rinsed the evidence of his fantasies down the drain.
At breakfast, he examined Snape in quick glances.
"Potter, that's extremely annoying." Snape looked up from his newspaper. "Kindly stop staring at me."
Harry blushed and applied himself to the task of buttering his toast. They finished their breakfasts in silence.
Snape was a hard taskmaster, and the memories of Harry's morning fantasies faded under the onslaught of learning. After breakfast Snape grilled him mercilessly on his reading: challenging, correcting, grunting the few times Harry managed to give the correct answer and then firing out a new question.
As he struggled to keep up, Harry realised that one thing the Curse had taught him was that he had to choose his words wisely to communicate effectively. He hadn't said 'erm' or 'um' for weeks. He found himself listening to Snape in ways that he hadn't ever listened to Ron or Hermione or Ginny. And, strangely, Snape seemed to take his words more seriously since they were committed to paper. It was as if he trusted Harry's written words much more than he'd ever trusted Harry's spoken words. Harry thought perhaps it was because Harry couldn't easily deny what he'd said when it was in written form, even if the words did disappear once Snape had read them.
His days fell into a pattern: early-morning wanks while fantasising about Snape, breakfast, lectures and tests, lunch, discussions, tea, evenings spent reading by the fire, bed.
One afternoon the sleet came down hard. It coated the paths in ice and sizzled on the peat fire as it dripped down the chimney. Harry and Snape were trapped inside, Harry tense from a combination of questions, failed tests and too much tea, Snape frustrated with Harry's tension. Hugh watched silently, sitting on the mantel.
I need a break.
"You need to concentrate. One more time, tell me the seven attributes of intent."
Since the words vanished as soon as Snape read them, Harry couldn't look back on what he'd written previously. Purpose, volition, aim, significance, objective, a pause, then deliberation… Harry shook his head in frustration. I can't remember the last one, he wrote.
"Goal. You must have a goal in mind to cast wandlessly." Snape snorted. "You make it more difficult than it is."
When I did wandless magic as a child I didn't know about any of this. I just wanted to get away from my cousin.
"In other words, you had a goal. Let's break your actions down into the components of intent. What was the purpose of the wild magic?"
Harry wasn't so sure about this, but finally he wrote, To get out of his reach.
Snape nodded in approval. "The significance?"
It kept me safe.
"And most likely gave you a measure of control, as well. Objective?"
The roof, Harry wrote. Though I didn't really think about it at the time, he added.
"Perhaps not consciously. Once you learn to practice wandless magic, you'll find that it becomes easier with each casting. Eventually it will come to you automatically, without conscious thought, just like the wild magic did when you were a child. Deliberation?"
I knew that nobody would save me, so I had to save myself.
"And with those elements, you had the ability to use magic wandlessly."
It made more sense when Snape led him through an exercise like that. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he'd learn to understand this after all. His hand cramped, and he shook it out. Can we take a break now?
Snape looked out the window at the grey sleet. "What do you propose to do instead?"
"I've always wanted to hear about your Hogwarts," Hugh said, startling them both. "It sounds like an exciting place."
Harry beamed, eager to talk about the school and its magic. He looked over at Snape.
Snape continued to stare out of the window, but his brow had knotted into an angry frown. Harry's smile faded. No, on second thought, Snape probably wouldn't be very comfortable talking about Hogwarts. He'd left the castle in disgrace, and from all accounts that last year had been open war between Snape and the remnants of Dumbledore's Army.
Harry wrote, Maybe later. Tell us about Hugh O'Neill.
Hugh looked startled, and glanced at Snape, who continued to stare out the window. "Well, Hugh was older than I was, by a fair amount. He had a talent for convincing those in power that he supported them, but the common men didn't trust him. He was tall. Bearded. He had dark eyes that hid what he was thinking."
But you said you cared for him. Why?
Hugh was silent for a long time before he answered the question. "He arranged for my escape from prison. I knew that was for political purposes, but there were personal things as well. He showed no fear in battle. More than once, he shared his blankets with me when ice hung thick from the trees." His eyes remained fixed on Snape. "In the end, it didn't matter that he started as my enemy. He gave me everything. Everything except my country, and he tried to give me that. He wasn't a good man, but he was an honourable man, and I miss him."
Snape finally turned from the window, the angry frown gone but a calculating expression in its place that made Harry uneasy. "Was he with you when you were killed?" he asked Hugh.
Harry could hear the wariness in Hugh's voice.
"No. He wasn't." Snape watched Hugh closely, a sneer on his face. "Didn't he stay in Ireland instead, leading your men, usurping your fame, successfully emerging from under your shadow? You, the great hope of Ireland, the fabled strategist, the beloved king, the man prophesied to free Ireland from the English?"
"He remained in order to salvage what was left of our armies while I petitioned the Spanish for aid," Hugh said. His voice was quiet.
"And did you ever say to yourself in the darkest hour of the night, 'Did I do the right thing? Can I trust a man who has betrayed every one of his allies? Have I given him my men only to watch him lead them to be slaughtered when he defects once again to England?'"
"I thought those things and more," Hugh said, his chin high. "But I was wrong."
Snape leaned forward. "And what if you weren't? A man from Galway turned traitor and poisoned you. What if he was sent by O'Neill? O'Neill spent a good deal of his time in Galway, didn't he?"
Hugh shook his head. "Hugh was true to me," he said, but his voice was hoarse and strained. "He was a true son of Ireland."
Snape suddenly relaxed and sat back in his chair. "You're as likely to prove that as I am to prove he betrayed you. Even now, a part of you distrusts him. You're dead, O'Donnell. Your time is past. You made your mistakes, now allow those of us who are currently alive to make ours."
Something was going on between the two of them, something that Harry wasn't sure about, but it felt familiar, too, as if it were part of a life he'd lived, or a conversation that he'd had.
And then it hit him. He had had this conversation before. He had shouted those same kinds of questions at Dumbledore, accusing him of making the wrong decision by trusting in Snape's loyalty.
Harry looked back at Hugh and saw a great sadness in his eyes.
"There are things you take on fact, Severus," Hugh said quietly. "And then there are things you take on faith. You've lived your life by facts until now. Perhaps it's time you took a chance on faith."
"You're a fool," Snape said dismissively.
"Am I?" Hugh drifted down from the mantel to take the chair across from Snape. "Aren't you trying to teach Harry the same thing? To take magic on faith? No more wands, no more incantations, no more discipline. You're challenging him to give those facts up and giving him faith in return."
"That's entirely different," Snape spat. "Magical intent is simply another method of enacting magic."
"And faith is just another method of enacting trust." Hugh stood. "But I'm not the one who has the power to convince you of that." He looked at Harry, messages in his eyes that Harry couldn't read. "I'm not likely to be objective on the subject now, am I? I've been acting on faith for centuries now."
Harry looked at the space where he had been for a moment, then turned to Snape. He picked up his parchment and moved to take Hugh's place.
What was that all about?
"None of your business!" Snape was as closed down as Harry had ever seen him, trembling with anger. "I need a fucking drink." He stood and pushed past Harry, disappearing into the kitchen.
Harry jumped up and followed him in time to see him draining a glass and pouring another. Snape ignored him, focused on the whiskey.
Harry looked down at his parchment and crumpled it.
He lay awake in his bed long after he heard Snape stagger into his room and slam his door, hours later.
Dusk fell on the end of yet another bitter winter day, full of sleet and cutting winds.
Potter had been at the cottage for nearly two weeks, and had been attempting to practice wandless magic without success for the past ten days. Severus watched as Potter bolted upright and slapped the table in frustration, once again having failed to move a teacup along the floor with his magic.
"Again," Severus barked.
Potter glared at him, but turned once again to the cup.
The morning after his fight with O'Donnell, Severus had awoken with the worst hangover of his life. Potter had handed him a Sobering Potion and some Pepperup. Severus had never blessed Potter's Curse more than he did that day, when Potter sat silently reading and staring blankly into the distance without a word while Severus hated the world.
O'Donnell had returned, but there was a coolness between him and Severus that Severus suspected originated within Severus himself. He told himself that he didn't care. So when O'Donnell burst into the cottage with a huge smile, Severus was understandably startled.
"I've got it! The counter-curse!" O'Donnell cried.
Potter sprang from his chair. He looked at Severus, who could see the wild gleam of hope and fear in his eyes. He hoped that Potter wouldn't be disappointed.
If O'Donnell truly did have the counter-curse, Severus wouldn't be able to use intentional casting for it. He would need his wand. He hesitated. He would just be using it once, and there was every chance that the brief use would be missed by anyone looking for him. If the counter-curse actually worked, the risk would be worth it. He went to his room to fetch it.
When he returned, it was to find Potter dry-mouthed and anxious and O'Donnell full of confidence. "The bat said that my poetry-Cursed friend told him to tell me that the counter-curse is obscure, but easily invoked. The incantation is subsisto sententia poema, with the wand pointed directly at the victim's mouth."
"The bat?" Severus asked.
"That's how we communicate," O'Donnell said. "Ghosts, I mean. By bat. They're quite intelligent, really."
Harry looked at Severus, his eyes bright. He nodded slightly.
Severus nodded back and took a deep breath. "Subsisto sententia poema!"
A breeze seemed to fly through the air, circling Potter and disappearing. A smile crept across Potter's face. Turning to Snape, he asked, "Has the spell been effective and achieved its objective?"
They all stood, looking at each other in shock. Potter's smile was gone; he was pale, but determined. "Perhaps I am rhyming because of the timing." He stopped, trembling, then buried his face in his hands, shaking his head.
"It didn't work," O'Donnell whispered.
Severus rounded on him. "Of course it didn't work! I told you that a Curse like Potter's was different! I told you not to allow him to pin his hopes on finding a counter-curse!"
"There has to be one," O'Donnell protested. "We'll just have to keep looking. Harry," he turned, but Potter had gone. The front door was open to the night. "Where…?"
"The pier." Severus knew it with a certainty that brooked no argument.
O'Donnell's face was alarmed. "He's told me that the pier's Curse calls to him."
"And you never thought to mention that to me?" Severus threw on his cloak and ran out the door.
The lane leading to Rathmullan was covered with ice and snow, nearly impossible to see in the fast-dwindling light. Severus remembered a small, disused shed with a yard, close to the harbour. He Disapparated.
The sea was wild, crashing with great plumes of spray over the deserted beach and against the pilings of the pier. Severus couldn't see Potter, but he knew he was there. He stepped onto the slippery wood and began to fight his way along the narrow pier.
The footing was treacherous; Potter was an utter fool to have come here. "Potter!" Severus shouted, but the wind stole his words. "Harry!"
He heard the sound of a cry and a splash. "No!" Severus shouted.
Severus slipped and stumbled forwards, casting a strong Lumos and holding it in his hand. He desperately peered into the water, wishing he had his wand with him, but he must have lost it somewhere in his headlong dash to the pier, for he couldn't find it in his pockets. He caught a flash of white from the corner of his eye and turned in time to see Harry's face disappear under the waves.
Without hesitation, he dove into the water.
The cold took his breath away while the sea tried to fill his mouth. He struck out strongly to the place where he had last seen Harry, filled his lungs as best he could, and dove under the surface.
He focused hard and was rewarded as magic encircled him. He needed light, so the magic glowed, showing him the depths of the lough. He glimpsed another flash of Harry's pale face and swam towards it, magic giving his arms strength.
When he reached Harry, he was alarmed to see his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open, as if in surprise. Heart pounding madly, he grabbed Harry's arm and began to swim towards the surface. As he broke through into the storm-swept night, he concentrated again.
He materialised inside the cottage, falling to the floor on top of Harry, who still hadn't moved. Cursing, Severus pushed himself to his knees, placed his hands on Harry's chest and cried, "Ennervate!"
Water poured from Harry's mouth and he gave a convulsive cough, then began to choke. Severus struggled to turn him to his side. More water ran from Harry's mouth.
"Harry!" Severus pounded his back. "Harry!"
Harry's eyes fluttered open. He looked dazed, but Severus felt an overwhelming relief. He cast a series of Warming and Drying Charms on them both while holding Harry steady. Harry's breathing began to sound normal and he seemed more aware of his surroundings. He blinked and looked into Severus's face.
"My Prince with no crown, I knew I'd not drown," he murmured, smiling weakly.
Severus cursed and stood, pulling Harry off the floor and hefting him over his shoulder. He carried Harry into his own bedroom, which had a larger bed than Harry's room as well as a lit fireplace. Stripping off Harry's clothes, then his own, Severus pulled back the covers and manoeuvred them both underneath, curling his naked body around Harry's. It was only then that he realised that he was shivering convulsively.
"You fool," he whispered, cradling Harry's head to his chest. "You could have got us both drowned."
"You're much too strong; you've lived for too long," Harry replied. "I'm safe here with you, that will always be true."
"Yes, you're safe. Be quiet now. Sleep. We'll talk in the morning."
He felt Harry nod and immediately relax into sleep.
Severus sighed and pulled him closer, only to see O'Donnell standing in the bedroom doorway. Every instinct flared: something was wrong. The ghost glowed brighter than Severus had ever seen him, a strange mixture of joy and grief on his face. When he spoke, O'Donnell's voice was gentle.
"You've done it. You've broken the Curse, Severus. You and Harry. I'm here to say good-bye."
"The Curse has been broken?" Snape caught the sheet around his waist and sat upright. "How?"
"The way it should have been the first time: love and faith overcoming a betrayal. Harry had faith. You heard what he said. He knew you would come for him. And you did."
"But Potter wasn't betrayed. Unless, you mean – by me, during the war?" Severus felt as if someone had cursed him in the solar plexus. But it had needed to be done –
O'Donnell shook his head. "No. By me. You have a scholar's mind and a scholar's knowledge when it comes to magic, my friend. When you told us that there was little chance for a counter-curse for Harry's condition, I believed you. So I lied."
"You – lied."
"Yes. There was no prisoner who spoke in iambic pentameter. There was no counter-curse. When Harry arrived here, I could see that the two of you needed each other, yet you each fought it. There was so much distrust between you. I knew I had to heal it."
"You mean you manipulated us."
"No." O'Donnell shook his head again. "No. I gave you each what you needed, and then waited. You did the rest."
Severus felt himself go cold. "Dumbledore used to say the same thing to me whenever he asked for yet another sacrifice. He was a brilliant strategist."
"There are no more sacrifices for you to make." O'Donnell smiled wryly. "And I was also called a 'brilliant strategist' when I was alive." He snorted. "I was held prisoner in Dublin Castle for the best part of five years. What else did I have to do other than consider strategy?" He leaned forward and laid an insubstantial hand on Severus's knee. "It's over. You're safe and so is Harry. You have each other."
"You're truly leaving this world," Severus whispered.
O'Donnell shrugged. "My time was over long ago. I had this last task to fulfil and I managed to accomplish it. Despite you and Harry." He smiled again as he straightened. "Goodbye, Severus. It has been an honour to know you."
Severus looked at the man and finally saw the king. "I hope you find him, my lord," he said quietly.
"I hope so, too. I've missed him. Please give my best to Harry, would you?" O'Donnell faded and was gone.
Severus leaned against the headboard and looked down at Potter. Harry. His lover, if he were lucky. Harry's face was turned towards him on the pillow, his hair in wild disarray, his expression calm. Sliding down and pulling the blankets high over both of them, Severus laid his head on the same pillow, closed his eyes, and slept.
Hugh was gone. Severus refused to talk about it. But Harry caught him, at times, glancing up at some slight sound with a look of hope on his face that would disappear when he realised it was nothing.
Harry knew he couldn't help Severus – at least, not much – but he was relieved to find that now that Severus had begun to accept him, he no longer pushed Harry away. Each night, Harry seduced him anew and Severus responded with an honesty and passion that Harry suspected only one or two other people had ever seen from the man. And Severus had put away the bottle, at least for now. Harry was determined to make sure that he continued to do so.
He slowly climbed to his feet, pulling his anorak close and crossing his arms. It was stupid to come out here in December, even on a windless day like today. The pier was still slippery with ice and sea spray, but Harry could tell that the Curse was gone. It was an ordinary pier.
Harry's arse felt wet and frozen. Surreptitiously, he willed himself warm and dry. The magic flowed sluggishly, but he could feel a small bit of warmth spread, enough to give him hope. More practice. That was all he needed.
He began the walk home, nodding as he met people he recognised. He'd need to be the social one in their household, since Severus certainly wouldn't be. Besides, Harry found it nice to visit the pub on occasion, particularly when Severus was in a foul mood. No one bothered him there, and they'd adapted easily enough to him using a notebook and pen to communicate, especially since Malloy and O'Neal, the pub owner, had both vouched for him. The two Squibs were still a bit in awe of Harry's 'Chosen One' reputation, but Harry felt certain that they'd keep his secret hidden from anyone from the wizarding world who happened to pass through Rathmullan.
Finally reaching the cottage, he opened the door and stamped his feet before entering.
An owl peered at him from the back of the chair where Severus sat, a large, flat package on his lap. Harry went into the kitchen and returned with some cheese for the owl. It snatched the food and flew out the window. Harry closed it and took out his parchment and quill.
Are you going to unwrap it? he wrote, sitting on the arm of Severus's chair.
"I know what it is," Severus replied. But he began to remove string and paper, until at last, the portrait was revealed.
"Severus," Dumbledore said, his voice so full of love and fear that Harry could feel his eyes burn. "I am so glad to see you at last, my dear boy. Will you forgive me?"
Severus didn't speak, just gave a nod.
Harry slipped from the room.
He reckoned Severus needed some privacy.