Turns out Harry needn’t have worried: Severus was either being a perfect gentleman, or his request to peruse the Grimmauld Place library had indeed just been about research, because nothing untoward happened outside of combing through books together and sharing afternoon meals.
Where had he even got the idea that there might be a subtext to Severus’ request? Clearly he needed to stop watching so much late night telly; it was giving him ideas that bore little or no resemblance to reality.
One thing was for sure, though: Harry had never been more grateful for keeping his mouth shut about something. He would have looked a right prat for putting himself out there, hinting there might be a different reason for Severus’ visits, only to find out he was sorely mistaken.
Harry excused himself to the kitchen for a bit, confused by his disappointment.
The third weekend of their research found Severus in his usual seat in the library, poring over another tome on questionable branches of magic. The Sunday afternoon light was just beginning to wane, and it cast a warm, bronze glow about the otherwise dreary room.
So far they’d only uncovered minor references to mind connections that might prove useful, but they were both determined to exhaust their resources before giving up. It should be possible for two people to share an Evochi session – the magic was already there, just in other areas. They had not searched the Hogwarts library yet, but Severus had spent a few minutes perusing his own personal one – not that he expected to find what they were looking for in his collection, as he was quite familiar with its contents by now and certainly would have remembered something like this.
His attention was diverted when the side doors to the room opened and Harry entered. He was carrying two cups of tea with a box of biscuits and a banana wedged under his arm. He set down the tea and then unloaded the rest.
Severus recognized the box of biscuits to be the one they had been working on for a couple weeks now. By his estimation, it should be nearly empty. “Would you prefer I left these for you?”
“Nah, go on. I’m sick of them.” Harry started peeling his banana.
Severus was horrified to discover he couldn’t turn his gaze away. He knew how ridiculously juvenile it was, wanting to watch Harry eat a banana, but he’d overheard enough of his students sniggering about it that he had to see for himself what they were on about.
Harry was standing in front of one of the largest bookshelves, his head tipped to the side, reading book spines. When he brought the banana to his mouth, he simply bit off the top portion and chewed, the muscles in his jaw flexing.
About to dismiss the notion as nothing more than childish humor, Severus stopped when Harry descended upon the banana again. This time he curled his mouth further down around it and tightened his lips, his cheeks hollowing ever so slightly, before removing another, larger portion. Something south of Severus’ navel stirred traitorously at the visual, even though he knew the gesture was innocent.
All right, so maybe his students had a point.
“How about ‘The Sorcerer’s Praeface to Subliminal Nexus Pathways’?” Harry called out, mid-chew.
Severus startled irritably, feeling exposed. Fortunately, Harry had not bothered to turn around and await an answer, and so had not seen Severus watching him. When silence continued to pervade the room, however, Harry did stop and look over his shoulder.
“Yes. I was merely reading.”
“What did you think of the subliminal one? Should I grab it?” He was pointing to a dusty, blue leather volume three shelves above him.
“Yes, that could potentially be useful.”
Harry nodded and wandered over to grab the stool, discarding his empty banana peel in the bin as he did so.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask if you wanted one.”
“One what?” Severus glowered.
“A banana. I have more in the kitchen.”
His teeth clenching, Severus shook his head. “That will not be necessary.”
Harry shrugged and then moved to position the stool in front of the bookcase. Severus belatedly realized it was going to be woefully inadequate for the task – the shelf in question would be at the very top of Harry’s reach, let alone the book.
“Harry, are you or are you not a wizard?”
“Is there a reason you are not using your wand to retrieve that book?”
Harry looked over at Severus, then up at the shelf, then back again. “I dunno.” He laughed. “I guess it doesn’t always occur to me to use my wand. I didn’t grow up doing everything by magic.”
“Nor did I. However, I’ve since found that magic saves me the trouble of bodily harm should I think to embark upon ill-advised tasks with an ancient stool.”
Harry laughed again. “It’s not that bad.” He kicked it closer to the shelf and hopped on. “See? I can reach just fine.”
But instead of noticing the book Harry was stretching to grab, Severus was distracted by an altogether different view: the t-shirt Harry was wearing had pulled up to reveal a swathe of bare skin just above the waistband of his denims. Severus tried to pull his gaze elsewhere, but failed completely when he noticed there were markings upon Harry’s flesh. They looked to be in the shape of feathers. If he didn’t know better, he would have guessed it was part of a… No, certainly not.
Harry had a tattoo?
“What?” he heard Harry say, but the voice sounded far away, as though it was outside his awareness.
“Severus?” Now the voice was right in front of him.
Dammit, he must have been thinking out loud! Severus looked up to meet the confusion on Harry’s face. “I was merely wondering if that was a tattoo I saw.”
“What? Oh!” Harry glanced down briefly as he pressed a palm to the right side of his body. “You mean this?”
“Presumably. What is it?”
“A phoenix. Would you like to see?” Harry’s face brightened, seeming eager to share.
Who was Severus to deny him?
Setting aside the book he’d retrieved, Harry grasped the hem of his t-shirt and pulled it off over his head. Turning to show Severus more of the right side of his body, he lifted his arm out of the way and smiled expectantly.
The smooth, pale skin of Harry’s body offered the perfect backdrop, and Severus found he couldn’t decide what to look at first. His eyes quickly traced the contours of a toned abdomen, dark denims resting on slim hips, and a trail of hair below the navel that disappeared under his waistband. Ignoring the renewed stir of interest from his own body, Severus focused his gaze on the tattoo.
If anything, his only surprise was in how big it was. The phoenix was set entirely in a blue-black ink, oriented in a way that showcased the plumage of its back and wings. The feathers he had glimpsed earlier were part of the tail, which started at Harry’s lower back and wrapped around to meet the winged torso that covered his side. The bird’s one visible eye was closed, its head bowed in a regal, serene pose against Harry’s rib cage. A halo of flames bordered the open wings like an aura.
“What do you think?” His grin was decidedly more cheeky than it had any right to be.
The tattoo was indeed beautifully rendered – its meticulous shading conveying the bird’s power, passion and integrity… rather like Harry himself, he considered – and he found the effect of it irrationally appealing. He looked away. “How long have you had it?”
Harry’s expression sobered. “I got it shortly after the war. After I left St. Mungo’s.”
“I would not have thought you the type. May I ask why?”
Harry reached for his t-shirt and shrugged back into it. “A lot of reasons, actually. It’s personal to me, of course, but it also marks the end of my journey in the war… sort of rising from the ashes and all that. The artist who designed it for me said the flames symbolize the fire in one’s spirit… the courage. Had to get a bit of Gryffindor in there, I suppose.” He smirked briefly as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “This probably sounds stupid, but I figured the discomfort and pain of getting a tattoo would sort of balance out the sacrifices and hurt people endured on my behalf. I owed them.”
It had never been more clear to Severus that Harry was suffering from survivor’s guilt, but despite his own expertise with that particular self-torture, he was not sure what else he could say that might prove helpful. He wouldn’t have listened to someone trying to talk him away from it, either. “You wanted a way to memorialize them.”
“Yeah. But it’s more than that. I think it will always be a reminder of why I did what I did, but I wanted…” He trailed off, dropping his eyes to his lap. For a moment he simply traced the threads in his denims with a forefinger. “It reminds me I still have my own life to live, too.”
Severus reflected on that. His feeling about tattoos was understandably biased after living with the Dark Mark for so long, but he had to admit Harry’s experience was altering his perspective a bit. It had been his choice to take the Mark, but it certainly had not been backed by something of great personal significance – quite the opposite, it had bound his freedom to a madman. Mercifully, the nagging pulse of its connection had died along with Voldemort, but the Mark itself, although faded now, was likely to remain a permanent fixture. He questioned whether he would ever consider a real tattoo. What in his life was important enough to affirm in such a way?
“Was it done by non-magical methods?” he heard himself ask.
“Yeah, a shop in Muggle London. Then George Weasley animated it.”
“It’s animated?” It had only been on display for a minute or two, but Severus did not recall seeing a single feather twitch.
Harry looked over, a sudden grin on his face. “Yeah. It’s not called ‘Phoenix Rising’ for nothing. It moves around.”
Severus blinked, uncomfortably aware of how much Harry’s eyes seemed to twinkle at that. He wondered under what circumstances the tattoo would move, and to where… and, of course, if it was sensitive to touch.
Reaching for his tea rather more forcefully than necessary, Severus nearly sloshed it on the book that lay open before him. Scowling, he brought it to his lips and took a slow drink. As the tepid liquid hit his throat, he felt his body begin to relax from the familiar sensation. However, his mind continued its unrelenting visual assault. Collecting the blue volume Harry had placed before him, he glanced at the gilded letters on the front cover. He hoped to hell Subliminal Nexus Pathways would be enough to distract him.
“Do you think we’ll find a way to do this? To link Evochi sessions, I mean?”
Severus was surprised to hear the hint of despair in Harry’s voice. “I cannot be certain.”
Harry pursed his lips as he gave a slow nod, his brow furrowed. “You said the next batch of Evochi will be ready soon?”
“Yes – by midweek coming up, I suspect.” Sensing where this was headed, Severus ventured, “Have you changed your mind about it?”
“No… I just…” Harry shrugged. “I just don’t want to repeat last time.”
“Harry, you are under no obligation—”
“—I know,” he interrupted. “It’s not that. It’s just… I can’t get this feeling out of my mind that I need to keep doing this, but I don’t know why.” He idly rolled a quill back and forth between two fingers. “It’s like looking for something without knowing what you’re supposed to be looking for, and not finding it anyway. It’s always just out of reach.”
“Perhaps an additional session will show you what you seek, then.”
Harry sighed, his gaze settling on Severus. “Are you still sure this will help me?”
Severus stared back. “That is my belief, yes.”
The searching look Harry gave him might have been unsettling had it not been for the resolve that followed it shortly thereafter. Harry leaned back in his chair and heaved another sigh. “Then I guess I’ll see you next Sunday.”