That Sunday, Harry slipped past the towering front doors of Hogwarts and made his way down to the dungeons. Severus had been right: the castle was quiet. Even though a term was still in session, the school felt very different when it wasn't filled with students.
Harry slowed his steps and closed his eyes for a moment, absorbing his surroundings: the faint rumbling of giant staircases swiveling about somewhere above him; the metallic tinge to the air from the oil used in the castle's many fire-burning sconces; the way he could almost feel the low thrum of energy that came from the stones all around him, as though there was sentience inside the walls of the castle. And perhaps there was. He figured little would surprise him about magic at this point.
As he began walking again, he heard the portraits and ghosts chattering with each other about how they planned to spend their holiday now that the students had gone home. It was something Harry had never really thought about when he was a student – that the teachers (and the castle's other inhabitants) would be glad for holidays when everything grew quiet and they were all left to their own devices. Harry smirked, thinking he now understood.
Startled, Harry spun around, his smirk quickly fading. There was something familiar about that voice, but it wasn't until a student in Slytherin robes emerged from a shadowed corner of the hallway, allowing his face to become illuminated by the dungeon torches, that Harry realized why.
"It's Sunday," Marcus Braham said.
Harry's brow furrowed. "It is," he agreed. He resumed his pace and had just about reached the door to Severus' quarters when Marcus stopped him again.
"I thought I might find you here today. You're usually here on Sundays."
Harry stared back at him, confused by the direction the conversation was going. "I thought all the students had gone home already?" he asked.
"They did, but Prefects can stay longer if they choose. I wanted to be sure I could wish you a Happy Christmas in person."
"Er, thanks," Harry said. "You, too," he added, mostly to be polite. He took a couple more steps, which positioned him in front of Severus' door. He was about to knock when Marcus stopped him again.
"Everyone told me to let this go, but I can't. You see, I never actually asked you. Seems silly now, of course, to think that I listened to others try and tell me what's best for me. They just don't understand."
"Understand what?" The question was out before Harry could stop himself, and he inwardly cursed himself for his persistent curiosity. Something told him he didn't want to know the answer.
"Us," Marcus said, as though it should be obvious. "How great we'd be together. Just think of the—"
"Wait, hang on. What are you talking about?"
"You and me. We're both smart and popular, and we have loads in common. And I could protect you, too! I know we'd be great together, I just know it. We could even unite Gryffindor and Slytherin!"
Harry blinked. If the conversation had seemed surreal before, it had now just gone completely off the rails. Protection? Uniting Houses? What?
In one quick movement, Marcus leaned forward and tried to angle for a kiss, but Harry was too fast for him.
"Get off me! What are you doing?"
"I'm sorry… sorry," Marcus said, seemingly flustered, "I just… I thought if I showed you—"
"No," Harry interrupted, "there's nothing to show me. I know you won't believe me, but it's not me you want, it's the idea of me. They're not the same thing."
"No, it is you, Harry. Please, just give me a chance! I won't try that again, I promise, I just… I'd like to take you out to dinner and—"
"There's someone else, okay?" Harry realized his voice was nearing a shout, and calmed himself for a moment before continuing. "This isn't going to happen. I'm already… there's someone else. Sorry."
Indeed, it looked as though someone had just slapped Marcus across the face. "You're… you're," he stammered, looking completely bewildered and stunned. "Who?"
Thoughts of Harry's dreamscape lover crossed his mind, which morphed into Severus' face, before Harry forced its likeness back into the abstract comfort of his dreamscape lover. "No one you know," was all he offered.
Marcus simply stood there and stared back, his gaze now flicking between Harry and the door to Severus' quarters. When the realization of whose door it was finally hit him, Marcus' features hardened. "Well, he'll certainly be happy to hear you've come around," he spat.
Harry's head whipped back to look at Marcus. "What? Who?"
"What in Merlin's name is going on—" came a third voice, but cut off as the door to Severus' quarters was wrenched open. Startled, Harry yanked his hand away, feeling like a student who'd been caught out. In the doorway stood Severus, clad in a full contingent of teacher's robes, his disdain radiating off him in waves.
"What are you still doing here?" Severus asked of Marcus. Marcus didn't deign to reply, however. It was almost as though he hadn't heard the question, as he just kept staring at Harry, looking like a puppy who'd been kicked.
"Who?" Harry urged again, his words finally seeming to bring the Slytherin out of his stupor. Marcus stared at Harry, then gave Severus a rather pointed look, then looked back at Harry.
"No one I know," he said reproachfully, and then abruptly turned and ran off down the hallway.
Severus turned to Harry, not bothering to hide his agitation. "What was all that about? Are you unharmed?"
Harry, still a bit stunned by the whole encounter, merely nodded – though he wasn't sure what he was affirming, exactly. He was finding himself distracted with a most intriguing thought: had Marcus really just indicated that Severus had been waiting for him to come around? That perhaps the overtures Harry had seen to date were as far as Severus had been willing to let himself go without further encouragement? Harry couldn't even begin to guess how Marcus had come by this information, but it did seem to fit.
Harry turned back to look at Severus. The man struck an impressive figure in the doorway, all storm and indignation, and Harry wondered if Severus hadn't just confirmed Marcus' observation himself. He felt utterly charmed (and a little excited) by Severus' show of anger and possessiveness. And even with the possibility he was misinterpreting things, Harry still couldn't stop the warmth from curling in his chest.
"Yeah. I'm good," Harry said as he followed Severus through the door, smiling to the man's back.
It was strangely nostalgic, Harry thought, to be sitting on the gray chaise in Severus' lab for what would probably be the final time. Making himself more comfortable, he unbuttoned his outer shirt (his favorite blue-green plaid), revealing his gray Quidditch t-shirt underneath. He settled his limbs into place and leaned his head back against the headrest. Tightening his grip on the small glass vial in his hand, he focused on his intent for this session.
Is there anything else I need to know? he asked his subconscious, or the potion, or the room at large – whichever one was responsible for delivering the message. This would only be a 30-minute session, but Harry knew from experience a lot could happen even in that short amount of time. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, thinking back on all his other sessions. They really did feel like things he'd experienced – as vivid and memory-laden as anything else in his real life – versus things he'd just made up in his head. It made him wonder how much progress he'd actually made, and how that progress looked to Severus when they'd discussed it earlier in the week. Was he done?
As ever, there was only one way to find out.
Lifting the vial as though toasting this final occasion, Harry gave Severus a small smile before he pressed it against his lips, downed the potion and recited the incantation.
When the grey mist dissipated, Harry found himself in the middle of a darkened room. Although his eyes were still adjusting to the low light, he knew he was at Hogwarts. The rough-hewn floor beneath him was instantly familiar, as were the stone columns that supported the ceiling's vaulted arches.
But even without that, the row of mullioned windows to his left, awash in blue from the moonlight streaming through them, would have confirmed it. And this wasn't just anywhere at Hogwarts, either, but a very specific room indeed. Harry stood up and looked around the edge of one of the columns. Sure enough – there, partially in shadow, stood an ornate gilded mirror that rested on two clawed feet.
The Mirror of Erised.
Hadn't Severus once compared Evochi to the Mirror of Erised? Now here he was, standing in front of that very mirror while inside of an Evochi construct. Wasn't that a bit like a potion within a potion? A desire within a desire?
Stepping closer, Harry discovered he could still make out the inscription carved along the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. He remembered what it said, too – it whispered itself in his head like a long-forgotten voice: I show not your face but your heart's desire.
It some ways, it was like coming back to the beginning. Once again he'd found himself in front of this mirror, a boy standing on the edge of two worlds: the one he had known, and the one he was about to know. When he was eleven, that gap had been huge. It had spanned from Muggles to magic, from a cupboard under the stairs to a castle, from an ordinary existence to one where almost every fantastical thing he never dared to hope for actually existed. Some days he still felt like he was going to wake up and discover it had all been a dream.
Harry snorted in spite of himself. It would make one hell of a story, though, he thought.
Now, at eighteen, he was standing on that edge once again. The gap was different now, perhaps smaller, but this world – the one free of Voldemort and prophecy – was just as unknown to him. What could he expect this time?
Gazing at the surface of the mirror, Harry noticed it remained foggy, despite him being only inches away from it. Normally an image appeared immediately, but he wondered if a potion-induced version would have its own properties.
Then, out of nowhere, a long-familiar voice floated into the room.
"Lovely to see you again, Harry."
Harry whipped around to locate the source. There, slowly approaching him with a casual walk, was Dumbledore, looking every bit the same as he had the first time Harry had seen him. Dumbledore smiled as he approached, spreading his arms to invite a warm embrace.
Harry returned the gesture, surprised at how much he relished it. He hadn't realized until that moment how much he'd missed his old mentor; how, in some ways, it had almost seemed a lifetime ago that they'd talked at King's Cross station.
Holding Harry at arm's length, Dumbledore said, "You are not the Chosen One anymore. No longer must you do what everyone requires of you. I am as guilty of that as anyone, Harry, and for that I apologize. Your obligation is only to yourself now. It is time for you to live your own life – and I, for one, am excited to see what you do with it."
Harry smiled, not quite sure what had prompted all that, but was pleased to go along with it all the same.
"I see you've found the mirror," Dumbledore continued, a pleased tone to his voice.
"Yeah. It doesn't seem to be working, though – it hasn't shown me anything yet."
"Ah," said Dumbledore, walking closer to the towering structure, "now that is a simple matter of knowing how this particular mirror works. It is indeed a bit different than the one you remember. Do you know the significance of the number four, Harry?"
"Erm, in what context, exactly?"
"In every context." Dumbledore smiled in that paternal fashion of his and perched his half-moon spectacles on the end of his nose. When he next fixed his gaze on Harry, he was looking over the tops of the delicate, gold rims. "Four is everywhere around us. Can you think of nothing that fits this?"
Harry considered that for a moment. "Well, there's four Houses at Hogwarts," he offered.
"Excellent, my boy! What else?"
Biting his bottom lip, Harry tried to come up with more. "There's four positions on a Quidditch team." It caused Dumbledore to chuckle and Harry grinned. "Not what you were after, I suppose."
"Not precisely." Dumbledore walked a slow circle around Harry. "Allow me to guide you to a more fundamental meaning. Four is found in eastern and western religions, arithmancy, astronomy, mathematics, and even mythology. Consider the four seasons, four directions, four winds and four elements. It is a powerful and magical number." He paused. "There were even four Beatles."
"The Beatles were wizards?" Harry asked.
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as a small, metal bowl appeared in his hand. "Lemon drop?"
Harry opened his mouth to respond but then snapped it shut. Then he opened it again to say… he knew not what. Confused, he looked down at the bowl in Dumbledore's hand. "Er, no thanks. So—"
"Four also represents the essence of self," Dumbledore continued, now pacing behind the mirror. "Body, mind, heart and spirit. If you have manifested this mirror, it is because you wished to uproot yourself from your complacency; to force awareness into your life. As such, the mirror will reveal itself when you are ready."
"Ready for what?" Harry asked, but Dumbledore had already turned and was fading out of the scene. "Wait! It will reveal what?"
But it was no use, Dumbledore had already gone. Harry turned back to the mirror. He stepped closer to inspect it in more detail, brushing his fingers across the surface, making light dust trails in their wake.
"I'm ready," he said to the mirror, though he had no idea what compelled him to say that or what he might be ready for. He traced his finger down the ornately-carved frame, his nose almost to the glass. For several long moments, nothing happened, and Harry found his eyes searching every corner of the mirror for a sign, movement, anything. An image of some kind had always appeared immediately whenever he had encountered the mirror before. Then again, this wasn't the real mirror, it was a manifestation inside his mind, created by a potion as well as his own impulses. Dumbledore had already hinted it probably wouldn't work like he had experienced before.
When Harry made to step away, however, the murky surface of the mirror started to swirl, its cloud-like fog tumbling and folding in on itself before finally dissolving, revealing a highly-polished, gleaming reflection of… himself.
"Me?" he asked no one in particular, his nose wrinkling slightly. "That's my big reveal?"
"Sometimes that which is closest to us is the hardest to see." Startled, Harry looked around, but saw he was still alone. It had been Dumbledore's voice, but it sounded tinny and far away, as though it was coming from inside the mirror. Eventually Harry decided to just roll with it – perhaps disembodied voices was a feature of this mirror.
"I just see myself," Harry said. "Or I need to see myself." His reflection-self was standing so close to the mirror that the tip of his nose was white from where it was pressed against the surface. Again the mirror spoke to him, still in Dumbledore's eerily detached voice.
"Perhaps what you need most is to choose. To be your own person, to live your own life."
"Well, sure, but isn't that what everyone wants? I hardly needed a potion to tell me that."
As Dumbledore said it, the top of the mirror began to liquefy before Harry's eyes, its letters morphing and dancing about in an animated fashion until they settled into a new arrangement. It now read: Evol esoprup ytilibats ytiliuqnart.
Seeing the first few letters instantly made Harry think of Evochi, but he quickly dismissed that, knowing all too well the trick was to read the inscription backwards. Narrowing his eyes, he followed the letters, silently spelling them out to himself. But instead of the words being split at odd intervals, as before, he quickly discovered these were clean breaks. It left him with four words.
Before he had a chance to speak them aloud, Dumbledore strolled out from behind the giant mirror and leaned against its edge. "You see four words, I presume?"
Harry jumped, unsure whether he was going to get used to this disappearing and reappearing act. He looked back at his old mentor, curiosity and confusion warring a bit. "Yeah. You can see them, too?"
"I cannot, no. Much like the reflection, only the person using the mirror can view its messages."
"Then how did you know it was showing me four words?"
Dumbledore just smiled at him for a moment. "I believe the more important question is what the four words are."
Once again Harry traced the words with his eyes, letting them flow through his mind fully formed: Tranquility, stability, purpose, love.
Harry didn't know why, but he couldn't help smiling at that. Maybe because (for once) it seemed the pronouncement of his fate was going to be a good thing for him, for he could hardly see going wrong with those four particular words. Then again, he was currently inside of an Evochi construct. Would the words carry through to his real life, or were they just something for him to experience inside a session? A sliver of doubt crept in.
"Professor, are these words for real life, or is this just… in my head?" he asked.
"Of course it's all in your head, Harry, but does that make it any less real?"
Harry stared at him. "You've said that to me before, when I met you at King's Cross."
Dumbledore considered that for a moment, a slight tip to his head. "So I did." He smiled. "It may please you to know it is as true now as it was then."
It was strange for Harry to think it had already been six months since that conversation; it seemed like yesterday. He had been at a crossroads then, about to make a choice that would forever alter his future. He wondered if the same thing was transpiring for this session, too, as it had a similar sense of finality.
"Why are you always with me at the end of things?" Harry asked.
"End?" queried Dumbledore. He looked around the room with mild interest. "My dear boy, what makes you think this is the end?"
"Well, it's probably my last Evochi session."
"Endings, beginnings – such curious notions, aren't they? And so often mistaken for one another, I find." Dumbledore chose another yellow candy from the bowl in his hand, inspected it briefly, and then popped it into his mouth. "Perhaps I am merely here for the beginnings."
Harry's eyes widened and he stared at his old mentor. Beginnings? This is a beginning? The notion of that began expanding itself in his mind until it seemingly clicked some switch of understanding into place. He looked back up at the four words written across the top of the mirror. If those were real, then the end of this session represented a beginning. The end of the war had represented a beginning, too, even if he hadn't been sure what to do next. Hell, leaving the Dursleys' when he was eleven had been a beginning, and a huge one at that.
Perhaps all endings represented beginnings.
Still, needing to be absolutely sure, Harry turned to Dumbledore. "So the four words are where I should begin? That's what I should focus on?"
Dumbledore's smile widened, his eyes twinkling. "Yes, Harry. And of those, which do you desire most, above all?"
Love, Harry's mind supplied, even before he was conscious of having the thought. You desire love.
"Love," Harry echoed aloud and Dumbledore smiled at him.
"And the pathway to love is…"
"Pathway? I don't know. What do you mean by a pathway?" Harry studied himself in the mirror, but didn't see his reflection move. "You're making it seem really obvious, like it's right in front of my…" Harry broke off with a gasp as it finally registered what his reflection was doing. "Nose," he finished. "The pathway is right in front of my nose."
"He is, yes," Dumbledore said mildly.
Harry turned at the sound of the voice, but found the room empty again. He looked quickly over both shoulders, but saw only the dark, stone room and the silhouette of the great mirror, limned as it was in moonlight.
Harry's heart started to beat a little faster. Did Dumbledore mean… ?
Harry considered the four words in contrast to his dreamscape, the one session that had seemed to best answer his desires for him since the control had been out of his hands. He had appeared to lead a stable, purposeful life there. It was tranquil, and he was surrounded by love.
No wonder he had spent so much time reliving that session in his mind, and pining for it in his heart.
That's when an urgent thought began to take root. Evochi sessions were not just about showing desires, they were also about active creation. Even in the dreamscape, where he was merely the observer, the potion had constructed multiple scenes for him in one session. Harry almost laughed. Why had it never occurred to him to try this before? There he was, in the middle of a magical potion that would let him create whatever he wanted, and he was still standing in a construct of Hogwarts waiting for the answers to come to him. Why not go to them?
He may not be able to shift into a dreamscape from within a regular session, but he could recreate that scenario, just as Severus suggested. At least then he'd be able to control the action. But would it work to revisit a former session like that, especially when the original had been a dreamscape? Could he really just switch locales with nothing more than the power of his thoughts?
Guessing he was only minutes away from the end of his session, he closed his eyes and focused on the visual he'd become so familiar with over the last two months: the path leading up to his cottage in the tropics, with mountains to the east, and the fragrant air all around him, heavy with the promise of rain. Instinctively, he filled his lungs with it, relishing he could almost feel the warm breeze ruffling the hair on his head.
When a drop of water hit him squarely on the nose, his eyes shot open – only to realize the scene before him was exactly as he'd just been visualizing. It had worked! Either that or he was just hallucinating. He wasn't always sure there was a lot of difference where Evochi was concerned.
A low rumble of thunder drifted overhead and he looked up as more droplets pattered his face, first in quick succession, then in a downpour. He let out a giddy laugh and ran towards the quaint home, leaping up the three steps, turning the knob, and barreling through the front door all in one smooth motion – for this time, he was prepared for what was about to happen.
Sure enough, he was immediately grabbed and pushed back against the door, a piece of ripe fruit pressed between his lips and a hot tongue lapping the sweetened juice pooling at the corner of his mouth. Harry dove into the kiss with gusto this time, feeling every inch of his body singing with want, wishing with all his might that this didn't have to be a session and he could wake to this for real. But before he lost himself too much to the sensations, he remembered the reason he was there, and abruptly pushed the man back.
"Wait… please, I have to see you. Show me who you are." Harry's hands pressed against the warm, firm chest, the linen of the man's shirt feeling oddly luxurious beneath his fingertips. "Look at me," Harry heard himself whisper, tilting his head to try and look underneath the dark strands of hair to the face beyond. His heart was practically beating out of his chest – with anticipation, with nerves, with the urgency only a diminishing session could instill – as this was the man he'd been imagining in a variety of contexts for weeks; the man he hadn't been able to get out of his head ever since he'd first experienced the dreamscape.
But just as the man started to look up – he saw a prominent nose and strong cheekbones – the cottage scene dissolved away and the mirror came back into focus, as though someone had abruptly changed the channel.
No! No! Not yet!
Desperate, Harry grabbed ahold of the mirror, willing it to show him something, anything, his eyes roving across every square inch of it. He needed to be sure! But the construct began fading rapidly, bookshelves and implements appearing all around him, until little more than the mirror remained. The surface of it swirled a bit before showing an image of a man with jet black hair, the man he had kissed, to the lab poking its way into the scene, to Harry's reflection standing nose to nose with the glass, to Severus, to the lab again, until he finally realized the image of Severus had been a part of the lab. Or had it been part of the mirror?
When Harry emerged from his session and opened his eyes, it was to see Severus look up from his journal, the strands of his hair parting to expose… a prominent nose, strong cheekbones and dark, intent eyes. Harry gasped as Severus' gaze landed on him. It was the mirror image of what he had just seen in his session – or knew he would have seen, had the image not disappeared so fast. This was the man from the cottage. The identity of his fake dreamscape lover was in fact not a fake at all. It was Severus.
It had always been Severus.
"Oh, God," Harry breathed, his eyes mapping Severus' face and body. "It was… you were the…"
Severus sat up straighter, looking at Harry in alarm. "What is it?"
Harry waved him off, almost wishing it had been a regular dose for this session, instead of just half, so it would have knocked him out properly upon waking. Instead, he just sat there, groggy but aware – all too aware. He slid off the chaise and stumbled towards the door, just needing to get out of the room to think for a minute.
"Loo," was all he could think to say. If there had been a response, it was swallowed by the sound of the closing door.
Bracing his hands on either side of Severus' bathroom sink, Harry looked up at his reflection, watching the water drip from his fringe from where he'd splashed it on his face. He took a deep breath, his mind a whirlwind of thoughts.
His mysterious dreamscape lover had been Severus all along.
Severus, who liked Star Trek and Greek food and was really funny when you got to know him and who played the piano when he didn't think anyone was watching.
Harry hadn't been expecting that. He hadn't expected to see Severus in the mirror, as though in answer to his question. He hadn't expected he had a pathway to anything, much less a pathway to love. He hadn't expected he would even live long enough to get to explore even half of what he'd done in his sessions, or that he'd feel this way so quickly, and about a man no less – especially this particular man. Then again, he never expected a lot of things, but life had always had a way of steering him in a direction that was right for him. And for reasons he couldn't explain, there had always been a certain rightness to having Severus around. When he tried to put that together in his head, it still seemed strange. Yet strangely right. So perhaps not so very unexpected after all.
Severus had already been his pathway to many things. The man who had been there for him since the beginning, who had protected him and watched out for him even when he hadn't been allowed to show his regard – regard that Harry now understood had probably been there all along. The professor who taught him at Hogwarts. The spy who aided the side of the Light. The Death Eater who played his role so well, not even Voldemort himself suspected. The comrade-in-arms who repeatedly saved Harry's life. The man who came out the other side of all that and ended up across the table from Harry at the old pub in Hogsmeade. The mentor who shepherded him through Evochi. The friend who listened, and helped in whatever way he knew how.
And Severus had survived the war, too, all because of Harry. He supposed he could feel guilty for that, interrupting yet another plan of Severus', but maybe there was a grander purpose at work here that neither of them could see from their vantage point. Harry liked to believe that, at least. It was more than just wanting to believe the best about people. It was about believing there was a reason he was here at all; a reason he had survived. A reason they had both survived. But why?
Maybe they were supposed to be here for each other. Could life really be that synchronous? If it was, then his thoughts about having his own kind of family with Severus weren't that far off. They could build something with each other that neither could find alone. All Harry had to do was write a new story. And help Severus write his, too.
He remembered how good he and Severus had looked together when they dined recently at The Grecian, how Mrs. Whitby had been the one to point that out even though she'd not said a word. Harry remembered wishing Severus could have accompanied him to Australia for Ron and Hermione's wedding. He remembered their post-draught kiss, and how much he'd thought about it with ever-increasing curiosity. What would a second one be like? Was it just the illicit thrill that made the first so exciting, or would it always feel that way? He remembered wondering what his tattoo's reaction to Severus would be. He remembered St. Mungo's, and their early summer of dinners at the old pub in Hogsmeade, their Evochi sessions, their conversations. He remembered everything, sharp and crisp as sunlight.
It had all been there, right in front of his nose the entire time.
Maybe it was one event that was the turning point. Maybe it was a million little things. All he knew was that everything was rushing together in his mind now, like a puzzle intent on completing itself at last, though what he saw once it was done didn't surprise him – not like he supposed it ought to. His heart pounded at the realization, at finally making sense of it. So this is what it feels like. Or maybe he had known for a long time but was so unused to the feeling or experience that he had only just named it now.
For Harry, there was no other such immutable truth as that: he was in love with Severus.