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Nobody's Savior

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Hermione Granger, hair pulled back from her face in a loose knot and pencil stuck behind her ear, picked up the next patient’s file from the counter where the clerk had placed it.

“I’ll call him back, Mum,” she said, smiling at her rather harried mother, who was sneaking a quick cup of tea. Her parents were dentists and she had spent many summers helping out in their office. She was in Uni now, and recently married, but it was summer, and her parents had offered her a full-time job ’til classes started up again. Sometimes, Hermione wished she could give her parents more free time. Magic would do that, but even that was blocked to her now - ever since the Ministry fell and the Muggle-born ordinances had gone into effect.

Lips pursed against the unpleasant thought of the state of the Wizarding world, biting back the tears that always threatened when she thought of the magical world as it had been, she opened the door to the waiting room. Three people were waiting, and all of them looked up expectantly at her as she glanced down at the file. Her eyes locked on the name printed on the label on the folder’s tab. She looked up quickly, eyes wide, scanning the faces before her.

“Harry Potter?”

A man in the corner with tousled dark hair and vibrant green eyes behind oval spectacles looked up in relief. He stood with difficulty and reached for a metal crutch leaning against the chair, the sort with the circlet enclosing the forearm. Using the crutch for support, he made his way toward the door.

Hermione’s eyes were focused on his face. And while she met his eyes, she could not keep from gazing at the scar on his forehead. She looked away quickly, back down at the file, her heart pounding.

“Oh. I’m sorry. This way, please.” She stepped back as he passed through the doorway, then led him into a room where a technician was already waiting to take an x-ray.

“Which tooth is it?” Jackie inquired as Hermione leaned against the wall in the corridor and tried to gather her wits.

Harry Potter could not be here, here at her parents’ dental practice.

Harry Potter could not be anywhere.

Harry Potter was dead. He’d died as a child, in the ferry accident that had killed his aunt and uncle and cousin, too. Everyone knew that. He would have been in her year at Hogwarts, and to this day she remembered the headmaster addressing them during the Welcoming Feast and delivering the news that the Boy Who Lived—was dead.

Only he wasn’t, was he? There couldn’t be two Harry Potters of that age, living in London, with the scar - that lightning-bolt-shaped scar - on their foreheads. She stepped away from the wall just as her mother came hurrying down the corridor and ducked into the room.

“Let’s have a look, shall we?” A long quiet moment passed, then Dr. Granger’s voice floated out into the corridor again. “Well, it’s the wisdom tooth. Not one you need and typically hard to keep cavity-free anyway. I can extract it today, but you should follow up with an oral surgeon and have the rest of them removed, too. You’ve got decay starting on the molars in front of them in two places—”

Hermione slipped back in the room after her mother administered the Novocain, leaving her patient to get numb. She stood in the doorway, taking advantage of the opportunity to study the young man. Harry Potter was lying back in the chair, eyes closed. He was breathing deeply and his hand was resting on his cheek.

“Sorry about the Muggle technology.” Hermione’s spoke softly, still standing in the doorway.

The man opened his eyes. “Excuse me?” he said, frowning.

“The Muggle technology,” repeated Hermione, watching him carefully. But he gave no indication that he recognised the term or was discomfited by it.

“Muggle?” He was still frowning. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“Oh.” She sounded a bit disappointed. “I’m sorry - never mind. I thought you were someone else.” She back-pedaled quickly. “I’m sorry about your tooth. I had my wisdom teeth extracted two years ago.”

“Ahh.” He attempted a smile. “My aunt was terrified of dentists. She never took me. I’ve tried to catch up on my care since I’ve been on my own, but this thing snuck up on me.”

His voice was beginning to slur as the Novocain took effect, but was still pleasant and relaxed. She liked how confident he sounded, despite the pain he obviously felt. “You grew up with your aunt, then?”

He looked away from her, down at his hands, as he answered. “My parents were killed when I was a baby. She and my uncle took me in.” He looked back up at her then. “Does it hurt much? Having a tooth pulled?”

“You shouldn’t feel a thing with the Novocain. My mum’s a marvel, really. Have you seen her before today?”

“Dr. Granger’s your mum?”

She nodded. “And the other Dr. Granger’s my dad. Family practice, this.”

“Ah.” He smiled. Only one side of his mouth rose. “This is my first time here. I took a flat on this block a little while back, after I got out of the RAF.”

“How’s that feeling, Mr. Potter?” Hermione waved at Harry and backed out of the room as her mum re-entered, Jackie trailing behind her.

Hermione walked slowly back to the front desk, where she pulled up Harry Potter’s patient information in the computer system. She stared at the screen for a long time, her heart pounding again. Date of birth - July 31st, 1980. Born as the seventh month dies. She pulled a pad of sticky notes over toward her and jotted down his address and phone number, then closed the file and pushed back her chair. She bit her bottom lip as she always did when she was worried or nervous or unsure. She had to get to Grimmauld Place. She hated that old house, and hated dealing with Sirius when Ron wasn’t there with her. But this - this was something for the leader of the Order of Phoenix and no one else.

~*~

“Hermione!” Sirius Black, holding a glass of scotch, paused halfway down the staircase in the dingy entryway of his family home in London. “How’s our little newlywed?”

He continued down to the bottom of the stairway and gave her a one-armed hug, holding the glass out to the side. She tolerated it, as she did most things about Sirius Black. More than six years out of Azkaban and he still hadn’t acclimated completely. He held her a tad too tightly, a bit too long, his smoky breath moist on her neck. She counted to three and pulled away.

“Hermione?”

Sirius let her go and she stepped back and smiled up at Remus Lupin. Remus was leaning on the first floor rail, looking down at her with a tired smile.

“Hi, Remus,” she said, her demeanor changing to one of genuine pleasure as she gave him a little wave. She turned back to Sirius. “I’m fine, Sirius. Where’s Snape?”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “Where is he ever?”

“Library.” She smiled fondly. “I’ll duck in and give him my report, then come back to visit.”

“We’d like that,” answered Remus, speaking for both of them and giving Sirius a disapproving glance. “Go on and find Severus. I’ll make tea.”

Hermione tiptoed past the portrait of Sirius’ mother - the old bitch—witch— certainly toed the new Ministry party line and did not approve of Muggle-borns in the least - and knocked on the library door.

Severus Snape’s voice through the door was commanding.

“Enter.”

Hermione stepped into the room and pulled the door shut behind her. The shadowy room was lit only with two oil lamps on the desk.

“Miss Granger.”

He didn’t bother with the hyphenated Granger-Weasley she had adopted two months ago when she’d married Ron, and though she would have called anyone else out on it, with Severus Snape she let it go. Severus stood, a particular courtesy he’d only been extending since she left Hogwarts.

She approached his desk and held out her hand when he offered his, shaking over the orderly desktop. His hand was warm and dry, hers cold and clammy.

“I—I have a report.” Her voice shook and she looked past him, not quite meeting his eyes. He stood for a moment longer, regarding her with a frown, then sat down again.

“Sit, please.”

She sat. Since Severus Snape had taken over as head of the Order of the Phoenix after Albus Dumbledore’s murder, everything about him seemed to have changed. In a heartbeat - in the space of time between Dumbledore’s final words and the green spell light that struck him dead - he had gone from hated Potions Master to exposed spy, unleashing a wrathful fury on the invading Death Eaters, the very Death Eaters who had thought him one of their own. He had left Hogwarts that night and had never returned, instead picking up where the great Albus Dumbledore had left off. Now, nearly four years later, the strain of the fight was telling on his weary face. He stared at her now and she felt, as she always did when she was alone with him, exposed and vulnerable, but in a very different way than when she caught Sirius Black staring at her.

She took a deep breath.

“Are you sure - quite sure - that Harry Potter is dead?”

Severus stared at her without answering. Hermione avoided meeting his eyes. He often tried to shorten conversations by using Legilimency. Finally, he spoke.

“I have no reason to doubt it. Albus Dumbledore delivered the news to me personally when it happened - more than ten years ago now. He was quite—distraught.” He regarded her shrewdly. “Why? Have you seen Mr. Potter about London?”

“Well, actually—yes.” She met his eyes now and spoke quietly, but confidently. “He came in for an extraction at my parents’ dental clinic today.”

“Harry Potter walked into your parents’ office today to have a tooth pulled?” He laughed, a sharp bark.

“Yes. He did. Dark hair, green eyes, lightning-bolt-shaped scar on the forehead. And if that’s not enough, he’s going by the name of Harry Potter, as well. He even mentioned his aunt - said she has a mortal fear of dentists and didn’t get him good care growing up.”

“His aunt?” Severus wasn’t laughing any longer.

She nodded. “And I peeked at his records before I left – he listed his date of birth as 31st July, 1980.”

Snape’s expression didn’t change. He continued to stare at her for a silent, drawn-out moment.

“A trick. An imposter. He could be an agent of the enemy, deliberately sent to your parents’ office.”

“My mother pulled his highly infected tooth while I was there. He was in a great deal of pain. He also was using a crutch. He mentioned that he had been in the RAF but was out now and had taken a flat nearby.”

“I will need the memory,” Snape said tightly. Without further comment, he stood and moved to a cabinet against the wall, pulled out the heavy stone Pensieve that had belonged to Albus Dumbledore, and carefully placed it on the center of the desk. He took one step backward and looked at Hermione expectantly, then frowned, and pulled out his own wand and handed it to her.

She took the wand in her hand, giving in to the temptation to squeeze the handle, closing her eyes as the remembered warmth filled her. It was not her wand, but it was a wand nonetheless.

She sighed, then held the wand to her temple and extracted the memory as requested. It fell from the tip of the wand into the Pensieve, floating down slowly. The bowl lit up with an eerie glow as the memory strand touched the surface.

“This had better not be a joke,” Snape said tightly, holding out his hand and reclaiming his wand.

She didn’t reply. He knew her well enough to know that she would not come to him like this in person unless she had something critical to share.

He stared into the Pensieve and sighed. “Albus, I shall never truly understand you,” he muttered as he dipped his head until the tip of his nose touched the surface of the floating memory.

Hermione stood there, staring at his still form, for as long as the memory played out. She did not understand the look on his face when, ten minutes later, he straightened up and slumped back in his chair.

He looked like he’d been punched in the gut. She had never seen even a hint of weakness, of vulnerability, of this type of humanity, in their leader, and it disquieted her.

“Who else knows?”

“No one. I came directly here from the office.”

“And Black?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Sirius?” She laughed. “Of course not. Can you imagine what he—?” She stopped as he scowled. “No, not Sirius. Nor Remus.”

“Good.” He stood, clearly ready to end the conversation. “Befriend him. Once you have his trust, I will visit him.”

She waited for more instructions but he seemed in no mood to communicate further.

“If you want me to get to know him, I have to tell Ron. No arguments.”

She stood her ground while he stared at her. Finally, he nodded.

“You must vow not to tell anyone else. Either of you. None of the Weasleys, none of your schoolmates. None of the Order. And if Potter really does not know about the magical world, do not tell him. Leave that to me, for the appropriate time.”

She nodded and got to her feet.

“You understand how important this could be to our cause?”

She was almost to the door when he spoke again and she paused, not turning around.

“I know the Prophecy, Severus,” she said quietly. “We all do.”

“He—the Dark Lord—is weaker than he could be. The blood of his enemy revived him, but he took Black’s blood only because Harry Potter was dead. If he were to find out—if anyone at the Ministry were to find out—your Mr. Potter would be dead by morning. You must be discreet. His life—no - everything - depends on it.”

“I understand.” Sometimes, she doubted that she did. She could have had an ordinary life. A career in business, or in medicine, like her parents. Instead, that ruddy owl had brought that letter, that invitation to Hogwarts. And though her young life and her strange abilities suddenly made sense, nothing had ever been the same.

Even now, when it had all been taken from her.

“Good. Two weeks?” Snape picked up a quill and looked at her disapprovingly, as if wondering why she was still in the room.

She turned, frowning. “That’s not much time.”

“Two weeks,” he repeated. “You understand how important this is.”

She nodded, then dared to ask a question.

“Why? Why would Dumbledore do this? Why would he keep Harry Potter from Hogwarts? From the magical world altogether? He’s important—”

“Miss Granger, I will never profess to understand the headmaster’s motives. But rest assured - if Mr. Potter is indeed alive, and Dumbledore engineered the farce, he did it for a reason other than the greater good.”

“Perhaps we should leave well enough—” She suddenly felt sorry for the amiable young man with the beautiful green eyes.

“Two weeks, Miss Granger. I will contact you then and make arrangements to meet Mr. Potter.”

When she was gone, Severus Snape pointed his wand at the door and uttered a locking charm. He then stared down at the Pensieve.

Lily’s boy.

Those eyes. There was no doubt. If it was a ruse, it was an elaborate one. The boy had not recognised the term Muggle. He was clearly in pain, clearly there because of an infected tooth. He looked remarkably like James Potter had just before he died. He had Lily’s eyes, though. Lily’s eyes. And that changed everything - about his appearance, about his character, about what Severus Snape thought of him.

But not enough. Not enough to let Albus have his bloody way, to save the boy from his destiny, to keep him immersed in the Muggle world and apart from the magical one.

The stakes were too high now. If the Order didn’t get to Harry Potter first, the Ministry - the corrupt, cruel, Voldemort-controlled Ministry - would find him and then, then, he’d have no chance at all. Not as a Muggle. Not as a wizard.

It was just like Albus Dumbledore to bury their boy hero in plain sight.

Boy? Severus had no experience with an adult wizard who didn’t know he was a wizard. Who very likely did not know that another world existed in the heart of London, in the highlands of Scotland, in the backwoods of Bavaria and Albania and in a little town named Godric’s Hollow. How did you approach someone with information like that? It was one thing with a child of eleven, quite another with a man of twenty who had spent time in the armed services already and who had been injured - Merlin knew how. A man, not a boy. A man with a man’s mind, not the pliable one of a child of eleven.

You must have had a reason for doing this, Albus! Did you mean for us never to find him?

Two weeks. He would give Granger two weeks to befriend the boy and gain his trust, to find out what was going on in that head of his.

In the meantime – yes, in the meantime – he would devote his efforts to tracking down Petunia Dursley.

~*~

“Coming!”

Harry Potter winced as he sat up on the sofa, touching his cheek gingerly. “Keep your pants on,” he grumbled to himself as he fumbled on the table for his glasses. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, as he limped toward the door of his flat.

“Hello.”

A young woman smiled at him from the corridor. She was holding a small white bag and what appeared to be a sack of take-away.

“Hullo.” He peered at her, then smiled in recognition. “You’re the girl from the dentist’s office - the dentist’s daughter, right? Did I leave something there?”

Hermione held up the bag. “Hermione Granger. And well, you technically didn’t forget this. Mum just forgot to give it to you, so I volunteered to bring it by. It’s a special salve for the pain. You can use it instead of or along with the pain pills.”

Harry eyed the bag, and stepped back from the door. “Would you like to come in for a few minutes? Sorry the place is such a mess - I’ve not felt like moving much the last few days.”

Hermione smiled. “Sure.” She followed Harry as he limped back into the den and waited while he cleared some newspapers from a chair. He motioned her to it as he settled on the sofa, bundling up the pillow and afghan he’d been using there the past two days.

“Are you still in pain? It’s usually quite a bit better by now, unless you develop a dry socket. You haven’t used a straw, have you?” Hermione tilted her head in concern and Harry pointed to the wrinkled instruction sheet he’d brought home with him from the dental office.

“I followed it to the letter,” he said. “And I think it’s getting better. They told me I’d have some pain for several days - she put me on a full course of antibiotics.”

Hermione placed the white bag on the table and took out a small glass jar filled with a light green unguent. She unscrewed the lid without hesitation and passed it over to Harry.

“Just scoop up a bit on your finger and rub it on the gum near the extraction. Go on - it really works.” She smiled encouragingly and Harry took the jar from her. He sniffed it, and Hermione smiled again. “I love the smell - it reminds me of my grandfather’s aftershave.”

Harry nodded. “I didn’t ever know my grandfather,” he said as he dipped his finger into the jar and collected a small daub of the gel. “But I know what you mean - it’s a familiar smell. Like the inside of a cupboard with cleaning supplies.”

And while Hermione knew that the base of this potion - for potion indeed it was - was a magical plant very similar to Aloe Vera, she also knew that Snape added a number of other ingredients to this effective painkiller, including one which bathed the user in vague yet comfortable, pleasant memories. She wondered, for a moment, why Harry Potter would find the inside of a cleaning cupboard familiar and comfortable, but had to agree that she loved the smell of lemon and pine. And she was heartened that the potion had this particular effect on him - it didn’t do much for Muggles except ease the pain.

She watched Harry rub the ointment onto his gum and mentally counted backward from ten. By the time she got to six, a startled look had come over his face. He picked up the jar and turned it around, even lifted it over his head, looking for the label.

“Good stuff, isn’t it?” asked Hermione.

“Like magic,” said Harry, working his jaw in a way that she was sure he hadn’t been able to a few minutes ago. “What’s in it, anyway?”

Hermione shrugged. “Secret recipe. A family friend has been making it for years - claims it’s all natural, too.”

Harry grinned. “I think I could actually eat something.”

“Something from the approved list,” Hermione reminded him. She handed him the other bag. “I took the liberty of bringing you some pasta. It’s from Bartoloni’s down the block. Have you been there yet?”

“Wow. Thank you. You didn’t need to do that - well, do any of this, really. And no, I haven’t been there yet.” He’d taken the pasta from her and lifted the lid. “There’s plenty for two - would you care to join me?”

“It’s my favorite,” said Hermione. “My husband loves the tortellini but I’m all about the spaghetti and meatballs.”

Harry looked up at her with interest. “You’re married?” He glanced at her left hand and she held it up to show him her wedding band.

“Two months. I’m at Uni but Ron’s gone into business with his father.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Harry said as he reached down to pick up his crutch. He went to the kitchen and returned with two dishes. “I can’t even imagine being married - you’re lucky you’ve found someone special to share your life.”

“I am. I’ve known Ron since I was eleven. We went to the same boarding school. I couldn’t stand him for the first few years but he wore me down.” She laughed. “He’s got a big family and I’m an only child. His family is wonderful, but chaotic. It was a lot to get used to, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They chatted while they ate, and Hermione had a chance to look around the flat. It was curiously furnished with a mix of modern and old-fashioned pieces. She was half-reminded of being in a Wizarding home even though there was no sign of Wizarding activity here. No robes hanging on hooks on the wall, no pots stirring themselves, no clocks with extra hands or photographs that moved. An older-model television and a small stereo were further evidence that this was not a typical wizard’s residence.

“What a lovely desk,” she said, eyes falling on a small secretary against the wall by the front door. “Do you collect antiques?”

Harry shook his head. “I’ve a few odd pieces of my parents’ estate. They were put in storage for me by the executor and I was sent the key on my eighteenth birthday. I didn’t know a thing about my parents until then, other than they died in a car crash when I was a baby. My uncle didn’t get on very well with my dad, apparently.”

“Oh, Harry. That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”

He shrugged. “I never knew them, did I? Oh, don’t take me wrong,” he added, catching sight of her face. “I thought about them all the time, and what it would have been like to have known them, maybe to have had a couple brothers and sisters. But instead I grew up with my aunt and uncle and cousin, and that was alright. Not the best life in the world, I guess, but when I turned eighteen I enlisted. I was hoping to be a navigator but my injury ended all that. Our transport vehicles got hit by a drunk driver. I was lucky with this - ” he jostled his bad leg a bit - “the driver was killed and one of my friends lost an eye.”

“How long ago did it happen?” asked Hermione. She knew that injuries such as this could be healed by magic when traditional Muggle medicine failed.

“Just over a year. I was in hospital for several months, then given a medical discharge. My leg is loads better than it was, but I’m useless for a career in the military, so I enrolled at Uni and found this flat and moved in.”

“You’re awfully upbeat about it,” commented Hermione. “What are you studying?”

“Pre-med,” he answered. “Oh, I’ll probably not measure up, but I thought I’d set my aspirations high and see what came of it. What about you?”

“Chemistry,” she said. “We might see each other in classes then.”

“We might,” he answered. “Though I’m just starting so I’m sure you’re ahead of me.”

They spent another half an hour talking, and, finding that they enjoyed each other’s company well enough, made plans to meet for coffee later in the week.

Harry Potter stood in his window and watched Hermione Granger walk down the street toward her parents’ dental office. He thought her visit odd, but fortuitous. His mouth certainly felt a lot better, and he seemed to have made his first friend in the neighborhood. A married one at that - one who wouldn’t be flirting with him and wondering why he wasn’t asking her out. And she was smart, too. He could tell that by her conversation, and choice of words. Maybe they could study together, or he could meet her friends, or even her husband. There was just something about her, something he couldn’t put his finger on. A feeling, just below the skin, of rightness.

He’d spent a good part of his life trying to ignore that feeling.

Even now, he almost wished it away. For Harry had had those feelings before, always in one of those odd moments in his life when something impossible had happened. Like when his hair grew back overnight, or when he found himself suddenly safe on shore after nearly being pulled out to sea by the undertow the summer Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had taken the family to the beach. Or the curious feeling he had when he’d caught sight of an owl one evening, flying with something clutched in its claws, something that wasn’t a dead mouse but looked more like a rolled up message from a bottle. Or that odd dream he’d had since he was a little boy, about a giant man on a flying motorcycle.

He’d talked to the therapist about it, when he was in hospital after the accident. He understood what it meant now, or what it could mean. How Freud interpreted dreams of flying as sexual release, but how more modern interpretations reflected freedom from shackles, one’s personal sense of power. A giant might symbolise something in your life that has become too big for you to handle - a fear, an emotion. Something looming above you, over you.

But this dream was more like a memory. It felt real to him, and that was worrisome. He’d learned, after the first time, to never mention the dream to the Dursleys.

He cleaned up the dishes and decided to start on a fresh leg with Hermione Granger. He wouldn’t mention the dreams, or his hair, or his odd ability to escape danger even when it involved locked doors and strong undercurrents.

He hoped that she didn’t have a lonely girlfriend in need of a date, or that her Ron didn’t have any unmarried sisters in that big family of his. It had taken him long enough to accept the fact that girls did nothing for him. Best get that out in the open early on, he thought. You never know how some people might react.

~*~

When Harry Potter walked into the coffee shop behind Hermione Granger, Severus Snape, despite his mental preparation, nearly dropped a double shot of Espresso into his lap.

Granger led the way to a table conveniently near Snape’s. He remained in his little booth, newspaper spread over the table, coffee and muffin laid out to his right.

Merlin’s celibate grandmother, the boy’s hair was so much like James Potter’s had been that Severus wanted to attack it right then and there with a comb and a straightening spell.

He avoided looking at the boy’s eyes.

The plan was for Severus, dressed as a Muggle, to wait for them under a Notice-Me-Not spell. He’d remove the spell when they arrived. Hermione would look up, see him, and introduce Harry to her chemistry professor from her old boarding school in Scotland.

They went to the counter for coffee, Harry limping along with a single crutch but getting along well enough, and were almost back to their table when Hermione glanced over at him.

“Professor Stevens!”

That small change in name had been agreed upon in advance. Snape was too uncommon a name to shout out in public, even in the middle of a Muggle cafe in London.

“Miss Granger. How interesting to see you here.”

“Harry, this is Professor Stevens, my chemistry professor from prep school. Professor Stevens, my friend Harry.”

Harry had extended his hand and Severus took it. Harry had a firm grasp and held his hand just long enough.

“Pleased to meet you, Professor.”

“Likewise.”

He meant it.

“Won’t you join me for a few minutes?” Severus indicated the empty bench across from him.

“Do you mind, Harry? I’d love to catch up on things at St. Mary’s with the professor.”

Severus cast a non-verbal Muffliato as they slid into his booth.

“All is well in Scotland,” said Severus without delay. “I take it you are at University here, then, Miss Granger?”

“She’s studying chemistry,” said Harry, emphasizing the word chemistry even as he stared at the professor and gave a little smile.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Really, Miss Granger? I had no idea.”

Hermione blushed. “You have to know that chemistry was my favorite subject at St. Mary’s,” she said.

“You excelled at everything you did, Miss Granger. How was I to know?” He gave a small, wry smile and Hermione shook her head.

“No, really. I was inspired by you, Professor. Really, Harry, he’s quite brilliant.”

Harry looked up at Snape, meeting his eyes and smiling. “I see.” He gave Severus an interested look. “Did you teach Hermione’s husband too?”

The older man rolled his eyes and Harry grinned. “Ronald and a myriad of other Weasleys, each one as brave and foolhardy as the previous. Are you in University as well, Harry?”

“Just starting,” answered Harry. “I was in the service for two years.”

“Ah.” Severus was staring at him, a look on his face that Harry could not read.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he realised Harry had caught him staring. “But you look quite a bit like a classmate of mine from prep school.”

Hermione glanced over at Snape. Even though they had planned this conversation, it was still surprising to hear Snape launch into it so easily.

Harry shrugged. “I suppose I look like a lot of people,” he said offhandedly. “I don’t have any family to speak of.”

“This classmate was James Potter,” said Severus. “A common enough name but—what? Did you know him?”

“Harry, are you all right?” Hermione had reached over for his hand, for Harry’s face had gone exceedingly pale.

“You knew my dad?” His voice caught on the last word.

Severus paused, as if unsure whether he should continue or not. “If James Potter was your father, yes. I am—sorry. I know he died quite some time ago.”

Harry nodded. “He died when I was a baby - both my parents did. In a car crash. I know nothing about him besides his name - my aunt wasn’t too fond of my parents and she raised me.” He shook his head, still staring at Snape. “I can’t believe this - you really knew him?”

Severus nodded. It was important that he tread carefully now. “I knew a James Potter in school - though not well, mind you. I have to believe it was your father - your resemblance to him is striking.”

“Where did he - you - go to school? Were you in the same form? I don’t even know what year he was born, or his birthday, or anything.” Harry’s eyes lit up with hope and Severus smiled and shook his head.

“I haven’t thought of James Potter in years.” It was a lie, of course, but part of their plan to draw Harry in. “I’m forty years old - born in 1960 - and I imagine he was born the same year, which means he would have been about your age, I expect, when you were born. As for the school - the same Miss Granger attended. St. Mary’s, in Scotland.”

“I know you said you didn’t know him well, but do you remember anything about him at all?” asked Harry. He looked up at Severus, giving him an enigmatic smile. “Look, I realise that you weren’t friends and you might have even thought he was a pompous ass or something, but you’re the first person I’ve ever known that actually knew him. Well, besides my aunt. And the only thing she ever said about him was that he was a drunk and a loafer.”

A drunk and a loafer? He was close to finding Petunia Dursley and when he did—

“He wasn’t a loafer and I very much doubt he was a drunk.” The corners of Harry’s mouth turned up into a faint smile. “He was a good student, and a very good athlete. He was popular, with the students and the teachers. He got into trouble a lot.” He paused, looking at Harry, assessing him. “The girls liked him.”

As he had expected it might, that statement seemed to hit home with Harry. He looked across the table at Severus appraisingly, eyes sweeping down to rest on the elegant, long-fingered hands clasped together on top of the table.

“That’s something you’ve got in common with your dad, then,” said Hermione. “The girls are all over Harry. I admit I would be, too, if I were still single.”

“Would you, now?” asked Severus, looking at Harry instead of Hermione. They exchanged the barest of nods, the slightest trace of a smile.

“I don’t suppose you know where he was from, do you? Or anything about his family? Did he have any brothers or sisters at St. Mary’s that you knew?”

Severus Snape shook his head. He looked as if he were trying not to look so pleased. Harry Potter was eager - almost desperate - for something Snape could provide: information about his family. He was polite, intelligent enough it seemed, pleasant and - though Granger obviously hadn’t figured this one out - Seeking for his own team. Severus Snape may have loved Lily Potter, but after her death, he’d found solace in stronger arms. Perhaps not arms quite so young as Potter’s, but he could not deny the appeal of the young man. It was easy to forget James Potter when he looked into those eyes.

“Potter was from a well-to-do family, benefactors of the school. I believe he was an only child but really know very little about them beyond that. I have no business prying - but I would imagine there was a significant estate—”

Harry nodded. “A trust, actually. I started getting payouts on my eighteenth birthday - that’s the first I ever knew of it, though. A letter came from a solicitor with a key to a storage unit. I got a nice initial cheque and have been getting regular monthly ones since. According to the letter, I’ll have them for life. It’s enough to live on if I’m careful and watch my expenses.”

“Harry’s in pre-med, Professor,” volunteered Hermione.

Harry nodded. “I have a long road ahead of me, so the money is especially helpful. I thought it was a joke at first. My aunt never mentioned an estate - though I suspect she got something in return for taking me in. And the solicitor’s name - Wulfric Dumbledore? I did a pretty thorough search and couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere in the UK.”

Severus frowned. Dumbledore hadn’t even bothered to disguise his name?

“You didn’t know my mother, did you?” asked Harry, suddenly.

Severus looked at his hands, then slowly back up at Harry, the expression on his face carefully neutral.

“Your mother was Lily Evans,” he said. “Am I correct?”

Harry nodded. “Aunt Petunia’s sister. You knew her, then?”

Severus shook his head. “I knew who she was, and I knew she and James were together during our last year. Your mother was a beautiful girl, with remarkable green eyes. You look quite a bit like your father, Harry, but you have your mother’s eyes.”

It was not the first time Harry Potter had heard that phrase.

But it was the first time he’d heard it in that tone of voice, where the words were almost a benediction. His Aunt Petunia would spit out the phrase if she found him looking too long at anything - at her, or a book, or the telly, or the young man who tended the garden across the street. Harry had learned, through force of repetition, that it was a regrettable thing to have inherited the distinctive eyes of his mother.

Hermione, bright witch that she was, wisely turned the conversation to other things. Before long, Harry was telling Severus about his injury.

“No, I don’t mind talking about it. It’s been a little more than a year now. The hardest thing wasn’t learning to live with the pain and the reduced mobility, not really. The hardest part was finding a new purpose in life. I thought I’d have a career in the RAF - my eyes aren’t good enough to be a pilot, but there were plenty of other jobs that would get me up in the air. I had lots of time to think about my future, though, since I was in hospital for several months after the accident. They helped me quite a bit, found a temporary place for me to stay near the hospital here in London when I was released, helped with counseling and even got me all sorted out with the applications to start University. I really can’t complain.”

The coffee grew cool as the hour passed by, and at the end of it, Severus gave Hermione a pointed look, and Hermione excused herself for the ladies’.

“Are you in London for long?” asked Harry, glancing back to see Hermione still headed toward the loo.

“I live in London now,” admitted Severus. “I’ve taken a new position at a research institute here.”

He relaxed back in his seat, looking at Harry with unconcealed interest. Harry, for his part, noticed the interest but misinterpreted it. “I may have some yearbooks from my school days - I’ll try to locate them. Perhaps I could bring them by for you.”

“Hmm.” Harry paused, considering. “I’m careful about who I go out with,” he continued, speaking softly. He wrapped his hands around his cold mug. “I do prefer—older men.” He chanced a look at Severus’ face and gave him a careful smile. “You are asking, aren’t you?” He met Severus’ eyes, then sighed and shook his head. “You’re not. I was wrong. Sorry. Forget I said anything. I’m getting rusty - haven’t been with anyone since—well, since this happened.” He jiggled his leg and Severus reached out and placed a hand over Harry’s.

“You are not wrong. In my former position as a professor, I had to be discreet. I am unaccustomed to having my options so—open. Nor am I accustomed to chatting up men of your age.”

Harry grinned. “I’d love to see those yearbooks if you can find them.”

“I can find them,” Severus assured him. “What are you doing Friday night?”

~*~

“I am not planning to ‘string him along,’ as you put it.” Severus Snape was sitting at his desk again, in the still-shadowy library at Headquarters. This time, however, both Hermione Granger and her husband were seated in front of him. Ron Weasley had only recently learned to look Snape in the eye, man to man. At twenty-one, he was just beginning to grow out of the tall and gangly state. Severus could not help but mentally compare him to the boy he had met several days before at the coffee shop. Physically, they were a study in contrasts. But there was something about them, the world-wise look in their eyes, that was startlingly familiar.

“You can’t just walk in on a Muggle and show him a Hogwarts yearbook,” protested Weasley.

“Muggle?” Severus raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair. “I assure you, Mr. Weasley, Harry Potter is not a Muggle.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Do I?” Severus looked down at his fingernails, waiting for the inevitable outburst. He was accomplished at baiting his prey.

But the outburst did not come. Severus looked up expectantly and Weasley met his eyes.

“He grew up in a Muggle household. He doesn’t know our world exists. Are you planning to tell him about it before you stick a moving picture of his dad riding a broom under his nose?”

“He’s such a nice young man,” said Hermione. She realised, as the words left her mouth, that that was exactly what her mother would have said about Harry had Hermione brought him home and introduced him as her boyfriend.

“He is remarkably balanced, considering his less than satisfactory upbringing,” said Severus. “I have paid a visit to his aunt, Petunia Dursley. She was quite difficult to track down. Someone spent a considerable amount of money and effort in moving the entire family to the Azores when Harry turned eighteen and enlisted in the RAF.”

“You went to the Azores?” asked Ron.

“We are wizards, Mr. Weasley,” answered Snape. “And for the record, the sun has no effect on me. I am not a vampire.”

Hermione bit back a grin.

“Could have fooled me,” muttered Ron.

“While I appreciate your concern,” began Snape, though he didn’t sound appreciative at all, “you will trust me on this. You must trust me. You have done your part. Once Mr. Potter has been properly introduced to our world and his heritage, I am quite sure he will appreciate friends - comrades - his own age.”

“I hope you’re right about this, Snape,” said Ron. “I don’t care what the Prophecy says - I can’t see how someone who’s never held a wand is going to defeat the Dark Lord.”

“The Ministry can’t detect our magical activity here at Headquarters,” said Hermione. “Why don’t you just say his name?”

Snape leveled a cold gaze at her. “If we get into the habit of saying it here, we are more likely to slip and say it when we are elsewhere. You know the consequences, Miss Granger.”

Hermione looked away. She took a deep breath, and released it, then turned to her husband.

“The Prophecy says, ‘And he will have the power the Dark Lord knows not.’ It doesn’t say that power is magic.”

“Well, it’d better be magical power of some sort, because he’s not going to get anywhere fast on that leg,” said Ron, scowling a bit.

“As I stated several moments ago, we are wizards,, Mr. Weasley. His injury will be addressed once he has accepted his legacy. Now, if you are finished voicing your concerns and protests?”

“We like him, Severus. We only wanted—”

“I understand.” Severus cut Hermione off and waved his hand toward the closed door behind them. “I will take your concerns into consideration, but this must be done. If all goes well, we will begin introducing him to Order members discreetly. Minerva first. Then perhaps Mad-Eye and Aberforth.”

“What about Sirius?” asked Ron as he stood up. “He’s his godfather. He’ll be over the moon about it.”

“I will take care of Black,” said Severus. “When the time is right.”

Sirius was on them as soon as they opened the library door.

“Remus has tea waiting in the parlor,” he said. “You have time to visit, don’t you?” He put his arm casually around Hermione’s waist and squeezed it, moving his hand down a notch.

“You need to get out more, Sirius,” said Ron. He took Hermione’s hand and held it up to Sirius’ face. “Ring. See it? Bright golden thing around her ring finger? Means she’s married, mate. To me. Hands off, now.”

Sirius laughed. He held up his hands in surrender. “Fine. You’ll stay for tea though, won’t you?”

They followed him to the parlor where Remus was indeed waiting with a laden tea tray. He poured for Hermione and passed the cup to her while Sirius took a biscuit from the tray and held it up.

“Lemon filling, in honor of Albus.” He took a bite and accepted a cup from Remus. “So, what are you two up to with Snape, anyway?” He asked the question with feigned casualness.

“Merlin, Sirius. You know they can’t talk about Order missions.” Remus slid a plate over to Ron as he reached for a biscuit.

“So, he’s got you on another mission, eh?” asked Sirius. “He’s not given me anything in weeks.”

“Maybe because last time you couldn’t resist chasing that squirrel and almost got hit by a Muggle car,” said Ron, grinning at Sirius.

“I could use Polyjuice next time,” grumbled Sirius. “I’d keep my human mind then, at least.”

“How’re your mum and dad doing, Ron?” asked Remus, handily changing the topic.

“They’re getting along all right,” answered Ron. “Mum’s awfully excited about the new baby, of course. She hates that Dad and I are still working at the Ministry and pretending, but what else can they do? At least the twins’ business is booming. They actually sold more by black market mail order than they did before the Ministry closed their shop down.”

“And Ginny?”

“Starting the next regular season match,” Ron answered, his chest swelling slightly. “The Harpies have given her a three-year contract.”

Hermione squeezed her husband’s hand. “You’re good enough to play professionally, Ron,” she said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”

He shrugged. “Dad needed at least one of us to work with him,” he said. “Going into that place everyday—” He shuddered. “It’s easier when we’re together, Dad and I.” He turned to Remus and Sirius. “Last week they pulled down the Statue of the Magical Brethren in the atrium. It was up one day - gone the next - replaced with a statue of our new Minister for Life himself.” He laughed. “Though they gave him a nose in the statue.”

Remus smiled and Sirius snorted.

“I imagine it takes a lot out of you just to walk past that statue,” said Remus.

“Without spitting on it,” added Sirius.

“Are you still looking for a job, Remus?” asked Hermione a few minutes later when Ron and Sirius had gone off on a rant about a famous Muggle football player.

“I’d like to,” he answered. “I had a good lead for a tutoring position at a private school near Bath and another for a research assistant at a Muggle university, but Severus is still hoping I can rejoin the pack.” He said the last part in a low voice.

“Oh, Remus. No. Not that.” Hermione reached over for his hand. “It took you so long to recover. I’d hoped you could find something quiet and unobtrusive for a while.”

Remus gave a small, sad smile. “Well, I’d hoped, as well, but there’s no one else in the Order who can get close to the werewolves, is there?”

“No, there’s not.” She had to agree, albeit reluctantly. “But is it really that important? Do we really have any hope of getting Greyback on our side?”

“No, not really. But don’t assume the werewolves are on anyone’s side but their own. At the very least I was able to pass on a lot of information to the Order.”

Ron and Hermione made their excuses fifteen minutes later, stepping out to the tiny Apparition zone on the front doorstep. Sirius climbed the stairway and reentered the parlor, finding Remus standing at the tall, narrow window that faced the quiet London street.

“You’re very convincing,” said Remus as Sirius stepped up behind him and placed his hands on his waist.

“I’m an actor at heart,” answered Sirius. He rested his chin on Remus’ shoulder. “Why is it, though, that Snape’s figured it out and no one else has?”

“Because Snape lives here, for one,” said Remus. He chuckled. “And no matter that quixotic love he had for Lily, he’s not looking at the ladies either.”

Sirius grinned. “Ahh. But we like both the lords and the ladies,” he said. He worked his hands around Remus’ waist and kissed the side of his neck. “We should look for one, you know,” he said. “It’s been two years now—”

Remus stiffened. “If I’m not enough for you, say so, Sirius.”

“I don’t mean that.” Sirius tightened his hold. “Leave it.” He sighed. “We had fun, didn’t we? Tonks made you laugh, Remus.”

“You make me laugh too,” said Remus. He relaxed a bit.

“I make you smile, Remus. That’s not the same.”

“It’s enough,” said Remus. It’s enough for now.

~*~

Harry Potter was going through the pre-date shirt routine.

He always settled on trousers first. Since Severus was coming to his place, he’d opted for jeans. They were well-fitting, but not skin-tight. It was hard enough to get into them at all—even more so with the difficulty he had bending his knee. He was on shirt number three already. Two were on his bed, rejected, and four more hung in the closet ready for him.

He stood in front of the mirrored closet door in a wine-colored fitted button-down and sighed. Sometimes he wished he had a magic mirror that would tell him (truthfully) exactly how ridiculous he looked. He unbuttoned the shirt, tossed it on the bed and reached for the next one.

By seven o’clock, he was wondering if Severus liked Indian take-away and second-guessing his choice of wine.

At seven-thirty, when Severus arrived and rapped sharply on his door, he had nearly fallen asleep in his recliner. He had spent fifteen minutes deciding what music to put on. What did a man Severus’ age listen to, anyway? He settled on jazz, something to just fill the background emptiness. The knock startled him out of his half-sleep, and it took him a couple minutes to get up and make his way to the door.

Snape had a heavy messenger bag over his shoulder. He nodded at Harry in greeting and looked beyond him into the flat.

Harry led him into the flat and gave him a brief tour. There wasn’t a lot to see, just four rooms plus the loo and a little alcove that looked out over the street below. For his part, Severus admired the small secretary, just as Hermione had, and stopped in front of the fireplace mantel, staring at a ceramic jar with a loose-fitting lid. The jar was blue and grey and oddly asymmetrical.

“Hermione liked it too,” commented Harry. “It was one of a few odd pieces in the storage locker with my parents’ things.” He reached past Severus and picked it up, examining it in his hands. “I like how imperfect it is - always made me think that one of them made it, or maybe someone they loved made it for them.”

Severus wanted to tell Harry right then that the ceramic jar was for Floo powder and yes, most children did make one in school, and most of them were lopsided and irregular and lovingly kept and handed down through the generations.

But he smiled instead. “You’re probably right,” he said.

They ate together at the small cafe table Harry kept against the wall next to the kitchen, and Severus did like Indian, or so he said, and he ate heartily and drank the wine without complaint.

And afterward, sitting together on the sofa facing the fireplace, Harry pointed to the carrier bag Severus had left on a nearby chair.

“You found your yearbooks, I take it?” he asked.

“I did. But before I show them to you, I have a confession to make.” He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, but gave no other indication that he was about to blow apart this young man’s world.

“A confession?” Harry looked at Severus warily. He had been getting comfortable, and enjoying the conversation. Severus was intelligent and sarcastic, and had the most fascinating hands.

“Yes, a confession. I’ve twisted the truth a bit, and I need to explain why.”

“You knew my parents, didn’t you? You weren’t lying about that just to get—?” He looked hurt, and Severus held up a hand quickly.

“No, I wasn’t lying about that. I knew your parents. I knew them quite a bit better than I admitted earlier. But there was a reason for that.”

“I don’t understand.” Harry pushed himself up so that he was sitting straighter. His voice was guarded. “Did you really bring pictures of my parents?”

“I did.”

“Let me see them, then.” He extended his hand toward Severus.

“Not yet. I need to explain something first.”

Harry stared at him. “Like why you lied?”

“I think that will become clear. Give me a chance - please.”

Harry nodded cautiously. But he looked disappointed. He’d been enjoying the evening so far, and had hoped to take things a bit further with Severus. “Go on then. What’s this about?”

“It’s about the school I attended - the same one your parents and Hermione attended and where I taught for many years.”

“St. Mary’s,” supplied Harry.

“Actually, no. Hogwarts.”

“Hog what?”

“Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the actual name of the school.”

“You’re kidding.” His amused smile disappeared as he looked at Severus’ still serious face. “You’re not kidding. Hogwarts? Really?”

“The school gates are decorated with winged boars. Hogwort is a medicinal plant native to North America. It contains a potent laxative.”

“You tell me that and expect me to take you seriously?”

“Please. Could I possibly make up something like that? The school founders were known to have had a rich sense of humor. The school itself is quite exclusive. Students attend by invitation only and must have certain—talents—to qualify for admittance.”

“Certain talents?” Harry asked cautiously. “Like what?”

“Would it help if I told you that these talents are usually inherited and that you, yourself, should have attended?”

Harry glanced up at him, catching a glint in the dark eyes. Images flashed through his mind - the cupboard where he had spent so many hours of his early childhood, a roomful of candles floating above his head in a great moonlit hall, a giant on a flying motorcycle, a familiar-looking old man with a white beard standing on a windy hillside, wind whipping his purple robes.

“Harry,” continued Severus softly, closing his eyes and opening them. Harry blinked, aware of the loss of contact. “Harry, has anything odd ever happened to you, anything you couldn’t explain?”

“You’re from the hospital, aren’t you?” Harry struggled to his feet. “They told me my information would be private.” He was barely in control of his anger now. It seethed beneath the surface, almost palpable on his skin. He pointed at the door. “Leave. Now.”

“The hospital? What are you on about?” Severus pressed himself back into the cushion of the sofa as Harry brandished his crutch at him.

“You know what I’m talking about! I told those things to the counselor at the hospital in strictest patient-to-doctor confidence. They had no right to share them with anyone. I don’t know who you really are, but—”

“Harry! Listen to me. I’m not from your hospital. I’m - Harry!”

And suddenly Harry was on the couch again, pushed back against the cushions by an invisible force. It was as if a hand were pressing against his sternum but Severus was still an arm’s length away, though sitting on the edge of the sofa with his head in his hands.

“Let me go.” Harry’s voice was desperate.

“I will say my piece first.” But he waved his hand and the pressure on Harry’s chest decreased. Severus stood and stepped around so that he was standing in front of Harry. He took something from his trouser pocket, a stick that seemed much too long to fit there to begin with, and held it out toward Harry. Harry stared at him defiantly.

“Take it. Hold it a moment. Feel it, Harry.”

Harry looked resolutely away.

“Humor me, please. Just another moment or two.”

Since none of this could possibly be happening anyway, Harry, mouth set it a straight line, reached out for the stick and grasped it about the handle that Severus had extended. He nearly dropped it when he did. The thing was thrumming. Alive. It was neither warm nor cold, yet it seemed to heat his hand in a pleasant way, imbuing him with a feeling of calm power unlike anything he had felt before. It was that feeling just under his skin again, that feeling of rightness, of balance.

“What is it?” he managed to whisper.

Severus stepped toward him and crouched down, kneeling on the floor in front of Harry, and putting his own hand on the stick as well.

“It’s magic, Harry. Magic is real. It’s a gift given to few among us. Hogwarts is a school of magic, filled with witches and wizards who learn to use wands such as this one to wield magic.” He continued as Harry stared at him, dumbfounded, seizing the opportunity to convey as much as possible in the brief time he had. “You are a wizard Harry, as were your parents. As am I, and Miss Granger, and Mr. Weasley, and his family, and hundreds - thousands - of others. You should have gone to Hogwarts, too, but you did not.” He moved in closer, invading Harry’s personal space even more. He lowered his voice and spoke more slowly. “And the reason you did not is that you died when you were nine years old in a ferry boat accident.” He stared at Harry and Harry stared back at him, green eyes bright and fearful.

“I’m not dead,” Harry said emphatically, seeming to get his wits back about him. “And Aunt Petunia never said anything about Hogwarts, and wizards, and magic.”

“No, you are not.” Severus stood, taking his wand with him. He flicked it at Harry and the pressure on his chest disappeared completely. Harry looked down, startled. “As for your Aunt Petunia, she was insanely jealous of her sister, for Lily was born magical, and she was not. She hated magic, and would have told you nothing of it.”

“Wait.” Harry once again struggled to his feet. “You know my Aunt Petunia?”

Severus gave a short bark of laughter. “Yes, I know her. In fact, I recently paid her a visit in the Azores.”

“Azores! How did you—?” Harry collapsed back on the edge of the sofa and buried his head in his hands. “This is not happening,” he said.

“I grew up in the same neighborhood as your aunt and your mother, Harry. Your mother and I got our Hogwarts letters at the same time.”

Harry looked up, shaking his head. He looked dazed, incapable of handling more. “You grew up with my mum,” he murmured.

“Harry - when you were nine years old, the headmaster of Hogwarts reported to me that you had drowned, along with your family, in a ferry accident. This tragic news was announced to the school, and to the Wizarding world as a whole, two years later, on the night you would have started at Hogwarts. Hermione Granger was a new student that year. Imagine her surprise, would you, when she finds you, hale and whole, in her parents’ dental clinic ten years later.”

“A ferry accident?” Harry gave a harsh laugh. “Maybe on one of our holidays in France?” The way he said it made it very clear that the Dursleys did not take holidays abroad. “And how did she even remember my name?” he asked. “And even if she did, there could be dozens of Harry Potters in the UK. What made her think of me?”

Severus reached out and rested his hand on Harry’s head, then used his thumb to slowly trace the lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Harry froze.

“You are famous in our world, Harry Potter. Famous, in particular, for how you got this scar.”

Harry recovered and reached up and pushed Severus’ hand away, clearly annoyed. “That’s from the car crash that killed my parents,” he said. It was one of the few truths he held fast to in life, and he said it convincingly.

“Your parents were not drunks, nor loafers, and they did not die in a car crash,” returned Severus. He bent down and picked up the carrier bag he had brought in with him. “Are you ready to see some of those yearbooks now?”

“Oh God yes,” said Harry, relieved. He didn’t argue with Severus about how his parents died. This was something normal. Photographs of his mother, perhaps in braids; of his father, with their friends, playing football, bent over a Bunsen burner in chemistry lab.

Severus sat down on the sofa beside Harry and drew out the first book.

“Our first year,” he said as he opened the book so it stretched out between both of their laps.

Harry blinked as Severus skimmed through the pages to the E's and pointed to a pretty redheaded girl with green eyes, blowing kisses to them.

“She’s moving,” whispered Harry, going very still.

“Photographs do that in our world,” said Severus.

“My mum had red hair,” he said next, willingly suspending disbelief as he stared at his mother, traced a thumb over the photo. His brain decided not to process the impossibility of photographs moving. “Hey, Mum.”

And suddenly, talking to the moving photograph of a little girl who grew up to be his mum didn’t seem so very odd at all.

The girl in the photo winked, then ducked to dodge a spitball coming at her from Francis Farley in the frame to the right.

“Francis Farley never did grow up,” said Severus with a sigh.

Harry was staring at the page in wonder.

“It’s a bit disconcerting,” he said, as his eyes moved from photo to photo. “How does it all work? What are the physics involved?”

Muggle-born magical children might ask how magic works when first exposed to it. Children did not assume, however, that it could be explained by physics. They were generally more accepting of the fact that magic was—well, magic. Unexplainable. Having no answer, Severus reached up and flipped the pages forward to find Harry’s father.

“James Potter,” he said when he found the page. “Right here.”

In first year, James Potter had had round glasses. His hair looked scruffy and uncombed. His Gryffindor tie was crooked around his neck.

“Wow.” Harry traced his thumb over his father’s photograph. His father suddenly covered his face with his hands and sneezed.

“I had glasses just like that when I was younger,” said Harry. “I do look a lot like him.”

“I told you that,” said Severus.

“This can’t be real.” Harry’s head fell back onto the sofa but the book remained open on his lap. “There has to be some kind of explanation. Maybe a hologram?” He began tilting the book and studying the photographs again.

“Magic is real. It is going to take some getting used to, Harry. You are going to have to unlearn the truths you have grown to believe in your world.”

Harry looked up at him, then returned to paging through the book. He stopped at a page, staring at a photograph. He looked at Severus.

“You said your name was Stevens.”

Severus looked at the photo on the page, clearly labeled 'Severus Snape.' “We are careful by nature, Harry,” he responded. “We often use alter egos when we go about outside of the magical world.”

Harry considered the explanation and shrugged, apparently accepting it at face value. “Awww. Look at that scowl!”

“I was not a photogenic child.”

“Sure.” He grinned and paged forward, stopping when a blur of movement from the bottom left to top right of a photo startled him. “What the hell?”

“That would be Quidditch,” said Severus.

“They’re riding brooms,” said Harry, as if the information he was revealing should surprise Severus. “Brooms.

“We wizards and witches do that at times,” said Severus. “And yes, I know it’s rather cliché.”

“It’s more than cliché. It’s unbelievable.”

Severus gave a noncommittal sound and turned another page. “Is it really, though? You cannot tell me you have not had your suspicions. All untrained witches and wizards, and even some older ones who have been trained, display bursts of accidental magic.”

Harry stared at the new page for a long time, running his eyes over the photos of the Hogwarts faculty of 1972. He did not say anything and Severus did not press him. When he did speak at last, his voice was tentative.

“My uncle hated that I couldn’t keep my hair neat. So my aunt shaved it one evening. The next morning, it was all back. It was like she never cut it at all.”

“Accidental magic. You obviously did not like your new haircut.”

“And another time, we were at the seashore, and I got caught in an undercurrent and it was tugging me out to sea and then all of a sudden I was lying on the shore in the sand.”

“Sometimes, our magic will protect us when we are in danger.”

“And when I went to the zoo for Dudley’s eleventh birthday, I was talking with a snake and the glass on his cage disappeared. He wanted to go back to Brazil.”

When Severus did not react, Harry looked over at him. “I thought it was some kind of trick, but it could have been accidental magic, right?”

Severus swallowed. This was unexpected. Unexpected indeed. Harry Potter - a Parselmouth? Impossible.

“You were talking with the snake? Don’t you mean talking to the snake?” It was certainly possible that it was just the preposition he had chosen and not—

Harry laughed and shook his head. “No. It was talking to me and I talked back to it. It told me things. It was homesick, I think. And I thought I was crazy - I told the therapist at the hospital and we spent an entire session on the symbolism of snakes. He had a field day with it.”

“The ability to speak to snakes is called Parseltongue,” said Severus. He chose his words carefully. What did this mean? What could it mean? Harry Potter was the son of two Gryffindors. The last known Parselmouth was Voldemort himself. “It is a rare gift, and because of the reputation of snakes, and their symbolism, an often misunderstood one. You may be wise to keep that particular gift under wraps.”

“That’s what old Al told me,” said Harry. He closed the book in his lap. “This is crazy, Severus. Maybe all this weird stuff that’s happened to me does have to do with magic. Hell, I don’t know. It’s the most reasonable explanation I’ve ever had other than insanity.” He ended his rant to find Severus looking at him oddly. “What?”

“Who is old Al?” Severus asked, his voice tight.

Harry’s heart sank. Was he about to find out that even Old Al wasn’t what he seemed?

My Old Al was an old man who used to come around the play park when I was small,” he answered. “He used to sit on a bench and feed the pigeons and squirrels. He always had a bag of breadcrumbs and a pocket full of peanuts.” He smiled fondly. “All the kids loved him. He had a white beard and these blue eyes with crinkles that just sparkled.”

“Did he, now?” asked Severus. This time, his voice actually caught in his throat. He coughed to clear it. “Well, what did the old man say to you about snakes?”

“Well, one day, one of the boys had been poking an old garter snake with a stick. Old Al stopped him and carried the snake over to the edge of a grove of trees. I followed him and when he put the snake down, I told the snake goodbye. I remember old Al being really quiet. He watched the snake slither away, then he turned to me and said, ‘And what did the snake tell you, Harry?’ I shrugged and said that the snake said he had to hurry because he smelled a fat mouse. I remember how he reached down and tousled my hair. Then he said, ‘Snakes like their secrets, child. Do your snake friends a favor and don’t give away their secrets to other people.”

“Old Al sounds wise,” said Severus.

“He was. We moved when I was nine or ten, and I never saw him again.” He shrugged again. “But somehow, I always felt that he was watching out for me. Dudley and his friends kept their hands off of me when he was around. He caught them beating on me once and sat me on the bench to brush me off. Next thing you know there were ants crawling up their legs, getting into their jeans. Thousands of them. That was the day he gave me my lucky coin.” Harry stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a Sickle, worn smooth but still recognizable.

“You still carry it with you?” asked Severus. “All these years later?”

“Habit,” said Harry. He rubbed the coin with his thumb and put it back in his pocket. “Why am I telling you all of this, anyway?”

“Perhaps because your old Al was Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, the very man who told me you were dead,” said Severus. “Did he happen to have the annoying habit of giving out sherbet lemons?”

Harry’s mouth dropped open. “You—you really knew him? Old Al?” He dropped his head into his hands, elbows resting on his knees, and made such an odd noise that Severus thought at first that he’d started to cry, though it soon became apparent that Harry was laughing, not sobbing.

“Nothing is what it seemed, is it? Next you’ll tell me Aunt Petunia isn’t my mum’s sister, or that Mrs. Figg wasn’t a crazy old cat lady or that Hermione is Glinda the Good. Fuck!” The vulgarity, coming from Harry, was startling. “Is this where I tap my heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home’? Why don’t you go ahead and tell me how I got this scar now, and why Hermione recognised my name. And while you’re at it, tell me why this headmaster of yours told you that I was dead when I’m clearly not!”

Severus waited for Harry to finish. When he stopped his rant he was breathing hard and looked half mad.

“You need tea.” There was nothing for it. Severus took out his wand and conjured it. A tea service spun into existence and he plucked it out of the air and set it on the table and poured for both of them while Harry stared with mouth open. “How do you take it?”

“Black.” Harry stuck out his hand and Severus passed him the cup.

“This is real.”

Severus ignored the statement. “Drink up. There’s plenty more. Which question would you like me to answer first?”

“Which question?”

“Yes. You asked me three, I believe. Four if you include, 'Is this where I tap my heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home?’”

“Start with that one, then.” Harry took another long sip of tea and closed his eyes.

“No, this is not. This is not a dream, and you were not hit over the head by debris during a cyclone.”

Harry grinned. “You know the movie.”

“Of course I know the movie.” He glared at Harry. “Moving on. The next two questions are related. How did you get that scar? How did Miss Granger recognise your name? There is no way to make this easier for you, Harry. The scar is the result of the killing curse. When you were fifteen months old, an evil wizard broke into your home, killed your parents and tried to kill you. The curse he used on you rebounded and hit him. You walked away with your life and with that scar.” He continued, despite the look of horror on Harry’s face. “Harry, you are the only person in magical history known to have survived the killing curse. That is what made you famous. That is why Miss Granger knew your name. Everyone in the Wizarding world knows your name. You are Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived.”

"The Boy Who Lived? Rather ironic considering Old Al killed me off, isn’t it? Of course, that was only after an evil wizard tried to kill me! Can you please tell me why I should have any interest in this world of yours where everyone seems to want me dead?”

“You haven’t had the best of luck in the Muggle world, either,” commented Severus, looking pointedly at Harry’s leg.

“Muggle? That’s the word Hermione used that day at her mum’s office.”

“A Muggle is a non-magical person,” explained Severus. “As to your question - stand up and I will show you.”

“Show me what?”

“Why you should have an interest in my world.”

Severus held out his hand and Harry stared at it a long moment, then sighed and took it, allowing Severus to help him to his feet. Severus pulled out a shimmering piece of fabric - if it could be called so - and draped it over their heads, then put one arm behind Harry and the other in front of him.

“Take hold of my arm and do not let go.”

And that was all the warning Harry got before his flat disappeared from around him and he felt extruded and compressed all at the same time. He was incapable of letting go, incapable of voluntary movement of any sort. He landed with a jolt and Severus’ arm came around him to steady him. He would never have remained upright without his cane.

“Where—wow.”

He could see through the nearly transparent fabric. Brilliant stars lit up the sky, thousands upon thousands of them. They were standing in the middle of a clearing far from the lights of London.

“How did we get here?” breathed Harry, pressing back against Severus and staring at the brilliant starlit sky above.

Severus didn’t answer. He wrapped an arm around Harry’s middle. “Hold on,” said Severus softly a few moments later.

The unpleasant squeezing sensation again, then he was once again on solid footing, a cast iron rail in front of him and the lights of London stretching out as far as he could see.

“St. Paul’s,” whispered Severus. “The catwalk around the outside of the dome.”

“Shit - Severus!” hissed Harry. “We can’t be here - it’s after hours. It’s not allowed!”

“Shhh. You’re thinking like a Muggle. No one can see us. Look at London, Harry. Have you ever seen her quite like this?”

Harry had to admit he had not. The streets stretched out below them, the lights twinkled in buildings, headlights of automobiles striped the roads far below.

Severus gave Harry only a moment more to admire the view, then whisked him away to the Greenwich observatory, then to Stonehenge, and then across the Channel to the French coast, then on to a dragon preserve in Romania and then to a small town square.

“Look, Harry.”

And he looked up, and what at first had seemed to be a normal war memorial suddenly morphed into a statue of a family - a woman, a man, a baby.

“Godric’s Hollow. You were born here. Your parents died here. The statue honors your parents’ sacrifice.”

Harry stared at the statue, stared at the depiction of his parents holding him close to them. Crisscrossing the country and the continent by magic, standing within the circle of Stonehenge, seeing a great fire-breathing dragon - those things had been awe-inspiring, had made him feel like a voyeur on a forbidden world.

But here, here he felt he belonged. More than anything else in his childhood, he had longed for a mum and dad - a real mum and dad. He thought he’d gotten over it, had accepted his lot in life and moved on. But here—with the tangible, unbelievable, evidence of their existence before him— He took a step forward.

“They’re buried at the churchyard over there,” said Severus, drawing Harry back against him. “I will bring you back another time to visit them. Come, Harry.”

He stepped back reluctantly, nearly reverently, and turned a wistful, confused face to Severus.

Severus knew it was already too much for him, but he had one more stop to make.

“Stay close when we land,” he said. “We cannot be seen and can stay only a moment.”

And then, last of all, they were outside tall iron gates crowned with winged boars, gazing up at a moonlit castle with turrets and twinkling lights and a great lake.

“Hogwarts,” whispered Severus. “It is dangerous for us to be here, even under the invisibility cloak, but I needed you to see.”

See, and feel. The magic here was nearly palpable, alive in the breeze that blew out from the grounds before them.

“Wow,” whispered Harry. “Just—wow.”

Severus himself could not help but pause an extra moment. He had spent the better part of his life at Hogwarts, and the sight of the castle again, after four years had passed, stirred something inside of him.

But then, while Harry was still gazing at the castle, he took Harry’s arm and, like nothing more than a whisper in the night, they were gone.

/

He gave Harry no time at all to think, to ask questions, to decompress, when they popped back into his London flat.

“There is someone else you should meet,” Severus said without pause or preamble. “And many things yet to explain.”

Harry had limped into the kitchen and was rummaging in a cabinet. He pulled out a bottle of whisky, held a glass up to Severus, and pulled out a second glass when Severus nodded. Ice next, then the alcohol. He passed a glass to Severus and leaned against the counter. He took a drink, sputtering slightly, and Severus knew that he did not frequently drink straight-up whisky.

“Who?” asked Harry, staring down into his ice.

“A trusted friend. A Hogwarts professor. She knew your parents very well. She can explain what has transpired in our world since their deaths.”

“You can’t explain it?” asked Harry. He sounded bone tired.

“I can,” admitted Severus. “But there are difficult subjects to cover, and you need to hear from more voices than my own.”

Harry took another long sip of whisky, swallowing it with more ease this time, then set the glass on the counter and limped back into the other room. He stopped at the mantel and slid off his wallet and keys and picked up his crutch.

“All right,” he conceded. “Tomorrow. No more tonight. We’re going out to the cinema. What have you seen recently?”

“Seen?” asked Severus. He sounded a bit bewildered.

Harry stared at Severus’ dumbfounded face. “You don’t go to the cinema, do you?” He scratched his forehead and shook his head. “Well, I’ve put up with your world for a night. You can put up with mine for a couple of hours.”

The door closed behind them a few minutes later, leaving Harry Potter’s flat in Muggle London eerily quiet.

It would not remain so for long.

~*~

It was probably best, thought Severus the next morning when he woke, to warn Minerva in advance of tossing her into a room with the supposedly dead Savior of the Wizarding world.

He had learned much about Harry Potter the previous night, and he thought about that as he lay in the somber darkness of his room at Grimmauld Place, listening to the creaking and moaning of the old house around him.

Harry was independent, open-minded and inexplicably forgiving. Deprived by Albus Dumbledore of a childhood - indeed, a life - among wizards, he had left his unkind aunt’s home when he was not quite eighteen and had inexplicably not slammed the door behind him. He’d taken care of himself ever since, had made his own decisions and had built his own life. When tragedy struck and he sustained the leg injury, he’d changed directions but had kept moving.

His weakness might indeed be his strength. His desire to know his family, to learn any tidbit, however small, about his mother, his father. To see them in photos, hear stories of them, witness their lives, their deaths, in Godric’s Hollow. To understand who he was through their lives, their sacrifices. Because he had a hole of such magnitude in his life, he had proven - over the course of the evening - willing to suspend disbelief and to fill that hole with stories from a stranger about a magical world no more real to him than a fairy tale.

Severus had not been reluctant to speak about Lily. Speaking about Lily after all this time had a certain freedom to it. It liberated him in a way he did not fully understand. On the walk to the cinema he had told her son how he had met her when they were very young, at the play park. How he had known she was magical, just like him. How he had been the first one to explain magic to her. How she had believed, because she was a child, and because it explained all the odd things she could do. How she was the most perfect friend, the loveliest girl, the kindest, most forgiving soul.

“She doesn’t sound a lot like my Aunt Petunia,” said Harry with a sigh.

“She wasn’t,” answered Severus. “Petunia always resented her gifts. I imagine it made her quite smug to see you grow up without magic.”

Had things been different, Severus would have not ended the evening with the goodbye kiss at Harry’s door.

Harry, clearly, was offering more. He had wrapped both arms around Severus’ neck to kiss him and Severus hadn’t been able to resist the temptation of tasting those lips and running his fingers down Harry’s jawliine. But he had backed away a step as Harry turned to unlock the door and had made his excuses - it was late, he had to make arrangements with Professor McGonagall - and had resolutely ignored the look of disappointment on Harry’s face.

He heard someone move on the floor above him. Footsteps, clearly heading for the loo at the end of the corridor.

No, he couldn’t pursue a relationship with Potter, no matter that he was attractive, charismatic and clearly interested in him. The boy’s godfather would kill him. Literally. He’d decide that Snape had taken advantage of his innocent godson and would go for his throat. Or make his pet wolf do the dirty work for him. He was the leader of the Order of the Phoenix. Everyone in the Order would fault him for making a move on Harry Potter. How do you explain to Potter’s adoring public that the Boy Who Lived had been the one to make the first move? But he kissed me first!

No, unfortunately he would have to pull back. Let some other lucky wizard (the witches didn’t stand a chance) have a go. He needed to keep his distance - physically, at least - and let Potter get acclimated to the Wizarding world. And if Potter came after him then, when he knew what an unmitigated bastard he really was, then no one could complain.

But damn. It had felt so good, so right, to hold Harry against him as he Apparated them across the continent. And no matter how demanding his life, and how inconsequential a starlit sky on a moonless night in the middle of nowhere, standing there with two arms full of Harry Potter had been almost enough for him to forget the war and Voldemort and the Order and — and everything.

He reluctantly rolled over and got out of bed. He had to find Minerva and drop the bombshell on her, then get her over to Potter’s before he had too much time to think.

~*~

Harry Potter sat at a table in the same coffee shop where he had met Severus less than a week before. A pumpkin spice muffin sat on a stoneware plate before him, but he hadn’t yet touched it. He had touched his coffee - had more than touched it, in fact. He put the cup down as Hermione and Ron slid into the booth across from him, both of them looking slightly ill at ease.

“Morning, Harry,” said Ron, smiling brightly, his voice artificially cheery.

Harry just stared at them. He picked up his coffee cup again and drained it in a go.

“Show me your wands,” he said, his voice low.

Hermione and Ron exchanged a glance.

“Harry, did Severus tell you about the Statute of Secrecy?” asked Hermione, her voice even lower than Harry’s.

“No. Show me.”

Another glance, then Ron shrugged and opened his jacket. The wand was tucked into a narrow inside pocket, about four inches visible at top. Harry stared, breathing heavily, then nodded and looked over at Hermione. She sighed and shook her head, biting her bottom lip.

“I don’t have mine, Harry. I’m Muggle-born. I gave it—up.”

Ron took her hand, lacing their fingers together, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He placed his hand inside his jacket and muttered something, then spoke in a low voice.

“The Ministry’s cracked down on Muggle-borns. If you couldn’t prove you had at least one magical parent, you had to give up your wand and submit to the Trace.” Ron squeezed his wife’s hand. “Hermione can only do magic if we’re somewhere protected, like my family’s home. She can’t be traced there - it’s under a really strong Fidelius.”

“At least I can use magical objects,” Hermione added. She picked up her purse and set it on the table. It was a tiny bag, no bigger than a woman’s wallet, but she opened the clasp and titled it toward him. He could see a pocket dictionary and a hairbrush as well as a mobile phone and at least four books.

“Wizard space,” muttered Ron.

Hermione closed the purse and tucked it on the bench beside her.

“I don’t understand,” said Harry. “What’s wrong with being a Muggle? And what about the Ministry? What does that have to do with anything?

“Muggle-born,” corrected Ron. “Not Muggle. It’s the new Ministry, Harry. They’re blood purists.”

“The Ministry of Magic, Harry,” Hermione clarified, seeing his confusion.

“There’s a ministry for magic?” Harry said, getting nods from both Ron and Hermione. “It sounds like Hitler with the Jews.”

“Not quite that bad yet,” she said. “They haven’t tried to round us up and ... and —” She bit her lip again and Harry reached across and covered their joined hands with his.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I—I didn’t know.” He could only imagine what it must feel like to have magic taken away. At least, with him, he’d never known about it and couldn’t miss what he’d never really had.

“You couldn’t have known, Harry,” said Ron. “It’s complicated. And Hermione’s doing alright. She’s holding out.” He smiled. “So Snape filled you in?” he said.

Harry frowned. “Yes. Severus Stevens filled me in.”

“I’m sorry, Harry. He has to be careful...”

Harry dropped his head into his hands, then looked over, chin still resting on his hands, at the couple across from him.

“This morning, I wondered - I really wondered - if I had dreamed it all up. It felt so real, but it seemed so impossible. It was like my heart believed it, but my brain didn’t.”

“Magic is like that,” said Hermione, smiling rather sadly.

“You’ll get used to it,” said Ron. “One day I’ll bet you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.” He grinned, but his face fell as he realised what he had said.

“Now Ron,” admonished Hermione softly. “Plenty of people do without it and they get along just fine.”

“But it’s a part of us,” said Ron. “We’re wizards. And if you didn’t get to do it at the Burrow and Headquarters, you’d likely go spare, Hermione. Like I said - it’s part of us, isn’t it? I bet you always felt like there was something missing in your life, didn’t you, Harry?”

“Only my past,” said Harry rather dully. He made a move to slide out of his bench. “I need more coffee,” he explained.

“I’ll get it,” said Ron. “I need something anyway, and if you don’t make a start on that muffin before I get back I’m going to have to eat it.”

Harry grinned. He liked Ron. He liked how amiable he was. He enjoyed his sense of humor. He especially enjoyed watching him bicker with Hermione. He’d already learned that Ron’s stomach was a bottomless pit, so he slid the plate closer and picked up the muffin.

“Are you all right, Harry?” asked Hermione as Ron went off to get them all coffee. “It’s a lot to take in, I know. And I’m sorry for not being forthright with you from the beginning. It’s just that you gave me such a jolt, you know? I didn’t know what to think.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He hesitated. “So - why did you go to Severus? Is he some bigwig in the magical world or something?”

“Oh.” She stared at Harry, trying to process this. What had Severus told Harry and what hadn’t he?

“What did he tell you about himself?” she asked, smiling in acknowledgment that she hadn’t really answered his question at all.

“Not much, really. He went to school at Hogwarts and used to teach there. He knew my mum from the time they were children.”

“Did he? I didn’t know that,” she mused. She looked around the café, watching Ron as he ordered at the counter. “Well, what did he tell you about besides himself, then?”

“He told me about my parents, and about how I got this scar.” Harry brushed his fringe back with his hand, then let it drop down again. “Then he popped me all over the place and showed me things. I could hardly take it all in - he popped us right in the middle of Stonehenge. And on top of St. Paul’s!”

“He didn’t!” Hermione said with a knowing smile.

“Stop making fun,” said Harry, grinning at his own excitement. “This is all new to me. We even went to Romania, to see dragons, and then to a little village where my parents lived, and then to see Hogwarts.”

“Hogwarts?” Hermione looked up quickly. She looked around and lowered her voice. “He took you to Hogwarts?”

“Well, yeah. Just outside the gates and only for a couple minutes, under some sort of cloak he had - he called it an invisibility cloak.” He laughed, shaking his head. “He said it was important that I see it. You really went to school in a castle?”

“Oh, don’t romanticise it too much,” said Hermione. “It was drafty as hell and has 142 staircases. And there are ghosts, and a really annoying poltergeist.”

“Ghosts?” He stared at her, not knowing if she was joking.

Hermione smiled kindly and reached out to cover his hand with hers.

“Oh, Harry. I’m sorry. It is hard to believe, at first. It was hard to believe for me when I was eleven - I can’t imagine what I’d be thinking if I were in your place. But we’ll get you there, won’t we?”

Harry nodded. Hermione looked so sincere. “So tell me about Severus, then,” he said, changing the tone of the conversation. “Why did you bring him to meet me? Why him? Because he knew my parents?”

Hermione spoke cautiously. “Did you make arrangements to see him again? I’m sure he has more to tell you.”

Harry put the muffin back on the plate. “He wants to bring someone else by tonight, to explain more to me.”

“Oh? Who?” Hermione looked interested.

“Someone who’s still teaching at Hogwarts. He said she knew my parents and can explain what’s been going on since they died.”

“Ahh. McGonagall, then.” She was the only female professor in the Order and, as former head of Gryffindor, would be the right choice to speak with Harry. But Minerva’s position was incredibly perilous. She was the headmistress now, though the position was little more than a figurehead with Voldemort in charge and Death Eaters and sympathisers running the Hogwarts Board of Governors. The last three classes that had sorted had contained no Muggle-borns, and while half-bloods were still getting their Hogwarts letters, everyone expected that, too, to change before long. The curriculum had changed as well, though slowly, covertly, with the History of Magic textbooks already rewritten and replaced and the Unforgivable Curses now being called the “Last Resort” curses. Minerva was the most critical of the spies, watched closely by the corrupt Ministry, surviving by doing her job for the students, for Hogwarts, and appearing not to have a political opinion of her own. If Severus was risking bringing Minerva to meet Harry, the meeting was even more important than she would have guessed.

“McGonagall?” Harry said. “He didn’t mention her name.”

“She was the head of Gryffindor House,” said Hermione. “Your parents were Gryffindors. So was I, and Ron too, and all of his family.”

“What’s a Gryffindor?” asked Harry, testing the name out on his tongue.

“Hogwarts has a four-house system,” answered Hermione. She didn’t see that telling Harry about the houses would compromise whatever Severus’ plans were. “You’re sorted into a house according to your abilities and interests when you arrive for your first year. Gryffindors are brave and headstrong.” She laughed. “Anyway, you live in dorms with the other members of your house and attend most of your classes with them. There are house tables in the Great Hall too, and house colors, and teams. House affiliation is really important. I imagine you’d have been a Gryffindor too, Harry.”

“Maybe.” He shrugged noncommittally. Interesting as it all was, it would never be his to experience. Ron came back with the coffee and for the next forty-five minutes, entertained Harry with stories of his family. Of the twins - Fred and George - who were two years older than Ron and had their own joke shop and were living - together - with the same woman.

“That’s—wow—” Harry shook his head. “Together, you say?”

“Yeah,” Ron answered unapologetically. “They say Angelina is too much woman for one man.”

Hermione elbowed him and Harry laughed.

He told them about Bill, and his wife Fleur, and their baby, Esperance - Hope - who was almost a year old now. About his sister, Ginny, who played Quidditch and his brother Charlie, the one who liked blokes. About his mum and dad, and the house they lived in in Ottery St. Catchpole.

About his brother Percy, who had died two years before.

“Freak accident,” said Ron, but that’s all he would say.

And when Harry wondered about people overhearing them, Hermione told him about the spell Ron had cast, the spell called Muffliato.

“Snape invented it,” she said. “He’s really brilliant, Harry, behind that harsh exterior.”

“He can be a real arse,” added Ron. When Hermione elbowed him, he looked affronted. “What? He can! You hated him too, didn’t you? Before you knew he wasn’t really—?”

It was her glare that shut him up this time, not her elbow. Harry filed this bit of information away with interest. He liked Severus, and hadn’t found him unpleasant or harsh at all.

And Harry was feeling better about things when he left the café and headed back home. Ron and Hermione were just regular people, weren’t they? They had families and jobs, joys and tragedies. They didn’t act differently than other people he knew - perhaps a bit more suspicious, a bit more close-lipped about things.

But he thought, as he unlocked his door, that they hadn’t told him anything more about Severus other than that they found him - or used to find him - unpleasant, and even with the real, soul-satisfying information he now had about his parents, he found himself just as interested in Severus.

Severus had returned his kiss last night - reluctantly, at first, perhaps, but then with interest - definite interest. Harry had loved the way he kissed, had loved the press of the surprisingly strong, lean body against his own.

But then he had stepped back, declined Harry’s non-verbal offer of more.

He was keeping his distance.

But why?

And why, amid all of these new discoveries and new people, with this unbelievable turn his life was taking, was he continuing to think so much about Severus Snape?

~*~

“I am happy you decided on Miss Granger instead of Sirius,” said Minerva McGonagall as she dusted herself off after Flooing into the vacant flat Severus had located and borrowed for the day. The flat was a dingy three-room walk-up in a building two down from Harry’s. “She, at least, will treat my body with respect.”

“It isn’t your body, Minerva,” corrected Severus. He had stepped out of the Floo ahead of her and was looking out the window at the street below. “It is her body, Polyjuiced to look like yours.”

“Well, I’ll be showing up at Rosmerta’s with Poppy in ten minutes and will likely be there two hours. It is Saturday night and the service at The Three Broomsticks is slow even on a weeknight. Shall we get on with it?”

Severus turned from the window and nodded. Minerva understood Muggle clothing much better than most witches and wizards of her age. She wore a plain black suit dress with a silk scarf draped around her neck, her hair in a tight bun, sensible black shoes on her feet.

“You are ready? You are composed? He looks a great deal like James, Minerva. A great deal.”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I am ready. You hardly gave me enough time to prepare myself, though. And I don’t believe I would have believed you if Miss Granger hadn’t backed you up.”

They walked together out of the flat and down to the street, making themselves walk casually to Harry’s nearby building. Severus was extremely cautious with his forays out into London. He was Undesirable Number One, the top of the Ministry’s Wanted list. The Ministry, however, did not understand the Muggle world as well as Severus did, and as long as Severus took the appropriate cautions, he felt relatively safe.

Severus was not looking forward to the conversation they were about to have with Harry. The boy had just received a huge shock the day before and already it was time to tell him that he was the child of Prophecy, destined to bring down the monster of a man who had killed his parents.

Yesterday, he had been introduced to the wonderful, glorious world of magic.

Today, he would be introduced to that same world threatened, in turmoil. To a clandestine group of spies and rebels.

And he had yet to figure out why Albus had hidden the boy. There was a reason - somewhere, somehow - with Albus, there was always a reason.

/

“More tea, Severus. The boy needs more tea.” Minerva, sitting next to Harry Potter on the sofa in the young man’s living room, handed Harry’s teacup across the coffee table to Severus.

“It’s cold,” said Harry, rather dully.

Minerva patted his hand. “Severus will warm it up for you, then.” She took the cup back from Severus and pressed it into Harry’s hands. “And chocolate, Severus. Harry would do well with a nice bar of Honeydukes.”

“Should I Apparate to Hogsmeade and stock up?” Severus could not help the sarcasm. Minerva was a stern old witch, but when it came to one of her Gryffindors—or would-have-been Gryffindors—

“I don’t need chocolate,” said Harry, directing his comment to Severus. “I need something stronger to drink than tea.”

Minerva immediately reached for her handbag and extracted an ornate silver flask. She picked up an empty cup from the table and filled it halfway.

“There you go. You should have said something earlier, Harry. I wouldn’t have forced all that tea down your throat.”

“He needs a calming draught,” said Severus, glancing at Harry’s pale face.

“I don’t need a calming —” Harry snapped, exasperated.

“Potion—” muttered Severus.

Harry shook his head. “I’m fine. I—I just need some time with it, that’s all.” In the last hour, he had learned that the madman who had tried to kill him wasn’t dead after all. He’d learned that Voldemort had risen again four years ago, reborn - or remade - from an ancient spell, aided by a man named Peter Pettigrew, a friend of his parents, and their betrayer. That Voldemort and his henchmen - the Death Eaters - had taken over the Ministry of Magic and were now effectively running Wizarding Britain.

That Voldemort had risen after a student at Hogwarts had murdered Albus Dumbledore.

That Severus Snape was now the leader of the resistance movement, the Order of the Phoenix, whose goal - whose only goal - was to defeat Voldemort.

And he’d learned that it was now forbidden to say Voldemort’s name.

Minerva had told Harry about the years after his parents’ death, and about how the Dark Lord had slowly gained his power back, and his followers. She told him that no one knew how he had defeated death when his own killing curse rebounded and hit him, but that defeating death had been his goal all along. She’d introduced him to the classification system of pure-bloods, half-bloods and Muggle-borns. She’d spoken of Hogwarts, the courses of study there, and the four houses, the four founders, and what they represented. She explained the Ministry of Magic and the various departments within it. How they had functioned before Voldemort. How they functioned now.

Severus, for his part, sat back in his chair and watched Minerva work her magic. Harry was eating out of her hand, and Minerva was on her best story-telling roll. Had Severus been alone with Harry, he would not have taken this long to bring up the Prophecy. He would not have spun romance and nostalgia into the story. He would not have mentioned Sirius’ blasted flying motorcycle.

“A flying motorcycle?” Harry’s eyes had gone wide. He had thought it a dream...a vivid dream, one of those that you had from time to time your entire life—

“It was his pride and joy,” Minerva said fondly, a flicker of something nearly forgotten in her eye. “Hagrid used it many years ago, on that awful night, when he rescued you from Godric’s Hollow.”

“Hagrid,” he repeated, testing the name on his tongue. The dream. Even the dream hadn’t really been a dream. He looked up at Minerva. “Is Hagrid a giant?”

“A half-giant,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You remember him, Harry?” She sounded hopeful but Severus scoffed.

“How could he remember Hagrid?” Severus said. “He was practically a baby when he went to live with the Dursleys.”

“No - I do. I’ve had this dream on and off all my life of a giant man on a flying motorcycle.” He spoke quietly, his voice subdued, before standing and walking to the window to look out over the London street below. “He was the one that took me from my parents’ house, then? That brought me to the Dursleys?”

Severus and Minerva exchanged a glance. “He worked for Albus, Harry. He did as he was told. Hagrid is a good man. He’s a member of the Order even now. You’ll have a chance to meet him if you’d like.”

Harry turned around. “Why did he send me there?” he asked quietly. “Instead of—” Instead of to someone who actually wanted me.

“Your mother’s blood sacrifice, Harry,” answered Minerva. “She gave her life to save you. You would be safe until you came of age so long as you lived with someone who shared her blood and called that place home.”

Harry glanced over at Severus. He nodded. Harry thought he looked—well, uncomfortable. Pained.

“What do you want from me?” Harry asked, turning back toward the window.

“We want you to understand your past, Harry. To be part of the magical world. To claim your heritage.”

Minerva’s voice was even, soothing. Harry stared out the window, wanting to believe her. To believe that this was all there was. An offer of friendship, of belonging. An invitation to reclaim his past, the past he’d been denied, the past he’d never known.

He chanced a glance at Severus.

Severus’ mouth was set in a tight line. He was worried, Harry knew. There was something - something that Minerva hadn’t yet told him. Something weighing heavily on Severus’ mind.

“Tell him about the Prophecy, Minerva,” Severus growled. “It is the reason we are here, after all.”

“Prophecy?” Harry looked up sharply. “What’s that?”

“Do you know what a prophecy is?” Severus asked.

“Of course I know what a prophecy is - though we don’t take them very seriously in my world,” answered Harry. “But you said the Prophecy. You’re obviously referring to something specific.

Minerva pursed her lips and gave Severus an exasperated look.

“We do take prophecies seriously in the magical world, Harry,” she began. “Too seriously, if you ask me.” She walked over to him and took his hands in hers, looking him in the eyes as she spoke. Harry drew back slightly, glancing over at Severus and frowning at the other man’s closed posture.

“A seer made a prophecy about the one who could defeat the Dark Lord,” she began. “The Dark Lord discovered this prophecy and interpreted it to mean you, Harry. That you are the one destined to destroy him. And that is why he tried to kill you when you were a baby - why he killed your parents when they stood in his way.”

“Minerva—” Severus’ voice trailed off. Harry really hadn’t needed to know that part.

The expression on Harry’s face moved rapidly from disbelieving to stricken.

“What do you mean interpreted it to mean me?” Harry was addressing Minerva, ignoring Severus. “Was it me, Minerva? Or was he wrong?”

“There is no way to know for sure,” said Severus, answering before Minerva could. “You were not the only child whom the Prophecy could have described, yet the Dark Lord, given the two possibilities, chose you.

“But—the other? Why can’t it be—?”

“Neville Longbottom,” supplied Minerva, with a sad sigh. “And Neville is beyond help, Harry. With you apparently dead, the Dark Lord hunted down Mr. Longbottom just to cover the possibility that he had been wrong the first time. Mr. Longbottom was captured shortly before Headmaster Dumbledore’s death. He has not been seen or heard from since.”

Harry watched Minerva’s hands as she spoke. They were clasped around his tightly, and trembled slightly. They were old hands, wrinkled and veined, with carefully manicured fingernails. Old, yet strong. He glanced at her face. She felt the loss of this Neville strongly, but she had a determined look about her. He glanced across at Severus.

Severus, for his part, was watching him intently.

“This Neville was a wizard? He could use magic?”

Severus looked at Minerva. Harry’s gaze moved over to her.

“Magic can be a wondrous thing, Mr. Potter. A truly marvelous gift. And while Mr. Longbottom was indeed a gifted wizard, his gifts were strongest in areas outside of combat.”

“We would like your help,” said Severus, surprising both Harry and Minerva. “We must destroy the Dark Lord before he gains more strength. He may seem content with lordship over the magical world now, but we all know he will not stop here. He will use magic against the Muggle world - soon, he will not be satisfied with killing and torturing individual Muggles.”

Harry didn’t miss Minerva’s expression hardening.

“The Dark Lord has the ability, with planning, power and correct political moves, to rule all of Britain, all of Europe. Perhaps—perhaps his sights will be even higher.”

Harry leaned heavily against the wall beside the window, clearly ill at ease in his own home. “Like I told Hermione and Ron this morning - this guys sounds like Adolph Hitler and it took an entire World War to bring him down. No matter what this prophecy says, I’m just one man.” He limped over to the sofa and picked up his crutch. “And a damaged one at that.” He placed the crutch down carefully again and looked at Severus, then Minerva. “Look,” he said, with a frustrated sigh. “I’m not a wizard. I’m just a disabled soldier trying to get back on his feet. I really don’t think I can help you.”

“Oh, but you are a wizard.” It was Minerva this time, not Severus. She retook her seat next to him and leaned forward, taking one of Harry’s hands in her own again. “And you can help. The question is, Mr. Potter - Harry - is it worth it to you?” She dropped his hand and reached down and deliberately rested her own on his leg just above his knee.

“It isn’t my problem,” he said, shifting a bit, his eyes on her frail-looking hand. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that your lives are so fuc...so messed up by all this. I suppose you think I need to go out and hunt down this monster to get vengeance for my parents. I’m not that kind of person.” He looked over at Severus almost desperately. “I’ve always dreamed of them - I’ve always wanted to know more about them, to find someone who knew them. So thank you - really. For showing me the pictures, and telling me about them.”

“I knew them too, Harry,” said Minerva. “I was their head of house for seven years. Your mother was only twenty-one years when she died. When the Dark Lord struck her down as she stood between him and you in your cot. She had red hair and the most lovely green eyes, eyes very much like yours, Harry.”

“It isn’t working,” he said, but his hand shook as he said it. He opened and closed his fist. “Going after him won’t bring her back. It won’t bring anyone back.” He glared at Severus. “And you might claim I’m a wizard but I can’t do magic and I’m not going to outrun anyone with this leg.”

“Harry, your leg can likely be completely healed,” said Minerva. She set her mouth in a firm line and stared at the young man. “As for doing magic - you will need a wand for that. And in the end, no matter what choice you make, you have every right to have a wand and learn to use the magic with which you were born. It is a gift, Harry. You can use it how you wish - for good, for ill, or for naught. We have a wand maker in our company.”

“And you have a surgeon, too?” asked Harry.

“We have the equivalent,” said Severus, watching as Harry shifted again and rubbed the side of his thigh reflexively.

“Right.” Harry gave up trying to soothe his achy leg and dropped his head back. “Who else do you have hiding out with you? James Bond?”

Severus stared at Harry. “Better than that, even. We have your godfather.”

Minerva’s eyes widened. Severus had warned her - more like threatened her - to not bring up the subject of Sirius quite yet, not this early in the negotiations, as Severus had called them.

The rhythmic clenching and unclenching of Harry’s hand stopped. He looked quickly from Severus to MInerva.

“What do you mean, my godfather? I don’t have a godfather.”

“You have a godfather. You do not know him, but you have him nonetheless. I expect he will be quite interested to know that his best friend’s son is alive after all.”

Harry stared at Severus, then shook his head. He smiled oddly.

“So, you were saving the big guns for the end? Decided to hold back the news that I have living family until it looked like I wouldn’t go along with your game?”

“Game?” Severus leaned forward. “This is not a game, Harry.” He stood and walked over to the fireplace and stood with his back to Harry and Minerva, fingering the Floo powder jar on the mantel. Harry stared at his back until Minerva’s hand came down again upon his knee.

“Severus is right, Harry,” she said. “We do not have time for games. We need your help, and we have much to offer you in return. Come to Headquarters, Harry, to meet the rest of the Order - to meet your godfather. I promise that Severus - that we - will ask nothing else of you after that if you ask us not to. You can walk away from us, from magic, from the entire Wizarding world at that time if it feels like the right thing to do.”

“He cannot just walk away, Minerva!” Severus had spun around and was facing them, one hand still gripping the edge of the mantel.

“Oh, but Severus, he most certainly can,” Minerva countered, giving Severus a stern look. “But I think we need to present a much better argument on why he should not.” She turned to Harry. “Excuse me just a moment, Harry.” She flicked her wrist and her wand slid neatly down into her hand. She pointed it at her handbag and it flew across the room toward them. The clasp opened and a piece of parchment, a quill and a bottle of green ink floated out. Minerva dipped the quill in the ink bottle and wrote quickly on the parchment. She blew it dry when she was finished, then considered it a moment before pointing her wand at it once again. A fine spiderwork of lines appeared in various colors. She handed it to Harry.

“Read it aloud,” she instructed.

“The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, London,” he read, frowning as the words faded away, leaving the top of the parchment blank. He nearly dropped it then, for the colored lines on the bottom half began creeping upward.

“It’s a map of the Underground,” he said in awe.

“Quite useful, actually,” stated Minerva in a matter-of-fact sort of voice. She touched it with her wand, indicating a stop. “Right here, third stop after you change lines. Go left from the tube exit and you’ll have a two-minute walk.”

“These lines are moving!” he said.

“Of course they’re moving,” said Severus. “How else will you know when the next train is coming?”

“There are electronic signs on the platforms,” said Harry. But he smiled at Severus, then stared again at the magical map in his hands with the wonder of a small child.

“There is an order meeting on Wednesday at six o’clock. You can come for dinner and stay for the meeting. Severus, you will ask Ollivander to attend, won’t you, so that Harry can try out a wand or two?” She smiled tightly as he nodded. “And for my part, I will have Poppy present so the two of you can have a look at Mr. Potter’s injury. I doubt we can safely bring in a bone and tissue specialist, given the current atmosphere at St. Mungo’s...”

“Bone and tissue specialist? St. Mung-what’s?”

“St. Mungo’s. The Wizarding hospital here in London. You won’t have heard of it, of course, Harry.” Minerva turned back to Severus. “Do you suppose you could call in a favor and see if Horace’s nephew could have a look at him? Isn’t he practicing in Prague now?”

“No.” Severus’ voice left no argument. “If it were for an Order member, I would not hesitate to ask Horace, Minerva. But the only ones - and I repeat, the only ones - who can be trusted with the knowledge that Harry Potter is not dead are members of the Order of the Phoenix. They have all taken the oath of fealty; I can trust them all - even -” and here he looked at Harry directly - “even Sirius Black.”

“Your godfather,” said Minerva to Harry. “He and Severus didn’t get along well back at school, but they’ve reached a truce in recent years.” She sighed. “Harry, Severus and Poppy will be able to work out what’s wrong with your leg and get it back to rights. Poppy is the Mediwitch at Hogwarts, and is a fully trained Healer. Severus is a Potions Master. Together...”

“Mediwitch? Healer? Potions Master?” Harry held out a hand, then pulled it back and rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said. He looked very tired. “I’ve got a lot of learning - or unlearning - to do. We have doctors and nurses and chemists. This...this sounds medieval.”

Severus and Minerva exchanged another look.

“The magical world does not change at the pace of the Muggle world,” Severus said. He looked bemused. “Our organised history goes back to the time of Merlin. We use medieval terminology because it suffices. Advances in the Muggle world are often predicated on technology. Technology is largely nonexistent in our world. We have magic at our disposal.”

“We can regrow bones,” said Minerva. “And muscles, and nerves. We cannot work miracles. We cannot regrow an entire missing limb, but I am confident your leg can be fully healed by means at our disposal.”

“You could cure cancer,” said Harry. His voice was both hopeful and excited. “AIDS. Multiple Sclerosis. ALS. You could help people with Alzheimer’s...”

“No.” Severus’ voice was firm, but not hard. It held a note of apology. “Magical treatments work on witches and wizards, Harry. The patient must be magical or the potions and other treatments simply do not work. In the same way, Muggle treatments aren’t usually effective on wizards. You, yourself, may have experienced this. Aspirin not reducing a fever, antihistamines aggravating an allergic reaction instead of alleviating it. You might have had reactions to inoculations – vaccinations –”

“I nearly died once,” said Harry. “They gave me the chicken pox vaccine when I joined the service because I’d never had it. I broke out with festering sores and spiked a fever that they couldn’t get under control for three days.”

“Chicken pox manifests itself in wizards as something we call dragon pox,” said Severus quietly. “But the point is that we cannot cure the diseases that plague humanity. The Muggle world is making huge advances without us. We can take care of our own, Harry.” He lowered his voice. “We can take care of you.”

“What is keeping you tied so closely to the Muggle world, Harry?” Minerva asked, turning toward him and studying him earnestly. “Friends? School? A special someone?”

Harry frowned as he shook his head. “Nothing special,” he answered. He glanced at Severus. “No one special. Before yesterday, I didn’t think I had any other options.” He took a deep breath. “I want to meet my godfather. I’d like to meet him before I commit to anything else.”

“Sirius lives at Headquarters,” said Minerva. “You could come early on Wednesday and stay for the meeting after you meet him.”

“I’d rather meet him somewhere else,” said Harry. “Somewhere neutral. The coffee house?”

“No.” Severus’ refusal was immediate.

“Why not? What’s wrong with him? Does he have a communicable disease? Really bad manners?”

“He’s an escaped convict.” Severus could have delivered the statement, that bit of truth, smugly. Instead, he sounded tired.

Harry stared at him.

“You’ve got to be kidding.” He narrowed his eyes at Severus’ returned stare. “You’re not kidding. My godfather is an escaped convict?” He dropped his head back and laughed, then rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses.

“He was wrongly accused,” said Minerva. “Harry, he was framed. And when he escaped from prison several years ago, the Muggle government put out alerts for him, too. There is a Ministry office that works with our Minister of Magic...” She stopped and shook her head as Harry gave his most disbelieving look yet. “The point is, he cannot appear in public unless he is...disguised...and it is dangerous for him to do so. I’m sorry, Harry, but your only option is to come to Grimmauld Place. You may come on Monday.” She raised her hand, palm out, as Severus began to protest. “No. I know you are the head of the Order, Severus, but this is not about the Order. This is about a young man and the godfather he has never met - his father’s best friend, at that. A man, who, like most of the Wizarding world, believes Harry Potter to be dead. I think we can afford them the privacy of a meeting without the entire Order present.”

“I was not suggesting that we plop Harry in the middle of the Order meeting and call out, ‘Surprise!’” huffed Severus. But he exchanged a look with Minerva and sighed. “Dinner, then. Seven o’clock. I will see that Kreacher prepares a suitable meal.”

Harry looked from Minerva to Severus. “Creature?”

~*~*

“Magical transportation can be tracked - there’s an entire Ministry office devoted to it,” Ron said as they walked together to the tube station from Harry’s flat. “So we never Apparate directly to Headquarters, or Floo there, unless we’re already at a protected location.”

“Protected location?” Harry limped along after Ron, and Ron glanced back and slowed down.

“Another place under Fidelius, like Headquarters,” explained Ron. He had shown up at Harry’s apartment thirty minutes ago wearing a green rain slicker over a hooded sweatshirt. The hood covered his hair completely. He was also wearing tinted glasses. “The Fidelius is a protection spell - there’s a secret keeper. Only the secret keeper can reveal the location of the house under the Fidelius.”

“Minerva,” said Harry. “She told me.”

“Just try telling someone else,” said Ron. “You won’t be able to. Try it on Hermione’s mum, or someone at the coffee shop.”

Harry made a mental note to do just that. Magic was all kinds of crazy. He’d never be able to figure out its limitations.

“Right. Well, we’re taking the tube to my brothers’ flat,” explained Ron. “I’m their secret keeper, so you’ll be able to get in there. Then I’ll side-along with you to Grimmauld Place.’’

The brothers in question were the twins, the ones that owned the joke shop and were living with the same woman. Harry and Ron stood in front of a wall in the third floor corridor of a modest apartment building and Ron took Harry’s hand and laid it against the wall. The wall wasn’t a wall at all, it turned out, but a door, which Ron opened by muttering some words Harry didn’t catch.

Harry stepped inside behind Ron and pushed the door closed behind him.

“This is him,” said Ron to the three people standing between them and the fireplace on the opposite side of the room. He grinned. “Harry Potter.”

“Hello.” Harry nodded politely.

“My brother Fred, my brother George,” Ron pointed to first one redheaded man, than the other. “And this is Angelina Johnson.”

All three stared at Harry. He shifted uncomfortably. The twin on the left - Fred - was the first to speak.

“Erm. The scar?” His twin promptly elbowed him in the ribs and Ron shook his head.

“Might as well just cut off your fringe, mate. Everyone’s going to be asking.”

Harry frowned. He’d been doing that a lot lately, he realised. He reached up and pushed his hair away from his forehead, revealing the jagged scar he’d spent most of his life trying to hide.

Fred took a step forward. These were the twins that Ron laughed about? The rule breakers? The pranksters? They looked dead serious. Harry dropped his hand. His hair swung down over his forehead again.

“Mate.” And suddenly, Fred’s arms were around him and he was being pulled into a bear hug.

He barely had time to react, to move his own arms up reflexively to pat Fred on the back - were all the Weasleys this emotional? - when he was enveloped by the other twin as well. Fred stepped to the side to make room for Angelina and now three pair of arms were around him.

“Give him air! Give him air!” Ron was pulling his brothers away from Harry, and Harry, looking slightly disheveled and decidedly confused, smiled crookedly at a grinning yet tearful Angelina.

“I know I don’t know you,” she said. “But I’ve heard about you my whole life. And you were dead, but you’re not, see? And now everything, everything has changed!”

George - the twin on the right - put his arm around Angelina. “You’d have been in Ron’s class at Hogwarts, Harry. And you’d have been in Gryffindor with all of us. So from here on out, you’re an honorary Gryffindor.” He pulled a red and gold scarf out of his pocket and draped it ceremoniously around Harry’s neck. Ron rolled his eyes.

“Snape’s not going to like that much,” he said.

“Ah, who cares about Snape?” laughed George, pulling on the end of the scarf. “Mr. Grumpy will just have to live with it. Besides, Sirius will love it.”

“Why won’t Severus like it?” asked Harry, turning toward Ron.

“Gryffindor colors,” said Ron. “Snape was Slytherin. Mortal enemies of Gryffindors and all that.”

“Mortal – enemies?”

“Stop it, Ron,” said Angelina. She unwrapped the scarf and pulled it off Harry’s neck. “Better to go into this completely neutral, I’d say.” She smiled at Harry and he couldn’t help but smile back at her infectious grin. “House competitions were childhood rivalries, Harry. We’re all on the same team now, aren’t we?”

They all stared at him. They looked...hopeful. He glanced at Ron. Ron had the same expression on his face.

He nodded. “Right. Same team,” he said. He held up a hand as they broke out in smiles again and George pounded him on the back for good measure. “Listen - I’m awfully new at this. I really don’t think I’ll be much good to you at all, but – well, I want to know more. About my parents, and about magic.”

“Well, we’ll be here with a fresh bottle of Firewhisky when you come back,” he said. “After an evening with Snape and Sirius, you’ll need it.”

“Ignore him, Harry,” said Ron. “Come on, we’re going to be late.” He held out his arm.

Harry stepped up next to him and placed his hand on Ron’s arm and braced himself.

They landed on a narrow doorstep. Harry stumbled as the world seemed to morph in around them, and Ron gripped his elbow to keep him on his feet, then pulled him through the door and into a dark foyer that smelled of lemon wax.

Someone was shouting.

“We’re a bit early,” said Ron, quietly.

“...bastard! How long have you known?”

“Sirius! Calm down! He said the boy will be here at seven o’clock! It’s very nearly...”

“Blood traitors! Hellions! Cursed scum of Gryffindor mothers! My son, my own son, ill-bego...!”

Silencio!“ Severus’ voice rose over the others. The high-pitched woman’s voice was cut off mid-word. “They are in the foyer now, listening to you scream like a two-year-old, Black.”

It was Severus who appeared first. Harry stared at him, smiling tentatively. The man was dressed in...robes. Definitely robes. Robes that fit close then flared out somewhat at the hips. Black robes, with rows of buttons, reminiscent of a priest’s cassock. His hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and he wore black boots made from what appeared to be snakeskin.

“Thank you, Mr. Weasley. One of us will get him home safely,” said Severus.

Ron nodded. “Good luck, mate,” he whispered. He nodded and went back out the door. They heard the soft crack of Apparition a moment later.

“You just now told him?” asked Harry, lowering his voice and looking at Severus in confusion.

“He would have been insufferable had I told him earlier,” replied Severus. “He would have insisted on leaving Grimmauld Place to find you, putting himself, and indeed the entire Order, in dang....”

“Harry?”

A man was approaching from behind Severus. He was wearing an out-of-date, too-large smoking jacket. His hair was long, like Severus’, and he had a thick moustache. He stopped next to Severus and stared at Harry. Harry stared back.

“Harry Potter, meet Sirius Black. Your godfather.”

Severus’ voice was dry. Neither Harry nor Sirius moved.

“Dinner is in thirty minutes. Do take this time to get acquainted.” Severus backed away several steps and caught Harry’s eye, ignoring Sirius altogether. “If you need anything, Harry, just call for me.” He stressed the name Harry, almost as if claiming it - claiming him.

Severus turned and disappeared down the corridor. Harry saw him brush past someone else without comment. The other man, tall and lanky, looked as worn as Sirius, but where Sirius had a hard, angular look about him, this man seemed almost soft and faded.

“I can’t believe…. James. You look like your dad, Harry.” The man’s hands were on Harry’s shoulders now and he was gripping them hard, staring at Harry with dark, desperate eyes.

“He has his mother’s eyes, Sirius. Lily’s eyes.” The second man stood beside Sirius now.

“We’re sorry, Harry. We didn’t know - not until now. Albus, damn him. Why did he do this? You’re alive! Look at him, Remus! The spitting image of James, right here!”

And Harry grinned. Because it occurred to him, suddenly, that they hadn’t asked to see his scar. They already believed he was Harry Potter. And they were happy to see him, not because of some Prophecy, but because he was their friend’s son.

“I think he’s mute,” Sirius said to Remus in a pretend whisper.

“Not mute. Overwhelmed,” corrected Harry. “It’s a lot to take in. Whose house is this?” It was something to say, anyway. He felt awkward despite the easy familiarity Sirius Black exuded.

“What? Snape didn’t tell you?” Sirius grinned at Harry. The grin was half boyish, half maniacal. “It’s my place - grew up here, in fact. That’s my mother you heard screaming in the background a few minutes ago. Permanent sticking charm on the back of her portrait. We’ve never been able to get her off the wall. I’d like to stick her up there with the house-elves, really -”

“Sirius...”

“...but it’s really too late to behead her, seeing as how she died ten years ago when I was still in Azkaban -”

“Sirius!” Remus’ voice rose. He gently pried Sirius’ hands off Harry’s shoulders. “You’re babbling, and I doubt that Harry knows about the Black family tradition regarding house-elves.” He extended a hand to Harry. “Remus Lupin, another good friend of your parents, Harry. I’m so pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands, and Remus dropped his arm around Sirius’ shoulder.

“Why don’t we go up to the parlor for a few minutes until Severus calls us for dinner?” He nodded toward the long flight of stairs then paused, his face taking on a worried look as Harry adjusted his stance, leaning more heavily on his crutch. Sirius was staring at the crutch now, too, looking confused.

“Can you manage stairs, Harry?” Remus asked.

Harry looked up the long flight and shrugged.

“Sure. I just take a bit longer to get around, that’s all.”

“All right, then, I’ll go up and get the fire going and wait for you up there.”

Sirius stared at Harry uncomfortably after Remus hurried up the stairs.

“Have you always?” he faltered.

Harry looked puzzled, then realised his godfather was asking about his injury. “My leg? No, not always. A year or so. I had an accident while I was in the service.” Harry moved to the stairway and started to climb it. Good leg up, bad leg following. Rebalance. Again. Sirius followed, staying a couple stairs behind.

“You know, we can fix that. Probably. There’s quite a bit magic can do, Harry. You don’t have to live with, with that.” Sirius spoke earnestly as he moved slowly up the stairs behind Harry.

“I know. They’ve all told me.” Harry panted slightly as he paused on the landing midway up. He looked up at his godfather and smiled. “I can’t say I’m not interested. Everything takes so damn long now. It’s strong enough. It just hurts.” He took a breath, steeling himself, then started up the second flight. He made it up four more stairs when he caught sight of the line of house-elf trophies.

It was inevitable. The stairs were steep and unfamiliar, the house and stairway dark, and he had never before seen a house-elf, living or dead, in whole or in part. The line of preserved heads of alien-looking creatures was startling. He lost his footing and fell back hard against Sirius. Sirius stumbled, and they ended up in a heap on the landing.

Harry was rather accustomed to falling. Well, he hadn’t been falling a lot lately, but he’d fallen plenty of times in the months after hospital when he was learning to live with his injury. He’d learned how to fall safely, and most important, how to right himself once he was down.

But he’d never before fallen on top of someone else, someone not necessarily accustomed to falling, or to his limitations. His crutch fell backward and, as he lay on the landing on top of his godfather, both of them awkwardly scrambling to separate themselves and get upright again, the metal crutch tumbled down the wooden stairs with a great deal of noise, somehow managing to fall end to end as the rubber foot caught the second stair, instead of sliding gracefully down.

Sirius scrambled to his feet, looking worried, apologetic and out of sorts, while Harry managed to get to a seated position on the landing. He sat there, trying to catch his breath, and didn’t seem to notice the shout from above as Remus ran out to investigate the noise, nor Sirius’ hand on his shoulder as he bent down over him.

He did notice the dark form at the bottom of the stairs, however, and the boots approaching on those same stairs. His crutch was held out to him a moment later, and he took it from Severus gratefully. Severus stood on the stairs in front of him while he used the crutch to push himself up. He knew immediately he wouldn’t be able to make it up or down the stairs on his own. His leg wouldn’t support any weight at all.

“Alright then, Harry?” Sirius looked at him hopefully.

“No. Leg’s...” he bit his lower lip. “I’m going to need a bit to sort it out.”

“Sirius, could you please bring a standard pain potion and an analgesic from the potions stores to the sitting room?” asked Severus quietly. Sirius squeezed Harry’s shoulder quickly then pushed past Severus and disappeared down the stairs.

“Well, that was interesting.” said Remus lightly, obviously speaking to Severus. “Harry, I’m very sorry. Kreacher keeps these stairs polished. We’re all used to them....”

Harry shook his head. “No, it’s not that. I was just....” He glanced up at the mounted heads of the house-elves. “Surprised. Lost my footing.”

“Remus, would you fetch some extra pillows from one of the bedrooms and bring them to the sitting room? I’ll wait here while Harry gets his breath back, then Apparate up with him.”

“Of course, Severus.” Remus, too, squeezed Harry’s shoulder, then turned and hurried upstairs.

“It is overwhelming,” said Severus.

It was a statement, not a question. Severus made no move to approach Harry further. He watched Harry grimace as he once again tested his weight on his leg, then looked up at the corridor above as Remus hurried by with an armload of pillows. He stepped up beside Harry and, instead of offering his arm as he had done in the past, and as Ron had done just a little while ago, he wrapped both arms around him.

It was fortunate that he did so. When they landed, Harry’s leg collapsed, but Severus had a good grip on him and immediately lowered him to the sofa. Remus, operating in such a way that Harry knew they had done this before - more than once - arranged pillows behind Harry and handed him a glass of water.

“You’ll want that after the pain potion,” he said as he settled back on the loveseat across from the sofa.

“I’ll have Kreacher serve dinner here,” said Severus. He was staring at Harry’s legs critically, examining their position on the sofa. He frowned and wedged a pillow between Harry’s hip and the back of the sofa, and without asking leave, reached down and began untying Harry’s shoes. The pillow was in the perfect spot and Harry smiled gratefully.

“You’ll feel even better after you take this,” said Severus, handing the vial Sirius had just pressed into his hand to Harry. Harry studied the green liquid in the odd glass vial for longer than was strictly necessary. It didn’t look remotely like any medication he’d ever had, not even the awful cough syrup with which Aunt Petunia had liberally dosed him when he was a child - even when he wasn’t very sick at all - the kind that made him sleepy. That had been sticky, syrupy and medicinal while this looked more like orange juice. Green orange juice.

“Harry?” Severus’ hand was on his shoulder. Harry pulled himself from his musing and looked at him. “Take it. It will ease the pain.”

“Severus made it himself,” Remus assured him. “He’s one of the best Potions Masters in Europe.”

“And Remus should know—” Sirius sputtered to a stop.

“He makes a great hangover remedy,” said Remus, frowning at Sirius.

Harry, finally, lifted the potion to his lips, closed his eyes, and downed it.

“Lovely,” he sputtered, swallowing the last of it with difficulty. He drank most of the water Remus had given him, then held up the glass in a salute to him. “Thank you. I needed that,” he said.

The potion kicked in almost immediately, filling him with a sense of warm relaxation from chest to toes, and he took the second without protest. Severus left to change the dinner arrangements and Sirius and Remus sat side by side on the loveseat, wearing matching worried looks. Harry adjusted himself on the sofa. He cleared his throat and smiled awkwardly at his godfather and Lupin.

“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to be a bother.” He glanced at the empty vials. “Those things are great - I could get used to that kind of magic.”

“Severus’ pain potions do come in handy,” said Lupin with an odd smile.

“We have sobriety potions, too,” said Sirius. “And of course hangover potions if you forget to take the other one or pass out before you get the chance. Kills a hangover in thirty seconds.”

“Useful, that,” said Harry. He smiled back awkwardly at his godfather.

“So, Harry, Severus says you’re at Uni. What are you studying?” Remus’ calm voice broke the awkward silence.

“Pre-med,” replied Harry quickly, perking up. “I never knew I was interested in medicine until I got injured and had to spend so much time in hospital and with doctors.”

“We have our own brand of medicine in the magical world,” said Remus, nodding toward the empty potion vials. “Before the current Ministry put an end to it, we had specialists who bridged the magical and Muggle worlds.”

Harry frowned. One more mention of the current Ministry. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Oh, like Fred and George Weasley,” said Sirius. “They have a joke shop. Well, they had a joke shop.”

“Yeah, Ron told me,” said Harry. “I actually met them just before I came here. We Apparated from their place.”

“They operate by discreet owl-order now,” said Remus. “The Ministry shut them down because they sold Muggle items at their store. They sold to Muggles, too. By mail order.”

Ron had told him about owls already, so he knew that they were used as a type of postal system in the Wizarding world.

“You said you were in the service?” Sirius asked abruptly.

“RAF,” answered Harry, glad to be back in familiar territory. “I knew my eyes weren’t good enough to be a pilot, but I loved the idea of flying and was training to be a technician.”

“Flying?” Sirius brightened and leaned forward. “You like to fly, do you?”

“I do. Had never done before I joined up, of course, but I knew I’d love it. I used to dream about flying all the time.” He smiled. There was nothing about flying he didn’t love. “Made a lot of us sick, really, but I did really well with it and was slotted for an on-board technical role.”

“I have a flying motorcycle!” exclaimed Sirius, leaning forward, eyes as bright as a little boy’s. “Custom job. We could go flying, Harry. And I’ll get you a broom - the sort of thing a godfather should have gotten for you when you were a boy. A Firebolt, don’t you think, Remus?” His hand had lowered to Remus’ thigh and he gripped it now in excitement. While Harry’s gaze quickly locked on that hand, Remus ignored it.

“A broom would be a wonderful gift for a godson, Sirius. Even a grown man like Harry would appreciate a Firebolt.”

“I’d like to try that motorcycle, too, I think,” said Harry, still staring at Sirius’ hand. He didn’t mention that Minerva had already filled him in on Sirius’ prize possession. He cleared his throat. “Listen, are you two...?” He made a motion with his hand and Sirius looked puzzled for a moment, then followed Harry’s gaze to where his hand gripped Remus’ thigh. He immediately snatched it away.

“No. No, of course not. I was just excited. Emotional.” He made himself relax against the back of the loveseat, folding his hands behind his neck and crossing his legs.

“Oh.” Harry sounded like he didn’t believe it. He looked at his hands then raised his eyes, a cautious look on his face. “Do you have a problem with same-sex relationships?” he asked.

Sirius’ mouth dropped open and he looked sidelong at Remus. It was obvious that he didn’t know how to respond and couldn’t interpret Harry’s expression. He sighed.

“No. Not at all, Harry.”

Harry nodded. “Good. Because I won’t be bringing any girls over to visit. I just want to be clear on that from the start, alright?” He searched their faces. He was right - he knew he was right about them. “It took me long enough to come to terms with it - I don’t want to have to start all over again on that rollercoaster.”

Sirius stared at Harry. Harry stared right back.

Sirius was the first to crack. He dropped his head into his hands and started to laugh.

“I can’t believe it. We’ve been at this for years—years!—and my godson outs us within thirty minutes of meeting me!”

Harry’s worried look turned into a smile. “Really? No one knew? And honestly, I didn’t have a thing to do with it. You rather outed yourself, don’t you think, grabbing his thigh like it was a walking stick?”

“We like girls, too,” said Sirius, lowering his voice. “Have you ever tried it with...?”

Remus elbowed him.

“What? What?” he whined.

“You’ve just met him, Sirius. Godson or not, queer or not, James’ and Lily’s son or not, you don’t bring up threesomes in polite conversation!”

“You two fight like a couple, you know,” said Harry. “Are you sure no one knows?” His smile conveyed that he was teasing, and Sirius relaxed a little.

“Everyone has more important things on their minds now,” said Remus. “And we’ve been around here so long we’re practically fixtures. That, and with Sirius ogling the ladies, well, I don’t think they consider what we get up to after they leave.”

“Even Severus?” asked Harry.

“Snape?” Sirius barked out the name. He shook his head, laughing. “Severus doesn’t…I mean, he wouldn’t....”

“Severus is a very private man,” said Remus, interrupting Sirius. “But yes, I am sure he knows.”

“So neither of you has dated him?” asked Harry.

Now both Remus and Sirius were staring at him. Remus looked surprised and thoughtful. Sirius looked amused.

“Date Snape? Good one, Harry!”

Before Harry could open his mouth, a small creature with an overloaded tray suddenly appeared in front of him just behind a loud Crack! The creature snapped its long, knobby fingers and a fully set table materialised, complete with a deep green linen tablecloth and lighted tapers in polished silver holders.

“Master Prince says set the table in the Mistress’ parlor,” the small creature intoned as it walked around the table, snapping fingers at each side and producing ornate wooden high-back chairs. “Defile the Mistress’ parlor where the Blood Traitor and the vile creature sit so close together on the Mistress’ fainting couch,” it muttered, just loud enough for them to hear.

“Shut it, Kreacher,” growled Sirius.

“Kreacher - enough. Send up the food and be on your way.”

The creature bowed toward the door, where Severus was now standing, holding a heavy crystal goblet half filled with red wine.

“Yes, Master Prince. Kreacher is here to serve you. Kreacher will do as you request.”

Kreacher’s voice was both gravelly and mournful. He straightened, snapped his fingers, then disappeared with another startling Crack as their dinner appeared on the table.

“Damnit, Snape, he’s supposed to be my elf!” complained Sirius.

“Elf? That thing was an elf?” asked Harry, surprised.

“A house-elf,” explained Severus. He ignored Sirius and placed his wine glass on the table. “Kreacher has lived here for the entirety of his long life. While technically, he is a Black family house-elf, he answers to the Master of the House, and he perceives that master to be me.

“Prince my eye,” Sirius muttered. “You’re a Snape, not a Prince. How he gets around the fact that you’re a half-blood is beyond me.”

Harry’s mouth had opened, trying to form a question. Severus interrupted before he could voice it. “I will answer your questions during dinner, Harry. I’m sure you have many. Can you sit at the table if your leg is kept straight? I’ve Floo-called Poppy and she has agreed to come by after dinner to examine it.”

“I can sit,” answered Harry. “I don’t know what was in that potion but it worked like a charm.”

“And since Snape didn’t bother to explain,” said Sirius, “Poppy is a mediwitch, and she knows what she’s doing.”

“Minerva told me about Poppy, actually,” said Harry with a groan as he lifted himself onto a chair that Severus had pulled up next to the sofa. “She and Severus have already told me about your group here, and what’s going on in your world.” He submitted to Severus positioning the chair at the table and helping him arrange his leg on an ottoman. “And I know about the Prophecy, too. Why everyone knows about me.”

Sirius had taken the seat across from Harry, with Remus beside him. He frowned at that, and gave Severus a suspicious glare. “I’d rather not discuss all that now,” he said. He picked up his wine glass and lifted it toward the center of the table. “To my godson,” he said, nodding at the others. “Alive and well.” His voice caught with emotion as he continued the impromptu toast. “Here’s to making up for the lost years.”

He raised his glass again and Harry lifted his own. Remus and Severus joined the toast, though Severus’ eyes stayed trained on Sirius.

“The lost years,” Harry repeated. “I would have come around sooner, but I didn’t know I was dead.”

~*~

Poppy Pomfrey stared at Severus Snape from her usual position in the chair in front of his desk.

“You are telling me,” she said, eying Severus with narrowed eyes, “that the patient you have called me here to examine is Harry Potter.”

Severus would have laughed had he not already had this conversation with Minerva and then Black and Lupin.

“Yes.” He pushed a lock of lank black hair behind his ear then tapped impatiently on his desk. “What cause do you have not to believe me? Do I have a history of feeding you ridiculous lies? Of joking with you?”

“But Albus...Albus himself told me.” She looked again at the painting on the wall behind Severus. A portrait of Albus hung there, unanimated. When Albus had died, Voldemort had somehow placed an enchantment on Hogwarts and the portraits there were trapped in the castle, unable to visit their counterparts elsewhere in the magical world. Portrait Albus remained trapped in the castle.

“Albus lied.” Severus’ gaze softened a notch as Poppy looked affronted. “And he lied for a reason, Poppy. I simply do not yet know what that reason was, though I suspect he was somehow trying to protect the boy. I will need to get inside Hogwarts and speak with him.”

“Severus! You can’t risk that! Let Minerva try. She has a better chance of getting into that office than you do, and a higher likelihood of escaping with her life if she is caught.”

“I will not be caught, and I will not do anything rash,” he said. “Now, Harry Potter is currently up in the sitting room with his godfather and Lupin. I gave him a class three pain potion an hour and a half ago, along with a standard analgesic. He has had wine with dinner, and is currently looking at his parents’ wedding album. While I suspect he will be in a receptive mood when we appear, please recall that he is, for all intents and purposes, a Muggle.”

“Harry Potter,” she muttered, shaking her head in disbelief. “Imagine that child - Lily and James’ son - growing up without magic.”

Severus did not respond. He’d had ample time already to imagine Harry Potter’s life - without magic, with the Dursleys.

“How much have you told him?” Poppy asked as they both stood and she collected her bag.

“Quite a bit, actually,” he said. “But even so, he does not yet understand his importance.”

He wished he understood it more completely.

Poppy followed him up the stairs and to the sitting room. He paused in the doorway and Harry, now sitting in the middle of the sofa between Sirius and Remus, leg propped up on the ottoman before him and dinner table gone, looked up and smiled. He looked exhausted.

“Looks like the execution squad has arrived,” said Sirius. He stood and stepped around Snape to greet Poppy. “Poppy, you’re looking quite lovely tonight,” he said.

“I look lovely every time you see me, Sirius, or at least I do if I’m to believe you,” she said, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “Remus, you’re looking well.”

Remus was on his feet too.

“I’ll keep Sirius busy for a bit,” he said, taking Sirius by the arm and leading him out of the room.

“Call if you need anything,” instructed Sirius, turning in the doorway.

“He’ll be fine,” said Severus, pushing the door closed, then leaning against it and facing Harry. “Poppy Pomfrey, Harry,” he said, indicating the mediwitch.

Harry’s eyes were already on the woman. Like Severus, she wore robes. Hers were grey over white. Her hair was covered by an old-fashioned wimple, making her look like something from a BBC period show. She addressed Harry professionally as he stared at her.

“Mr. Potter. I’ll skip all the pleasantries - I’m sure you are quite tired of people exclaiming over you. I’ll just leave it that I, too, am both shocked and pleased to see you sitting here tonight. Now, let’s have a look at that leg, shall we? Severus, would you help him with his trousers?”

Severus had already taken the photo album from Harry.

“As I told you earlier, Poppy, the injury is from an auto crash, a bit more than a year ago. Harry fell on the stairs an hour or two ago, but his fall was cushioned by his godfather’s big head.”

“Severus! Behave yourself!” Poppy stood back as Harry unfastened his trouser button and zip. Severus helped slide the trousers down and off, draping them on the loveseat.

The routine was a familiar one to Harry. He’d been examined dozens of times, though never on a parlor sofa. He was accustomed to people seeing the scars from the surgery, prodding his thigh and hip, measuring the slightly atrophied leg.

Poppy Pomfrey, however, didn’t do a single thing the usual way.

For starters, she used only her wand, tracing it along the curved scar on his hip, prodding it against the flesh of his thigh, tapping it against his hipbone just exactly where the pain was always the worst. Severus sat on the ottoman, watching her closely as she worked.

“Now just exactly when did this happen, dear?” asked Poppy as she frowned down at his leg, now tapping her wand against her own leg.

“March. Last year,” he answered.

She retraced the line of the longest scar.

“And this? What did they do?”

“Repaired the hip fracture,” he said. “I have quite a bit of hardware in there, I’m told.” He glanced over at Severus, but Severus’ eyes were fixed on Harry’s leg.

“What about here?” She prodded a second scar gently with her wand tip.

“They went in to remove scar tissue,” Harry said, still looking at Severus. “It helped a bit with the pain.”

Poppy frowned again. “We can repair this, Mr. Potter. I’ll need to do more scans, and perhaps call in a specialist, but the bones can be completely regrown. Once the connective tissue is restored, a good physical therapy program will take care of the muscle atrophy. You’ll be walking without the cane in a matter of days.” Now she glanced back at Severus. “There is one thing, though....”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘hardware’?” asked Severus. He scooted the ottoman closer to the sofa and reached out to run his fingers over the incision site. Even though the skin there was still numb, Harry had to close his eyes against the thrill of Severus’ touch.

“I have an x-ray at home,” said Harry. “They used a metal plate, some screws, some wire.” He shrugged. “The usual.” He stared at Severus, puzzled. “What’s wrong?”

“It will have to come out,” said Severus. “All of it. We cannot grow new bone around screws.”

“A surgeon, Severus.” Poppy was pursing her lips. “One we can trust to keep this a secret....”

“Wait.” Harry struggled to sit up, grabbing Severus’ hand. “I had several very painful surgeries already - to put all that hardware in. It’s holding my leg together. You can’t just – just take it out again!”

“One large advantage Wizarding medicine has on Muggle medicine is in bone and tissue regrowth,” explained Severus. He squeezed Harry’s hand, then released it lest Poppy notice the attention, and handed Harry his trousers. He helped him lift his bad leg and slide the trousers back on. “We can regrow bone, muscle, skin, connective tissue and even some organs. We can regrow both your damaged bones and the connective tissue around them. It is similar to giving you a new hip, Harry, without invasive surgery.”

“You’ll be pain-free, Harry,” said Poppy, gently. “The muscles in your weak leg will catch up with your good leg. You’ll walk without a limp. You won’t need a cane.”

Harry rubbed his leg unconsciously, then looked at Poppy. “What are the risks?” he asked, calmer now. “And the success rate?”

Poppy looked puzzled. “The success rate? What do you mean?”

Now Harry looked puzzled. “You know - what’s the chance the procedure will be successful? Fifty percent? Thirty-three?”

“Why, one-hundred percent, of course,” answered Poppy with another puzzled look, this time at Severus. “Providing the potion doesn’t have screws and wires to deal with. I imagine that foreign materials like that would be fused right in with the new bone....” She shuddered.

Harry sighed. “Well, it was worth a try, anyway.” He adjusted his position, straightening his leg a bit.

“Worth a try? Why would you give up when we’ve just told you the procedure virtually guarantees a pain-free future, with no limp and no cane?”

“Because someone has to remove the hardware, and in my experience, that means a trip to the hospital. And hospitals mean filling out paperwork, and you all don’t seem so keen on anyone knowing I’m alive.” He shook his head. “And I really don’t think I could convince my surgeon to undo what she spent so much time doing.”

Severus leaned forward, resting his hand on Harry’s knee. He was frustrated - with himself, more than Harry. They were going too fast - overwhelming Harry.

“I admit that this is an unexpected complication, and I apologise. I didn’t realise you had had such extensive Muggle surgery, Harry. Invasive surgical procedures are much less common in the Wizarding world. But we will work something out.” He stood. “Poppy, perhaps you could give Harry some idea of the bone and connective tissue regrowth process. Harry, if, after you hear what Poppy has to say, you would like to go forward, I will find a qualified surgeon we can trust to keep your identity secret.”

Harry frowned, but turned his attention to Poppy as she sat beside him. Severus slipped out the door as Poppy began to explain how the Skele-Gro and other potions worked together, how long the procedure would take, how much pain he could expect. He was stumbling over the entire concept of bone regrowth, brain too mired in where Severus had gone and how he was going to find a surgeon who would remove the hardware, when Sirius appeared at the door again and came in to take Severus’ vacated seat on the ottoman. He reached out a hand and laid it on Harry’s knee, unwittingly mimicking the same gesture Severus had used.

Sirius’ hand felt very different than Severus’ had - holding comfort, rather than promise.

“You can come back this weekend, stay the night. We’ve got plenty of room here, Harry. That way Poppy can be here to watch over you while they....” He trailed off, catching the looks on both Harry and Poppy’s faces. “What? What’s going on?” He narrowed his eyes and turned to Poppy. “You can help him, right? Fix a little thing like a bum leg? Nothing to it - not with Skele-Gro....” He trailed off again,

“My leg and hip are put together with a steel plate and screws,” Harry explained. “Apparently, those have to come out before they can do anything magical to help me out.” He shrugged. Really, he was no worse off than he’d been when he left his flat, and he’d met his godfather and seen photographs of his parents. That, with the good dinner, trumped the beheaded house-elves and the scare on the stairs.

“Screws?” Sirius nearly shrieked. He rose halfway to his feet before Poppy pushed him back down.

“It’s a common Muggle method of strengthening compromised bones,” she explained. “But we can’t use Skele-Gro.” She shuddered. “Can you imagine? The Skele-Gro would start rebuilding the bone. The metal bits would come loose and would just...float! Float around inside his leg, and get pulled back into the bone, or worse yet, the ligaments or muscle...”

Sirius looked ill.

Harry held up his hand. “Thank you....”

“Poppy,” supplied the mediwitch with a smile. “Everyone calls me Poppy. And Harry - if you are going to be among wizards, you need to know there are illnesses carried only by other wizards. You’d be wise to consider immunizations for the most serious of these - Dragon Pox, for example....”

“Definitely Dragon Pox,” said Sirius, grinning. “Itchy as hell, and worse once the pustules start to smoke.”

Harry didn’t bother mentioning he’d already had a touch of it.

“It’s a rite of passage,” said Sirius. “It can light your sheets on fire if you’re not careful.”

“It’s getting late.” Remus was in the doorway now. “Severus is going to take you back to the twins’ place, Harry. He wants to know if you can make it down to the entryway.”

Harry stood carefully, using his cane for leverage in pulling himself up, then to steady himself.

“Why can’t he come up here?” asked Sirius, not bothering to hide the whine. “Harry can’t manage those stairs by himself. Look what happened earlier!”

“I’d like to give it a try,” said Harry. He knew from the past year that if you went up a set of stairs, you’d have to get back down. There was nothing for it, and just because there was magic now, he shouldn’t count on it to always be there to help him out. “Those potions helped. I think I can manage now.”

“I’ll walk down with you, Harry,” said Remus.

Harry turned to Sirius. He held out his hand in a gesture that seemed oddly formal - and Muggle - in this setting. “Sirius, it was great to meet you. Let’s do it again sometime. Maybe next time you can tell me more stories about my dad?”

“How about next time I teach you how to play Wizard’s chess?” suggested Sirius. Instead of taking Harry’s hand to shake it, he took hold of his wrist and pulled him forward into his arms, hugging him properly. “And if I’m lucky, it won’t be another twenty years,” he said.

“No,” said Harry, smiling as he hugged his godfather back. “It won’t.”

~*~

Severus stood in front of the library window, holding the large manila envelope Harry had given him last night when he’d escorted him home. All the way home, via an intermediary stop at the Weasley twins’ flat. Harry had been extremely grateful to fall onto his own sofa,

“What did you think of your godfather?” Severus had asked him as he found the x-ray film on the desk exactly where Harry told him it would be. He had already placed an extra pain potion on the counter in the loo and had opened Harry’s medicine cabinet and frowned at the contents.

“I liked him,” said Harry. “He seemed genuinely happy to meet me. He obviously loved my parents, too. He couldn’t say enough nice things about my dad.”

“Sirius Black went to prison just after your parents died,” said Severus. “He hasn’t transitioned back into society entirely well. The Wizarding world he found when he returned was a different one than the one he left behind.” Severus settled onto the couch beside Harry. “And for the record, your mother was the true gem, Harry. Your father was a conceited prick.”

“Hey!” Harry batted tiredly at Severus in protest and Severus caught hold of his hand and laced their fingers together. Casual physical gestures like this seemed easy with Harry, and he knew he should wonder at that, for he wasn’t the most demonstrative of people and shunned much casual touching in his day-to-day life.

He rested their hands on his leg. “You are tired.” He studied Harry, assessing him with his dark gaze. “I’ve left a pain potion on the counter in the loo for you. Take it just before you go to bed - it should allow you a restful night.”

Harry smiled vaguely and let his head fall onto Severus’ shoulder. “Thanks. That stuff is excellent. I’m guessing it’s highly addictive and shouldn’t be taken every day?”

“It will lose efficacy over time - cease to work against the pain as your body becomes accustomed to the ingredients. I can increase the active ingredients somewhat - perhaps we can get you through a year with judicious use when it is most needed - if you decide against the magical procedures.” He found himself squeezing Harry’s hand again - in comfort? Solidarity? Just to feel the warmth of it, the pulse of life beneath his own?

“I do have pain killers, you know,” said Harry. He pointed to a plastic container of pills on the table. “I’m not dependent on them - they give me a pretty limited quantity, so I just use them when I overdo it, or when I have a lot planned for the day - more than I really should.” He snuggled into Severus’ side, and Severus gave an exaggerated sigh, then reached for the pill bottle and examined the label.

Harry liked how Severus smelled. He even found the bony shoulder strangely comfortable.

“You should not take this often. It can impair rational thought and cause sleepiness and constipation.”

“Right,” said Harry, a smile tugging at his mouth at the clinical way Severus had said ‘constipation.’

“I do need to ask you -” began Severus.

“About the surgery. The bone regrowth. I know.” He closed his eyes and relaxed marginally more into Severus’ side. “Everyone seems dead sure it will work and I’ll be rid of this limp and cane.”

“And the pain,” added Severus. “And these pills.” He dropped them back onto the table and giving in, wrapped his arm around Harry. Harry fit so well against him. He imagined, for a moment, Black seeing them together like this.

“So - yes. I’ll do it,” said Harry. “If you can find someone you trust - and someone qualified - to remove the plate and screws.”

And now, as Severus held up the x-ray to the library window, he saw again just what was keeping Harry Potter on his feet. He didn’t pity Muggles their lack of magic - instead, he was amazed at what they could do to give a man at least partial use of his leg when his hip had essentially been crushed. There were actually two metal plates - each long and narrow. They were secured to the bone with a series of screws and pins - nine of them, in all. Severus winced inwardly.

And frowned.

He was getting soft - too soft. He was wincing for one reason only. Because he was thinking of Potter - of Harry - in constant pain. And it should not pain him to think of another in pain.

It should not.

He had seen far too many in pain already, and before this was over, he was certain he would see more than he could even imagine.

But Harry Potter liked him. Harry Potter found him attractive—desirable. Harry Potter, who apparently didn’t much care what others thought, wanted him.

He’d allowed the quiet intimacy of the snuggle on the sofa, had not resisted when Harry had pulled him into a kiss, when he’d run his hands over Severus’ shoulders, his back, then had counted the buttons on his waistcoat and said something ridiculous about undoing them all with his teeth.

But another night. He’d been so tired, and Severus had much to do, to think about, though when he got back to his room at Grimmauld Place, all he could think about was the smell and feel of Harry Potter.

He turned around now when a knock sounded on the door behind him.

Hermione Granger stepped into the room. She paused only a moment, then held up a file folder.

“Three possibilities. I have brief dossiers on each. Anne Weatherford-Jordan looks the best, all around. She’s married to Lee Jordan’s older brother.” She paused on the other side of his desk as Severus took the folder from her and flipped through it. “Her mother and younger sister were tortured and killed last year,” she added softly. “She’s fled to France, and they’re lying low in Muggle Paris, but I imagine she’d do almost anything to help end this war.”

“She’s not an orthopedic specialist,” said Severus, frowning. “She deals more with general surgeries - appendectomies, gall bladders....”

“Severus, we aren’t going to find precisely what we need. The pool is incredibly limited as it is. Weatherford is the closest direct link to a member of the Order, and the only one personally affected by the Dark Lord’s regime. And she is a surgeon, despite not specializing in orthopedics.”

“You have not approached her yet? About her willingness to assist us? To perform surgery outside of a hospital?”

Hermione shook her head. “Look through all three files. Bill went to Hogwarts with Paul Jordan. He’s agreed to go with me to speak with Anne if you think - as we do - that she’s the best option.”

Severus scanned the dossier. Anne Jordan was 35 years old and had eight years of experience. Not as much as he would have liked, but the needed surgery wasn’t complex and didn’t affect any organs. The woman seemed to have a stellar record, too. Would she risk performing a procedure outside of a licensed facility?

Severus thought that she might.

He sent Hermione off with the x-ray to find Bill and approach Anne Jordan, then returned to the window, staring outside.

Thinking.

Why had Albus Dumbledore wanted the magical world to think Harry Potter was dead?

The question had perplexed him from the start. Harry Potter was the child of the Prophecy. The one destined to defeat the Dark Lord with a power....a power the Dark Lord knew not.

Neither can live while the other survives.

Was that it? The Dark Lord, believing Harry Potter to be dead, would let his guard down. Would believe himself to be invincible. And then....

And then?

How could Harry Potter swoop in to surprise him when Harry Potter didn’t know a whit about him, or about the magical world, or the Prophecy? When the Order knew nothing of Harry Potter’s very existence?

Albus...Albus had left no clues, had he?

He had had plenty of time to do so, ample opportunity. He and Severus had been close - had always been close. That last year, in particular. Albus had known the end was coming, had been poisoned - cursed - and Severus had been buying him time. More and more time. He’d had a full six months that he hadn’t expected to have.

Plenty of time to tell Severus that he had a secret weapon tucked away in London.

No. It couldn’t be only that - that Albus was keeping Harry in reserve. More than protecting Harry, too. But what?

He had to talk to Albus. Albus, trapped in his portrait in Hogwarts, in the headmaster’s office. The headmaster’s office that had been sealed since Albus Dumbledore had died.

Perhaps he would use the cloak.

Minerva would not like it. Despite the fact that the castle was nearly empty in the summer, the perimeter guarded by Dementors and the grounds and interior watched over by Hagrid and Filch, she would not want him anywhere near Hogwarts. The Dark Lord based his operations at the Ministry these days, though Minerva reported that he had made surprise visits to the school, usually conferring only briefly with her, then meeting with the faculty for impromptu inspections. As headmistress, Minerva made virtually no decisions. Her chief role was to make sure the day-to-day operations continued - students had schedules, professors taught classes, meals were served in a quiet, orderly fashion. The Ministry, under Voldemort’s leadership, made all faculty appointments.

Anger welled up in him. The house system was no more than a farce now, nothing more than names and colors. The heads were all former Slytherins. Voldemort, no matter the weight he put on his own Slytherin roots, made sure that on the surface, everything appeared the same. Four houses, four sets of colors, four house ghosts, four mascots, four founders, four Quidditch teams. Four tables in the Great Hall, four common rooms, four hourglasses of gems counting house points in the Entrance Hall.

But beneath the surface, everything was different.

He needed to speak with Albus, no matter Minerva’s deep reservations. He wanted, no – needed to be in the same room with that infernal portrait. To stare Albus in the eye and tell him that he had ended the previous evening with the Boy Who Wasn’t Actually Dead pressed up against him on the sofa in his London flat, arms tangled around Severus’ shoulders, moist lips pressing against his, moving down to bite his collarbone
.
The look! The look on Albus’ painted face....

He leaned his head against the glass, eyes drifting out to the overgrown garden behind the house, to the crumbling fence, the woody hedges, the creaky glider where Black could pass hours smoking one Muggle cigarette after another. As much as he wanted to shock the twinkle out of Albus’ oil-painted eyes, the memory of Harry’s body, of the taste of his mouth, the feel of his soft breath in the hollow of his throat, washed over him now, overpowering his need to punish Albus. He’d tossed and turned last night, when he returned here to the solitude and privacy of his dark bedroom, unsettled, torn. Harry Potter wanted him.

And Severus could not deny that the attraction was mutual. In another world, last evening would not have ended on the sofa, both of them fully clothed, both of them vertical. But today, in this world, in his world...

No. In Voldemort’s world.

In Voldemort’s world, attraction was a distraction.

For a moment, the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to imagine a world without Voldemort.

And with Harry.

~*~

“In your parents’ dental office? Really?”

“Mum’s an oral surgeon besides, you know,” said Hermione. “They’re set up for surgery and anesthesiology. It will have to be after hours, of course. Saturday morning, I think.”

Harry glanced around the coffee shop then back at Hermione. “You think?”

“Well, it depends on Anne, doesn’t it?” Hermione pushed his untouched mug a fraction closer, bumping it up against his hand so that he looked at it, sighed, then took a long drink. He placed the mug back on the table, still toying with the handle.

“And Anne is a Muggle, but she’s married to a wizard. So she knows all about magic.” He tried to keep the displeasure from his voice about that, somehow unhappy that a non-magical woman knew all about magic long before he did. It certainly wasn’t Dr. Jordan’s fault. The only one to blame - if blame be needed - was Old Al.

Old Al. Despite what he knew now, he couldn’t help the whimsical smile at the memory of the old man who, he now knew, had been Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts.

“As I said, I went to see her yesterday with Ron’s brother Bill. He was in school with her husband - at Hogwarts, I mean. All we told her was that an Order member needed this surgery and that it would greatly help our cause. She’s been personally affected - she was willing to do practically anything to help.”

“She doesn’t know it’s me, then?” he asked. He only reluctantly acknowledged that being Harry Potter actually meant something to these people. “Will she be at the meeting tonight? I’d like to meet her.”

Hermione’s mouth had done a curious downturn.

“Harry,” she said, scooting her chair in closer to the table and glancing around the room. Ron hadn’t been there to cast a Muffliato and she felt vulnerable. She leaned in until they were almost touching foreheads across the table and spoke very softly. “Harry - the meeting tonight is for Order members. People who have taken an oath of fealty. I’m not sure, no, I know you don’t fully appreciate how....” She faltered. Harry frowned and reached out for her hand. He squeezed it. It was unusual to see Hermione so emotional.

“No, Hermione. I think I understand - I just don’t know who’s who yet.”

Her grip on his hand increased. “Harry,” she whispered. “People have died. Lots of people. Nearly everyone in the Order has lost someone - someone close, important to them. We learned - to be suspicious. To not trust anyone.” She lowered her voice even more. “The fact that Severus is willing to do this... Oh, Harry.”

Tears? There were tears in her eyes?

“It’s because of that Prophecy,” said Harry. “That’s all.”

Her hand released his and her arms went around him. “Thank you, Harry. Thank you for not running away from this. I know it’s all so, so hard to believe.” He pulled back and she put her hands on his shoulders. “It was the same for me, when I was eleven. When I got my Hogwarts letter.”

“Hermione....”

“Only I was just eleven. And it’s so much easier to suspend disbelief when you’re a child. And there wasn’t a war then. And there weren’t all the expectations for me that there are for you....”

“Hermione - stop.” Harry gazed at her, half amazed at the emotion she was displaying, half confused as to its source. “What’s wrong?”

She seemed to get hold of herself. She pulled back her arms and rested them on the table in front of her, on either side of her cinnamon latte.

“Ollivander will be at the meeting tonight. You’ll get your wand. And once you have your wand, there’ll be no going back. The wand, well, it completes you, Harry. It will connect you irrevocably with your magic. If this isn’t the life you want, if you don’t think you can help fulfill the...” her voice lowered again. “....the Prophecy, now is the time to turn back.” She warmed her hands against her mug, pursed her lips, then looked up at him again. “I think you deserve to have the choice - a real choice. And after tonight, there won’t be a choice.” She smiled, eyes sad and far-away. “I still remember how it felt to hold my wand for the first time.”

Harry looked at her, studied her face carefully. “You’re all over the place, Hermione. Whatever you have to say, just say it.”

She looked him in the eye and took a breath. “This is your last chance to back out, Harry. I think someone should explain it to you and not just take it for granted that you want this. That you want all of this.” She smiled wistfully. “Most of us grow into magic and the magical world from the bottom up. We’re either born into magical families and a world with magic is all we ever know, or, like me, we discover the magical world when we’re ten or eleven years old, and start at the bottom of the heap with everyone else at Hogwarts. But you - you, Harry, you’re coming at it all sideways, aren’t you? All grown up, mature, used to making your own decisions, right? But only after you know all the facts.”

He watched as her features took on a certain intensity, understanding her, but not understanding.

“And what facts - specifically - don’t I know?” he challenged her, trying to keep the edge he felt out of his voice. “I know - I see - how everyone is when they meet me. I see the hope in their eyes. And I’ve heard this Prophecy, and I understand that they believe in it...”

“We’ve nothing else to believe in anymore,” said Hermione quietly. Her hand had made its way over to his again, and she squeezed it softly.

Harry stared at her fingers as they covered his hand. In this moment, they were just two people having coffee in a coffee shop. Two Uni students. Two ordinary people with ordinary lives. He took a deep breath and released it slowly.

“And I know more - I know how my parents died, Hermione. Minerva told me. Severus knew them, too. And it just seems to me that if I can help somehow, well, I should. For them. If this Prophecy is really about me, I can pitch in and help you all figure out a way to take him down. I’m just one person, but I’m willing to try.”

Hermione was shaking her head. She closed her eyes and gripped his hand more tightly. “Harry, either you’re in or you’re out. If you go to this Order meeting tonight and decide it’s not for you, you’ll be Obliviated and taken back to your flat none the wiser...”

“Oblivi- what?” he asked, frowning.

“It’s a memory charm. It will make you forget all you’ve learned about the magical world. But if you come tonight, and you join the Order, you won’t just be ‘pitching in.’” Hermione caught and held his eyes, speaking carefully. “I’m not sure you fully understand the Prophecy, Harry.”

“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches,” said Harry. He sighed. “You probably mean this part: And either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.

“Right,” said Hermione. Her hand trembled, even though she willed it still. “That’s the part. It’s not about pitching in, Harry. It’s about being the one.”

“It says ‘the one with the power to vanquish.’”

Hermione stared him down. “What about ‘either must die at the hand of the other’?”

Harry shrugged. “You don’t take it literally, do you?”

“Yes, actually,” she said. “We do.” She picked up her mug and drank, hiding whatever the look that flitted across her face.

He stared at her a long moment without speaking, trying to read her face. Finally, he said, “Let me get this right. You expect me to kill him.”

“Aren’t you glad we’re having this discussion before tonight?” she said. He leaned in closer. Were those tears in her eyes again?

“Yeah. I’m glad. Hermione...?”

She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Hermione, listen to me. You’re saying it’s not enough to help capture him - say, help get him locked up in prison for the rest of his life?”

“Look, Harry. You’ve heard all about the Dark Lord. But you don’t understand. There’s only one way to defeat him. One. He won’t stay locked up in prison.”

“I can’t kill him.”

It was that simple, wasn’t it?

“What am I supposed to do? Strangle him? Shoot him? Sneak up on him and smother him with a pillow?”

“Harry, Harry - listen to me.” Hermione was earnestly trying to get his attention “You’re so new to this - you’re not thinking like a wizard. We’re going to kill him - no matter what it takes. But until you showed up, we never even considered that the Prophecy could be used to defeat him. Not with you dead. If you decide to stay, know that Severus will figure this out. He’s brilliant - really. He’d never expect you to stand up alone in front of the Dark Lord. But somehow - somehow - we know that you’re the key.”

He stared at her, watching her mouth move, trying to comprehend exactly what she was saying.

“And everyone expects that as soon as you have your wand in your hand tonight, it will all fall into place. You’ll get it. You’ll be complete. Your magic will have a focus. And honestly, I believe that too. I just, well, I just thought you should have a chance to reconsider before that happens. Before there’s no going back.”

“I can’t choose to be an ordinary wizard?” he asked. His mind was trying to process everything Hermione was saying. It had all been happening fast. Very fast. And while nothing she had said in these past few minutes really shocked him, it was the first time anyone had strung it together quite like that.

“Neville Longbottom tried,” was her sage reply. “All he ever wanted to be was an ordinary wizard.”

“Neville,” he repeated. He licked his dry lips. “Minerva talked about him—”

“The other child the Prophecy could have referred to. The Dark Lord killed him during our fifth year.”

She could say it now with steady voice, testament to how much had happened since then.

“You want me to back out, don’t you?” he asked after a minute spent staring into his cooling coffee. “You’re making it sound like there’s no hope - like I’ll end up dead.” He lowered his voice, though it wasn’t clear even to him if it was out of fear or out of respect. “Like Neville. “

“Oh, God, no. No.” She gave a choked sort of laugh. “If I got to pick what I wanted, you’d get your wand tonight, and join the Order, and we’d start working together - all of us in the Order - to figure out how to take him down, for good this time. And we’d train you. Severus is a master, Harry. He’s brilliant - as a strategist and with a wand.”

Harry, despite the seriousness of the conversation, grinned into his mug at the double entendre.

“Harry, you’d never be alone. Ever. You might be the key to destroying him, but not one of us would set you alone against him and run for cover. Being a wizard - being a member of the Order of the Phoenix - Harry, that’s about family. We’re all in it together.” Her voice rose as she grew more impassioned. “I know I’m not making much sense. I tell you it’s all or nothing, that if you come tonight and get a wand, you’re in it for good or ill. I tell you all the wonderful things about our world, then make sure you understand exactly what the Prophecy means. But it’s because I want you to have a choice. You can fall back into the Muggle World. Severus would take it hard - we all would - but he’d let you go no matter what anyone else said. I know he would. But I didn’t think you understood what would happen when you’re at that meeting tonight, with a wand - your wand - in your hand. The choice has to be now Harry, not then.”

Harry was frowning, putting something else together. His head was clearer now, about magic, and his choices, sitting in this ordinary café with the woman who had once been an ordinary Muggle like him. “So, this surgery,” he began. “The offer to cure me.” He stretched out his bad leg. “To fix my leg...” He looked at her expectantly.

Her frown deepened a moment, then her face relaxed and she smiled and shook her head.

“Oh, Harry. No. It’s not about building a better soldier. It’s not even about coaxing you to join us. Not really. Not at all. If you want to go through with it, you’ll at least have that, even without joining up with us. A functional leg. Pain-free days. Everyone deserves that - everyone who can have it, anyway. You don’t have to have a wand to have magic inside you - you know that. Just having the magic in you will mean the magical procedures they’ve outlined will work.”

“So the deal breaker is the wand itself, then,” he said. “I can’t have that and walk away with it.”

“Harry - you don’t understand,” said Hermione with a knowing smile. “It’s not that you can’t. You just won’t.

“Having a wand, then not being able to use it—it’s like losing a limb, Harry,” she said. She sounded sad, but there was a strength about her, and a determination, that told him she really believed this was temporary, that Voldemort would be defeated and she’d once again be able to use magic when she wanted.

He turned it over in his mind, then nodded at Hermione. “I understand what you’re doing, Hermione. And I appreciate it - I do. I’m not sure that I believe it altogether - not all of it, anyway. Not yet.”

“So you’re going tonight. And you’re going to meet Ollivander and get a wand. And you’re aware that with that wand in your hand, you aren’t likely to go back to this life.”

Harry sighed. “I’m not too attached to it yet, am I?” he said. “I’m signed up for classes next month but they haven’t even started yet.” He smiled at her. “Let’s just see what happens tonight, Hermione. You’ve warned me. I’ve taken it into consideration. I appreciate it - I do.”

“And, Harry?”

He shook his head. “And I won’t tell Severus we had this conversation, alright?”

She smiled. “Thanks. It’s for the best, really.”

He smiled. “Good. And speaking of Severus....”

~*~

Harry Potter sat in a dusty chair in Severus’ library office, waiting. Ron and Hermione waited across from him on a two-seated sofa. The meeting had started already - it was seven thirty in the evening and the footsteps had stopped pounding and echoing down the corridor outside the library door twenty minutes ago.

Harry checked his wristwatch.

“Just a few more minutes,” said Hermione. “They’ve got to get through everyone’s reports. Severus is always last.”

They waited ten more minutes before one of the Weasley twins opened the door.

“Well, Snape’s got them all pretty much calmed down.” He grinned at Harry. “Come on, then. Everyone wants to get a look at you. Be prepared for a lot of crying, Harry.”

He stood up nervously, and Ron and Hermione stood, too. The twin left and Harry took a deep breath.

“How many are there?”

“Usually about twenty,” answered Hermione. “Not everyone comes to every meeting.”

“And don’t get freaked out by Mad Eye,” added Ron. “He’s got a wooden leg and a magical eye. He looks pretty gruesome, too.”

“Alright. Mad Eye. Anyone else I should watch out for?”

“Well, Mum,” said Ron with a grin. “She’s going to hug you to death.”

An hour and a half later, Harry was sitting at the enormous plank table in the long, narrow kitchen. Even though Severus had ended the meeting nearly half an hour ago, he’d only just succeeded in emptying the room. Harry was exhausted. He reached for the glass of Firewhisky Severus had placed in front of him and looked up at the small man with the silver eyes gazing at him from across the table.

“Mr. Harry Potter,” said Ollivander, the wand maker. He had settled at the table directly across from Harry while Harry was resting his head in his hands, after receiving a final hug from Mrs. Weasley and a hard pat on the shoulder from Mad Eye Moody following the admonition, “Constant vigilance, Harry! Constant vigilance!”

The wand maker had arranged a stack of long boxes on the table beside him. Severus settled silently on the bench next to Ollivander. He, too, had a glass of Firewhisky. He took a drink and placed the glass on the table at his left elbow. His eyes slid from the pile of boxes to the man who had crafted the wands inside. Ollivander still operated his shop on Diagon Alley. He was heavily regulated now, his inventory tightly controlled. It was forbidden to sell a wand to anyone who didn’t have a permit from the Ministry to purchase one. He had taken a great risk to be here tonight, and to bring this large a selection of wands with him.

Harry took another long drink of Firewhisky then nodded to Ollivander.

“All right, then. I’m ready. What do I do?”

Ollivander smiled, and Severus could see that the old man was regarding Harry intently. He stared at Harry, and Harry stared back.

“Yeeesss. This one.”

The man moved exceedingly quickly. He’d extracted a long box from the middle of the stack, removed the lid and extended the wand inside to Harry, handle first. Harry took it and looked at it for a minute, frowning, then handed it back to Ollivander.

“This one’s not right,” he said.

Ollivander and Severus exchanged a look.

“We move on, then.” Ollivander took the wand back from Harry, placed it back in its box, then stared at the stack and plucked out another box.

“This time, try a swish and a flick,” he said. He demonstrated the movement with the wand in hand and blue sparks shot out.

Harry glanced at Severus, but took the wand. He frowned as he held it.

“That one’s not ri....” began Severus, but Harry swished it to the side then gave it a little flick. Purple smoke issued from the tip. It smelled sulfuric. Ollivander coughed.

“It’s too heavy,” said Harry. He looked at Ollivander apologetically, but the man seemed more excited than he had even at the beginning.

“Certainly, certainly,” said Ollivander. He handed the rejected wand to Severus and pushed its box toward him, then fished into his pile and pulled out another wand.

With Severus engaged to sort out the rejected wands, the trials went even more quickly. Harry tried each gamely, even when it was obvious from his face each time he held one that it didn’t feel quite right to him.

“The only wand I’ve ever used is yours, Severus,” he said during a break when Ollivander was fishing into a bag under the table and piling more boxes on top. “And it worked better for me than all of these I’ve tried.”

Ollivander poked his head up at that.

“Patience. I know what we need now, Mr. Potter.”

He ignored the first pile of boxes now, and oddly, the second as well. Instead, he rooted around below the table and came up with three more boxes, which he lined up in the middle of the table. Breaking his previous pattern, he removed the lid from each box and left the wands in them.

“Choose,” said Ollivander. “Or, better said, allow one to choose you.”

Harry leaned in just as Severus did.

One wand reminded him very much of Severus’. Long, sleekly polished, dark wood. It seemed a quiet wand to Harry. Quiet and powerful. Next to it was a beautifully made maple wand, long and supple, with a handle with intricate vine carvings. The last wand was slightly longer than the other two, unremarkable in color, style or ornamentation.

Harry reached out. His hand hovered over the boxes then lowered and closed over the last wand.

“Ahh!” Ollivander clapped his hands. Severus stared as Harry gave the wand a swish and a flick, sending a cascade of silver and gold sparks from its tip.

Harry smiled. Genuine. Authentic. Beautiful. His face lit up and he beamed at Severus.

“This one,” he said, gripping the handle tightly. “This is my wand.”

“Eleven inches. Holly. Phoenix feather core,” said Ollivander. “A special wand, a wand that has been sitting on my shelf for a good many years.”

“Why would no one else choose it?” asked Harry, rolling the wand in his hands, feeling it, learning it. He knew - he absolutely knew - that he could not easily relinquish it now. He grasped the handle again and gave another swish, smiling when red and green sparks flew out this time. “It’s Christmas,” he said, giving Severus a pleased smile.

“Mr. Potter - you don’t understand.” Mr. Ollivander was packing up the rejected wands. “A wizard doesn’t choose a wand.” He looked across at Harry, and Harry saw that Severus, too, was staring at him. “A wand chooses a wizard.”

“Well, why did this one choose me, then?” asked Harry.

“There’s something special about that wand, isn’t there?” asked Severus, staring at the box that had held the wand.

“Indeed there is,” answered Ollivander, nodding. “The phoenix that gave its tail feather for this wand gave precisely one other feather, for one other wand. That phoenix belonged to Albus Dumbledore.”

“Fawkes,” murmured Severus. Fawkes, Albus Dumbledore’s phoenix, had not been seen since Dumbledore’s death. “Who has the other wand?” he asked, lowering his voice even though they were alone in the room in the most protected home in London.

Ollivander looked at Harry rather than Severus. Harry found his silver gaze unsettling.

“The Dark Lord himself,” he answered at last. He leaned across the table and brushed the fringe off of Harry’s forehead, exposing the scar. “It is the wand that gave you that scar, in fact. How odd that its brother has chosen you.”

Harry’s grip on his new wand tightened.

“The Dark Lord owns this wand’s brother?”

“Yes indeed. Quite extraordinary, don’t you agree?”

“What does that mean?” asked Harry. His eyes flicked from Ollivander to Severus, and he frowned. “Severus?”

“I don’t know,” Severus answered. He looked — Harry couldn’t decide how he looked. Interested. Definitely interested. Not upset, but not exactly happy.

But then he smiled, and his smile was genuine. Harry shook off the vague feeling of disquiet Severus’ expression had given him. He grinned.

“You’ll teach me how to use it, won’t you?” he asked.

“I will be one of your teachers,” answered Severus with a quick smile. He nodded at the wand maker “Thank you, Ollivander. Perhaps the issue of the brother wand can remain our secret?”

“Of course, of course,” answered Ollivander.

“Harry! Let’s see - oh! Beautiful! Holly - right? What’s the core?”

“Phoenix feather,” said Harry, smiling at Sirius and flicking the wand again. He glanced at Severus, correctly interpreting the unspoken message on his face. He didn’t mention the wand’s brother.

“You’re holding it just right. Feels natural, doesn’t it?” Sirius smiled brightly at Harry. “I still remember holding my wand for the first time.”

“We all do,” said Ollivander. “The pairing of a witch or wizard with their wand is a seminal event in a witch or wizard’s life. “

“Try something simple, Harry.” Sirius had his own wand in his hand. “Try a Lumos.” He flicked his wand and the tip glowed brightly.

“You didn’t say anything,” said Harry, staring at the wand tip.

“Non-verbal,” said Severus, shaking his head at Sirius. “Had you been at Hogwarts, Harry, you’d have had five years of schooling before learning to cast non-verbally.” He flicked his wrist and his wand slid down into his hand. “Lumos.”

Harry repeated the movement and the incantation, smiling broadly when the tip of his own wand lit up. The glow was not as bright as Sirius’, nor as unwavering as Severus’, but it was enough to please Harry.

“I’ll never need to buy batteries again,” he muttered, pointing the wand at a dark corner of the ceiling.

“There are a hundred variants of the spell,” said Sirius. He was shining his wand into the same corner, but his light was focused, like a Muggle torch. “You’ll learn quickly, Harry.”

“How do I put it out?” Harry asked. He reached tentatively toward the wand tip with his left hand, testing to see if it was hot.

“The counter-spell is Nox,” said Severus.

Sirius was laughing. “You can’t snuff out the end like a candle. And it’s not hot. It’s perfectly safe to stick it back inside your pocket.”

Nox,” said Harry, shaking his wand a bit for good measure. The light went out immediately.

“That’s enough for tonight,” said Severus. Harry glanced at him, eyes still shining with the glow of discovery. ‘I need to see you in my office, Harry. Alone.”

Sirius pouted. “You can’t give a boy a new wand and then stop him at just one spell, Snape. Let me take him out back into the garden and teach him a few jinxes.”

“You’re impossible, Sirius, really.” Remus had been standing quietly against the wall beside the door. He stepped inside and rested a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Go on with Severus - I’ll keep your godfather entertained.”

Harry grinned. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Just dangle some string in front of him.”

Sirius laughed, and cuffed Harry on the shoulder, then gave him a one-armed hug for good measure.

Harry followed Severus up the stairs, taking his time and making sure the cane was fully seated on the stair above him before stepping up. They walked down the corridor into the shadowy office where he had waited earlier with Ron and Hermione. He eyed the sofa, but Severus walked tiredly to his own chair behind his desk and sat, motioning for Harry to sit in the chair where he’d waited earlier. Harry frowned, but settled into the chair nonetheless. He leaned his cane against the desk and looked at Severus expectantly.

“Do you plan to return to school?” Severus asked, hands resting on the desk, wand beneath them.

“To Uni?”

Severus nodded and waited.

Harry smiled. “Are you planning to make me a better offer?” he teased.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Harry, I—”

“Because I wouldn’t mind spending more time with you,” Harry blurted out. “I’m just not sure what comes next.”

“We talk,” answered Severus. “We plan.” He sighed, and his angular face took on a look that Harry could only describe as resigned. “We set priorities, Harry.”

“You mean about us,” said Harry, understanding.

“I mean about us,” confirmed Severus. “You do not - cannot - understand how the Wizarding world would see this — relationship. I am not Albus Dumbledore. I do not have the love of the Wizarding world to fall back on, Harry. And as the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, as a man your parents’ age, I will be suspected of taking advantage - of you, your fame, your newness in the magical world.”

“So this isn’t about taking care of this Vol - Dark Lord first and then getting on with our lives?” asked Harry. He scooted his chair closer to the desk so he could lean his elbows on it, then reached out and touched the back of Severus’ hand. “This is about what people will think of us?”

Severus shook his head. “I do not care what others think. For years, my life has been devoted to one thing, and one thing only - the eradication of the Dark Lord. I cannot afford distractions. We - the Order of the Phoenix - cannot afford them.”

Harry stared at Severus’ hands on the desk, then looked up at his face. “I liked you before I knew about magic. I was intrigued by you before I found out you knew my parents. I understand now that you needed me for —well, for more than you. But that doesn’t change how I feel about you, Severus. You’re part of this world. I want to get to know you better, too.”

“You will discover many new things in this world,” said Severus. “You may quickly find others who interest you more.” Harry pushed back away from the desk as he spoke, leaning back in his chair, eyes still intent on Severus.

“I might.” Harry shrugged. “I might not. Are you trying to talk me out of liking you?”

They held each other’s gaze for a drawn-out moment, then Harry shrugged again.

“Alright. We take it slow. I’m fine with that. But slow doesn’t mean nothing. Slow doesn’t mean we stop altogether while I get up to speed on my magic.”

The corner of Severus’ mouth twitched. Harry had already learned that that was as good as a smile from Severus. He grinned.

“So - aside from us - what’s next?”

“We have to pack seven years of magical education into a few months, no more,” answered Severus. “You’ll have only the best the Order has to offer. Would you consider giving up Uni? You will have many more options in a free Wizarding world, once the Dark Lord is gone.”

“I’ll take a medical leave this coming term,” said Harry. He found it much easier to commit to than he’d have thought - turning his back, even temporarily, on the course in life he’d worked so hard to start on following his injury.

Severus nodded. Harry thought he looked relieved. “Your leg first, then. This Saturday.”

“This Saturday?” Harry shifted, placing his hand on his injured leg, looking at it, then back at Severus. “That soon?”

“There is no reason to wait. Once the plate and screws had been removed, you will travel by Portkey from the Grangers' office back here. Poppy will begin the magical treatment immediately to regrow your hip and femur and the connective tissues. Expect to be in bed here for two days, followed by a week of therapy to retrain the muscles in your leg. Your training will begin a week from Monday.”

Harry stared again. Stared hard. Hip and femur regrowth and on his feet in two days? He shook his head.
“So I have two days to let this all sink in?” he asked.

Severus gave a tight smile. “No. We cannot afford to waste even two days. Hermione has agreed to begin with you tomorrow - here in the library. An introduction to the magical world.”

Harry brightened. “So I’ll see you, then? You live here, right?”

Severus nodded. “I live here, yes.” They eyed each other and Harry’s eyes rose to the ceiling. “And yes, my bedroom is upstairs - directly across from your godfather’s.” He nearly smiled at the look on Harry’s face. “But I have a rather important mission to plan and carry out before Saturday. I doubt our paths will cross until then.”

“Mission?” asked Harry, curiously.

“Yes,” answered Severus, sighing. “I have to visit an old friend—”

~*~

A lone figure hurried toward the gates of Hogwarts. It was Friday evening and Minerva had met her friend Rosmerta for drinks at the Three Broomsticks, as was her custom on summer weekends. A cold chill started to creep over her, and Minerva frowned, looking up as one of the horrid Ministry Dementors passed by far overhead.

“Awful things,” she muttered, taking out her wand as she pushed open the gate, ready with an Expecto Patronum should the vile things forgot their instructions and come at her with soul-sucking intent.

She waited a breath or two, looking up as another Dementor passed overhead, then pushed the gate closed behind her. She hurried forward toward the castle door, frowning at the man she could now see waiting on the stairs. Filch.

“Nosy busybody,” she muttered, but kept up her pace. She nodded to him brusquely as she approached.

“Argus,” she said, voice tight.

“Headmistress,” he said. He pointed skyward. “They’re thick tonight. Something’s stirred them up.”

“I noticed,” she said. “Perhaps you should stay here and watch for trouble. Please alert me if I need to call—someone.”

She pushed open the castle door, then turned to face him again. “Do you need — a companion?”

Filch scowled at her offer. “They’ll leave me be.”

Minerva frowned and continued on her way, not stopping until she had reached her rooms.

“That was unpleasant,” she said. “You’d best hurry. The Dementors are on alert, and Filch is suspicious.”

Severus Snape had pulled off the invisibility cloak and stood there in Minerva’s small parlor, holding a rather large picture frame against his chest.

“I’ll just be on my rounds, then. I’m late as it is,” she said. “Twenty minutes. Then I’m escorting you out.” She glared at him, but with more worry than anger, and quickly left the room while Severus collapsed onto the sofa, propping the portrait of Albus Dumbledore from Grimmauld Place onto the table. He fervently hoped that the magical portrait of Albus in the headmaster’s office could visit it now that it was inside the castle. Severus might not be able to get into the headmaster’s office to speak to Albus’ portrait, but he could very possibly get Albus to come to him now that he was in the castle.

“Albus,” he whispered. “Albus, at once. We have very little time.”

The still man on the chair behind the desk started to fade, ghostlike. When he had disappeared completely, Albus Dumbledore hurried in from the door behind the desk. He looked around at the portrait room, startled, then finally looked out at Severus.

“Severus! At last! How did you—? Severus - what is wrong? What has happened? How long has it —?”

Severus did not allow himself the emotion that welled up beneath his skin, behind his eyes, at the sight of Albus Dumbledore, portrait or not. He had very little time. “Four years. Voldemort has taken the Ministry, and Hogwarts. Albus - we have found Harry Potter. Explain.”

The portrait’s painted mouth dropped open in a look Severus Snape had never before seen on the old man’s face. Surprise. Shock, even.

“Don’t try to tell me he’s dead, Albus. He is alive. He told us about Old Al. Explain.” He repeated the demand, fingers gripping the edge of the frame, knuckles white.

“Four years and you have just found him now?”

Now Severus’ mouth dropped open. “What do you mean, just now? How could we have found him, Albus? We thought him dead. You told me, told the entire Wizarding world, that he was dead.”

Albus Dumbledore approached the front of his portrait, staring at Severus. “Severus—Severus. Tell me - tell me you did view the memory I left you. In the usual place?”

Severus’ face fell. It was grey, shocked. He had not thought—he had never once considered that Albus had left him a message. “Albus,” he said, his voice no more than a whisper. “Things did not go as planned. This is my first time back inside Hogwarts—since you died.”

/

He could trust no one with the secret. Not yet. Not until he himself had time to think, to research, to understand. To discover in a matter of months a way - any way - to know — to be certain—if what Albus suspected was true.

What Albus Dumbledore, brilliant, gifted wizard, had not found in the eight years that remained of his life when he discovered that little Harry Potter was a Parselmouth.

Horcruxes.

Albus had identified and destroyed five Horcruxes: a diary, a cup, a diadem, a locket, a ring. He’d guessed - rightly, Severus felt, that Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini was the sixth. He suspected that Harry Potter himself was another.

And in those years, Albus had discovered a way to destroy the Horcruxes, but never a way to destroy the fragment of soul without destroying the object it was attached to.

Albus had left him a memory. Had had the foresight to explain in that memory what a Horcrux was, how it could be destroyed, and why he had chosen to let the eight-year-old Harry Potter, receptacle of one eighth of Voldemort’s soul, continue his life as a Muggle.

He—he was just a boy, Severus. A boy. An innocent. I could not sacrifice him. Not then. I tried to find a way to kill the soul fragment yet preserve the vessel. I looked, I researched, until the very end, Severus. I found and destroyed five—five!— but each time the vessel was destroyed with the soul fragment. The Horcrux is not the soul, and it is not the vessel. It is the combination of the two. So I left the task to you. I believed you could succeed where I had failed. I explained it all, told you what I knew about Harry, where he might be found when the time was right—

But Albus had not trusted him while he was alive. He had thought that Severus, that the entire Order, would do anything to end Voldemort’s regime. He had believed they would sacrifice a child, that they would not have wanted to wait, to find another way.

For the greater good.

He is a Parselmouth, Severus. When I discovered this, I had already found and destroyed the first Horcrux and was well on the way to finding the ring. The ring - a relic of Salazar Slytherin himself. The pieces began to fall together. The boy shared the trait of the Slytherin founder himself, a trait so rare that it could only have come from Tom Riddle. And the only connection the boy has with Tom is the scar.

It was all I could do, Severus. I could not destroy the child, and could not discover any way to separate the Horcrux from the boy without killing him in the process. Severus - he was just a boy. A small boy, with his father’s messy hair and his mother’s beautiful eyes.”

He had left Albus’ portrait with Minerva, shrunken and tucked away in a warded drawer, and given Minerva the task of satisfying his curiosity about the state of the Wizarding world and the school he so loved. The headmaster’s office had been sealed since Dumbledore’s death, and Minerva governed from her old office. No one entered that office, not even Voldemort. No one had broken through the wards. The portraits could not leave the castle and spent most of their time, Albus said, snoring in their frames.

“Are you coming down to dinner?”

Severus looked up to find Harry at his door. It was Wednesday, less than a week since he’d made his visit to Hogwarts, four days since Harry had started his treatment, and already he was out of bed and walking without his cane. He was being cautious still, but already seemed like a different man. Back to his former self, Severus imagined, the man who dreamed of a career in the RAF. The man who wanted to fly. The surgery had gone extremely well, and Harry had been back at Grimmauld Place with his first dose of Skele-Gro by noon on Saturday.

Severus shook his head. He gestured toward the pile of old tomes at his left elbow. “Research. How did things go with Minerva?”

Harry stepped into the room and pushed the door closed behind him. “I wish I’d taken Latin in school,” he said with a smile. He walked over behind Severus and rested his hands on his shoulders, rubbing them and wincing. “You need to get up and stretch more often, Severus. And eat a real meal from time to time.”

“Hmmm.” Severus allowed the shoulder rub, stretching his neck to the side so Harry could work the knot there. “The training?”

“Oh. Great. She’s calling it ‘First Year Transfiguration in a Week.’ I turned a match into a needle, beetles into buttons, and a sock into a pincushion. You know - useful stuff. Might need a needle sometime, to sew my beetle back on.”

“And Charms?” Severus let the quill drop from his hands as Harry worked on a particularly tight muscle.

“I learned Accio,” Harry said. “Dead useful. I may never get out of my chair again.”

“We’re going to skip Herbology and Potions,” said Severus. “I’ve given it quite a bit of thought - Potions is my own specialty, but I can’t see that it’s needed now. Once you get the basics from Minerva and Hermione, Mad Eye and Sirius will take you through the paces on Defense. I will teach you how to Apparate myself, and to cast a Patronus.”

“I was actually hoping you’d teach me to fly,” said Harry. One hand continued to rub Severus’ shoulder, but the other had worked its way around Severus’ neck and trailed down onto his chest.

“Harry—”

“I’m feeling better than I have in two years, Severus. Thanks to you and your magical world. Humor me.”

There were lips on his neck now, and both arms were around him. He bit back a groan as Harry’s mouth moved across his jaw line, then gave it up and turned to meet that mouth in an open-mouthed kiss. Harry’s fingers grazed over his nipple and he pulled the boy even closer, sucking his bottom lip into his mouth as his fingers pressed into the back of Harry’s neck.

“Your godfather will teach you to fly,” he whispered, releasing Harry and gently pushing him away as he turned back to his research. “Or one of the Weasleys.”

Harry grinned, pleased with the small concession Severus had made in allowing the kiss. “Ron says you can fly without a broom,” he said.

“Ron should keep his mouth shut,” answered Severus.

“So you were a Death Eater.” Harry stood behind Severus, fingers working his shoulders once again. “But then you started to spy for Dumbledore. And when he was killed, you took over the Order.”

“Mr. Weasley is a veritable font of information,” groused Severus. “All of this is well-known, documented and accepted. I was young. I saw the error of my ways.”

“It wasn’t Ron,” said Harry. “Sirius told me. And Remus. Well, Remus corrected him a lot.” He worked his fingers up against Severus’ scalp. “Why does no one else know those two are together?”

“They told you?” Severus turned his head, looking back at Harry in surprise.

“No. They didn’t have to tell me. It was obvious when I met them. I asked, though, and they didn’t deny it. I wondered if either of them had dated you.”

Severus gave Harry a death glare over his shoulder. “You will never mention that again,” he said. He sighed and reached for the top book on the stack at his elbow.

“What are you reading?” Harry asked, coming around beside Severus and half-sitting on the desk. “It looks old.”

“It is old,” Severus replied. He looked from the book to Harry and back at the book again. “I am trying to solve a puzzle.”

“I like puzzles.”

Severus stared at him, seeming to come to a decision. Go on as he had been, on his own, or trust this matter to the one it affected most. He snapped the book shut and pushed back from his desk, rotating the chair to face Harry and locking eyes with him.

“Then perhaps you can explain to me why your Old Al made the Wizarding world believe that the child of the Prophecy - the one destined to destroy the Dark Lord - was dead when he was, in fact, going about life in the middle of London?”

He couldn’t have predicted Harry’s reaction.

Harry smiled, almost wistfully. “Maybe he just wanted me to be a kid,” he said. “He loved coming to the park and watching us play. He taught us to play marbles, and conkers. One day he brought a yo-yo and showed us all these tricks.”

“Albus Dumbledore was the leader of the Order of the Phoenix,” Severus said with a sigh.

“What? You can’t see him playing with a yo-yo?”

“Oh, I can very easily see him playing with a yo-yo.”

They stared at each other, Harry’s mouth twitching into a grin.

“I know what you mean, really,” said Harry at last.

Severus stood then, walked to the door, and leaned against it with both hands pressed flat on the wood. He muttered something in Latin, and the wood glowed beneath his hands.

“What I am about to tell you must remain between us,” Severus said, turning and leaning against the door. “Sit. Please.”

He motioned to the loveseat and Harry sank down onto it, looking expectantly up at Severus.

“Alright,” he said. “What is it?”

Severus returned to his chair and once again picked up the thin book. He held it as he spoke to Harry.

“I had the opportunity on Friday to have a conversation with Albus Dumbledore through his portrait.” By now, Harry understood the concept of animated portraits. “I discovered that Albus left a memory for me to view after his death, a memory that explained that you were alive, and that told me how to find you. But I never saw the memory, and I—”

Saw the memory?” interrupted Harry. “How can you see a memory?”

Severus sighed. “Wizards can extract memories from their brains, and others can view these memories - immerse themselves in the memory world, so to speak. But the important thing to understand is that I never saw the memory Albus left for me. I fled Hogwarts the night he was killed and never returned.”

Severus stood again, placing the small tome thoughtfully on his desk, then sank down onto the low, squashy sofa beside Harry. Harry turned to face him, looking a bit perplexed as Severus continued. “Albus did not plan to remove you forever from the Wizarding world, Harry. He discovered something about you when you were small, something he hadn’t known or suspected, something that changed his plans. He left you in the Muggle world, hiding your magical heritage from you, but with every intention of bringing you back at a point when he had the information he needed, and you were old enough to make a rational decision of your own. The problem is—” he paused, looking over at the book yet again. “The problem is that I was not privy to this information until Friday, and by then you had already joined us.”

“Are you afraid that I’d have made a different decision if I’d known?” asked Harry, placing one hand lightly on top of Severus’. Their joined hands remained together, on Severus’ thigh, as Severus gathered his thoughts - and his courage. Finally, he turned his hand over beneath Harry’s, grasping the younger man’s hand and entwining their fingers.

“Must be pretty bad,” said Harry, staring at their hands.

“When Voldemort tried to kill you when you were a baby, he intended to create a Horcrux with the murder.” Severus spoke without looking at Harry, staring, instead, at Harry’s hand atop his.

“A hor—?”

“Horcrux.” Now Severus did look up, looking at Harry with unfathomable dark eyes. “A magical object so dark that few wizards even know what it is.”

Harry raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t been in the Wizarding world long enough to be truly fearful and now looked more curious than afraid. “What does it do?”

“Holds a splintered fragment of a person’s soul.”

“Soul?” Harry’s mouth twitched. He looked like he wanted to smile. “You’re kidding, right?”

Harry’s face fell as Severus looked long at him. Severus was not kidding.

“But — a soul, Severus? Like a magical soul or something? Is that where magic comes from?” His mouth fell open slightly as Severus squeezed his hand a bit harder. “Wait. You’re serious. Souls—are real?”

“Souls are real,” confirmed Severus, silently cursing Albus for dropping what amounted to a cynical Muggle in the middle of the Order. “Our souls anchor us to life, to this world, and leave us when we die. Without our souls, we are not human. We exist while we continue to breathe, but it is an empty existence. The Dark Lord - Voldemort - is obsessed with his own mortality and seeks to live forever. On Friday, Albus Dumbledore explained to me what Voldemort has done to remain alive. He has splintered his soul into multiple pieces, storing each in a precious object of his choosing. Should his mortal body be destroyed, his soul will remain on earth so long as one of those fragments remains. When the Killing Curse rebounded from you and struck him, it destroyed his body but not his soul, as he had other pieces hidden as Horcruxes. He was eventually able to regain a body, to be reborn, with the help of his followers.” Severus reached forward with his hand, hesitating before using his thumb to brush a shock of Harry’s messy hair back from his forehead, exposing the lightning bolt scar. His hand dropped heavily to his side and Harry’s hair fell back into his eyes.

“You’re starting to scare me,” said Harry. He pushed his hair back in an exasperated gesture.

Severus took a deep breath, released it slowly. And began to explain.

While Severus had known - intellectually - what a Horcrux was, the reality of one’s existence was still new to him. Harry could sense his discomfort with the topic as Severus explained how Voldemort had created six Horcruxes intentionally, splintering and fragmenting his soul with each successive murder and Horcrux to such an extent that his humanity, when he returned, was as compromised and twisted as his soul had become.

Harry stared at Severus. He had no trouble making the leap. “He thinks I’m one too,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Old Al heard me taking to that snake and decided I had someone else’s soul in me.” He laughed, but it was a harsh, bitter laugh, then dropped his head into his hands and bit back what sounded like a strangled sob. “I should have known this was too good to be true.”

“We don’t know it to be true,” said Severus. “It is conjecture - the most logical explanation, perhaps, for your Parseltongue abilities, but not a proven fact. There is simply no precedent for a human Horcrux - I don’t know what I’m looking for!” He strode angrily to his desk and starting slapping each book in turn onto its surface in a new pile, beside the first.

He had Harry’s attention now.

“This changes nothing, Harry,” he said, his voice softer, nearly a plea.

“I’ve just gotten my life back,” Harry said, smiling a bit sadly. He stretched his leg out before him, looking at it wistfully. “I’m not going to off myself just to kill this—thing—that might or might not be in me so you can get rid of this madman.” He paused, looking at Severus’ stack of books like he very much wanted to sweep it off the desk and onto the floor. He took a deep breath. “And it’s not. In me, I mean. I think I’d know—” He tried to force a smile on his face but it faltered as he caught Severus’ eye.

You didn’t think your soul was real, thought Severus. How would you recognise that anything was amiss with it?

“Albus Dumbledore is wrong,” Severus said aloud. He had been wrong to share this with Harry, he knew now. He would go on as he always had. They all would. He opened a drawer and began piling the books inside, then slammed the drawer shut. He looked at Harry and forced a tight smile. “You are right, Harry. You would know.”

But he wasn’t convinced. Not really. The only known Parselmouth alive besides Harry Potter was Voldemort himself, a direct descendent of Salazar Slytherin himself.

And that seemed an enormous coincidence.

Harry stood, smiled wanly at Severus, and walked toward the door, but it was warded and would not open even though he rattled the knob in frustration.

“Wait.”

Severus came toward him, unable to let Harry leave like this. Harry looked upset - frustrated, angry, slightly ill. Like he had every intent of throwing things against a wall, or taking residence in a pub for the evening and drowning his sorrows in a pint too many.

“Harry....” Severus pressed up against him, wanting to comfort him, giving in once more to the temptation of their mutual attraction. Harry groaned as Severus rocked against him, and Severus let his building frustration at the entire hopeless situation find an outlet in the very real body against him, and in the sweet-tasting mouth that met his hungrily. When he felt Harry’s erection against his hip, he reached down between them, grasping the hard prick through Harry’s trousers, watching Harry bite his bottom lip, throw his head back against the door, squeeze his eyes shut tightly. Two minutes, three, and Harry was rutting against him. Three perfect, glorious minutes more - of watching Harry’s face and body move to the precipice of his release - and Harry was shuddering through orgasm as Severus bit into his shoulder.

Scourgify,” Severus said once he’d caught his breath. Harry stiffened beneath him in surprise, then sagged as he realised what had happened.

“Almost as useful as Accio,” he said, voice low and breathy.

“You’ll get used to it,” promised Severus.

Harry grinned. He wrapped his arms around Severus’ neck and sighed.

“To magic,” clarified Severus.

“Whatever,” said Harry. He pressed a kiss to the corner of Severus’ mouth and slipped out of the room.

~*~

The post-orgasmic languid feeling did not last forever.

Instead, the new word pounded around in his head.

Horcrux Horcrux Horcrux as he showered, the pulse of the water drawing out the rhythm of the strange new word.

Horcrux Horcrux Horcrux as he played chess with Ron - always a futile venture - and tried to listen to the advice of his pieces. They were always uncooperative for him and seemed to want Ron to win.

Horcrux Horcrux Horcrux. It throbbed in his brain when he lay down to sleep, and pressing a pillow over his head did nothing to make it stop.

It did get better. He fought with it enough mentally, was hyper-aware of his every behavior. He’d been totally immersed in the Wizarding world of the Order of the Phoenix for two weeks and had learned that nearly everything he’d thought impossible was not really impossible at all.

His leg, for instance. Right as rain. As strong as it had been before the accident and already nearly pain-free.

Ghosts and ghouls and goblins and unicorns and dogs with two tails and human beings who could turn into animals. Animagi. Sirius. Minerva.

Harry’s own dad.

Severus had been right about the memories. He’d extracted a strand of something from his head - it looked the way Harry imagined a strand of cloud might look - and had shown Harry how to dip his face down until his nose touched the almost-surface of the memory cloud. And he’d fallen slowly through nothingness and landed on a playground, where a little girl with red hair was swinging. Beside him - for Severus was there with him too - Severus softly said “Lily Evans - your mum.”

And he didn’t point out the small, pale boy who was watching her from across the way, but Harry saw him, and when Lily sailed off the swing and landed lightly on her feet, little Severus was there, an unsure smile on his face, and Harry had a sudden pang, wishing Severus had been his childhood friend instead of his mum’s.

His childhood hadn’t been horrible, but it hadn’t been happy.

The memory of his father came from Sirius, who also provided a second - from his parents’ wedding day. Harry came back to Severus’ office so often to see these memories that Severus finally told him no, advised him to take a break from the past and to start living again in the here and now. “Move forward, Harry,” he advised, putting the Pensieve away in a locked cupboard. “It does not do to dwell on the past and forget to live.”

And while Harry was fascinated by the brief glimpses he’d been given of the parents he had never known, and he gobbled up every crumb he was given, his eye was always on Severus, too. He wasn’t an eleven-year old orphan, staring at the ceiling of the Great Hall in somber wonder. He was past twenty now, fully grown, independent. He was looking outward. Moving forward.

And moving forward, in Harry’s mind, involved getting to know Severus even better. If Severus wanted him to live - well, he’d certainly make a go of it.

True - living, moving forward, also involved learning everything there was to know about magic. Magic, the intangible something that was filling up the hole in his life he hadn’t really known was there, the emptiness inside him he’d never before been able to satisfy. He loved his lessons with Minerva, tolerated the magical history with Hermione, and found Defense with Mad Eye humbling and challenging. He’d have thought his military background would have prepared him better for one-on-ones with the ex-Auror. Learning the proper wand movement for something as simple as a Jelly Legs Jinx was not difficult, but remembering which wand movement went with which incantation when Mad Eye taught him five the first day and six more the next was nearly impossible.

He had no trouble picking up Apparition, though. It only took Severus telling him that he’d hide Hermione’s copy of Hogwarts: A History if Harry managed a successful Apparition the first time. Harry had grinned cheekily and popped from one hoop to the other, then back again, not even losing an eyelash.

Mad Eye demonstrated the Unforgivables on spiders.

Only because Harry had asked. Had asked about the spell that had killed his parents. And Mad Eye hadn’t conferred with Severus first, hadn’t asked his opinion or his permission.

“Mad Eye showed me the Killing Curse today.”

Harry had slipped into Severus’ office, as was his custom after training and before dinner. He usually showered first. Tonight, he had not. He was wearing his training clothes – tracksuit bottoms and a sleeveless T-shirt - and his hair was damp with perspiration. He leaned against the wall beside the door, looking tired and vaguely upset.

Severus looked up, hiding his surprise. “Only the Killing Curse? Or all of the Unforgivables?” he asked, studying Harry’s face as he spoke.

“All of them,” asked Harry. He pushed off the wall and sank heavily into the chair in front of Severus’ desk. “As much as I like working with Mad Eye, I can’t take many more days like today.” He rubbed his eyes under his glasses. “How could someone - anyone - get off on that, Severus?” He shuddered, and Severus reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a slab of Honeydukes chocolate. He unwrapped it and broke off a large chunk, then handed it to Harry. “Eat.”

Harry laughed. “Remus already tried giving me some. What is it with wizards and chocolate, anyway?” Nonetheless, he broke off a corner and popped it into his mouth, giving out a low hum of pleasure as the sweet melted in his mouth.

“Chocolate is medicinal,” murmured Severus, pulling his eyes away as Harry licked chocolate off his lips. “It strengthens the magical core when evil is present. It can revive a wizard when—” He paused, watching Harry pick up another piece of chocolate and put it halfway into his mouth, suck on it, then pull it out again. “Would you please just eat the chocolate and stop making love to it?”

Harry looked from the chocolate in his hand to Severus, his face easing into a relaxed smile.

“The chocolate does help,” he said. He had Severus’ full attention again, and slowly sucked the remaining piece into his mouth, then stood and walked around to work himself between Severus and his desk, standing in the vee of his legs and wrapping his arms around Severus’ shoulders.

“Don’t ask me to use any of those curses, Severus,” he said. “I’m not sure I could, anyway.” He sighed. “Well, I suppose I’d really have to be mad - maybe find someone trying to take you down or something.” He rested his chin on Severus’ shoulder, then blew a chocolate breath across his neck and turned his head to kiss Severus’ mouth.

“Let’s go back to my place,” he said, releasing Severus’ lips and tightening his arms. “Maybe watch the telly, get Indian take-out, try out my bed. Have some privacy—”

“You’ve forgotten the Order meeting tonight,” said Severus. He pulled Harry closer to him, rubbed his chin over Harry’s cheek. Harry, worked into a sweat, with a late afternoon growth of stubble on his face, wedged between Severus’ body and the desk, was precisely what Severus needed at the end of a long and stressful day. Over the past couple of weeks, Severus had grown more and more, well, non-resistant if not exactly welcoming, to his physical overtures. And with every kiss, every press of bodies, every grope against a wall, his resistance ebbed even more. The unexpected hand job had ended any real pretense of keeping their relationship strictly professional.

“Are you missing your home or just wanting company in bed?” Severus asked.

Harry pulled back and stared at Severus, attempting to tell if he was serious.

“I’ve been wanting your company in my bed for a while now,” he said at last. “You know that.”

“It will complicate things,” said Severus. He rubbed his chin on Harry’s shoulder. “The timing is abysmal. My focus must remain on the Order’s mission.”

“Remus and Sirius are together and no one knows,” Harry said. “Separate bedrooms or not - they’re in each other’s arms every night and here for the Order all the time.” He tucked a strand of dark hair behind Severus’ ear. “Why they bother to keep it a secret is beyond me. You look like you could use a night out of here, Severus. Why don’t you come back to my flat with me after the meeting? Just for a bit - let me check up on things, pick up my post and such.” He grinned and leaned in to kiss the corner of Severus’ mouth, speaking low as he did so. “Reward me for what I had to go through today with Mad Eye.”

“You watched him torture spiders. Ron Weasley will reward you as soon as he finds out.”

“Ron?” Harry rested his head in the crook of Severus’ neck, thinking that it was about a lot more than torturing spiders. “Why Ron? And I don’t want that kind of reward from Ron anyway.” He shuddered and Severus smirked.

“Ron Weasley is terrified of spiders. He is the frequent victim of practical jokes involving them.”

“Ron isn’t afraid of spi—” Harry trailed off, watching Severus. “He is? Really? That’s good to know, you realise. Might give me an advantage next time I play chess with him.”

“Even transfiguring your pawns into spiders may not help you beat Weasley at chess,” Severus said.

“He’s just that good?”

Severus just looked at him.

“I’m just that bad?”

“A bit of both,” said Severus. “Now go clean up. You smell like a locker room.”

“That good, eh?”

Severus rolled his eyes.

“So you’ll go to my place after the meeting?”

Severus’ arms tightened around Harry as Harry attempted to stand up. “If nothing comes up at the meeting that requires my immediate action - then yes, I will go with you. Lupin and Black will appreciate the privacy, I am sure.”

“I’ll see you there, then.”

Harry pressed one last kiss to Severus’ mouth, then slipped out of the room. The session with Mad Eye, even though he wasn’t the one performing the curses, had drained him, though the chocolate and the brief time with Severus had helped. He needed to talk with Severus again about this training. Training to kill wasn’t exactly new to him. He’d been in the service until his accident, after all. And while the Avada Kedavra was chilling, the Cruciatus was almost worse. If watching someone use these curses on spiders could take so much out of him - what did they expect would happen if he trained his wand on an enemy? It drained him, body and soul.

Soul.

A year ago, even a month ago, he’d have scoffed at the idea of having a soul. Religious bunk. Aunt Petunia’s idea of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation for everyone, anyone, who was the least bit—different. Different like him. Different from the very beginning. And all these years he had thought she hated him because he was queer.

But since coming here - since holding his wand, since having his leg healed, since finding himself wrapped in a cocoon of feeling - he felt like he’d been turned inside out, exposing his—well, his soul.

He couldn’t explain it. It made no sense. But something had awakened inside him, something that threatened to reshape everything he knew about himself.

Except, perhaps, for one thing.

He still liked men and, fortunately, having magic didn’t make anyone less of a man.

Not even Severus.

Especially not Severus.

~*~

The meeting was short.

Reports from Arthur Weasley and Kingsley, who, along with Ron, still worked at the Ministry. The liaison with the Muggle government had been recalled, a Muggle Obliviation team sent to Downing Street.

Reports from Minerva, who had received new orders regarding half-bloods. They would be removed from their homes earlier, at the age of six, and sent to special “formative” magical schools where the influence of their Muggle parent would be mitigated.

In Diagon Alley, in Hogsmeade, stricter operating hours had been imposed, more rigorous curfews established. More shops closed down, more restrictions on the sale of magical items.

“I was forced to provide a list to the Ministry of Muggle-born magical children in the Great Book,” Minerva reported at last. “The mistakes, or so I am told.” She looked around the room somberly. “I do not know what will happen to those children.”

Arguments. Fists pounding on the table. Opinions. End it now. Draw him out. How much longer can we wait?

Severus silenced them.

“With the help of Minerva, I have spoken with Albus’ portrait,” he began, holding up a hand to silence the exclamations from the assembled Order members. “We begin by killing the snake,” he said, voice commanding their attention. “These are Albus’ orders. We must use a goblin-forged blade to behead it. The snake must be dead before we attempt to kill Voldemort.”

It was not a short meeting, and it did not end well. There were senior Order members to assuage and plans to set in motion. Minerva was understandably distraught, and no one believed the snake could be taken out without Voldemort’s knowledge. Harry gave it up after waiting for more than an hour after the official meeting had ended, and made his way outside to the small back garden where Sirius sometimes smoked, and where Severus grew a few herbs and vegetables.

He sat on the ancient garden glider for fifteen minutes, thinking.

This mad man - this monster - had killed his parents. He had tried to kill Harry. He’d murdered innocent people, imposed an ethnic cleansing of sorts upon the Wizarding world. Harry had been told this. He believed it. He believed Voldemort was a menace to the world, and would set his sights on more than the control and domination of magical Europe.

And these people - his new friends - were determined to eradicate him. To stop his reign of terror. These people who had seen something different, something better. Who had lived a life full of magic, who had gone to Hogwarts, and known they were witches or wizards all their lives, or at least from the time they were ten or eleven years old. This mattered to them. Their worlds were bigger than Number Twelve Grimmauld Place.

Yet it was all still so new to him. He took his wand out of his pocket and held it, feeling, as he always did when he held it, a comforting surge of warmth and power. He rested his hand on his healed leg, thought about the godfather he hadn’t known he’d had, about the image memories of his parents, the animated photographs of their wedding that Sirius and Remus had shared with him.

He’d always wanted to know them, of course. But he’d gone on for twenty years thinking they’d died in a car crash. He’d grown up, suffered through life at the Dursleys', then left, making his own future with no help from them and not looking back.

He wished he could end it all for the Order. He wished he cared enough for vengeance to sneak up on the bastard and take him out from behind. Or that he was confident enough with his wand to confront him face to face. That he cared more about the future of the Wizarding world than he did about his own life, his own future.

He checked his watch and sighed.

Because right about now, what he cared most about was getting Severus alone, then getting him in bed.

Fuck. He was tired of waiting.

He gripped his wand tighter.

He felt welcome here. Needed. He was beginning to feel like he was part of some kind of oddball family, even. Sirius truly loved him, in his awkward, teenage, back-slapping, no, not me, I’m not gay sort of way. Remus was like a kind, gentle uncle; Hermione already like a trusted sister and Ron becoming something of a best mate. He had no idea what a grandmother would be like, and he hesitated to assign Minerva to that category, but she seemed delighted to work with him. She pushed him hard, was proud of how much he’d learned already, and though her situation was intolerable, always walking that thin line between the Voldemort-controlled Ministry she served and the Order of the Phoenix that was determined to overthrow it, she didn’t hurry him because her need was so great. Everyone in the Order had the utmost respect for her, and Harry was certainly attached to her already. She genuinely cared about him, and put his needs ahead of the Order’s. She shared his small triumphs, and encouraged him when he failed at the task she’d given him.

And Severus - Severus hadn’t told anyone about the Horcruxes. It was impossible to think of himself as carrying around a piece of someone else’s soul, especially someone as evil as Voldemort. But he hadn’t believed in souls before, and no matter how much navel-gazing he did now, he couldn’t find anything in his past that worried him or that made him think he was evil in any way at all. If he did have a piece of that soul inside him, it was merely a hitchhiker, holding on until it was needed elsewhere.

He preferred to just believe it wasn’t there. Old Al was wrong - he had to be.

“Harry?”

He turned to see Ron standing in the doorway.

“Severus says he’s going to be a while. He asked me to let you know. He and my dad are talking now.”

Harry hid the disappointment he felt. “Right. Thanks, Ron.”

“We were wondering, though - you want to come to the Burrow tomorrow and learn how to ride a broom?”

“Fly? Really?” Harry knew that the Weasleys called their home the Burrow, and that the house and grounds were magically hidden. He got up to follow Ron back inside. “Do you have a broom I can use?” Severus wasn’t forgotten, but the long-awaited promise of learning to fly on a broom took the edge off the disappointment.

~*~

By the time Severus got to the Burrow for the noon meeting with Arthur and Bill, Harry had died and gone to heaven.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

“The boy can fly,” said Arthur, pointing toward the pitch. Severus had had to perform a complicated set of unwarding spells to gain access to the property, and had then answered Arthur’s identification questions with the other man’s wand pointed between his eyes.

Severus lifted his eyes and watched the Quidditch pitch until he picked out Harry.

The boy could fly.

Hardly a boy, he reminded himself, and it was certainly not surprising that he’d be at home on a broom.

“He’s a natural, Severus. They’ve been having Seeker’s duels. He’s giving Ginny a run for her money. She’s home this weekend.”

Severus heard the pride in his voice. Ginny Weasley, Arthur’s youngest child and only daughter, was the Seeker for the Holyhead Harpies, a professional Quidditch team.

Severus watched the play for another minute or two, grimacing when Harry dropped into a simple feint, then slipped into the house with Arthur.

“He’s nothing like I would have imagined him,” said Bill Weasley an hour later as they sat at the kitchen table. “Polite as anything - and still so Muggle. He seems to accept and embrace magic, but never thinks to actually use it for anything practical.”

“Poor boy. I don’t imagine he’s had a lot of fun in his life,” added Molly, taking a seat next to Severus. “He’s a looker, isn’t he?”

Severus didn’t comment.

“I can’t imagine what he’s supposed to do,” said Arthur a moment later. “Did Albus leave you a clue, Severus? Any clue at all?”

Severus shook his head, but didn’t meet Arthur’s eyes as he responded. “Nothing. He simply believes that only Harry can kill Voldemort, as was prophesised.”

“Frankly, I don’t know how we can expect him to do that, either,” said Bill. “This isn’t his war, no matter what the Prophecy says.”

“We have the element of surprise if nothing else,” Arthur said. “The Dark Lord doesn’t know he’s alive. Perhaps that can be used to some advantage.”

Severus shook his head. “We would have only once chance to surprise him. We must have a plan first. And we must take great care to make sure it is a good plan. A plan that will work. And we can do nothing until the snake is dead.”

“The snake is with him at all times, Severus,” Arthur said with a shudder. “No one can get close to the snake without being in his presence. It would be suicide to try to get close enough to behead it.”

“It has to be a blade, Severus?” asked Molly. “Perhaps poison—?”

He shook his head. “Albus was most insistent. The snake has some sort of power that can only be vanquished by a Goblin-made blade.” He looked at Bill, who nodded.

“Griphook has agreed to lend us two,” he said. “A sword and a long knife.” He sighed. “For a price, of course.”

“There is always a price with goblins,” said Severus. “What has he demanded?”

Bill exchanged a glance with Molly, who looked away.

“Aunt Muriel’s goblin-made tiara,” he answered. “It would have been passed down to Mum.”

Severus looked across to Molly, but she resolutely nodded.

“It’s only an old piece of jewelry,” she said, not too convincingly. “I’d never wear it, anyway.”

“Thank you, Molly,” said Severus, leaving it at that.

“The snake has to be killed before the Dark Lord,” mused Arthur. “But can they both be killed in the same battle? We won’t get two chances, Severus. It will be hard enough to engineer one—”

The front door banged open just then and the Quidditch players came in, talking and laughing loudly. The conversation in the kitchen ended.

Ginny Weasley came in first and sat down next to Bill. She was even taller and more athletic than Severus remembered her.

“He’s unbelievable,” she said. “I can’t believe he’s never been on a broom before. We’d have had the house cup every year with him on the Gryffindor team.”

“Assuming he would have sorted into Gryffindor, Miss Weasley,” Severus stated, looking past her to where Harry stood in the doorway. He was flushed and wind-blown and looked as happy as Severus had ever seen him.

Everyone laughed. “Oh, he’d have been a Gryffindor,” said Ginny, smiling over at Harry and winking. Harry grinned back at her, then squeezed in beside her on the bench. Ginny whispered something into his ear, and he blushed.

Severus frowned.

Ron brought out butterbeer for all, and Harry, who had already developed a taste for the stuff at Grimmauld Place, quickly downed his. When Ron asked him to come up to see his old bedroom upstairs and meet the ghoul in the attic, Ginny excused herself and followed them out of the room.

Severus frowned again.

“How is his training going, Severus?”

Severus looked at the doorway, then back at Arthur.

“Slow and steady,” answered Severus. “Minerva reports that he picks up charms and transfiguration easily, and has little trouble with the tasks she sets him. I think she has established a reasonable pace. They’re progressing through first-year Charms and Transfiguration quickly and have already started some second year work.”

“And Defense?” Arthur persisted.

Severus glanced up at the ceiling. Something up there was making a great deal of noise. He heard feet pounding, and laughter, and the squeak of a bed.

“It’s just the kids,” Molly said. “I left Ron’s room just like it was, orange paint and all.”

“He’s learning the individual defensive and offensive spells without a problem,” answered Severus, turning back to look at Arthur. “Dueling, however, is another matter. While he can perform the spells he’s learned accurately, he can’t yet duel with any success.”

“I should think not,” said Molly. She looked up as a few specks of plaster fell onto the table from the ceiling, but otherwise paid the commotion upstairs no mind. “Dueling requires that you be able to predict your opponent’s spell before it’s cast, and defend yourself against it while thinking of your next offensive move. It isn’t a discipline for beginners.”

“He may be new at magic but he’s not eleven,” Fred put in. He and George were standing in the doorway now, listening to the conversation. “Case in point - he took to the broom like he was born on it.”

“You should have him duel someone other than Mad Eye,” suggested George.

“Yeah, someone who doesn’t have a creepy magical eye that can look right through to the pants you’ve been wearing for three days,” added Fred.

“Though Moody’s missing part of his nose, just like the—”

“Enough.” Severus held up his hand and George wisely shut his mouth. “Point taken. Next Friday morning, Harry will duel you. First and second year spells and jinxes only.”

George grinned and exchanged a conspiratorial look with his twin. Severus would have commented on it, but a particularly high-pitched squeal was heard from upstairs, followed by pounding footsteps on the stairs.

“Give it back! Ginny!”

Ginny ran into the kitchen and around to the back of the table, where she ducked behind her father as Harry skidded to a halt behind the twins, who moved into the room and took seats at the table. He looked too disheveled for Severus’ liking. He shot a menacing look toward the Weasley girl.

“Give him back his wallet, Ginny,” sighed Arthur. “For a nearly twenty-year-old woman, you sometimes act like a schoolgirl.”

Ginny grinned and tossed the wallet toward Harry. He caught it in one hand and pocketed it.

Severus stood.

“I told Harry I’d take him back to his flat to check up on things,” he said. “Harry, are you ready?”

“I thought you said you had no plans this evening,” said Ron.

Harry, however, was already saying his goodbyes.

A few moments later, he was hurrying after Severus toward the gate; Severus unwarded it, then stepped out past the Apparition boundary with Harry and held out his arm.

“I think I can do it myself this time,” said Harry.

Severus kept his arm out expectantly and did not comment.

They reappeared in the middle of Harry’s sitting room seconds later.

Severus didn’t give him time even to turn on the lights.

“You should not lead her on,” he stated, catching Harry as he stumbled over the coffee table.

“Lead her on?” Harry headed into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He took out the milk, opened the carton and smelled it, making a face.

“Yes! Lead her on! You know what I’m talking about.” Severus followed Harry into the kitchen and watched him pour a half gallon of milk down the sink. “She has five older brothers, Harry. You do not want to get on their bad side.”

Harry looked up at him. “Bad side? Severus, what are you talking about?”

Severus frowned. Harry dropped the empty milk jug into the sink and grinned.

“You’re jealous,” he said. “You’re jealous because you think I was flirting with Ron’s sister.”

“You were flirting with her. And I am not jealous. I am simply warning you not to do anything rash.”

“Rash? Like what?”

Harry had opened the refrigerator again and had taken out a container of left-over take-away, and was shoveling that, too, down the sink.

“Like wrestling in bed with her. We could all hear the squeaking, Harry, down in the kitchen. At one point, flakes of plaster from the ceiling actually fell down onto the table. You should not lead her on. She does not necessarily know you prefer your own sex.”

“Oh, she knows,” said Harry, grinning again. “She’s quite bright, really, Severus. And she’s not interested in me.”

Severus folded his arms. “Not interested in you?” He raised a single eyebrow.

“I love when you do that,” said Harry. “You really ought to teach me sometime.” He leaned across the table and traced Severus’ eyebrow with his thumb, then tugged once on his earlobe.

Severus grabbed his wrist.

“You’re a tease.”

“Ginny doesn’t seem to have any reservations about taking things fast,” Harry said. “I only met her today and already I know her birthday, her favorite color and what flavor lip gloss she prefers.”

“January 9th. Black. None. And I’d better not taste any on you.”

The kiss was not gentle. Severus was beside him in two strides and had him backed against the counter in one more. Harry hummed in approval as Severus pressed against him and kissed him with purpose, working his mouth with lips and tongue in a claiming, possessive kiss. He groaned as Harry returned the kiss, gripping Severus’ hips, then moving one hand back to caress Severus’ arse through the unfamiliar black robes.

“You’re hiding your best asset,” Harry said, moving his mouth to Severus’ jaw, then kissing his neck. He moaned as Severus pulled his head up and attacked his mouth, framing his face with long-fingered hands, then working one of them lower, on Harry’s neck, his shoulder, caressing his collarbone under the T-shirt he’d worn to learn to fly.

“My arse is bony and hard,” he said. He pressed against Harry with his groin, twisting his hips so that Harry felt his erection against his hip and thigh. “It is not my best asset.”

“Guess I like hard arses,” murmured Harry as Severus sucked on his collarbone, working a hand up under Harry’s shirt. Severus grazed his fingers over a nipple, testing Harry’s response. When Harry groaned and pressed forward into him, Severus’ fingers returned, rubbing the nub with his thumb, then pinching it lightly.

“Fuck, Severus. I’m going to have to make you jealous more often.”

“I’m not jealous,” said Severus, continuing his assault. He pulled at the bottom of Harry’s shirt and helped work it over Harry’s head, letting it drop onto the floor.

“Possessive, then,” breathed Harry, resting his hands on the counter behind him now as Severus brought his lips to his chest and sucked lightly on one nipple. “Fuck. Severus, that’s good.” He rolled his hips, not caring that the countertop was cutting into his arse. “I like possessive.”

Severus released the nipple and blew lightly across it, returning his mouth to Harry’s as Harry shuddered.

“Bed?” Severus said into Harry’s ear, just before he latched on to the sensitive earlobe and laved it.

They made it to the living room before Severus had Harry pressed against the wall beside the fireplace, kissing him again, groaning as Harry wrapped a leg around the back of his thighs to draw him even closer, fumbling blindly with the long row of buttons as Severus kissed him again, assaulting his mouth, then gently removing his glasses and kissing one eyelid, then the other, then claiming his mouth again, smiling through Harry’s efforts to undo the buttons.

“Is there a spell for making someone naked?” Harry asked, giving up on the buttons and working his hand down to feel Severus’ hard length, palming it, squeezing the tip just enough to make Severus’ knees buckle.

“It is a highly guarded secret,” said Severus. “If children learned it, they would use it on each other and it would be impossible to keep anyone dressed at Hogwarts.”

Harry smiled. “I’d have used it on my professors. You first.”

They paused once more, in the doorway of Harry’s bedroom, to kiss, more languidly this time, with Harry’s arms around Severus’ neck. He toed his shoes off as they kissed, allowed Severus to unfasten his jeans, then somehow made it to the bed.

Harry pushed Severus down, knelt on the floor and pulled off his boots and socks, then regarded the strange clothing, not knowing where to start.

“No trousers,” he said, looking up at Severus in surprise. He grinned. “Do all wizards—?”

“Too much talking,” growled Severus. “It is summer, Harry. I wear trousers in the colder weather.”

“I suppose I should tell you now that Ginny Weasley is gay. Seeking for her own team, as Ron says. She’s got a full-time girlfriend and a drawer-full of strap-ons. Alright - Ron told me that part. I have no idea what’s in her drawers.” He grinned at his own joke.

“What did I say about too much talking?” growled Severus, but he smirked and Harry scooted closer and began to properly undo the remaining buttons, then pushed the robes from Severus’ shoulders and worked them off his body, leaving him in black boxers.

“Stand,” said Severus, voice low and commanding. He motioned to Harry, and Harry stood slowly, biting back a smile.

Severus pointed to his jeans. “Off.”

Harry pulled the jeans off his hips, wincing as they grazed his cock. He stepped out of them, and Severus nodded at the tight briefs.

“Go on.”

A moment later, Severus’ hand was sliding over Harry’s cock, then the hand clamped down and pulled him forward as Severus leaned back, and Harry was straddling Severus on the bed, his cock bobbing over Severus’ head and fuck, Severus took it in his mouth, fondling the bollocks with one hand, the other already kneading his arse, fingers working inward to run over his crease as that mouth pulled him in.

He was sure he was going to pass out.

The pressure was exquisite, the position divine. On his knees - knees that worked on a leg that was strong- he was in control, could press down into Severus’ mouth, could pull back and give him just the head, just the tip. He was fucking Severus’ mouth and it was utterly perfect, utterly right.

Severus had pulled pillows over to raise his head, and the hand that was working Harry’s bollocks was suddenly on his arse, joining the other in kneading, in caressing. One finger teased over his hole and he nearly came as it returned, a gentle press, questing inward only a fraction before retreating, returning to the teasing slide.

When it returned again, it was more deliberate, and the slight press inward came with a sudden tightening of the suction on his cock, a hand returning to his bollocks, pressing against his perineum. Severus swallowed his cock then, until the head was tight in the back of this throat and the finger pressed in a fraction more and it was too much, too good, too perfect.

Harry came with a strangled cry, felt the fingers pressing into his hole, against his perineum, the mouth tightly around him, swallowing his release as he shuddered and nearly collapsed atop Severus.

But Severus was rolling him over now, lying on top of him, holding him, but not letting him rest, not yet.

“I was a fool to wait for this,” Severus said, breathing into his throat and kissing him there, over his Adam’s apple, on the soft nape of his neck. “You are exquisite. Delicious.” He fastened lips on Harry’s nipple as Harry arched up under him at the sensation, rubbed his demanding erection, straining against the elastic of his boxers, into the vee of Harry’s legs.

They lay together as Severus rocked slowly against him, moving his lips from one pebbled nipple to the other, dipping down to probe at his navel, kiss the fading scars of his past life. He was slow and deliberate now, waiting for Harry to recover, and far sooner than Harry imagined was possible, he was moaning again, moaning as Severus laved his nipple, blew over it, bit down on it again. Moaning as his cock, impossibly, began to harden as Severus rolled his bollocks.

“So sex is the same for wizards as Muggles?” Harry asked as Severus ran his hands down his sides, his hips, trailed fingers lightly over his treasure trail.

Severus smiled. “We have at our disposal certain spells for cleansing, lubrication, relaxation. I could give you a magical cock ring, depilate your genitalia with a whispered word.” He pressed Harry’s hands down against the mattress on either side of his head, pushed them up until his fingers grazed the headboard. “I could bind your hands magically to the headboard, restrain you with a petrification spell that would allow you to feel but not to move. I could magically raise the head of the bed, or the foot, engorge a pillow or two—”

Beneath him, Harry had become quiet. “Oh.” He swallowed, then gripped Severus’ hands tightly and raised his head a bit to nuzzle Severus’ neck. “Is that all?” he asked, breathless.

“Illicit potion use. Polyjuice - to change your body into that of another, while retaining your own mind.”

“I’m going to like being a wizard, aren’t I?”

Severus laughed. “You’re going to like being a wizard even without the sex,” he said.

He rolled Harry over then, and settled on his back, kissing his shoulders, working his mouth over Harry’s spine, nipping at the top of his buttocks, then fumbling in the drawer beside the bed for the lube and condoms, slipping out of his boxers, and shifting Harry up on his knees.

He took his time preparing him, trying not to think, as he did so, about how long it had been since he’d had sex, how long it had been since he’d even thought about it.

“You’re comfortable? Your leg—?”

“I’m fine. Perfect. This is, God, yes, this is perfect, Severus.”

And then he was on Harry again, pressing into him slowly, taking his time as the muscles gave way, waiting for Harry to adjust, then pressing in further.

It was exquisite.

The tightness, the grip, the smooth slide, Harry moaning, beginning to press back against him, encouraging him with words - There, right there, again, Christ, Severus—more. I can take more. I’m not going to break. Pushing back against him. Harder. Yes. There. Right—there—fuck— The last word, long, drawn out. Each word a promise, a benediction, a plea. Making love to Harry Potter on Harry Potter’s bed in his Muggle flat in London with the bedside clock radio flashing twelve o’clock and a reading lamp and a small television set, dusty and quiet.

Harry Potter alive. Moving beneath him. Wanting him.

Severus Snape. Wanting Harry Potter.

He stopped thinking, concentrated on the feel of the young man beneath him. The grip of the arse around his cock, the tension of the smooth back, the litany of low-voiced words - of praise, of encouragement, of raw feeling. He pressed in to the hilt, a smooth, sure glide, pulled out quickly, then hammered home again. He saw nothing but stars: stars behind his eyelids, stars in the beads of sweat on Harry’s back; stars on Harry’s lips when, both of them sated, he kissed them once again; stars in Harry’s languid, sex-sated eyes as they stared at each other. Stars and magic and Harry Potter - Harry Potter - asleep in his arms.

~*~

Severus hoped, desperately hoped, that Lupin and Black didn’t notice him looking at Harry. He hadn’t counted on this when they’d taken that final step the previous weekend after Quidditch at the Burrow. He hadn’t thought about going back to Grimmauld Place, sleeping in separate beds in separate rooms, sharing living space with Lupin and Black.

There’d been the matter of the full moon to deal with on Tuesday, and Harry had sat beside Severus, across from his godfather and Remus, a look of horrified disbelief on his face as he learned that werewolves, like souls, were real. He’d stood and gone to his room and they’d let him go, though Remus followed him five minutes later, and Severus returned to his office and wondered exactly what the breaking point for Harry might be.

He spent most of his time in his office researching. No matter what he had told Harry, no matter what he wanted to believe, the fact was that he could not discount what Albus had told him. Albus had discovered Tom Riddle’s secret, and had dedicated the last years of his life to eradicating the Horcruxes. To do what he had done, he’d had to put himself inside the Dark Lord’s mind, delving deep into his psyche. Not only did he have to determine that Riddle had made Horcruxes, but how many, and what they were, and where they were hidden.

A task bordering on the impossible, achieved almost in entirety by one man, acting alone.

One man who had fallen before the task was complete, and who had not handed off the baton before it was too late.

When Harry was in training with Mad Eye, or studying with Hermione, or practicing with Minerva, Severus read tomes so dark not even the hottest shower afterward could make him feel clean. But he soon knew there was no sense in reading more, for there was no precedent for a human Horcrux.

Better to try to kill Voldemort now. Destroy his body, if not his soul. It took thirteen years for him to return after trying to kill little Harry Potter - would they not have at least three or four this time?

What was the price of buying time?

On Friday, George came as scheduled and dueled Harry in the training room. And while hardly even-matched, Harry held his own, dodging jinxes and managing a few of his own. And the duel ended with Harry disarming George with a well-placed Expelliarmus.

George’s wand flew from his hand, and Harry snatched it out of the air.

“I’ve been practicing that one,” said Harry, tossing George’s wand back to him. “I figured I should know at least one spell really well.”

“It’s a good one to know,” said George. “If you can’t land a Stinging Hex or a Jelly Legs Jinx, anyway.”

“You did well, Harry,” said Severus. He’d watched the duel carefully, noting how quickly Harry responded physically, even if his arsenal of spells was very limited. He seemed to be a natural at the physical part of dueling - he was quick, sure-footed and obviously not afraid. He just needed more time - a lot more time - to learn the proper offensive and defensive spells.

Before he left the dueling chamber, he asked Harry to stop by his office after dinner to discuss the duel.

He had no intention of discussing anything.

Nor did Harry, as it turned out.

Until this moment, Severus had never realised that his desk was perfect. The perfect height, the perfect weight. The perfect strength. Harry was draped over it now, jeans around one bare ankle, arse bare, gripping the edge of the desk with white-knuckled hands, while Severus knelt behind him, parting the perfect buttocks, running a cool finger down his crease.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this all day,” he muttered, his fingers kneading Harry’s flesh. He’d already startled Harry with the cleaning charm, and threatened him with the magical bindings if he didn’t stop wiggling.

“What are you doing?” Harry moaned as Severus continued kneading pliant flesh then, without warning, buried his face in Harry’s arse.

“Rewarding you for a duel well fought,” said Severus, breathless, a moment later. Harry was nearly thrashing now, pressing his arse back against Severus’ face, fucking himself on Severus’ tongue.

“Christ that’s good. That’s good—good—Severus. I never thought—never thought—I’d like this. Fuck!”

Severus’ hand moved around to grip Harry’s prick, squeezing and pulling it in time with the thrusts of his tongue, loving the rawness of the act, the way Harry melted under him, the unstrung litany of curses, expletives, pleas, promises falling from Harry’s mouth. His own prick was hard and leaking, and he had every intention of filling Harry with it, of sinking into that overwhelming tightness, but now he reveled in waiting, in denying himself the pleasure for just another minute, and another minute more. Pulling the pleasure out of Harry, stretching him with his tongue while his hand worked the beautiful prick, twisting as he pulled, an extra press to the head.

“Fuck, Severus! I’m—I’m going to come—auuugggggghhhhh—fuck fuck fuck!”

And then three things happened at once.

Harry came in a glorious explosion of semen, sweat and swear words, his arse pulsing around Severus’ tongue, thrusting back against his face.

A loud pounding started on the door.

And a ghostly cat Patronus leapt through the wall of the library and alit on the desk beside Harry, hissing, then speaking in Minerva’s voice, but frantic.

Severus jumped to his feet.

“One moment,” he called toward the door. “Minerva’s Patronus has just arrived.”

He made a frantic gesture to Harry, who rolled off the side of the desk and pulled up his jeans, falling sideways to the floor as he did so.

“Severus - I have just found Neville Longbottom at the gates of Hogwarts. Aberforth has come for him. He needs medical attention at once. I have called in Poppy. We are bringing him to Grimmauld Place.”

Harry had gotten to his feet and pulled on his t-shirt. He was staring at the cat, mouth open.

Severus, for his part, looked no less gobsmacked.

“Neville Longbottom?” said Harry, whirling to face Severus. “Isn’t he—?”

“Supposed to be dead?” answered Severus. He cast a Scourgify in Harry’s general direction, then a quick one on himself. “Sit on the sofa. Read something.”

Harry grabbed the Daily Prophet from the floor where it had fallen when Severus had swept the contents of his desk onto the floor, and fell back on the loveseat. Severus tossed him his shoes and socks, and he quickly pulled on the socks as Severus moved toward the door.

Severus threw open the door and Sirius stumbled in.

“What are you doing?” he asked, glancing from Severus to Harry. “Sounded like you were killing each other.” He turned toward Harry. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” said Harry, attempting a smile.

“Neville Longbottom has just shown up at Hogwarts,” said Severus, startling Sirius enough to forget about Harry for a while. “They are bringing him through.”

“But the Longbottom boy is dead—” Sirius followed Severus out of the room, shouting after him. “He’s dead, Severus!”

“And so is Harry!” retorted Severus.

Harry quickly pulled on his trainers, his gut clenching.

Who was going to rise from the dead next?

Was nothing as it seemed?

Severus and Sirius were gone by the time he made it to the corridor, but he heard voices from the sitting room where they’d eaten dinner that first night. He hurried up the stairs and skidded to a halt at the door.

Severus and Poppy were bent over the long sofa. A young man was stretched out there - tall, sandy-haired, very thin. He was moaning, and his face was bruised, his eye nearly swollen shut.

But what caught Harry’s eye more even than his first glimpse of Neville Longbottom, the other child of the Prophecy, was the man standing beside Minerva near the fireplace. This was Aberforth Dumbledore, Old Al’s brother. He hadn’t been at the last Order meeting, but Harry would recognise him anywhere. His resemblance to his brother was uncanny.

Their eyes settled on each other as Harry stood in the doorway. Minerva glanced at Harry, and he gave her a tentative smile.

“Harry!” she exclaimed, holding out one hand toward him.

He entered the room, moving over to stand beside her, taking her wrinkled hand in his own.

And stood there, for a very long time, as Severus and Poppy worked.

~*~

“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”

It was Sunday afternoon, and Ron and Hermione had come to visit Neville.

“Were you all friends?” Harry asked. They were sitting in one of the smaller parlors upstairs, chessboard set up on the low table in front of the sofa. Hermione was helping Harry this time, as his pieces were still not very supportive.

“He was in Gryffindor - so yeah, we were friends,” said Ron. “I mean, we were in the same dorm room for five years.”

“Neville was everyone’s friend,” said Hermione. “He was just so—unassuming. As good a person as you’ll ever find. He was a whiz with magical plants - he planned to study Herbology.”

“How’s he doing?” Harry asked. He’d been asked to stay out of sight, on the premise that Neville was still too weak and had a lot of healing to do before they shocked him with a very much alive Harry Potter.

Harry’s pawn protested his move, flinging itself down onto the board and beating its head against the wood.

“Not good,” said Ron.

“Better,” answered Hermione.

They glanced at each other, and Ron sighed.

“He’s not out of the woods yet,” said Hermione. “I just can’t believe how thin he is. And how old he looks. He was frozen in time, wasn’t he? He was fifteen in my mind and I had a really hard time reconciling this twenty-one-year-old man with the fifteen-year-old boy we knew.”

“Has he talked yet?” asked Harry. He’d hardly seen Severus the last two days, and when they did cross paths, Severus was distracted, though he had given Harry an apologetic look once, and squeezed his hand in passing.

Hermione was shaking her head sadly. “Just that he was kept in a cell at Malfoy Manor. He says he befriended a house-elf there, and the elf helped him escape.”

“And that’s how we know he’s mad, see?” Ron cut in. “A house-elf helped him escape? Impossible. House-elves are magically bound to the families they serve. A Malfoy house-elf could no more help a Malfoy prisoner escape than it could ride a thestral to London.”

“Well, it’s what he said,” Hermione insisted. “And Neville doesn’t lie. You know that, Ron. Think about it.”

“The Neville I knew didn’t lie,” said Ron. “But this—Hermione - he’s been locked up for five years.” He dropped his voice. “He’s been You-Know-Who’s prisoner. Who knows what they’ve told him - or what they’ve done to him.”

They were all silent for a long moment.

Finally, Hermione spoke.

“He seemed like the old Neville to me,” she said stubbornly. “He was so gentle. He seemed so glad to see us.”

“He smiled is all,” said Ron. “I’m not even sure he knew who we are.” He shook his head. “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to tell him about his gran,” muttered Ron.

“What do you mean? His gran?” asked Harry.

“Neville was raised by his grandmother,” answered Hermione. “His parents were victims of the Dark Lord, just like yours, Harry.”

“Not quite like Harry’s,” said Ron. “Harry’s parents were lucky enough to die and move on. Neville’s parents were tortured until they lost their minds.” He shuddered. “They’ve been in the St. Mungo’s mind ward for nearly twenty years now.”

“Neville’s gran died last year,” said Hermione. “Minerva and Severus told him yesterday. He’s taken it pretty hard. They say he hasn’t said much since they told him.”

“Wow,” said Harry, wondering at the parallels in his and Neville Longbottom’s lives.

“Harry?”

Harry looked up at the sound of his name. Minerva McGonagall was standing in the doorway.

“May I have a word?”

“Sure.” He stood. “I’ll be back in a bit. Don’t win that game without me.”

Ron snorted. “Having you in the same room as the chess board doesn’t seem to matter much,” he joked, but he gave him a fond smile as Harry hurried after Minerva.

“Tea, don’t you think?” she asked as they walked down the stairs.

Before Harry found out he was a wizard and came here to train, he’d thought he drank a lot of tea. He was an Englishman, after all. But tea ran as thick as chocolate in this house, where it seemed to be both the beverage of choice (even given such wonderful alternatives as butterbeer and Firewhisky) and an overall curative. Sometimes, Minerva or Severus would magic an entire tea service out of thin air, complete with biscuits or scones, and other times they would order it from Kreacher, or take the time to boil a kettle on the ancient wood-fueled stove in the kitchen. When Harry asked Minerva about this, she’d cocked her head to the side to think about it, smiling gently, as she often did when she regarded him. He knew - or he felt - that she was seeing past him, back to another day with another young man who looked an awfully lot like him. To another era, when times were not so dire, when she didn’t walk such a narrow, perilous line as she did now.

“There is a certain comfort in the act of preparation, Harry. Even we wizards understand that.”

And that had been all.

They found Kreacher in the kitchen today, and he set about preparing tea for them. Since both Minerva and Harry fell into the category of wizard he treated with reluctant compliance, if not quite respect, his under-his-breath mutterings were more about how tired he was, how under-appreciated, than direct character attacks on Harry and Minerva.

Minerva got right to the point.

“I want to speak with you about Neville Longbottom, Harry.”

“Right.” Harry looked over at her. “I sort of expected that.”

Minerva smiled. “Ah, that obvious, am I?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Mr. Longbottom has a rather long road to recovery before him. He has been imprisoned for five years, Harry. Unfortunately, he does not yet trust us - despite being well-treated, despite us bringing in his friends to comfort him and to visit. And we need his trust - we desperately need it.”

“He’s been with the other camp for five years, right?” guessed Harry. “He’ll know things - things that might help us defeat the Dark Lord.”

“Precisely. You understand how desperate these times are, especially given the most recent developments.” She was referring to the list of Muggle-born witch and wizard babies she had been forced to provide the Ministry, to the fact that the Ministry had severed relationships with the Muggle government.

He nodded, studying her face. He trusted Minerva nearly as much as he trusted Severus. She was a no-frills person, who had been walking a dangerous tightrope since Severus fled Hogwarts and took Albus’ place in the Order. With Severus exposed as a spy, the Order had needed someone on the inside at Hogwarts to take over, at least in part, his old role.

“So - you want me to help? With Neville? What can I do?”

She nodded. She looked a bit relieved, he thought.

“He must not see you, Harry. We cannot trust him yet. Not completely. Not given the circumstances. We are looking for a new place to move him - where he can be as safe as he is here yet not compromise our security. But until then, he will remain here, and he must not see you.”

“He was captured because of me,” Harry said softly, looking down into his tea.

“He was captured because the Dark Lord was not absolutely convinced he interpreted the Prophecy correctly,” she corrected. “It is not your fault. You knew nothing of this world.”

Harry considered a moment. “I’ll do what you want,” he said at last. “Whatever you and Severus think best. I can go back to my flat for a while.”

“That will not be necessary. After what he’s been through, I doubt he’ll be thinking of anything much for the next week or so. He’ll be satisfied with having enough to eat and drink, and a comfortable bed to sleep on. He is not strong enough yet to venture from his bed, much less his room.”

Harry looked up. “Right. About that - there’s something I don’t understand. The Dark Lord doesn’t seem reluctant to kill anything or anyone.” He paused, frowned. “So why is Neville alive, Minerva? What was he keeping him for?”

Minerva did not have an answer.

And upstairs, sitting in his desk chair but pushed back from the desk, legs crossed, chin resting on steepled hands, Severus Snape was considering that same question.

Neville’s parents had been tortured to insanity, left for dead, but not dead. Condemned to go on in functional bodies with minds that seldom, if ever, touched reality. True, it had been the Dark Lord’s followers, not the Dark Lord himself, who had committed this atrocity.

So why was Neville Longbottom not only alive, but, from first appearances, anyway, still in possession of his sanity?

Severus mentally reviewed what they already knew - or what Neville had already told them. Any of it - all of it - must be considered suspect at this point. He’d woken up in a cell. There’d been a small window high on a wall near the ceiling, a window he could never reach. He’d been given food and water, never enough, but always edible, potable. He’d been visited, tortured mentally and physically, by Bellatrix Lestrange, by Lucius Malfoy, Alexis Carrow, the Dark Lord himself. To stay sane, he’d mentally reviewed every magical plant he knew, every ordinary Muggle plant. He’d made mental grocery lists, mental birthday lists, even lists of potions ingredients. He had no accounting for days, or years, and seemed inordinately surprised that he’d been imprisoned for five years.

They’d shaved his tangled beard and moustache. That should have been proof enough.

I almost didn’t recognise him through the beard, Severus. But he’d grabbed my hand, desperate. “It’s me, Professor McGonagall. It’s Neville.”

The cell had turned out to be in Malfoy Manor. After a time, he’d been visited there by Narcissa, by Lucius, by Draco. They told him stories - that Hogwarts had fallen. That the Dark Lord had taken his rightful place as ruler of the magical world. That Dumbledore was dead. His family was dead. His friends were all dead. There was no resistance.

And then, miraculously, unbelievably, a house-elf had stepped forward and had offered to help him escape. He’d take him to Hogsmeade, to the gate of Hogwarts, where he could find friends. Someone to help him.

Severus had tried Legilimency, knowing that the boy would be far too weak to resist. He could not - would not - feel bad for what amounted to mental rape. Not in these dire circumstances.

The boy's mind had been clean. All that Severus saw fit with all that he had been told.

But it was too clean. Too perfect. Where was the emotion? The anguish? The relived pain of the Cruciatus? The encroaching insanity of isolation?

It was almost as if he had been skillfully Obliviated before the house-elf set him free. Surgically Obliviated.

Severus did not want to think of what he might find under the surface of Neville Longbottom’s mind.

The Dark Lord was clever. Extremely clever. By releasing Neville Longbottom, he was making a calculated, long-planned move. Infiltrate the resistance. Find them. Undo them.

Severus understood this. He’d only just controlled the rage he’d felt when Minerva and Aberforth had brought Neville to headquarters. Minerva, as Secret Keeper, had made the decision. She’d had to make it quickly, and had had few choices. He could not - would not - fault her for this. And it was done now, so they would have to keep very close tabs on Mr. Longbottom. They would move him to a different location as soon as one could be found. The Lovegoods might take him, he thought. Their home was well-protected and adequately remote, but he would have to provide round-the-clock guards - both for Neville and the Lovegoods. He did not think that Xenophilius and Luna Lovegood could best a single Death Eater, much less a full-blown raid.

Or, perhaps he could send Harry to the Lovegoods instead and keep Neville here where he would be under constant surveillance.

Of course, Harry could go back to his own flat.

The thought of sending Harry away was unappealing.

He felt weak. Compromised. By emotion. By this pulling, unfamiliar need.

He wanted Harry near. He did not think that sending him away - back to his flat, to the Burrow, to the Lovegoods - could possibly have more benefits than risks.

To be truthful, and it was time for Severus to take a good hard look at himself and stare the truth in the eye, he wanted Harry here for very selfish reasons, but could justify keeping him here for very professional ones.

He found himself thinking about Harry often, distractedly rising from his desk and visiting the training room so he could stand at the door and watch Mad Eye work with him. He’d watch them drill - the same sequence of spells over and over and over and over. Mad Eye never tired of putting Harry through the paces. In the space of no more than a few weeks, Harry was at least at third-year level. And Severus never tired of watching Harry.

He’d stand beside the door, arms crossed over his chest, scowl on his face, and Mad Eye would nod at him and continue on. Mad Eye thought he was keeping track of their secret weapon.

Harry, though, knew why he visited.

Harry was not fooled by Severus’ serious demeanor, his persistent scowl, his single-minded leadership of the Order of the Phoenix. When Severus Snape stood in the doorway of the training room, Harry knew he was there because he liked watching Harry.

And while Severus had a hundred reasons to keep their relationship secret for just a while longer, he could not make himself stop watching.

On Tuesday evening, after his lessons with Minerva ended, Harry stared at Severus’ office door for a long moment before sighing and making his way to the seldom-used back stairway. He’d moved up to Sirius’ brother’s old room on the third floor the day before. He’d tried to stay out from underfoot the last several days, and of course, out of Neville’s sight should his door be left open by mistake. Everyone who knew of Harry’s existence had been subject to a long discussion with Severus, and a monitoring spell was put on Neville’s room to assure there were no slip-ups.

Those who knew Neville were finding it difficult to believe that there could possibly - ever - be anything disingenuous about him.

The house had been abuzz with activity and visitors. There’d been a late-night impromptu meeting with some of the senior members of the Order - about Neville, Harry was sure. He hadn’t been invited to the meeting and hadn’t had a chance to get Severus alone since. Not that he needed, or wanted, inside information. But Neville’s reappearance had changed Grimmauld Place. It had changed the atmosphere. The very air was thicker, the tension palpable. No matter the joy at finding another lost boy alive, everyone was on edge. Everyone expected something to happen.

Something big.

Something final.

Harry knew he wasn’t ready. He doubted he’d ever be ready, in fact. He didn’t have a killer instinct, or a desire to avenge. He enjoyed dueling, but it still felt like a game to him. Play-acting.

He looked around the room he was using now. Sirius had had a younger brother named Regulus. Regulus was a Death Eater, a Slytherin who’d joined the Dark Lord while still in school. He’d disappeared soon after he left Hogwarts. The room hadn’t been touched since. Regulus’ school things were still on the desk, his posters on the wall. It felt more like a mausoleum than a bedroom, but Harry was grateful for the privacy, anyway. He pulled off his shoes and socks, slipped out of his jeans and pulled on cotton pajama bottoms, and shucked his shirt. It was really too early for bed, and if he’d been at his flat, he’d have turned on the telly or the radio, perhaps spent some time playing games on his computer or reading the papers that had stacked up, unread, on the table.

But he wasn’t at his flat. He was at Grimmauld Place, the Order headquarters, where there was no electricity - damn. He still couldn’t get over that.

But he smiled, pointed his wand at one of the oil lamps on the wall.

Lumos.

He was still smiling, looking at the end of his wand and grinning, when a quick rap sounded on the bedroom door.

“Harry?”

He pulled open the door and stared at Severus.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning to invite me in?”

“Oh. Right. Of course. Come in.” He stepped aside, then closed the door behind Severus. “You came to my room,” he said. He felt a bit breathless and starry-eyed. Severus was in his room. His room.

“I did,” answered Severus. “It certainly wasn’t an accident that I had you moved up here”

Harry smiled. “Brilliant,” he said. He took a step closer to Severus. “You look exhausted.”

“I am having trouble concentrating - thinking.” Severus glanced around the room, then walked over to the desk. He picked up a textbook sitting there, examined it, then replaced it carefully.

“Did your godfather tell you anything about his brother?”

“Regulus,” Harry said. “He was a Slytherin. He became a Death Eater. He disappeared.”

“We were friends of a sort,” Severus said. He reached out and brushed his fingers over a photograph of the Slytherin Quidditch team that was thumb-tacked to the wall over the desk, then turned toward Harry. “Perhaps you can help me, Harry,” he said, changing both the tone and the direction of the conversation. “I need a new perspective. A fresh perspective. If I told you that a house-elf is loyal only to its master - that they are bound to this master and cannot go against his will - what would you think of Mr. Longbottom’s claim that he was freed from captivity by a Malfoy family house-elf?”

“I’d think the elf was ordered to let him go,” said Harry.

“Precisely.” Severus walked around the room, running his hand along the furniture, stopping again to finger a faded Slytherin banner. He pivoted, turning toward Harry, who had settled on the edge of the bed. “But why? Why did the Dark Lord want Neville Longbottom delivered into our hands?”

“He thinks he’ll get to the Order through him,” said Harry. He was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed now, and he took off his glasses and placed them on the bedside table. “Can he put some sort of tracking spell on him? Some way he’ll always know where he is?”

“He could. There are a variety of tracking spells available - parents frequently use them on young children. But none of them can penetrate the defenses we have built here. Minerva and Aberforth checked him for such spells before bringing him here, of course. That being said, the Dark Lord could have invented something new, something we could not readily identify—”

“It wouldn’t be something so obvious, would it?” asked Harry, watching Severus continue to pace. “Maybe something psychological - something like a post-hypnotic suggestion?” Seeing Severus’ puzzled expression, he explained. “You know, a command that’s somehow buried in his brain and something triggers it - maybe something someone says, or does. Something he hears—. You don’t have sci-fi in the Wizarding world, do you?”

“No. We don’t.” He shook his head. “But continue.”

Harry grabbed Severus’ wrist as he paced by. “Sit down here with me. Relax a minute. Tell me about Neville. What has he told you? Do you have any reason to suspect he’s gone over to the Dark Side?”

“The dark side?”

Harry laughed. “Muggle movie - never mind. But you know what I mean - do you think Neville’s joined up with them? That he’s here as a spy?”

Severus shook his head. “The Dark Lord knows my skill in Legilimency - magical mind reading. He knows I would be able to easily assess Mr. Longbottom’s true loyalties.” He sank down onto the bed and Harry scooted up behind him and wrapped one arm around him, resting his chin on Severus’ shoulder. “No - it is something else. Something more insidious.”

“Does Neville seem happy to be here? Has he said anything about leaving?”

“He has said very little. He is weak still. He has just learned that the woman who raised him is dead. I do not expect to learn anything significant from him for at least another week. I will not try Legilimency again until he is stronger.”

“You’re keeping a guard on him.” It was a statement, not a question. “Do you plan on moving him, then? Someplace less important to the Order?”

“We cannot keep a round-the-clock watch on him anyplace but here. This will have to suffice. For now.”

“Constant vigilance,” Harry murmured, chin still resting on Severus’ shoulder. He sighed as Severus leaned back against him as if finally giving in to the offered comfort and warmth. “Look, Neville’s not going to get up and walk out of here on his own, and no one new can get in here without the Secret Keeper. I think you’re safe to stop worrying about it for an hour or two.”

“I have watch at midnight,” said Severus.

“Three hours then,” said Harry. He kissed Severus’ neck and ran his hand down his arm. “Come on, take your boots off and lie down with me for a while.

He meant to let Severus rest, but thirty minutes later he was naked and straddling Severus, riding him, biting his bottom lip as Severus thrust up into him. Severus’ hair was dark against the white pillow case, his deep eyes sparking in the diffused light of the wall sconce. He gripped Harry’s hips tightly, thrusting up with his entire body, and Harry ground down, thinking nothing had ever felt this good. Not leaving the Dursleys. Not getting his first trust fund check. Not finding out about magic. Not holding his wand.

It wasn’t just the perfect angle and Severus’ cock grazing his prostate with every slow thrust. It wasn’t just the fingers digging into the flesh of his hips, anchoring him on this amazing ride. It was that look in Severus’ eyes, and the way they fit together so perfectly, and the way he pulled Harry down onto him when they’d both come, and the words he said, the words spoken into Harry’s ear as their rapidly beating hearts slowed.

“When this is over, it will be me and you and everyone will know, and no one will care. I deserve it. I’ve earned it.”

And when he was certain Harry was asleep, just before he rose to dress and leave to take his watch.

“All these years, Harry Potter—I’ve been waiting for you.”

~*~

A week went by, and another started. Harry continued to train with Mad Eye, with Kingsley Shacklebolt joining him now to vary up the routine a bit. He dueled Fred on Thursday, and spent most of Friday with Minerva transfiguring teacups into pincushions. He didn’t think that would advance their cause very much, solve the problem of the Dark Lord and all, but it was a lot of fun piercing the pincushions with the pins he transfigured from matchsticks.

Minerva was quickly becoming something of a mentor to him. A mentor - and a friend. He supposed, had he not been inclined to see Severus as he did, had he been attracted to someone like Ginny, that Severus would have filled that mentor role. He thought that his training would be even further along if he had Severus leveling jinxes and stunning spells at him. Not that Mad Eye took it easy on him, but Severus’ reputation preceded him.

He and Minerva had continued their ritual of having tea together when they finished up studies in the late afternoon. If she were in exactly the right mood, she’d tell him snippets of stories about his parents. Apparently, his dad really was a bit of an arrogant bastard when he was younger, but he’d turned into a fine man and an excellent father.

“They brought you to a meeting or two when you weren’t yet walking,” she said, a fond, faraway look in her eyes. “He was so proud of you. He couldn’t bear it that Neville was bigger than you, though. You two were only a day apart, you know. But you could crawl circles around Neville, and had a toy broom that lifted a foot or so off the ground when you were only starting to take your first steps. And your mum - oh, your mum, Harry. She was such a clever witch. She told me once that she’d have a dozen more children if they were all as good as you.”

She sighed, and Harry looked away. In those lonely days of his early childhood at the Dursleys', he’d often imagined a sister and a brother, someone to play with, to stand up to Dudley with him. But imaginary siblings were about as useful as imaginary friends, and he’d moved on, and by the time he left and joined the service, he seldom thought about how his life could have been, had things been different. His past was what it was. The only thing he could change was his future.

One night, after a grueling training day with both Mad Eye and Kingsley, Harry woke in the early hours of the morning to find Severus in bed with him. There’d been an Order meeting the night before too, nervous and contentious, and Harry had left the room at ten o’clock, as soon as Severus had officially ended the meeting, but before most everyone else had left. He’d curled up in bed and fallen asleep almost immediately, trying to block the image of tortured Muggles from his mind, determinedly not thinking about Voldemort infiltrating the PM’s office.

Severus was sleeping. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and his black boxer shorts, and had one hand splayed over his heart. He looked relaxed, off-guard, and Harry looked his fill for a long while, staring at Severus’ long nose and sharp cheekbones in the soft moonlight, counting his slow breaths, watching his brow furrow and relax. Severus looked vulnerable asleep, and Harry realised then that Severus would not allow just anyone to see him like this.

He spooned up against Severus’ side and laid his own hand over Severus’, thinking, as he relaxed to the rhythmic rise and fall of Severus’ chest, that sharing the bed with Severus in sleep seemed even more intimate than thrashing about on it in the throes of sex.

*

On Thursday, Hermione and Ron came to visit Neville again. They spent a half hour with him, then came to find Harry in the library.

“He’s a bit better, maybe,” Ron told him. “He talked a little. And smiled at our stories. He watches us - his eyes are tracking better.”

“He looks puzzled,” said Hermione. Her voice held a note of concern. “It’s as if something is trying to click in his brain, but he can’t quite make the connection. Last time we saw him I thought he was happy to see us, but this time I’m not convinced he really remembers us.”

“It’s creepy,” Ron added with a little shudder.

“Does he say much?” asked Harry, wondering what decision Severus had made about moving Neville or keeping him here.

“He’ll answer questions. He smiles. He talks about that elf - Dobby.” Ron shook his head. “Bunch of bunk, that is. But he believes it. He believes that elf actually defied his master and got him out of there.”

“You know, Ron, it is possible,” said Hermione. “House-elves do have brains. This Dobby obviously saw how he was being treated and took pity on him—”

“McGonagall stopped in to say goodbye to him while we were there,” said Ron, interrupting his wife and shaking his head at her obvious blind spot about house-elves. “Neville’s always liked her. But today, as soon as he saw her, he got all quiet. He just kept staring at her with this look on his face - like he couldn’t understand why she was there. I can tell it upset her. She tried to be all cheery, but she finally left when he wouldn’t stop staring. Even after she left, he stared at the door for a long time.”

“He’s been through a lot,” said Hermione, shuddering. “I hope they find a good mind healer for him - someone the Order can trust, of course. I suggested that they take him to a Muggle doctor, someone who specialises in abuse victims.”

“How’s training with Mad Eye going?” asked Ron, letting Hermione’s musings trail off, unanswered.

“I’m working with Kingsley now, too.” Harry shrugged. “Fine, I guess. They seem pleased enough, anyway. I like the physical part of it, but coming up with the right spell at the right time - well, it’s not as easy as it seems.”

“Oh, it doesn’t seem easy at all,” said Hermione. “And I don’t know why they’re bothering with things like the Jelly Legs Jinx to begin with. You need to know how to incapacitate someone - a Petrification spell, or Stupefy. Death Eaters don’t play around with anything silly. If you’re dueling a friend, they may try to get in a tickling jinx or a stinging hex, but a Death Eater?”

“A Death Eater might torture you before he kills you,” said Ron. He looked glum. “They’re not - they’re not teaching you the Cruciatus, are they?”

Harry shook his head. He changed the subject, distracting Ron with planning another time when they could get together to play Quidditch.

He was bothered by the conversation the rest of the day. Not just the part about the kinds of spells he was learning, but more so about Neville, and Minerva. He couldn’t find Severus after dinner - he’d been thinking of challenging him to a game of chess - so he sat in the upstairs parlor reading a Quidditch magazine Ron had left, thoughts straying always back to Neville. Neville, who was in a room at the other end of the corridor. Neville, who had somehow escaped five years of captivity.

Neville, who had been kept alive by the Dark Lord. But why? Why?

And why was Neville disquieted by Minerva? Why had he stared like that? Why had he watched her? It didn’t seem right. She was his rescuer, wasn’t she? She found him at the gates of Hogwarts, took him to Hogsmeade, to Aberforth. Brought him to Grimmauld Place.

Brought him here. To the Order Headquarters.

Because she was the Secret Keeper.

The Secret Keeper.

His stomach flopped.

Minerva was the Secret Keeper. And Neville was watching her - tracking her. She was the only one here that had an association with Hogwarts. The only one here who would have been at Hogwarts to bring him here.

And Neville was more interested in her than in anyone else.

Who was inside there, in Neville’s brain? The brain Severus had described as “surgically clean?”

Who was looking out of Neville’s eyes?

Harry didn’t have a lot of experience with magic, nor in the magical world, but he’d seen enough already in these few short weeks to know you should never - ever - take anything at face value.

Neville was watching Minerva for a reason.

He’d been kept alive by Voldemort for a reason.

He’d been released - for a reason.

What if that reason was to discover the Secret Keeper for the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix?

What happened if something happened to a Secret Keeper?

The Quidditch magazine dropped to the floor as he stood. He couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in his stomach. He took two steps toward the door, intent on finding Severus. Severus could tell him if he were being ridiculous. Severus could—

And suddenly, someone was shouting.

“Get him out of here!”

Harry froze. It was Severus’ voice, and footsteps were pounding up the stairs and someone else was shouting.

An odd wailing was coming from down the corridor.

From Neville’s room.

Who was on duty now? Poppy? Hadn’t he seen her an hour or two ago in the kitchen?

Scuffling - someone was pounding around in that room. Fighting?

He took a step toward the door just as Remus burst into the room.

“Harry! Come with me!”

Remus didn’t wait for him to react. In a surprising show of strength from this man that Harry knew as the calm and gentle counterpart to his godfather, he grabbed Harry around the middle and started dragging him into the corridor.

“Stop struggling! We don’t have much time!”

“What’s going on? Where are we going? Remus!”

The door to Neville’s room burst open. Remus cursed. He quickly reversed direction, in a near panic, and started to push Harry back into the sitting room.

“Get him out of here!” It was Severus, yelling from the lower floor. “Lupin - take him and leave! NOW!”

“What’s going on?” Harry hissed at Remus, struggling against him. But Remus stood firmly in the doorway, blocking him in the room.

Neville Longbottom was in the corridor. Standing in the corridor with a wand.

“Neville, where’s Poppy?” Remus said, voice low, calm. Neville Longbottom was staring at Lupin, staring at the struggling man behind Lupin, staring with wild eyes, eyes not comprehending what he was seeing.

Stupefy! Incarcerous! Stupefy!

It was Sirius’ voice, strong and sure, cocky, even, from below.

Neville, distracted, looked toward the stairs.

“Go!” Remus pushed Harry back into the sitting room and charged down the corridor to deal with Neville.

Now Sirius and Severus were both shouting out spells. Their voices rose up the stairway, amid the sound of furniture being moved, bodies and spells hitting the walls. It sounded like Dudley and Uncle Vernon wrestling in the formal living room.

Harry’s heart was racing. He knew Severus wanted him out of here - that was abundantly clear. But it was too late for him - maybe too late for all of them.

More pounding on the stairs. His heart nearly stopped. He peeked out the crack in the door, saw a figure in black he didn’t recognise. Raised his wand, took a breath. Held it.

Stupefy!

The spell hit the man square in the middle of his chest and he fell, face down, on the floor.

“Get back! Get back!” yelled Remus. Harry realised he was not saying his name. Not saying his name on purpose. “Hide!”

Stupefy!

Harry was calm. Calmer than he imagined he should be given the fact that he was about to die. His wand was steady in his hand as he took out the second man. Death Eaters. Robes, masks, not quite what he had imagined when Sirius had described them, but who else could they be? He shot a glance down the hall. Remus had disarmed Neville and had him in a stranglehold.

Neville went limp, but in the moment before he gave in and stopped struggling, his eyes met Harry’s.

And in that very moment, that very second, Harry’s scar exploded.

Pain like he’d never known, pain worse than the crushed hip, coursed through him, made him fall to his knees. He struggled up again, nearly blind with the pain, gripping his wand like a lifeline. He was angry, unaccountably angry. Rage boiled within him. Rage at the infidels. The Mudbloods. The blood traitors. At the traitor inside Hogwarts. At the Death Eater who had betrayed him.

But it wasn’t Harry’s rage. It was foreign, unfamiliar, and it didn’t fit within the boundaries of his mind. It spilled outward and it was only with the most supreme effort that Harry was able to separate his mind from it, and understand - finally - that he was feeling Voldemort’s anger.

Through Neville.

Through his scar.

There was more shouting downstairs, and a new form on the stairs, shrouded in black, moving surely, effortlessly, upward.

Severus’ voice again. “Black! Sirius! Damnit! Remus - Sirius is down. Go!”

Minerva. Minerva would never betray them willingly, would never let in the enemy.

Sirius was down.

Severus would be next.

Rage boiled within him again. But it was his own rage this time, his own to feel, to control. No! He’d only just gotten his life back.

This had all gone horribly wrong. He was supposed to have time. Time! To learn spells more useful than Lumos, or Accio, or even Stupefy.

Time to kill the snake.

Dumbledore had said the snake must die before Voldemort.

The penny dropped.

No. Not the snake. The snake wasn’t the sixth intentional Horcrux after all.

“My pet. Where is my pet? Where have you put him, werewolf? Where have you taken him?”

Lupin stood in the corridor, wand raised, facing Voldemort. Harry watched, horrified, and time seemed to slow down as Voldemort raised his wand, as Lupin swung his in a great arc, as Neville - Neville! - rushed from the side, head-butting Remus, knocking him to the ground as the vibrant arc of green light from Voldemort’s wand cut into him instead. He fell without a sound on top of Remus and Voldemort let out a shrill cry of unmitigated rage.

Harry thought it not unlike the death cry of a wounded animal.

A Stupefy was on Harry’s lips. It was there, ready, when he stepped into the corridor and faced Voldemort. But when he raised his wand, when he looked into those near-reptilian eyes, he knew a stunning spell would never fell this monster.

Expelliarmus!

Avada Kedavra!

The green light came at him and there was no time to think or to react. No time to do anything, anything save stare at the man who had taken everything from him, and was now about to take his life. He had a vague impression of glowing eyes, and wondered briefly how it was that he wasn’t dead, how it was that he was still standing, holding his wand.

Wondering why his wand hand was being pulled forward, connected to his enemy by a bright beam of spell light.

He gripped the wand harder, stepped backward with effort, not understanding. His gaze was riveted on a ball of focused light where white beam met green. It was like roiling energy, a maelstrom of power, and it was creeping closer to him along the strange intertwined threads of light.

He pushed.

The ball inched further away, back toward Voldemort.

As he held the wand, as he pushed with all his might, streamers of light broke off the main circuit, weaving themselves cagelike over and around the combatants in the corridor.

Harry held on. His body felt heavier than it ever had. Before him, Voldemort took a step backward, finally comprehending.

“Harry Potter,” he hissed. “We meet—we meet at last.”

“We meet again,” said Harry, daring to look at this man who had terrified the Wizarding world. He wanted nothing more than to drop his wand and flee, melt through the floor and fall into his little London flat, transport himself back to his safe life at University with study groups and lectures and meet-ups at the coffee house.

But he needed - he needed - to finish this.

For his parents.

For Minerva.

For Severus.

“Dumbledore lied!” spat Voldemort. His rage made the cage glimmer and spark. “He lied!”

Harry gripped his wand so tightly he knew his shaking fingers must be making indentions in the wood. He pushed again - forcing the uncompleted spell forward, toward his opponent. Sweat was beading on his face. He heard shouting, and a beautiful, mournful, melancholic trilling sound that warmed him like Wizarding chocolate, like Minerva’s approving smile, like waking up in Severus’ arms. And somehow, somehow, the sound seemed to strengthen his resolve.

His parents. Minerva. Severus.

He pushed again, and the roiling ball of energy separated, became two smaller balls, one creeping closer to him, the other closer to Voldemort.

His arm ached. His head was a constant throbbing pulse of pain. It pounded with Voldemort’s rage at Dumbledore’s deceit. At finding Harry alive.

And Harry understood only that he had to push his ball forward to complete the spell, and Voldemort must have understood too because his spell, contained in its own ball, was inching forward, closer and closer to the tip of Harry’s wand.

“Lupin!” It was Severus calling. Remus was moving behind him now, but he did not answer.

“Harry!”

“Severus! Stay back!” Harry warned, instinctively pushing his magic through his wand with every ounce of strength he possessed.

“Hold on, Harry. Hold on!”

~*~

He took time only to throw a stasis spell at Black before half jumping, half climbing over Malfoy and Avery, both Stupefied on the kitchen floor and blocking the doorway. He ignored Lestrange’s lifeless form staring at the ceiling of her ancestral home, and rushed up the stairway to the main level.

He didn’t understand how this had happened, not yet, but in his heart of hearts he knew Minerva was gone, and hoped with heart, body and soul that Lupin had gotten Harry out of the house in time.

The eerie glow coming from the first floor corridor unnerved him.

“Lupin!”

There was no answer. His head swam. His heart skipped. Was he hearing phoenix song?

“Harry!”

“Severus! Stay back!”

He skidded to a halt near the top of the stairway, beside a birdcage of light, containing Harry and—

Voldemort.

He could not approach it. Something repelled him when he got within a yard of it. It was a cage of light and energy, a three-dimensional spider web filled with a sound he hadn’t heard since that horrible night he’d left Hogwarts. The night Albus had died.

“Severus - we were wrong. Al was wrong.” Harry’s voice rose from within the spell cage, hollow and echoing. Severus could hear the near panic in his voice, could make out how he gripped his wand out with both hands, pointing it toward his enemy.

“Hold on, Harry.” The panic in his voice was unfamiliar. The weight in his stomach unnerving. He felt helpless, trapped outside of a war that had always been his war, his battle. His until Harry Potter tripped into their lives. Into his life.

“Severus!”

It was Lupin now, calling out from behind Harry.

“Stay there! Wand ready!”

“It’s not the snake, Severus,” called Harry. His voice was raw, desperate. He choked. “It wasn’t the snake. It was Neville.”

And suddenly, Severus understood. Too late. Far too late.

Longbottom. The sixth Horcrux.

“Hold on, Harry!” His voice was a plea, and he tried again to push against the light, but was repelled back toward the stairway.

“Severus,” Lupin shouted. “Sirius—?”

“Alive,” barked Severus. “Under stasis. Get help. Reinforcements. Go!”

Remus was gone with a crack, reappearing on the other side of the cage behind Severus and taking off down the stairs.

“Harry, not much longer. You have it. Stay strong. Steady. Focus, Harry. Focus.” He tried to keep his voice calm and low, but knew that any moment it could be over. Harry was straining, arms shaking, sweat beading off his face.

“Do not listen to him, Harry Potter. He is a spy and a traitor. Does he love you as he loved your mother, Harry? Love! A worthless, useless emotion. It did not save your mother, Harry. It did not save Albus Dumbledore. It will not save you.” Voldemort laughed, a hollow, heartless sound.

Harry’s almost wavered. Severus - had Severus loved his mum?”

“Ah! So the traitor has not told you. Has Severus not told you that he groveled at my feet? Begging me not to kill her? Bargaining with me?”

“Harry! Don’t listen to him!”

Severus’ voice came at him and even though it was edged with fear, even though there might be truth in Voldemort’s words, Harry focused on Severus’.

“Neville is dead, Severus,” Harry called out. “He jumped Remus and got hit with Voldemort’s killing curse. Voldemort killed him. We can end this. We can end this now.”

Then Harry - Harry stared through the cage of light past Voldemort, eyes locked with Severus’, and pushed harder.

*

He could hear Severus behind Voldemort, and though the words were slurred, he heard their meaning. He knew Severus had understood him, that Neville was the Horcrux, not the snake as Dumbledore had thought. Neville, whom he had kept close to him all these years.

With Neville gone, the only pieces left of Voldemort were trapped together in this bizarre cage. There was no escape, and Harry understood that. Severus could not break through and neither he nor Voldemort could escape it while their wands were locked.

Well, he wasn’t going anywhere unless he took the soulless bastard with him.

The timing had to be perfect. The killing curse had to hit him first, and Severus had to be ready to kill Voldemort as soon as he fell.

He knew he could count on Severus to finish him off.

The pulsing green ball was close now, nearly as close to him as his own spell ball was to Voldemort. Inches now, mere inches. Enough, he hoped. Enough to distract Voldemort, to give Severus the time he needed to take him down once and for all.

“Kill him,” he pled, hoping Severus would hear. “Kill him, Severus.”

He swallowed.

What would death be like? Would his soul really live on in a new dimension? A few weeks ago he’d have thought that there was nothing beyond the existence he already knew.

A few weeks ago - before he went to the dentist, and met Hermione. Before Hermione brought him Severus.

Severus would live.

He steeled himself.

Closed his eyes.

Surrendered.

The green ball touched the tip of his wand and exploded outward in a thousand splinters of light.

Harry was hit first. He crumpled to the ground as Voldemort cackled only once before realization hit him and the bouncing green rays came at him, still trapped within the fading golden cage.

He was hit a hundred times, but the first one did all the work. He fell backward through the cage walls that were no more, his body falling headfirst onto the stairway and sliding past Severus - thump, thump, thump - then coming to rest, finally, with a sickening crunch, on the landing far below.

~*~

Heaven looked remarkably like the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Harry opened his eyes to the lights of London below and an endless expanse of stars above. He was sitting on the walkway, leaning back against the Cathedral, and he was not alone.

“I wondered when you’d get here.”

Harry slowly turned his head to the left. Neville Longbottom was sitting beside him, leaning back against the stone wall just as he was, hugging his knees. His face was shrouded in shadow, but he looked calm, and blissfully at peace.

“Are we dead?” asked Harry. He held up his hand, palm down, and stared at the skin and veins. He closed his hand, opened it again, then pinched the skin.

Neville shrugged, eyes raised skyward. “Maybe. It’s beautiful here.”

Harry closed his eyes and sighed. “It is.” He didn’t say anything more. There didn’t seem to be any need to talk. Not really. Time seemed unimportant. There was no need to fill awkward silences.

“But you’ve been dead before.” Neville reached forward toward the rails. He passed his fingertips through them, waved his hand back and forth, smiling.

“So’ve you,” Harry said.

“It wasn’t like this, though,” said Neville. He passed his hand through the rail again. “These bars aren’t real.”

Harry stretched his legs forward. They passed through the metal rails and reached the edge of the walkway.

“Did you know?” asked Harry, after another lengthy pause that could have lasted seconds or decades. He rubbed his scar. “About his soul?”

Neville rested his head on his knees. “Yeah. He told me. Over and over and over and over. So I would be an appropriate vessel for his tortured soul.” Neville looked down, then tilted his head up and gazed at the stars. “I didn’t have a window. I missed the stars.”

Now Harry looked up. “It’s better not knowing - about the soul, I mean.”

Neville smiled vaguely. “I could never not think about it. I could feel it, weaving itself in with my own. Every time he touched me, every time he tried to…to break me.”

“Neville - Neville, I—”

But there were no words. No words. Neville gulped in a breath of air and let his gaze go skyward again.

“Severus brought me here once.”

Neville smiled. “Sounds funny to hear you say Severus. He’s a bastard, you know. He tormented us in Potions.” He glanced over at Harry. “I can’t believe you’re alive. You’re the Boy Who Lived.”

Am I alive?” asked Harry, pinching his hand once again.

“I think you are,” said Neville.

Harry smiled. He watched a bus, far below, trundle along the lamplit street.

“They didn’t tell me about you,” said Neville. “When I came to Grimmauld Place.”

“No, they didn’t,” answered Harry. “You weren’t yourself, Neville.”

Neville looked away sadly, and Harry placed a hand on his knee. “But really, I haven’t been back that long, have I? There wasn’t a lot of time.”

“No, there wasn’t, was there?”

He stood then, and once more looked up at the stars above, at the starlight reaching them across the coldness of a thousand light years.

Harry’s eyes, however, were drawn to the lights down below. London. Nearly close enough to touch. Warm and glowing and alive.

“Tell them goodbye, will you, Harry? That I have to move on. Tell them I’m sorry.”

Harry stood. He smiled at Neville.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about, Neville.”

Neville stretched out his hand toward Harry, and Harry took it and pulled Neville to him, hugging him like a long-lost brother, thinking of what Minerva had told him. That they were only a day apart in age. That he’d crawled circles around Neville. They’d played together then, in a time and place neither of them remembered. Their fathers had held them up to regard each other when they were babies. They’d started their lives together.

But now Neville was drawn to the stars in the heavens.

And Harry to the lights down below.

~*~

He knew, when he woke, that he wasn’t dead, but it certainly felt like heaven. He was snug and comfortable. He felt warm and safe and utterly at peace.

“Harry?”

He sighed and thought briefly about opening his eyes. It seemed like a great deal of effort, so he kept them closed.

“Harry. You need to wake up. Poppy thinks you’ve been sleeping long enough.”

“Tired,” he muttered.

Laughter. “You should be, after what you went through. But you’ve slept twelve hours straight, now.”

“Hermione?” He cracked open an eye. Hermione was sitting beside him, and he knew now that he was in bed, a bed he didn’t remember. He opened the other eye. He didn’t know this room, either.

“Do you remember what happened?” Hermione asked, stroking sleep-sweaty hair off his forehead.

“Mmmm.” Harry rolled onto his side and hugged his pillow. He frowned. He’d really rather not think about it. “Voldemort.”

“He’d dead. Killed by his own spell - which should have killed you, by the way, Boy Who Lived and Lived Again.”

Harry blinked. The fuzziness in his brain was beginning to dissipate. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, cold realization settling like a foreign weight in his belly.

“Minerva is dead, isn’t she?”

“Oh, Harry—”

“Sirius?” he rolled his head on the pillow to face her.

“He’s going to be alright. He’s in hospital. Remus is with him.” She grinned. “Those two! Had me fooled at least, though Ron claimed he’d known it all along.” She squeezed Harry’s hand. “Ridiculous pure-blood notion about - oh, never mind. He’ll be home in a couple days, Harry.”

Harry smiled. “I figured it out the first day, you know.”

“Just like we all figured out you and Severus? Oh, Harry! Don’t look so surprised. Did you think we really couldn’t tell? We’ve known Severus forever - he’s never smiled before, Harry. Never.”

“Is he alright?” asked Harry, twisting his head to look around the room. “Where is he?”

“At the Ministry with Kingsley,” Hermione answered. “Things are rather insane. Kingsley’s got the entire Auror Corps on his side and they’ve managed a pretty thorough clean-up already. He’s acting Minister now and Mad Eye’s the temporary head of the MLE - Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Harry. It’s incredible - a real celebration. Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are practically rioting - it’s like England won the World Quidditch Cup.”

“Did he - has he come to see me?”

“Did who? Severus?” Hermione looked at him earnestly. “Harry - when I got here - God - only a half hour after it happened - he was frantic. He was sitting in a chair he’d pulled up next to the bedroom door, gripping his wand so tightly you’d think he’d have squeezed sap out of it. He’d carried you in here after he finally let Poppy get near you. I think she realised you were alive before he did.”

“Did he tell you how he did it? How Vo—the Dark Lord—?”

“You can say his name now, Harry. And yes - he did. Or he tried. No one really understands it, but he’s got all sorts of books and he said I could have them.”

Harry smiled. “That should make you happy. You like books.”

“I love books.”

Harry stared down at his hand. Flesh and bone and skin and sinew. He pinched it.

“Neville knew,” Harry said. “Knew what Voldemort had done.” “He looked at Hermione. “Why am I still here?”

“Voldemort’s spell - his Avada Kedavra - it took Neville’s soul, too,” replied Hermione in a very quiet voice. “At least that’s what Severus thinks. And he thinks when the killing curse hit you, it only killed the—well, the Horcrux. Because you’d been kept away from magic, and that soul fragment was there in you, but it wasn’t really anchored to you.” She smiled. “You’re here, aren’t you? You’re still here, Harry. It’s a miracle, but it’s about time we had one.”

“So—Voldemort’s body?”

Hermione shuddered. “Horrid. But absolutely dead. Kingsley and Arthur took it away.” She paused, looked toward the door, which was slightly ajar, then back at Harry. “Ron and Bill were the first to get here after Remus sounded the alarm. They practically tripped over his body on the landing. They thought the worst, of course. But Severus was on the floor beside you and when Ron tried to help, he wouldn’t let him get anywhere close. Bill went into Neville’s room and revived Poppy - Neville had gotten her wand and stunned her - and brought her out. When she got close and realised you - well,” Hermione smiled and shook her head in disbelief, “that you weren’t dead, all hell broke loose.”

Harry rolled on his back again, and stared up at the ceiling. “When I was — asleep — I talked to Neville. On the outside walkway around the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

“You spoke with Neville? Harry - Harry, Neville is - “

“Dead. I know. He needed to go on. He told me to tell you all that he was sorry.”

“Harry. Oh. You did talk to him, didn’t you?” She gave him a rather teary smile.

“Yeah. I can’t even imagine what he went through. It wasn’t just having the Horcrux - hell, I had one too, and for far longer than him. But it was knowing about it. Being taunted by Voldemort. Being deliberately used like that. He’s better off on the other side, don’t you think? With his gran?”

“He is better off, Harry,” said Hermione. “But I’m awfully glad you made it. Ron’s got all sorts of plans for you now that we can get on with life.”

Harry grinned. “I have some plans, too,” he said.

He rolled the pillow up again and held it to his face, resting his forehead on it. It smelled—it smelled like Severus.

He looked at Hermione in surprise. “This is Severus’ room?”

“Of course it’s Severus’ room,” she said. She rolled her eyes. “Where else would he take you, Harry?” She shook her head, and Harry buried his face in the pillow.

~*~

Poppy had made him eat, and Ron had come by to see him, and Mad Eye, and a good half of the Order of the Phoenix. Then he’d fallen asleep again, here in Severus’ bed, but woke when Severus settled on the edge to take off his boots. He smelled of smoke, and dust, and whisky.

“You’ve been celebrating without me,” Harry said, rolling onto his side.

A boot dropped onto the floor, then another, then Severus pulled back the covers and slid into bed beside Harry.

“I have been celebrating because of you,” replied Severus. “And I’ve had a full report from Poppy, mind you. She’s aware of our - hmm - extracurricular activities - and has advised me that you are to take it easy for a day or two.”

“Madam Pomfrey told me that I’m perfectly fine. Unbelievably fine, in fact. And apparently - she and everyone else - is aware of our activities because you cried over my body and carried me to your own bed.”

It might have sounded like he was joking, but he was not. He dropped his voice and snuggled up closer to Severus.

“I did not cry,” said Severus. “I do not cry.”

“Sure,” said Harry, pulling Severus against him. “You don’t cry.”

“You were stronger than Mr. Longbottom,” Severus said after a proper snog, which he carried out despite Harry putting far more energy into it than Poppy might think proper considering his condition. “The destruction of the soul fragment was more than his body could bear.”

“Hmmm.” Harry considered a moment, then kissed Severus’ shoulder, rubbing his stubbly chin against Severus’ neck. “A month ago, when I’d never heard of Horcruxes, I didn’t believe in souls, or an afterlife of any sort. But when I died—”

“You didn’t die,” Severus corrected.

“Yeah. I did. Kind of. I had to decide - whether to go on, or to come back.” He rested his face against Severus’ chest and ran his hand over Severus’ side. “I’d have thought I’d been at some other kind of place - like a train station, maybe - you know. An airport. Somewhere where you start a journey. Or end one.”

Now Severus was running his hand over Harry’s back, up and down, as if considering Harry’s words.

“A near-death experience, perhaps?” he suggested quietly.

“I don’t think so,” answered Harry. “But Neville was there, too.”

The hand on Harry’s back paused, then started the rhythmic motion again. “Where were you, then?”

Harry let out a breath. “St. Paul’s,” he said. “The walkway around the outside of the dome. Where you took me that first night.”

“Ahh. St. Paul’s. That place must have stayed with you.”

“It did,” said Harry, glad that Severus wasn’t discounting his story outright. “It’s so close to the stars, and so close to the London streets - to life. When you think about it, you can practically touch the sky there, but can so easily come back down too.” He paused, thinking of the cold, twinkling stars above and the warm lights of automobiles and buses and streetlamps and pubs below. He took a long breath and released it, feeling at peace with his decision, and with Neville’s.

“He wanted to touch the stars,” Harry said. “Neville did, I mean. But I just couldn’t stop looking at the lights down below.”

“So you came back - and he went on.”

“He told me to tell you he’s sorry,” said Harry. “But I told him he didn’t have anything to be sorry for. He couldn’t help being one - just like I couldn’t.”

“But you came back,” said Severus. He pulled Harry closer, so that their bodies nestled snugly together, in the middle of his great four-poster bed. “You chose to come back. And as the great Albus Dumbledore used to say, ‘It is our choices that define us.’”

“I only learned about Horcruxes a few weeks ago,” said Harry. “But Neville - Neville knew for five years, and for five years, he was tortured - mentally and physically - so that his body would be an ‘appropriate vessel’ for Voldemort’s soul. I don’t know, Severus. If it were me in his shoes - I think I’d have chosen the stars as well.”

“But you came back,” repeated Severus. And he had that odd smile on his face again, and he rolled Harry onto his back, mindless of Poppy’s warnings, and straddled him, held his hands to the mattress beside his head and stared into Harry’s eyes. “You saved us.”

Harry turned his head and kissed Severus’ wrist. “I’m nobody’s savior, Severus.”

“You are. And you came back to us.”

“To you,” corrected Harry.

“To me,” confirmed Severus. He kissed Harry then, and he was laughing, and crying, and he was the Severus Harry knew, but more than Severus. He kissed the corner of Harry’s mouth, whispering again.

“To me.”

-Fin-