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A Life Worth Living

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Title: A Life Worth Living
Author: [info]avioleta
Rating: NC-17
Word count: 12,200 words
Summary: There is nothing malignant, nothing unsettling here, except for the fact that he’s in an unfamiliar place, in an unfamiliar bed, curled beside Harry bloody Potter, of all people.
A/N: Thank you to the mods for their patience, support, and understanding.

 


A Life Worth Living

 

Severus wakes with a start, hand already reaching for his wand beneath the pillow. He knows something is wrong before he even opens his eyes.

Harry lets out a sigh beside him and burrows further under the covers, his sleep-warmed skin pressed against Severus’s.

Severus jerks upright. Yes. Something is definitely wrong. He looks around, holding his breath and pointedly ignoring the softly snoring wizard beside him. There is nothing malignant, nothing unsettling here, except for the fact that he’s in an unfamiliar place, in an unfamiliar bed, curled beside Harry bloody Potter, of all people.

Potter stirs, stretching and raising his arms above his head. He’s bare-chested, clad only in sleep pants; the blue flannel is covered in golden snitches. Severus has a distinct memory of Potter purchasing the ridiculous pants, which is absurd, of course. He’s never been shopping with Potter, has he?

Severus remains absolutely still, wondering briefly if he could slip out of bed, Apparate away without waking Potter. But it’s too late; Potter sighs and mumbles softly, “It morning already?” before turning, pressing even closer to Severus as green eyes blink open sleepily.

Potter bolts upright. It’s nearly comical how quickly he scrambles out of bed. “Holy shit.”

“My thoughts precisely, Mr. Potter.”

“I…we… What happened?” he waves a hand emphatically, as though the gesture will make everything clear. “Where are we? There’s something wrong.”

“Obviously.” Severus sighs, pressing his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. Potter speaks like pulling teeth, but, unfortunately, Severus has nothing more to offer.

Potter takes his wand and casts a complicated detection spell. Severus frowns. The boy shouldn’t know the magic, yet Severus is not surprised that he does.

“There’s nothing here,” Potter says, confirming what Severus already suspected. “No residual magic. No traces of spellwork. Nothing.”

“And therein lies a problem, wouldn’t you say?”

Potter runs a hand through his hair; it’s even messier than usual, though a thought flickers faintly at the corner of Severus’s mind. He’s seen Potter in the morning. He knows what he looks like when he wakes up—hair mussed, cheeks warmed from sleep…

“I have to go to work,” Potter says suddenly. “And you—you have a potion order to complete.” He shakes his head. “This is so bloody weird.”

Severus couldn’t agree more. He watches silently as Potter rummages through the bureau with a familiarity that is completely at odds with their alien surrounding. Neither comment on the fact that Potter’s clothes are neatly organised on one side of the wardrobe, Severus’s on the other, sharing space with unsettling intimacy.

Potter takes a pair of trousers and a clean dress shirt and disappears across the hall to the bathroom. Severus hears the flush of the toilet, the rush of water in the sink. Potter returns a few minutes later. He looks older in his standard issue Auror robes, gray wool stretched tautly across broad shoulders.

Severus takes a deep breath, trying desperately to reconcile the conflicting thoughts and memories in his head, but it’s no good.

“So, I’ll see if I can find anything out,” Potter says after a moment. “Maybe Kingsley knows something. Maybe this isn’t an isolated occurrence.”

Severus nods, but he isn’t confident that Potter will learn anything at the Ministry.

“I’ll check in at lunch time.” And, with that, Potter turns and leaves. The Floo whooshes a moment later.

Severus collapses back against the pillows, wondering what would happen if he fell asleep again. Would he wake to find that this had all been a bad dream? After a few minutes, though, he gets out of bed and makes his way to the kitchen. The room is small but clean and brightly lit; broad windows look out over a modest garden. Severus knows that it’s filled with meticulously arranged rows of plants, herbs, and ingredients. Harry planted the pink pansies that bloom in the window box.

Severus puts the kettle on and ignores the fact that he feels perfectly at home in this kitchen.

***

He spends the morning investigating. It should feel like snooping, but it doesn’t. He belongs here, for lack of a better word. And it’s disconcerting as hell.

The entryway is lined with photographs, and each one connects to memories Severus did not know he had. Still, they fall into place—crystal clear, mirror sharp—as he looks at the images. Sitting beside Potter at Molly Weasley’s dinner table two Christmases ago. Potter smiles shyly at Severus, and Severus knows Harry’s hand clutches his under the table. Potter and Weasley grinning like fools the day they graduated from the Auror training corps. Severus had taken Harry out to dinner that night, and they’d gotten drunk on cheap red wine. Potter laughing at the camera, khaki trousers rolled to his calves, feet bare in the surf. They’d gone to the shore the previous summer; Harry had never been to the ocean before, and they spent three days in a cottage on the beach. The two of them in dress robes on their wedding day, his arm wrapped around Potter’s waist. Harry smiles and looks happy—so happy—his glass of champagne held high in toast.

He finds his potions workroom at the back of the house. It’s a bit of wizard space that opens off the living room. Severus hates the fact that it’s exactly the type of personal workspace he’s always envisioned having. His lab table takes up one entire wall. Cabinets and neatly organised shelves line another, each covered with row upon row of fresh and dry ingredients. There’s a fireplace flanked by two worn and comfy-looking armchairs, and his desk occupies a corner. Here he finds stacks of purchasing orders, receipts and billing slips, and journals filled with recipes, notes, and research.

The order for Dreamless Sleep sits on top of his “outgoing” stack. He needs to send it out with the evening’s Owl Post. He’s already prepared the base; it won’t take long to finish the potion. Severus pulls a pewter cauldron from the cupboard and sets it on the burner before taking the appropriate ingredients from the shelf. His fingers move with practised ease as he slices the asphodel roots into thin strips. He refuses to think about his current situation or the magic that’s clearly brought him here—to this house, married to Harry Potter. Instead, he carefully measures out the lavender and valerian leaf and adds them to the potion’s base just as the cauldron begins to bubble.

***

Potter Floos home at noon. Severus has just finished ladling the tomato soup into two mugs. Potter eyes the table warily.

“What?” Severus questions. “Soup and chicken salad. It’s one of your favourites.”

“I...I know,” he responds, setting his messenger bag down and taking his usual place at their kitchen table. Severus sits opposite. It feels familiar, as though they've done this countless times before, yet...

Severus takes a bite of soup; it is hot against his tongue.

Potter is watching him.

“I think we're bonded,” Severus says after a few long moments. Perhaps there is another explanation for the photograph in the entryway, but Severus doesn’t think so. The memories, however suspect they may be, are clear.

“Obviously,” Potter says, waving his hand in Severus’s face. A thin gold band encircles his ring finger. “Wait,” Potter continues after a moment, peering at Severus’s left hand.

Severus glances down at his ringless finger.

“Where’s yours? Don’t you have one?” Potter frowns. “Are you ashamed of me?” He seems to realise the absurdity of such a thought then because he shakes his head. “Never mind.”

Severus rolls his eyes.

“So, have you figured out what's happened?” Potter asks, clinking his spoon against the side of his mug.

“I...no.”

Potter sighs, pushing his glasses up on his forehead. Severus recognises the frustrated gesture. “Best I can tell, we’ve slipped into some sort of parallel dimension.”

Severus nods. “That would make sense. But the timeline’s not right.”

“Yeah. I know. I’m twenty-two here. We’ve lost four years.”

Severus nods again. “Yet, those years aren’t missing. We haven’t actually lost them. Not here at least.”

“I know. It’s actually as though we’ve lived them. Still, I remember our real timeline clearly. Where we were, what we were doing just yesterday.” Potter takes a bite of sandwich. He’s got mayonnaise on the corner of his mouth. Severus is struck with the urge to wipe it away. He looks down at his own plate.

“The Order met at Grimmauld Place,” Potter continues. “We discussed...alternate plans of destroying the final Horcrux.”

Severus can’t help but shudder at the mention of the seventh Horcrux. Much to everyone’s surprise, he’d been one of the most vocal, refusing to consider letting Potter attempt to sacrifice himself again in the way Dumbledore intended. It was one of the reasons now, four years later, they had still yet to defeat the Dark Lord. There was a way to detach the Horcrux from Potter’s soul without killing him; it had just taken time to work out.

Severus always believed it was possible, despite Dumbledore's assurances otherwise. And now, finally, they were on the verge of success.

“And yet,” Potter says, startling Severus from his thoughts, “these last few years...” He trails off, holding up a hand. He stares down at his palm, flexing his fingers as though he expects them to flicker and fade away. Severus understands the feeling.

“This...life,” Severus says slowly, “feels as real as that one.”

“I know.”

They eat in silence for a few minutes. The soup has cooled; Severus dunks a piece of crust in his mug.

“Perhaps someone has manipulated our memories,” Potter says after a moment. He doesn't look up.

“It’s possible,” Severus agrees. “Though which memories?”

Potter frowns. “The new ones, of course.” He looks at Severus like he’s crazy, and maybe he is. That would be one explanation for what’s going on.

He considers his next words carefully; after all, he’s certain they’re not what Potter wants to hear. “Isn’t it equally probable that this is our correct timeline? That someone has influenced our thoughts to such an extent that we believe we’ve fallen into some alternate dimension?”

Potter looks at him for a long moment and then laughs, but the sound is devoid of humour. “Right. Because it makes perfect sense that we’d be married in the real reality.” His voice drips with sarcasm, and for some reason this grates on Severus, though, he doesn’t want to consider why.

“Of course not,” he concedes. “But we must consider all possibilities.” They finish eating in silence, and then Severus clears their plates. With a flick of his wand, he sets the dishes to washing in the sink and sits back down across from Harry. “What did you find out at the Ministry?”

He sighs. “Not much. Apparently no one thinks it odd that we’re together.” Potter makes a face, which Severus pointedly ignores. “In fact, my questions only seemed to arouse suspicions.”

“What do you mean?”

“I asked Kingsley if there’d been reports of any strange occurrences in the last twenty-four hours, specifically those involving memory loss or tampering. But, of course, he wanted to know why I was asking, and I could hardly tell him the truth—not if I want to remain on active duty. So, I hedged. Mentioned that something felt a bit off this morning, and we were concerned that something might be going around.”

“Right.” Severus can’t help but laugh. “Because spellwork of this magnitude is contagious. It’s transmitted just as a cold or flu would be. Surely there’s just something in the air.”

Potter scowls. “You don’t have to be such a prick about it. What would you have said?”

“If I honestly felt that Kingsley might have some answers?”

He nods.

“Then I would have told him the truth. How else can we expect him to help?”

“Well, it’s a bit late for that now. He thinks we’re just having marital issues. Told me to take you out to dinner and, if things still feel “off” in the morning, I’m to report to the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes for my biannual spell residue detection assessment.”

“Take me out to dinner?”

Potter shrugs. “Kingsley thinks we’re in a bit of a rut.”

“And how would that explain…” Severus shakes his head. “Never mind. You’re not due for your spell detection assessment for another two months.”

“I know. It might be a good idea though.” Potter traces lines on the wooden surface of the tabletop with his fingers. “If there is magic at work here—which there clearly has to be—then the Magical Assessment Squad should be able to detect it. Perhaps it will give us an idea as to what we’re dealing with.”

He’s right. “Okay.”

Potter stands, pushing his chair back with a loud scrape. “I have to get back to the office.” But rather than heading to the living room and the Floo, he goes down the hallway to their bedroom. Severus follows and stands in the doorway as Potter shoves clothing into his gray duffle bag.

“What are you doing?”

Potter looks up, a pair of pants in his hand. “I’m staying at Grimmauld Place tonight.”

“Oh.” Severus shouldn’t be upset by this. It makes perfect sense. Yet he can’t help the feeling of disappointment that seeps through his veins. He does his best to ignore it.

***

Severus stays in bed till half ten the following morning. He doesn’t have any orders to fill, and though he knows he should do some research, work to determine what’s happened to them, he simply doesn’t have the desire to do so. That apathy alone should be alarming, but he can’t bring himself to care.

When he finally drags himself out of bed, he makes tea and toast for breakfast, reads The Daily Prophet from cover to cover, then takes a walk about the garden, cataloguing what herbs he’ll need to replant come springtime. It’s ridiculous, of course. This isn’t his life—not really—but he’s happy here, and that’s not something he can say about the other reality.

There, he is a cantankerous ex-spy. And though he was pardoned of all crimes—Harry had seen to that—the general consensus is still that he should have died in that decrepit shack the night Voldemort attacked Hogwarts.

And he is alone.

But here...

Even if the memories are fabricated. If they are nothing more than an illusion created by an unknown spell from an unknown source for an unknown reason. They are filled with warmth and happiness. He is happy. And it is such an unusual, unfamiliar, unexpected thing that Severus is rather loath to give it up, even though every rational bone in his body is screaming that something is wrong. He knows it’s too good to be true and, regardless of how innocuous the magic seems—the fact that it’s so unobtrusive they can't even detect it—it’s not right. He should be doing everything in his power to discover what's happened, to reverse the spell, set things right again.

Yet, he feels no motivation to do so.

Instead, he Apparates to the edge of the small town nearest their cottage and walks to the market. He’s a regular here, and Mrs. Tibbits, the owner’s wife, smiles up at him from behind the cash register when he enters. He selects cheese, a fresh loaf of bread, some fruit, and—just for the hell of it—a moderately priced bottle of red wine.

“Hello there, Severus,” Mrs. Tibbits says when he places his items on the counter. “So good to see you again.”

He smiles politely as she rings him up. He’s not one for small talk but she’s harmless, and he learned long ago that it does no good to alienate the locals.

“What a nice selection,” she says, slipping the wine into a brown paper bag. “Harry will like that one. It’s light. Perfect for the warm weather we’re having.”

“I…yes, well…” Her words fluster him, and his fingers fumble with the bills as he pulls two twenty pound notes from his pocket. Her sharp eyes pick up on his discomfort.

“Is something the matter, Severus?”

“No. Of course not,” he manages. “I just think I’ll be enjoying the wine alone this evening.” He’s not sure why says it, but the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. It’s not like him, though, maybe here he makes a habit of sharing personal information with nosy store clerks.

“Are you and Harry fighting, dear?”

He frowns. It’s far more complicated than that, of course. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, whatever’s going on,” Mrs. Tibbits says, “you make sure you fix it. Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” he assures her, feeling not unlike a chided schoolboy.

“Good. Because that boy is the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Severus leaves the store, purchases tucked under his arm, hating the fact that part of him knows she’s right.

***

Harry returns the following evening. Severus has just settled down with the latest potions journal and a glass of whisky. He watches him, expression guarded as he sets his duffle down and goes to the sideboard to pour himself a drink. “I didn’t expect you.”

“Yeah, well, Ron chewed me out. Told me I needed to go home and fix my marriage.”

Severus raises an eyebrow. That Weasley actually supports their relationship never fails to surprise him. It had taken time, of course. No one approved of their liaison initially. Frankly, it would have shocked Severus if people had. He was more than twice Harry’s age, a Death Eater, and a spy.

But he and Harry just seemed to work. And, if for some inexplicable reason he could make the Boy Hero happy after years of death, destruction, fighting, and loss, well, no one was foolish enough to argue with that.

“So what have you found out?” Potter asks, taking the seat across from Severus. He looks at Severus intently, and it’s clear he expects some answers. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. Severus should have found something out by now. He’s one of the premier academic researchers in England, and his knowledge of spellwork is vast. If anyone can discover what’s happened to them, he should be able to. Yet, he’s done absolutely nothing, aside from the initial, and rather cursory detection magic performed.

Potter is still watching him, and his scrutiny makes Severus distinctly uncomfortable. He can’t tell Potter the truth—that he’s done no research, taken no steps to remedy their situation because he has no desire to return to the other reality. Potter wouldn’t understand. He has a life there and friends and, despite the war—despite the fact that they’re far closer to a resolution and an end to fighting here—Potter has reason to return.

So instead he says, “Mind magic of this magnitude requires maintenance.”

“What do you mean?” Potter asks, sipping his drink. The amber of the whisky is reflected in the curve of his palm.

“It must be reinforced. Such a spell is not self-perpetuating. There is too much at work.” Severus looks down, traces a finger around the lip of his glass. “This is far more complicated than a simple memory charm.”

“Memory magic is never simple,” Potter counters. “It’s certainly not covered in the Hogwarts curriculum. Hell, we don’t even touch on memory spellwork until second year Auror training.”

Severus nods. “Which makes our current...situation all the more alarming. A traditional memory spell targets an individual, and, while complicated magic, the spell will not unravel once cast.”

“No...” Potter agrees, waiting for Severus to make his point.

“This spell—whatever it is—targets far more than a single individual. To alter the memories of entire groups of people requires not only exceptional power and intent but also continual scaffolding. Memory is both complex and fluid, and, if the magic manipulating the memory of even one targeted individual begins to slip, the entire spell could fall apart.”

“And if we’ve fallen into some sort of parallel dimension?”

Severus shakes his head. “It’s possible, but the magic involved is even more complicated.”

Potter frowns.

Severus sets his glass down on the side table. “Parallel dimensions do not simply exist for some unwitting victim or victims to fall into. The alternate reality must be constructed and preserved. The magic involved is actually similar to that which could alter the memory of multiple individuals, but the focus is on creating a world in which those individuals exist, rather than strictly manipulating their minds.”

“But we still don’t know what kind of magic, specifically, we’re dealing with.” Potter leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“No.”

“And we don’t know who’s responsible.”

“No. But we do know that, regardless of the magic or the caster involved, the spellwork must be maintained, and that could provide us with means to understand what has happened.”

“I sat for my spell residue detection assessment today.”

“And?”

“Nothing. They performed a complete evaluation. No trace magic, no residual spellwork, nothing abnormal or unexpected.”

Severus nods; he anticipated as much. “I’m not surprised. The magic is far too advanced, too complicated. Whoever is responsible is certainly powerful enough to ensure that the spellwork is undetectable. Our only chance is that we’ll be able to detect when more magic is poured into sustaining and updating the spell.”

“So what do we do now?”

Severus picks up his glass and downs the rest of his whisky. “We wait.”

***

One day passes, then two without incident. Harry does not go back to Grimmauld Place. He Floos to the Ministry each morning at eight o’clock and returns in the evening in time for dinner. Severus spends the mornings in his lab, filling potions orders to be delivered through Owl Post. In the afternoon, he works in the garden or sits in the living room with a cup of tea and a book. He does not research memory magic, alternate realities, or parallel dimensions.

Sometimes, he wanders the house, cataloguing the memories associated with corners and doorways, walls and floors. He examines the furniture, the photographs, the books on the shelves. He wonders at how effortlessly he’s fallen into this life; everything has slotted into place with an ease he rarely experienced before.

He does not miss teaching.

Before he’d woken up in a new life in bed with Harry Potter, he’d accepted the fact that, most likely, he’d be returning to Hogwarts in the fall. After the Dark Lord’s failed assassination by snake attempt, he’d been secreted away to Grimmauld Place with the rest of the refugees. And, since he was alive when the Dark Lord wanted him dead, and Harry had done everything in his power to clear his name, it was unlikely he would be welcomed back into the Death Eater camp any time soon. He was useless as a spy, and he was a target. So, unless he wanted to spend the rest of the war holed up inside Sirius Black’s old house, Hogwarts was the only safe alternative.

In this reality, though, he welcomed the change. He always wanted the freedom to research and brew on his own terms, and he finally had the opportunity to do just that.

On the fourth night, Harry appears at their bedroom door.

“I, er...” he looks down, scuffing his toe against the rug. He’s nervous, and Severus finds it endearing. “The couch is hurting my back. I was wondering if I could…” He trails off again, shoving his hands in the pockets of his flannel sleep pants.

Severus sets his book down and turns back the covers on Harry’s side of the bed in invitation.

Relief washes over the young man’s face. “Thanks.”

Severus shrugs. “It’s your alternate reality, too.”

At that, Harry smiles, slipping into bed beside him. He’s careful not to touch Severus as he lies down, keeping to the very edge of the bed. Still, Severus enjoys the dip in the mattress, the comforting weight and warmth of his body beside him.

Severus reaches over to shut out the light.

“It’s odd,” Harry says after a moment. He’s not facing Severus; he can see the outline of his back in the darkness. “Sometimes I forget that this isn’t real.”

“It’s real,” Severus answers, voice measured.

“In the sense that we’re not imagining it, it is,” Harry says. “But you know what I mean.”

Severus does.

“We’re married,” Harry continues, “and part of me misses the way we used to be.” He shifts, rolling to look at Severus. “Or, the way my memories tell me we’re supposed to be here. Gods, this is so bloody confusing.”

“It’s natural, I think, to be confused. Our feelings, our emotions have been manipulated in the same way our memories have.”

“I know,” Harry says, and he doesn’t sound angry or even resigned. He just sounds a bit sad. “But we’re happy here.”

***

“Do you miss teaching?” Harry asks one evening. They’re sitting by the fire in the living room. Severus has a book open on his lap; Harry is reviewing a case file.

“No,” he answers truthfully.

Harry laughs. “I figured as much, but I wasn’t sure.” He takes a sip of whisky; his mouth is wet with it when he lowers his glass. “Before… In our other life,” he adds as though Severus would not know what he means. “Once we’d retaken the school and reconstruction had begun. Once we knew that Hogwarts would be open again in the fall. I thought you were looking forward to returning.”

“I was. But consider the alternative.”

“Ah,” Harry says. “It’s not as though you had too many options.”

“No,” Severus agrees. Something about Harry’s line of questioning unnerves him. It’s the major flaw in this timeline—as far as he can tell—and surely Harry has noticed it, too. It’s only natural that he would put two and two together and suspect Voldemort’s involvement as Severus did. After all, it was clear in their previous life that Severus would not be able to return to the Dark Lord’s service. Yet here, he’d been welcomed back with open arms.

“Do you think Voldemort could be responsible?” Harry asks. His voice is soft but steady.

Severus sets his glass down and looks at him, but Harry’s face is calm, expressionless, and Severus can’t read his emotions. “It’s possible,” he answers.

Harry doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Severus holds his breath, waiting for his reaction. He expects outrage, fury, fear, something.

Instead, he just nods. “Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re talking about exceptionally powerful magic. There are only so many wizards capable of performing and maintaining the spellwork.”

He’s right, of course. “And neither you nor I are responsible.”

“Exactly. And aside from us, that only leaves Kingsley, possibly Minerva, and Hermione. Though,” he rubs his eyes, pushing his glasses up to his forehead, “that’s Hermione today. I doubt even she was capable of such magic at eighteen.”

Severus agrees.

“So that just leaves the question of why.” Harry summons the decanter and pours himself another splash of whisky.

“I’m not sure,” Severus admits. “But if the Dark Lord is responsible, we can trust that he has a plan.”

***

Potter Floos home early the following Friday. Severus hasn’t started dinner. He’s working in his lab, researching components of the potion he hopes, one day—in this reality or the other—will help them defeat Voldemort. Potter stands in the doorway watching him for a few minutes. His robes are open over a t-shirt proclaiming the name of some Muggle band Severus doesn’t recognise. He must have been doing fieldwork that day.

“I called Vincent’s,” Harry says finally.

Severus looks down at his notes. “I already cancelled our reservation.” Once a month, they eat dinner at the tiny Italian restaurant in Diagon Alley; considering their current situation, however, Severus thought it wise to cancel.

“I know,” Harry says. “I rescheduled it.”

Severus puts down his quill. “Pardon?”

“We don’t have to go. I mean, I understand if you don’t want to. I just thought it might be nice.” Harry stops, biting his lip. He looks nervous, unsure. It catches Severus entirely off guard.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says softly. “It was foolish of me. I’ll call them back.”

“No.” Severus stands. “Dinner sounds lovely. Let me get my robe.”

***

The restaurant is crowded; they are led through the narrow maze of red-checked tables to their usual spot in the back corner. Harry fidgets nervously. It's strange; they’ve done this dozens of times, yet this is still a first.

Their waiter arrives at the table as Severus is reviewing the wine list.

“Your usual, Mr. Snape?”

He looks at Harry.

“Yeah. That sounds fine.” Harry stares at the menu as the waiter brings their glasses, uncorks the bottle of Syrah. Severus watches him as he trails a finger along the thinly printed text, though he knows Harry has every dish memorised.

Severus orders the fish; Harry selects the lasagne—as always.

They sit silent as they wait for their food. It’s awkward and Severus wants nothing more than to know what Harry is thinking, but Severus hasn’t used Legilimency on him in years. He takes a sip of wine—it’s spicy and smooth against his tongue—and watches Harry.

His shoulders are tense, brow furrowed as he stares down into his wine glass. “I miss this,” he finally says, startling Severus. It’s the last thing he expected to hear.

“I don’t understand it,” Harry continues. “I mean, I know my mind is simply playing tricks on me. That this...relationship...” he waves a hand between them, gesturing vaguely, “is only a fabrication of a spell we don’t even understand, but that doesn't change the way I feel.” He looks at Severus, eyes wide behind his glasses, and Severus knows he should say something, reassure Harry that his feelings are mutual, that he understands, but he can only open his mouth and close it again at a loss for words. It’s unsettling.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says quickly, face suddenly shuttered. “This was a mistake.”

“No,” Severus says, reaching out to take Harry’s hand. He catches himself, though, and pulls back, sliding his thumb along the stem of his wineglass instead. Harry’s eyes follow the movement, but Severus cannot read his expression.

“The mind is an incredibly powerful thing,” he begins slowly, unsure of what Harry wants. “Our feelings, our emotions have been manipulated to such an extent that rational thought is secondary. I believe it is natural to feel that way.”

Harry nods, fingers picking at the edge of the tablecloth. “Exactly. I know that my memories in this reality are merely a construct of the spell, but at this point they feel more natural, more real than those from our other timeline.”

“I think that is to be expected. The longer we are exposed to this reality, the more ingrained we become.” He takes a bite of fish, tines of his fork scraping against the plate, but he hardly notices the taste. He’s too focussed on Harry, on the ramifications of this conversation.

“Do you think we’ll ever go back?”

“I don’t know.”

Harry is quiet for a while. He stares down at his pasta; he hasn’t touched it. Finally, he looks up again, a small smile twisting his lips. “You know, I think I’m okay with that.”

***

“Do you remember our first time?”

Severus frowns; he hadn’t expected that question. They’re lying in bed. Severus is reading: Harry is staring at the ceiling. “Yes,” he answers carefully, “but it’s merely an effect of the spell.”

“Well, I know it wasn’t actually our first time. I mean,” Harry cuts him off, turning to face him; he’s blushing, a faint pink staining his cheeks. “It never really happened, did it? None of it did.”

“No.”

“But that doesn’t make it feel any less real, does it?”

Severus nods, unsure of what to say, unsure as to where Harry’s thoughts are leading.

The memories of that night are there, though, bright and lucid, hovering just below the surface of his thoughts. He feels the gentle press of Harry’s mind, and Harry smiles, reaching up to brush a finger against Severus’s cheek. The touch sends a spark of electricity down his spine.

“It’s okay,” Harry says, finger moving to slide along Severus’s lip. “I think about it, too.”

“It never happened,” Severus says, but the words feel scratchy in his throat.

Harry is still touching him, and though it’s comfortable, familiar, he knows it shouldn’t be.

“You know what Dumbledore told me, the night I died, the night we thought we’d won?”

“No.”

Harry’s other hand comes up to cup his jaw, thumb tracing the line of stubble there. “Just because something happens in my head, doesn’t make it any less real.”

“I—”

But Harry leans in then, pressing his lips against Severus's. They’re soft and dry and absolutely perfect.

They were at Grimmauld Place; they’d been there for weeks, holed up after the failure that was the Battle of Hogwarts. Members of the Order, refugees from the school, parents, children, teachers with nowhere else to go. Somehow the old house accommodated them all. But they weren’t making any progress. They’d yet to reclaim the school, and Voldemort and his remaining followers were regaining strength with each passing day.

Harry had died. He’d sacrificed himself to destroy the final Horcrux, but it hadn’t been enough. Somehow, that piece of Voldemort’s soul clung to life, and, until it was gone, they could not defeat him.

Severus had died, too, but Harry—always the saviour—had brought him back to life with a little dittany and an impressive bit of healing magic. And afterwards, well, he couldn’t exactly return to the Dark Lord’s side. So, he’d recuperated in Regulus’s old bedroom at Grimmauld Place and offered what little strategy he could. And Harry… Harry seemed to gravitate towards him. Somewhere in between the memories and their shared experiences with death, the old animosity bled away, and one night they’d found themselves alone together in the library. And, just like now, it was the most unexpected and yet natural thing for Harry to kiss him.

The last thing Severus expects is the searing pain in his left arm, though, perhaps he should have done. It’s been over a month, and things have been far too smooth.

He grimaces, pulling away from Harry. Harry looks momentarily confused, but then his eyes go wide and his face pales considerably.

“It’s him.”

Severus nods. “Yes.”

“Don’t go.” Harry reaches for him, but he’s already standing up.

“I have to.” He rummages in the bureau for his cloak and mask, ignoring the fear that coils in his belly.

“No. You don’t,” Harry says adamantly. “You can’t.”

“Yes,” Severus says. “I can. And I must.” His voice is sharper than he intends, but he can’t help it. His arm burns, and he hasn’t the time to argue.

“But he’ll know we’re together,” Harry says quietly, and at the desperation in his voice, Severus turns; he sees the concern clearly etched on his face.

Severus walks over to the bed and takes Harry’s face in his hands. “He already knows.” Harry is shaking his head, but Severus traces his fingers down his cheeks, stilling him. “He knows. Here, he knows. Remember? He condones our relationship. Thinks I’m using you—that it’s all an elaborate ruse. There is nothing to be worried about.”

“You know that’s not true!” Harry’s voice is angry now, but it’s merely a defence mechanism to hide his fear. “We have no idea what any of this means. We don't even understand the spell. And the last time you saw Voldemort he tried to murder you.”

“True,” Severus admits. “But the snake is dead, and here I am still a loyal follower. Now, I must go.” With that, he turns on the spot, Apparating away.

As he disappears, he hears Harry’s soft “come back.”

Malfoy Manor looks the same. Severus is not sure why he expected otherwise. After all, in this reality he was here less than two months ago. Still, it’s strange. One would think after four years, Narcissa would have finally gotten her way, gotten the Death Eaters out of her house. But Lucius is out of prison once more, and it is difficult to defy the Dark Lord.

Despite his assurances to Harry, Severus can’t help the panic that wells in his veins as he walks along the path to the gate. Voldemort could very well be responsible for the spell that brought them here, yet—if that’s the case—he still does not know the Dark Lord’s motivation, and it is always dangerous to lack information.

Besides, there is certainly the possibility that the spell and his bonding to Potter is all just an elaborate set up—a way to test his loyalties.

If that’s the case, Severus has already failed miserably.

He anticipates a crowd; if anything, Voldemort’s followers have increased in number over the past four years. Yet, the main room is empty, save for Voldemort seated in his ostentatious throne. Severus holds his breath as he quickly reinforces his Occlumency shields. If the Dark Lord planned to murder him, Severus thinks there would be an audience. Still, one would be a fool to want to be alone in Voldemort’s presence.

Severus approaches slowly, bending down to kiss the hem of Voldemort’s robe. The marble floor is cold beneath his knees.

“Ah, Severus,” the Dark Lord says when he stands again. “What a delight to see you. And in such good health.”

The words are strange, but the man is mad, so Severus tries not to read much into it. “Yes, my Lord,” he responds.

Voldemort laughs, a chilling sound. “Oh, come now Severus. Don’t tell me you don’t remember.”

“Remember what, my Lord?” He doesn’t know what the man is talking about, and that’s unnerving to say the least.

“The last time we met, of course.”

Severus frowns. It was a routine meeting two months prior. Lucius had boasted about the influence he was gaining at the Ministry; Rockwell had been Crucio’d for failing to report Order presence in Diagon Alley; and Voldemort had celebrated Pansy Parkinson’s appointment as the new Charms Professor at Hogwarts—though Severus knows she is loyal a Death Eater as he is himself.

“I’m afraid you’re a bit confused,” Voldemort says, and the humour in his voice is terrifying.

“Pardon?” Something cold creeps along Severus’s spine. Voldemort knows, and though he suspected as much, the confirmation is disturbing.

“In your defence,” Voldemort continues, “the scenery here is all wrong. If I recall, our surroundings were far more…dreary.”

“The shack…” Severus says, and though the memories have always been there—hovering at the edges of his consciousness—they come flooding back in earnest. He brings a hand to his throat involuntarily.

Voldemort laughs again. “So it's all coming back now?”

“I...” Severus says trying to temper the fear that threatens to overwhelm. “You know?”

“Why, of course I know Severus. I thought for sure you would figure it out.”

“The spell. It was you.”

“Of course it was. Who else has the capability?” Voldemort smiles, lipless mouth twisting unnaturally. “And how, may I ask, is your husband doing?”

“He's...” Severus does not know what to say; he has the distinct impression that he's treading on very thin ice. Yet—despite his Occlumemcy—the images are there. He closes his eyes against them, but they're branded hot across his eyelids, seared across his vision, blindingly exquisite and achingly devastating.

Voldemort regards him, red eyes gleaming, and Severus braces himself for the worst. After all, he’s literally in bed with the enemy.

“Now Severus, surely you know me better than that. I am not unreasonable. The spell was created to make you...feel things for the boy.” Voldemort's face is impassive, but his voice drips with loathing and derision.

“I am sorry, my Lord,” Severus says, head bowed. “I am not one to be ruled by my emotions. I...”

“Enough.” Voldemort holds up a pale hand. “Severus, I designed the magic. Were it not for your rather impressive skills, you would not have been able to see through the facade at all.” He pauses, red eyes boring into Severus. “And Potter?”

“Suspects nothing, my Lord,” Severus lies easily, realising that Voldemort does not suspect that he, too, saw through the magic.

Voldemort smiles. He’s underestimated Harry yet again. Severus doesn't understand. After years of miscalculating his abilities, one would think Voldemort would learn. “Wonderful,” he says, looking down to inspect his fingernails. “Would you say, then, you have his trust?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I think it’s time, then. When I call you next, you’ll bring the boy. See that he suspects nothing. I’ll invite a few more of our…friends to enjoy the show.”

Severus nods; his throat is suddenly dry. He anticipated as much, yet it still makes his blood run cold. Dismissed, he turns to go.

“Oh, and Severus,” Voldemort says when he’s nearly to the door. “See that he’s unarmed.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

***

Potter is awake when he returns.

Severus isn't surprised. Harry has always claimed he cannot sleep while Severus is away at Death Eater meetings.

“How did it go?” Harry asks, setting his case file aside. He looks tired, older than his twenty-two years. The past few months—in this reality and the other—have been difficult on them all.

Severus takes off his robe, folds it over the back of a chair. “He knows.”

Harry doesn’t have to ask whom he refers to.

“It was his magic,” Severus continues carefully, watching his face. They’d assumed as much, of course, but knowing for certain that this entire world is a construct of the Dark Lord’s designs is enough to set Severus on edge, make him feel contaminated. He worries Harry will react with revulsion.

Instead, however, he just nods. “We knew that made sense. There are only so many wizards capable of performing and maintaining the spell.”

Severus nods and sits down heavily on the side of the bed. Harry reaches out to place a hand on the small of his back; its warm weight is comforting. “He expects me to deliver you to him,” Severus says, and he feels Harry stiffen slightly, but he does not pull away. Rather, Harry slides his hand up and down Severus’s spine.

“A good plan,” Harry says after a moment. “Alter our memories, our emotions. Make me trust you…love you. And then, of course, I will follow when you lead me into the devil’s lair.”

“Yes.” Severus’s chest is tight, his skin hot. He feels as though he’s already betrayed Harry.

“Stop,” Harry says. “I know what you’re thinking, and you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Severus laughs, a bitter sound even to his own ears. “That’s where our opinions differ.” Once again, his past—each and every one of his horrendous mistakes—has come back to haunt him. “Had I not joined the Dark Lord, become a Death Eater in the first place, we never would be in this mess to begin with.”

“No,” Harry agrees simply. “But we wouldn’t be so close to defeating him, either.”

He looks at Harry; the man’s skin is warm in the soft light of the room, and suddenly Severus desperately needs to preserve what they’ve found here. “The potion.”

“Yes. You’ll finish the potion, and then when he asks you to lead me to him, we’ll kill him. Once and for all.”

***

“How long do you think we have?”

“I’m not sure. A week. Two at most.” Severus carefully slices the valerian root, sweeping aside the pale pink blooms; the petals won’t be added until the very end. “Unfortunately, we won’t know until he calls me. We need to be prepared.” He places the lid on the cauldron, watching the steam collect on the glass, before turning to Harry.

The young man is curled in one of the armchairs by the fireplace; the light from the flickering flames reflects off his glasses, casts an orange glow on his cheeks. “When will you add the basilisk fangs?”

Severus glances at the bowl of finely crushed powder sitting on the end of his lab table. “Next. This needs to simmer for thirty minutes.”

“Okay,” Harry says, and Severus can hear the concern bleeding into his voice.

He’s placed a stasis and containment charm on the bowl. Severus works with volatile and dangerous ingredients often, but basilisk fang is as deadly as they come. “You don't have to do this,” he says, sitting down across from Harry.

“Yeah I do. There’s no other way.” Harry frowns. “Unless, of course, I want to try killing myself again. But that didn't work the first time, and frankly I’d rather take my chances with the basilisk.”

Severus is already shaking his head. “No. You know that’s not what I mean. I won’t let you do that.”

Harry is still frowning. “Then what other choice do we have?”

“We could leave. Run somewhere together—to the continent, or maybe the Americas.” Severus is grasping at straws; he knows that. But the thought of losing Harry makes him physically ill.

Harry smiles sadly. “You know we can’t. Who would defeat him?”

“Someone else,” Severus answers, though he knows that’s ludicrous. “It doesn't always have to be your fight.”

“No,” Harry says. “Not always. But this time it does.”

***

The night before Harry takes the potion, Severus makes fish for dinner and opens a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

“Do you think it will work?” Harry asks, taking his glass.

“It has to.” Severus refuses to think of the alternative.

Harry laughs, though it lacks humour. “I guess you’re right. And I’ll be dead if it doesn’t, so I suppose it won’t matter anyway.”

Severus glares. “It will work.” If he says it enough times, perhaps he can convince himself.

“I know,” Harry says, voice soft now; he reaches out to brush his fingers against Severus’s. “It will work.”

Harry sits beside Severus as they eat. They don’t say much; the weight of what they’re about to do is stifling.

It’s been five days since the Dark Lord summoned Severus. Tomorrow, Harry will drink a potion Severus designed to destroy the remaining Horcrux once and for all. If it doesn't work, the basilisk fang will poison Harry. It may well do so anyway, but Severus hopes it at least takes out the Horcrux in the process.

“What do you think will happen?” Harry asks, breaking the silence. “Once it’s done. Once we’ve killed him.”

Suddenly, Severus feels very cold. He sets his fork down on the side of his plate. Honestly, between the hours spent in his lab completing the potion and the time spent with Harry devising the plan to defeat Voldemort once he’s called him, Severus hasn’t thought about after. “I’m not sure,” he says after a moment. “It’s likely we’ll be sent back.”

Harry nods. “That’s what I’m thinking, too.” He picks up his glass but does not drink; the wine is pale and yellow in the warm light of the room. “With Voldemort dead, nothing will be maintaining the spell. The magic will unravel.”

“Most likely.” Severus tries to keep his face blank, expressionless, but Harry must read something in his expression because he places a hand on Severus’s thigh.

“It’s okay, you know, to not want to go back.”

Severus swallows. His mouth is dry, and he does not know what to say. When he turns to look at Harry, his eyes are soft with understanding.

“Don’t you miss it?” Severus finally asks.

“Sure,” Harry says truthfully. “I miss a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean I’m trying to get them back.”

***

That night, when they go to bed, Harry pauses in the door of their bedroom. He hasn’t looked this hesitant, this unsure, since the first night he asked to sleep in their bed all those weeks before.

“The other day—when I kissed you—I was pretty sure you were going to kill me,” Harry says after a moment. He’s not looking at Severus; instead, his eyes are trained on the floor.

Severus snorts, placing his wand on the bedside cabinet. “And yet you did it anyway.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, but he says nothing else to explain his suicidal motivations.

They’re quiet as Severus gets ready for bed; he’s painfully aware of Harry’s eyes on him as he removes his robe, bends to undo the laces of his boots. Harry keeps looking at him, and the intensity of his gaze unnerves him. It makes his skin feel tight and warm.

He finds himself wanting to walk over to the door, to take Harry into his arms and touch him, reassure himself that Harry is the man he’s come to know, not the boy who used to be his student.

“I’d like to do it again,” Harry says, startling him from his thoughts. “Kiss you.”

Severus’s throat goes dry as Harry strips off his t-shirt. His jeans are baggy and worn and hang too low on narrow hips. He’s gorgeous, and Severus’s fingers itch to touch that pale skin.

Harry pulls his jeans down without undoing the flies, and Severus stands stock-still—he’s not sure he could move if he tried—as Harry crosses the room towards him. He wants to trace the line of his clavicle with his tongue. He wants to drag his fingertips along his ribcage. He wants to see what he looks like spread out on the bed beneath him.

Harry kisses him. The slick slide of his tongue sparks in Severus’s veins. Harry frames Severus’s face with his hands, as they kiss for a long, breathless moment. Harry is a bit uncertain, hesitant, as his tongue maps the inside of Severus’s mouth. It’s technically not their first kiss—not even close—but it still feels like it is, and Severus revels in the feel of Harry’s body pressed against his, the shape of his lips, and the touch of his fingers tracing the curve of his jaw.

“I want you,” Harry says, pulling away. His breath is warm and wet against Severus’s cheek. “Before...” He trails off, but Severus knows exactly what he means. Before he takes the potion that might very well kill him. Before he faces Voldemort for what will hopefully be the last time. Before they're ejected from this reality and thrown back to a time and place where they don’t care for one another.

Severus should refuse. “We haven’t,” he sputters as Harry’s fingers tug at the buttons on his shirt. “This isn’t real.”

“Maybe not,” Harry agrees, “but these feelings are.”

Severus knows that Harry has three freckles on his left hipbone. He knows that the flush that stains Harry’s cheeks spreads down his throat, his chest when he’s aroused. And he knows that Harry bites his lip when he comes. But he also knows that he doesn’t really know these things.

He’s never seen Harry naked. He’s never tasted his skin. But he wants to desperately. Severus’s hands slide down Harry’s back to the curve of his arse. Harry arches and gasps, presses himself even closer to Severus’s body, and he can feel the line of Harry’s erection against his thigh. It makes him so hard he’s certain he sees stars.

“Gods,” Harry says, pulling away. “Bed, please, now.”

They stumble together and Severus feels awkward and graceless, but Harry doesn’t seem to mind. He’s too busy pulling at Severus’s shirt, then tugging at the placket of his trousers.

The sheets are soft beneath Severus’s back, and Harry’s body is warm and perfect as he slides on top of him. He can’t get enough of Harry’s skin; it’s too soft, too smooth to gather in his hands, but Severus tries, fingers clutching at his shoulders, skimming along the length of his spine, cupping his arse cheeks before slipping between his thighs.

Harry curves his back, pushing down against Severus. His cock is already damp with pre-come as it slips against Severus’s hip, leaving a trail of slick.

“You’ll fuck me, right,” Harry gasps, shifting on top of him. When their cocks rub against each other for the first time, Severus must bite back the moan. “I know what it feels like, but not really, you know.” Harry is babbling, voice breathless and low. “I need to know what it feels like for real.”

“Yes, yes,” Severus says. He can’t help himself. He wants, needs to know what it feels like to really be inside Harry, to take something from this life, and make it his.

He rolls Harry to the side and reaches into the bedside drawer for the vial of lubricant kept there. Harry leans back on his elbows, legs falling open in invitation. The sight is so appealing, so breathtaking, that Severus must close his eyes against it. He takes a few deep breaths, trying to ground himself, to calm the racing of his heart.

He slicks his fingers and traces a line down Harry’s crease before slipping one, then two inside. Harry gasps, eyes darkening, and Severus’s own cock aches as he watches the movement of his hand, his wrist, as his fingers slide in and out. Now, when they’re thrown back into their other life, he’ll be able to tell his real self what it’s like to have two fingers inside Harry, with Harry’s eyes wide and trusting, his perfect body spread out before Severus on an ocean of rumpled sheets.

Harry flinches when Severus gets a third finger in, his erection flagging a bit. But Severus curls his hand around him, feels the skin smooth and slick against his palm, and soon Harry’s cock is hardening again as he gets used to the stretch of Severus’s fingers, and he’s fucking back against Severus’s hand, saying, “Now, please, now.”

Severus has to press his face into Harry’s neck because he’s afraid of whatever look is on his face. He can’t hold back any more; he wants to fuck Harry more than he’s wanted anything else in his life, and he’s never felt so exposed, so vulnerable before.

He pulls his fingers from Harry’s body and slicks his cock with the remnants of oil; then he positions himself between Harry’s legs and starts to press in.

The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming, that he has to bite the inside of his mouth to distract himself. They’ve barely begun; he’s only an inch inside and already he feels like he’s dying. It’s their first time all over again, and it’s too much. He can’t last, won’t last; he wants desperately to come, wants desperately for this to last forever.

Harry arches and moans, fingers gripping Severus’s biceps hard enough to bruise. “Come on, do it,” he gasps, and Severus lets himself go, pushing in hard and fast. The friction, the pressure, the movement send waves of relief, of pleasure, down his spine, over his skin.

He leans down to kiss Harry, lips moving clumsily against his as Harry tangles his fingers in his hair.

“We’re perfect like this,” Harry says, and Severus knows from the rasp of his voice that he’s close.

“Yes,” he agrees, and he’s too far gone. He presses up, braces himself on his forearms trying to find more leverage. Harry cants his hips, and the slight shift in angle forces Severus in deeper.

“Gods yes…fuck,” Harry gasps beneath him, and Severus cries out, coming so hard he’s shaking. He feels Harry tense, feels the warm splash of come between them, and Severus collapses on top of him, enjoying the play of Harry’s fingers against his back.

“When I’m inside you,” he says after a long moment, “it feels like nothing else matters.”

“I know.”

***

It’s almost unbearable to have Harry sleeping naked next to him that night. It’s too good, too perfect—almost better than the sex had been—and Severus wants to enjoy it. He wants to soak up every moment of Harry’s presence beside him, to catalogue every breath, every press of his skin, every subtle shift of his body beside him.

But it’s not real, no matter how real it feels to have him breathing deep in his sleep against the curve of Severus’s shoulder. And though he tells himself it’s better to have had this brief moment of happiness with Harry, when he thinks about the loss he will most surely experience, he’s suddenly not so sure.

***

Harry gives into Severus’s fears and allows Poppy to supervise the administration of the potion. Harry maintained that such a precaution was unnecessary. After all, his own health was secondary to the destruction of the Horcrux. Though Severus understands in theory, he will never accept that Harry’s wellbeing is inconsequential.

The potion is a variation on Draught of Living Death. It took Severus over two years to fine-tune and complete it, but he had the idea of using the Draught in the very beginning. The thought alone convinced him that it could be done—that he could develop a potion to destroy the Horcrux without killing Harry. He believes the anaesthetic and sedative properties of the Draught should temper the deleterious effects of the basilisk fang. The potion mimics death, and by masking the effects, the state of death itself, Severus hopes Harry will be protected from the poison long enough for it to work. It’s a long shot, but it’s all he has. And it’s better than the alternative.

He administers a calming draught first; Harry’s body must be receptive to the potion for it to work. Then, Poppy casts a standard medical charm to monitor his vitals while under the effects of the drug. She’s adamant that she won’t actually be able to do anything once Harry has ingested the potion and it’s latched onto the Horcrux, but her presence eases Severus’s mind.

Harry squeezes Severus’s hand reassuringly before taking the flask. Though Living Death is clear in colour, his Horcrux killing variation is murky and cloudy, as though the basilisk fang has contaminated it. Perhaps it has.

Harry described in detail his experience with two Horcruxes he personally destroyed. Both the diary and the locket demonstrated terrifying survival tactics—physical and psychological—before they were eliminated. And, if Severus weren’t so concerned for Harry, he knows he would be curious as to what defences this Horcrux would throw at its perceived attacker. Though, once Harry has drunk the potion, the deathblow has already been delivered; they simply have to wait for it to work.

It works quickly. Harry barely has time to lie back against the sofa cushions before the sedative qualities take effect. At least he won’t feel the gut-wrenching pain basilisk poisoning would otherwise cause. For a few minutes, he merely looks asleep, and Severus is comforted to note that the defining characteristics of Living Death have not been entirely distorted by the addition of the poison.

Then Harry jerks, every muscle tensing as his body twists, contorts at an awkward angle.

Poppy places a hand on his forehead as Severus reaches for his shoulder. “He's too hot,” she says, checking the monitoring charm. Severus only nods. Fever is expected; his body is fighting the poison.

Then they both gasp as smoke spills from Harry’s mouth.

“It knows,” Severus says, watching with morbid fascination as the smoke coalesces into a facsimile of Albus Dumbledore.

It's been years, but the sight of the man still makes Severus's heart clench.

“Oh my gods,” Poppy whispers, and when Severus looks at her, she’s far too pale.

It's not Dumbledore. He knows this. This man is too brutal, his eyes too harsh. Yet Severus can't help the rush of emotion he feels, the pain, the remorse, the love.

“Severus,” the apparition speaks, voice thin. “Once a murderer, always a murderer, I see. It wasn't enough to kill me. Now you’ve chosen to murder our hero.” He strokes a pale hand along his beard. “What will they say when they know?”

“No,” Severus says, shaking his head. Rationally, he knows what’s going on. He knows it's not real; the Horcrux is tapping into his deepest fears, his biggest regrets. But it's difficult not to be overwhelmed by the guilt and the regret—just as the Horcrux intends.

“No wonder he doesn't love you,” Dumbledore continues after a moment. “How could he? How could anyone love you?”

At that moment, Harry's pulse drops dramatically, and Poppy and Severus are distracted from the spectre of their former employer.

“He's strong,” Poppy says, dabbing Harry's face with a damp cloth, “but I'm not sure how much longer his body can hold out.”

“I know,” Severus says, glancing at his watch. There’s nothing they can do, though. They can only hope that the poison destroys the Horcrux before it kills Harry.

The smoke is changing shape. Dumbledore’s image flickers and fades to be replaced by Harry and the Weasley girl. They’re entwined together as lovers would be. Beautiful and sinister, both like and unlike Harry and Ginevra all at once.

“He's right, of course,” Ginevra says, hands skimming up Harry's bare chest. “He’ll never love you. Why would he when he has me?”

Severus knows that Harry and the Weasley girl have a history. But he also knows they were never serious, or, at least, he’s fairly sure they weren't. Looking at this manifestation though, he wonders...

And Severus knows he doesn’t really have a chance with Harry. Here, in this false reality, perhaps. But Harry’s attachment to Severus, his feelings, are not real; they never were. They'll be sent back, and Harry won't want anything to do with him.

The figures in front of him begin kissing. Harry wraps his arms around Ginevra, one hand slipping down to the curve of her waist while he opens his mouth against hers. They're beautiful together, and Severus thinks Harry deserves someone like her. Someone his own age. Someone he can start a family with.

Harry starts to shake, body spasming violently.

“He’s seizing, Severus,” Poppy says, and he can hear the panic bleeding into her voice. “How much longer?”

“I'm not sure,” he says, wiping the rag across Harry’s brow. His skin is clammy, breathing shallow, pulse erratic. He doesn’t have much time.

The manifestations seem to sense an end, though. Their faces shift, distort monstrously as the replication of Ginevra begins to wail. It's an unnatural, inhuman screech that sends shivers down Severus's spine and sets his teeth on edge. It's horrifying.

“Just a bit more now,” Severus says, more to himself than to Harry or Poppy.

The windows rattle, and the lights flicker, then everything goes silent.

The room looks exactly as it did before they began. Sunlight glints through the leaded windowpanes; Severus can see the dust motes suspended in the air.

Poppy moves quickly, running her wand over Harry's body, performing a series of diagnostic tests. “He's alive,” she says, after a moment. “His pulse is weak, but he's alive.”

Severus releases the breath he didn’t realise he was holding.

Poppy takes the restorative potion from the coffee table and gently opens Harry’s mouth. He sputters once, but swallows as she pours it down his throat.

He comes to slowly.

Severus puts a hand on his shoulder, and Harry turns into the touch, eyes blinking open dazedly.

“Did it work?” he asks, after a moment, voice scratchy and raw.

“I think so,” Severus replies, and Harry smiles.

“Thank gods.” He tries to sit, but collapses back against the cushions again.

“Don't,” Severus says, and Harry nods.

“I feel like shit.”

“And it's no wonder, either,” Poppy says, back in full medi-wizard mode. “After what he's made you ingest.” She checks his temperature and his blood pressure before illuminating the tip of her wand and shining it in both his eyes. “Lucky you're alive, I'll say. Now you need rest and fluids. I'll check back on you in the morning to see how you're recovering.”

Poppy takes her bag, and Severus walks her to the door.

“Thank you,” he says and she takes his hand, squeezing it briefly.

“Of course, dear,” she says, and her eyes are kind. “Anything for you and Harry. You know that. Now I just pray to Merlin that it worked. That you two can destroy that monster once and for all.”

***

Their plan is simple. Once Voldemort calls them, Harry will cast the spell. Then, in the aftermath and chaos following the Dark Lord’s death, the wards on the Manor will fall. In that moment, Kingsley and the rest of the Order can Apparate in, help them with the remaining Death Eaters.

The plan never comes to fruition, though.

It’s Thursday evening when Severus’s Mark burns. He stands, grimacing, and Harry looks up from his book. “It’s time, isn’t it?”

Severus can only nod.

Harry sends a Patronus to Kingsley, telling him to stand by. Then Severus takes him in his arms, and together they follow the pull of the Mark, Apparate to Malfoy Manor.

Harry doesn’t wait for Voldemort to draw his wand. He’s ready—spell on the tip of his tongue. The sickly green light of Avada Kedavra fills the hall, and the Dark Lord crumples, serpentine mouth opened in an O of surprise.

And in that moment, just as Severus is raising his wand, ready to defend against the Death Eaters gathered there, the world goes black.

***

When Severus wakes, he’s in the library at Grimmauld Place. His mind is cloudy with sleep, and he feels as though he’s been woken from a very strange dream. The cup of tea sitting beside him is cold, and the book that was open on his lap has fallen to the floor. He can’t remember falling asleep.

Still, it's not all that unusual. Lately, Severus has been spending hours upon hours researching potential ways to alter the Draught of Living Death, trying to determine if it's possible to add the poison that could destroy a Horcrux without rendering the entire potion deadly.

Severus sighs, pressing his fingertips to his eyes. He wonders how long he's been sitting there and if he has time to go to his room for a few more hours of sleep, or if he should head back to the lab.

He hears a soft noise beside him and turns. Potter is curled on the end of the worn sofa by the fire. He doesn’t remember the boy joining him in the library, but he's taken to escaping there when things become too hectic. Severus understands. Everyone seems to want something from him. At first Potter's presence annoyed Severus, but now—though he’d never admit it—he finds he quite enjoys Potter’s company.

Potter stretches, jumper sliding up to reveal a pale swath of skin on his stomach, and the sight, that single image—an inch of skin above the waistband of his jeans—triggers something in Severus’s mind.

Memory upon memory comes flooding back—some are murky, dim, polluted. Others brilliant, bright, shining to the bone—and each is accompanied by a torrent of emotion, of feeling. The sensation is razor sharp, and Severus must close his eyes, hold his breath against the intensity of it.

His mind is a pastiche of images. Some are blurred like watercolours (a pale flash of skin, a soft brush of lips) or smeared like charcoals (Harry seated at the kitchen table across from him). Others are grimy and smudged nearly out of focus (the touch of a palm against his cheek, pink pansies in a window box).

And then there are images that are mirror sharp, smooth as glass. They run like blood over Severus’s skin—cloying and excruciating and almost too much to bear. The look on Harry’s face, just moments before he cast that spell. The gangrenous green of the killing curse. The Dark Lord’s body crumpled at the foot of his throne.

Severus’s chest clenches, and he knows everything has fallen apart—his entire world unravelled into pale threads—and he knows nothing will be right again.

Harry looks at him then, and it only takes a moment before his eyes widen, and he tilts his head in…realisation, remembrance. Severus knows that he knows.

“Oh my gods,” Harry says, voice barely a whisper, and Severus doesn’t speak, doesn’t know what to say. Because what do you say to the man who was once, in some other life, your husband?

Severus is spared from having to respond because, at that moment, the door bursts open and Kingsley is standing there. His robes are open over dark slacks and a gray v-neck t-shirt. He looks more than a bit dishevelled. “Harry, Severus,” he says, deep voice low and breathless. “Come quick. Voldemort is dead.”

***

Severus can’t sleep. He makes his way downstairs sometime before dawn. The gray light from the moon streams through the windows, casting pale shadows along the floor. He finds Harry already sitting at the long wooden table in the Black kitchen, the flickering light from the fire illuminating the narrow room.

“Couldn't sleep?” he asks, and Severus nods. “Me neither.” Harry waves a hand, summons a teacup from the cupboard. Severus grunts in acknowledgement and pours himself a cup of tea, sitting down across from Harry. The tea is bitter and strong and exactly the way he likes it.

Harry has the early edition of The Daily Prophet open before him. Technicolour headlines flash at Severus from the front page, proclaiming the miraculous and unexpected death of You Know Who.

“Crazy, huh?” Harry asks, glancing up. “I mean, I know what happened.” He taps a fingertip to his temple. “It's all here.” He frowns. “And yet, the memories feel like they’re part of a dream—like it all just happened in my head.”

“Doesn't make it any less real,” Severus says, and Harry smiles.

“Yeah, I guess you're right.”

Severus takes another sip of tea and looks down at the paper spread out before Harry. But Harry isn’t reading any one of the numerous accounts speculating at the demise of He Who Should Probably Still Not be Named. Instead, he has the advertisement section open.

Harry catches him looking. “Oh, yeah,” he says, a faint pink staining his cheekbones. “I was going to show you. Look what I found.” He turns the paper around, pushing the ad towards Severus.

Severus reads the thin lines of printed text below the grainy photo carefully, but it takes a moment for him to realise exactly what he's looking at. “Oh,” he says, mouth going dry.

“Yeah,” Harry says.

Severus looks at the photograph again. The image is small, but he takes in the “For Sale” sign propped in the yard. He sees the blue door, the wide front windows that look into the sitting room.

He would recognise the house anywhere.

“It's ours,” he says quietly before he can stop himself. “I mean...” He feels his cheeks heat at the absurdity of what he's said. It was never theirs. After all, it wasn't real; it was only a spell.

“No,” Harry says, stopping him, reaching out to cover his hand with his. “You're right. In a way it was ours.”

Severus swallows thickly and looks down at where Harry is still touching him. It's surreal, and his brain can't quite understand how his hand got there underneath Harry's on the tabletop.

Harry slides his thumb back and forth along Severus's knuckles. “I'm thinking of buying it.”

“What?” Severus asks. Of all the things Harry could have said, he did not expect that.

“I'll keep Sirius's house, of course. But now that the war's over, there's no reason for me to stay here.” He picks up his cup, downing the rest of his tea. “I mean, why would anyone want to live in Grimmauld Place? This house gives me the creeps.”

Severus laughs; it feels as though his entire world has been thrown off its axis.

“I know, right?” Harry says, flashing a smile. “Also, I think I'd like you to take me on a date.”

“You what?” Severus's mouth falls open; he feels like a fish, but he can't help it. This must be a dream.

“Yeah. A proper one. With dinner and wine. Vincent's, maybe?”

As the words unfurl between them, Severus can't help but feel the thrill of excitement that twines round his heart. “I...okay,” he finally manages when he can speak again.

“Good,” Harry says, standing. “I'd like that.”

Severus nods as Harry turns, bounding from the room up the stairs. “I'd like that too,” he says to his empty teacup, a small smile playing at his lips.

-The End-