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“Are you certain this is the course of action you wish to pursue?” Professor McGonagall looks out of place in the sitting room at Grimmauld Place. She’s wearing her robes, a tartan shawl draped across her shoulders despite the summer heat. Though, Harry knows she’s come from Hogwarts; it’s cooler in the Highlands. She’s only here for him; he knows this and it makes him feel guilty.

These past months everyone has been so kind, so supportive, and Harry’s been—

“I, yes,” he says, staring down at a worn spot on the old Oriental rug covering the floor. He can’t bring himself to look up, to meet McGonagall’s eyes for fear she’ll see something in his, that she’ll know how close he is to falling apart.

“Mr. Potter,” she says. When he doesn’t raise his head, she tries again: “Harry,” and there is something in her tone he can’t ignore.

Harry looks up. McGonagall is watching him, her pale eyes sad. And though her expression is as stern as ever, Harry can see the concern there, the pity. It’s enough to make his stomach hurt. He looks away again.

The room is bright. Hermione drew back the curtains; warm summer light spills through the windows, splashes across the scuffed wooden floor. Harry can’t remember the last time he’s seen natural light. He’s been shut up in here for so long. It’s not healthy, but he’s not healthy.

“Returning to Hogwarts this term is not the only option,” McGonagall says, but Harry is already shaking his head, stopping her.

“No, I need my NEWTs, and I can’t put my life on hold just because I’m…” He trails off. Because he’s what? Scared? Broken? Sick? “Just because,” he finishes.

“No one is asking you to,” McGonagall says slowly. “But there are alternatives. You could work from home. We would find you a tutor. After what you’ve been through—after what you’ve done—there is no reason to return to school if it’s not what’s best for you.”

“I don’t want to be an exception,” Harry says stubbornly. He refuses to think about how appealing McGonagall’s offer is because he knows if he doesn’t do this now—if he doesn’t return to Hogwarts to finish his schooling—he might never have the strength again.

“But you are an exception, Harry,” Hermione says gently. “That’s okay. Right now, it’s okay.”

“No.” He looks at McGonagall. “This is what I want to do, what I need to do.”

She watches him for a long moment, her gaze assessing. Then she nods. “All right. If you are certain you can handle the stress—if you are certain returning to Hogwarts is in your best interest.”

“Yes,” Harry says, but he hears the lack of conviction in his voice.

“There is no shame in getting help, Harry. There are in-patient programmes at St. Mungo’s. I’ve seen the effects of post-traumatic stress first hand…”

“I’ve seen a mind-healer,” Harry says, cutting McGonagall off. And he has. Once a week for the past two months, a healer has Floo’d to Grimmauld Place and Harry has sat here on this very sofa, hoping to figure out what the hell is wrong with him. But none of the meditation exercises, affirmations, or visualisations seem to do a bloody bit of good. “I’m going back to Hogwarts,” he says.

“Good,” McGonagall says, though Harry notices the way she glances around the room.

He suddenly feels self-conscious. Half-drunk cups of tea litter practically every surface. Yesterday’s lunch—an uneaten sandwich and congealed bowl of soup—sits on the end of the coffee table. His old Chudley Cannons sweatshirt is flung over the back of a chair, and there are books everywhere. Kreacher would clean, but Harry keeps sending him away.

“As long as you’re certain it’s the right decision.”

Ron shifts uncomfortably. He’s standing in front of the mantel, arms folded across his chest, pulling the wool of his robes taut across broad shoulders. Their navy blue colour signifies Auror-in-training. He’s taken his lunch hour to be here, and Harry is grateful for it.

Ron doesn’t understand. He’s spent half the summer hoping Harry would snap out of, well, whatever this is. But he’s doing his best to be supportive even though Harry knows Ron’s still upset Harry isn’t joining the Force. For so long, it had been their dream to become Aurors together. But even if he were healthy, Harry has known for a while that it wasn’t what he wanted to do. Which is why they are all here, and Harry is forcing himself to put on a good front for Professor McGonagall.

“Yes,” he says firmly, looking her in the eye. “I want to return to Hogwarts.”

***

They wait until the last possible moment before Apparating to King’s Cross Station. But even so, Platform 9 and ¾ is bustling with activity.

Students dart this way and that, calling out to classmates, loading luggage into baggage compartments, and wrangling pets into carrying cases. Parents plant last minute kisses on reluctant cheeks, while others stand waving, waiting for the train to depart.

The noise is dizzying.

Harry’s chest feels too tight. Sweat pricks at the back of his neck, and he has to close his eyes against the panic that threatens to overwhelm.

“Breathe,” Hermione’s voice cuts through the chaos around him. Her hand is a soothing point of pressure against the small of his back. Harry takes a deep breath, focuses on the inhalation, exhalation of air from his lungs and not the press of people around him.

“Come on,” Ron says, “let’s get you on the train.” He shoulders a path through the crowd as he makes his way across the platform in front of Harry and Hermione. Ron’s nearly a head taller than most of the students running about, and he makes an impressive figure in his Auror trainee robes. Harry is grateful of how people step out of the way to let them through.

They’re nearly to the train when he hears the high-pitched voice that must belong to a first or second year: “Oi! Look! It’s Harry Potter! Mum, Dad, everyone look! Harry Potter!” The noise around them swells, then everyone turns to gape and stare. One man tries to shake his hand. Luckily, Ron is there to cut him off, and Hermione grabs his arm, fingers curling around his biceps, as she manoeuvres him the last few steps onto the train.

Ron ducks on after them, standing by the door lest some misguided fan try to follow them on board.

Harry’s heart is pounding in his ears, and his magic sparks painfully beneath his skin. He hunches over, head down, hands braced on his knees.

“You’re fine,” Hermione says, voice low. “We made it.”

Harry takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Then he stands up again. The hallway is empty. The last of the students have boarded and found their compartments.

Ron kisses Hermione’s temple, runs his fingers through her hair. “I’ll miss you, love, but I know you’ll write.”

She laughs. “Yes, and the first Hogsmeade weekend will be here before we know it.”

Ron smiles, kissing her once more. This time a quick press of lips to her mouth. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Hermione steps back beside Harry. Ron looks at him for a long moment. “And you, mate, you’ll be all right.”

It’s not a question, but Harry answers anyway: “Yes.”

***

Hogwarts looks beautiful. The night is cool and clear, and the stars overheard are as bright as the lights illuminating the castle. Harry follows Hermione into a waiting carriage while Hagrid gathers wide-eyed first years by the lake’s edge.

“More people can see them now,” Luna says, peering out the curtain separating the compartment from the Thestrals outside. Harry hadn’t thought of that. He supposes it must be a startling sight. He tries to think back to fifth year when, for the first time, he saw the massive creatures pulling the carriages.

“Yes,” Hermione says, and her voice is sad.

Harry knows she’s thinking of Fred and Colin, Remus and Tonks, and all the others who lost their lives in the final battle. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes as the Thestrals begin to lumber their way towards the castle gates.

Ginny takes his hand in hers. Her touch is soft, cautious, yet Harry has to force himself not to flinch, not to pull away. She hadn’t sat with them on the train. Everyone had already found their seats by the time Harry and Hermione got on, and they slipped into the last car with Neville, Luna, and Hannah Abbot just as the Express was pulling out of the station. Harry would never admit as much, but he was grateful for the reprieve, however temporary. Gin’s done her best to be supportive—Harry knows this. But he also knows she wants things—expects things—he can never give her. And though he’s done nothing in these past long months since the war ended to encourage her, he still hates knowing that he will undoubtedly let her down.

He slips his hand from hers gently and turns to look out the window. The carriages are jolting their way along the dirt path leading across Hogwarts’s main grounds. He knows he probably shouldn’t, but he has to see. They’re nearing the castle now, and Harry half expects to smell smoke, to hear shouts, to see the night sky hazy with spell work and the aftermath of battle.

But there is nothing.

No dark figures move among the fallen, seeking out the living and the dead.

And the castle…

There is no crumbling rock, no fire. The North Tower isn’t a smouldering ruin. Harry knows McGonagall had a score of builders working around the clock to finish repairs. And Kingsley himself brought a team of Aurors to complete the ward work and secure the castle’s protection spells to the foundation.

Still, it doesn’t feel right, seeing the castle like this, just as it were that first night he came to Hogwarts so many years ago. Harry sits back against the worn upholstered cushion in the carriage. He feels the all-too-familiar wash of panic pricking at the edges of his mind, but the Thestrals have come to a stop and he hears the others climbing down from the compartments on either side of theirs. So he forces the intrusive thoughts away and follows Luna and Gin out into the clear night.

Harry keeps his head down as they walk through the courtyard. He doesn’t want to remember the way it was the last time he was here. Still, he can’t help the memories—the mustiness of Hagrid’s coat, as he held Harry in his arms. The stink of Unforgivables, clinging to Harry’s hair, his skin. Voldemort and his followers, pressed close on all sides.

And then there were the bodies.

Harry remembers the bodies strewn among the piles of fallen rock. He takes a deep breath and follows the others through the castle door.

“Eighth years! Eighth years, follow me.” Flitwick is waiting when they arrive at the Great Hall. The room is a bustle of commotion. Students yelling out greetings to friends missed on the train and jostling to get the best seats at their house tables to watch the Sorting.

Harry tries to ignore the images that continue to creep unbidden into his head. The final confrontation. Voldemort on the dais. The dead and dying lining the walls as Pomfrey rushed to attend to whom she could.

Flitwick leads them to the front of the hall. Two new round tables sit at the base of the faculty table. “Eighth years,” he says, “this will be your new place. While you will always remain a part of your house, this year, you will form new alliances. And you will eat and sleep with your fellow age mates.”

The announcement is met with a few groans, but Harry isn’t surprised. The house dormitories are crowded enough as is, and McGonagall had suggested that eighth years would be afforded some freedoms, some privileges not granted to younger students. It makes sense to put them all together.

The Ravenclaws, of all people, are the most vocal. Harry hears Lisa Turpin complain loudly to Terry Boot and Michael Corner about having to share a room with ‘the likes of them.’ The look she gives the pocket of Slytherins huddled together by one of the tables leaves little question as to whom she refers. Four members of their class returned, which is actually more than Harry anticipated.

In the war’s aftermath there was, predictably, a deal of public outcry directed towards Slytherins, regardless of the individual’s actual involvement, and there was even some talk of disbanding the house and requiring all Slytherins—past and present—to be registered.

Harry had spoken out vehemently against the idea. It was far too reminiscent of the Muggle-born Registration Commission. And what was next? Mandatory registration of all pure-bloods? Restrictions on spells depending on your blood status? The prospect made Harry’s stomach turn. It was entirely too slippery a slope.

Blaise Zabini whispers something in Pansy Parkinson’s ear and they take their seats next to Millicent Bulstrode and Theo Nott. Malfoy is conspicuously absent. After his father’s imprisonment, his mother had closed up the Manor and they’d left for the continent. Last Harry heard they were staying with some extended family in France. Daphne Greengrass also did not return. A glance to the Slytherin table confirms that her younger sister Astoria is gone as well. As is Greg Goyle. But Harry understands. Goyle was, perhaps, closest of all the Slytherins to Vincent Crabbe. And even though it was Crabbe’s fault, Harry doesn’t think he’d want to come back either, had it been Hermione or Ron who’d died in that fire.

Flitwick says their new dormitory is located on the ground floor of Ravenclaw Tower. And, as his rooms are in that wing as well, in addition to his duties as Ravenclaw head of house, he will serve as their year’s liaison.

Harry rests his elbows on the table, leans over to cradle his head in his hands. He’s starting to feel claustrophobic. The Great Hall is full now. The teachers are finding their places at the Head Table and the younger students have all taken their seats. Many are craning their necks, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first years.

Harry focuses on taking one deep breath and then another, but he feels the all too familiar tightness in his chest, the prickle of sweat at the back of his neck. Hermione puts a reassuring hand on the small of his back, but he shakes his head. He desperately needs some fresh air.

The doors open and McGonagall appears, Sorting Hat in hand, the group of first years close behind.

She leads them to the front, lining them up not ten feet from the new eighth year tables. A small girl with dark plaits spots Harry. Her mouth opens in surprise and she tugs at the sleeve of the boy standing next to her. Then the child next to them begins pointing.

It’s too much.

Harry shoves his seat back from the table. He has to get out of there.

He ignores the whispers and stares as he heads down the centre aisle and out of the Great Hall. He hears Hermione behind him as he crosses the foyer to the main doors.

Once outside, he can breathe a bit easier. He sits down on the steps. The night air is cool against his too-hot skin. Hermione sits down beside him but doesn’t say anything. She knows he will talk when he’s ready.

His chest aches, but it’s better to think about the frantic pounding of his heart, the inhale, exhale of air from his lungs than the creeping panic. The memories that threaten to engulf him.

Harry counts to ten, then twenty, feels his pulse slow a bit.

The door opens behind them; a shadow falls over their shoulders. “Mr. Potter, Ms. Granger.” The man’s voice is different now, rougher—vocal cords forever damaged by that blasted snake—but Harry would know the sound anywhere.

He sighs. Snape. Of course it had to be Snape come to find them.

“I’m sorry, Professor,” Hermione begins, “Harry needed a bit of air. We were going to come back to the Great Hall soon.”

“That is understandable,” Snape says. And there is none of the anger, the rebuke in his tone that Harry expects. “Returning to Hogwarts will be difficult for many. For you, I imagine it could be especially so.”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry says, wishing desperately that he believed it.

“Of course,” Snape agrees. “Though tonight, if you’d prefer, you can eat in your new dormitory. The elves typically don’t tolerate special meal requests when they’ve prepared a feast, but I’m certain, in this case, they would be happy to make an exception for you.”

Honestly, the prospect sounds wonderful, but Harry knows he needs to face the Great Hall again sooner than later. And he doesn’t want to be a special case. “No. I’ll be all right. I just need a few more minutes.”

With that, Snape turns to go.

“Professor,” Harry calls after him. The man stops, looks back. “Thank you.”

Snape nods before disappearing inside. The door closes behind him with a soft thud.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Hermione says after a few minutes.

“Yes,” Harry has to agree. “He understands, though.” Out of everyone, Snape understands perhaps better than anyone. Somehow, Harry knows that. The man is still a right bastard, but Harry doesn’t hate him anymore. Far from it. After the shack, after the memories, after everything Harry knows Snape did for his mother, for him, for Dumbledore, for the Order, how could he? No, Snape turned out all right in the end. And Harry can’t stand how wrong they all were about him.

***

The eighth year dorm is spacious and comfortable. The common room is circular with large fireplaces at opposite ends. There are four couches, and a dozen armchairs spaced throughout, as well as two long tables for doing homework that look as though they were taken from the library. Since they’re on the ground floor, the room opens onto a small courtyard with a few benches and a fire pit.

Their bedrooms are one storey up. Just as in Gryffindor, girls are up one staircase, boys another. Room assignments seem split fairly evenly by house. Neville is the only other Gryffindor with Harry. They are joined by Anthony Goldstein, Kevin Entwhistle, and Blaise Zabini.

It’s clear the house-elves were told to make sure each house was represented in the furnishings. While their beds are hung with curtains of charcoal grey, the wool rug covering the floor is a deep Ravenclaw blue. The cushion in the window seat is striped with Hufflepuff yellow. The loveseat is Slytherin green and accented with two silver throw pillows. And the lamps on the bedside cabinets are the red and gold of Gryffindor.

Harry’s trunk is waiting for him at the foot of one bed. He ignores it, stepping out of his trainers and climbing under the covers fully clothed. He pulls the curtains closed behind him and casts the familiar protection spells. He’s not scared. He knows he’s safe here in the castle. But there’s something about the ritual—the familiar way the magic feels on his tongue, in his bloodstream, on the palms of his hands—that calms him.

He’s asleep before his roommates come upstairs. And, for once, he does not dream.

***

Classes begin.

To say Harry is nervous would be an understatement. He’s not worried about the workload or the material; Harry knows he can handle the magic, knows there isn’t much they could possibly teach him that he can’t already do. Instead he’s worried about the panic lurking at the edges of his awareness. He’s worried about the countless stressors the castle seems to hold, about whatever sight or sound might spark the rush of anxiety. And he’s worried about his wand.

The first time he experienced a flashback, felt the fear that left him breathless and shaking, his wand had triggered him. Kreacher had found him huddled in the corner of the kitchen and had managed to calm him down. Harry does not remember what spell he’d cast—what had set him off to such an extent. But it doesn’t matter.

Afterwards, merely touching his wand could be enough to spark the memories, the intrusive thoughts, and casting certain spells was certain to cause a panic attack. The magic, strangely, wasn’t the problem—just the wand. So he took to casting wandlessly.

Luckily, he was already proficient at wandless magic, and he became even more adept in the following months when he kept his wand permanently stowed in the warded drawer of his bedside cabinet.

But he wasn’t foolish enough to think that he could return to Hogwarts, return to classes without a wand. After all, regardless of how good he was at wandless magic, he could never be as precise or as powerful as he needed to be. And, even if he were, his professors still likely wouldn’t approve.

Harry would have to face his fears and soon.

Transfiguration, it seemed, would not be a problem. Their new professor was an older man whom Harry recognised from the war—Alasdair Taylor. He’d been an Auror, retired only recently, and, when Justin Finch-Fletchley asked on the first day why he’d left the force, he only smiled a bit sadly and said it was time for a change.

‘So why not Defence?’ Finch-Fletchey had pressed, ‘As an Auror, I bet you’d be great at it.’

But Taylor had only laughed. ‘Oh no. I’m far more at home right here. Now, let’s get to work.’

Harry thought he understood exactly how he felt.

As it turns out, Professor Taylor takes a more practical approach to Transfiguration than McGonagall had. There is no transfiguring mice into cups or vice versa because who wants to drink out of a former mouse? Rather, Taylor’s curriculum promises to cover spells that might actually prove useful in daily life.

On the second day of class, he transfigures a jumper into a bright yellow rain slicker. “Of course, you could always use an Impervius, but that charm has to be maintained. And this,” Taylor gestures to the rain slicker, “is far more stylish.”

The class laughs politely, and he summons a box of old jumpers. They spend the remaining half hour transfiguring their own raincoats. The spell work is simple enough, but the finer details—such as getting the colour and size right—take more precision.

Harry’s wand is safely tucked in his back pocket when Professor Taylor comes by to check on his work. Harry is adjusting the sleeves. The jumper fits fine, but each time he tries the transfiguration spell, the sleeves become too long.

“Adjust the fabric before you transfigure the jumper, not after,” Taylor says.

Harry waves a hand. The slicker returns to its original form. Taylor’s eyes widen slightly, but he doesn’t comment as Harry transfigures the jumper once more.

“Good,” Taylor says, “that should fit just fine now.” He’s about to walk away when he places a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “You’re a talented wizard, Harry, that’s clear. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a bit of help if you need it.”

Harry nods. He knows the man is talking about more than transfigurations.

“My door is always open, if you ever want to talk.”

***

Potions gets off to a surprisingly tolerable start. Snape hasn’t changed. He’s still as demanding, as petty, as quick to anger. But for the first time Harry can remember, none of his ill temper seems directed at him. Neville, too, appears to have earned a bit of a respite. Though Harry figures it’s the least Snape can do after Neville dispatched Nagini.

On the first day, Snape sets them to researching a list of ingredients. Harry is already familiar with them, so the task is easy. After fifteen minutes, Snape stops them and asks who can tell him what type of potion they’d be brewing. Harry raises his hand. He thinks the answer is fairly obvious, so he’s surprised that only a few other hands are raised.

Snape doesn’t mask his surprise when he sees Harry. “Mr. Potter?”

“Antidotes, sir.”

The man’s lip twitches. “Which kind?”

“You can’t tell for certain, but it’s for a plant-based poison. Not for venom or any type of curse work.”

Snape nods once. Then addresses the rest of the class: “And if we wanted to create a potion tailored to a specific poison, and not just a general antidote?”

Harry raises his hand again. This time Snape calls on Zabini. “You’d need a sample of the actual poisoning agent to incorporate.”

“Yes,” Snape says, “but that’s not always practical. Sometimes the substance is unknown or too toxic to work with. And once someone’s actually managed to poison himself, you don’t often have the luxury of time to prepare a specific remedy. Best to have general antidotes on hand.”

Snape waves a hand and the instructions appear on the board.

Harry collects the ingredients while Hermione sets the cauldron to boil. He hasn’t made this particular potion before, but he’s familiar with it. During the year spent hunting Horcruxes, it seemed prudent to research possible poisons and their antidotes. After all, they had no idea what type of defences they could be up against. And, after the lake in the cave, poison was definitely a possibility.

Harry casts a wandless barrier charm over the belladonna. This potion, thankfully, only calls for the leaves and berries. Harry knows belladonna root is the most toxic part of the plant, but the leaves can be fatal if ingested. Still, he’s only a bit surprised that Snape would start them off with such a dangerous task. The man has always enjoyed that type of thing.

He steals a look at Snape as he slices the leaves into thin ribbons. The man is stalking about between the rows of tables, offering criticism liberally. Harry’s eyes fall to his high collar, to the scar he knows is hidden there. Harry wonders how often Snape thinks about that night. Had Snape not had the antidote to Nagini’s venom, Harry knows his healing spell would have been worthless. All the healing magic in the world couldn’t have saved Snape without that potion. It’s no wonder they’re starting the year with healing magic. Harry knows as well as anyone how important that can be.

Michael Corner and Ernie Macmillan’s cauldron is already gurgling. Snape banishes the contents with a single flick of his wand.

“But our grade...” Macmillan starts to protest.

“Not my concern.”

Michael looks about to argue, but Snape rounds on him with a scathing glare. “That cauldron was about twenty seconds away from emitting a toxic fume. Exposure can cause blurred vision, tachycardia, headaches, and nausea, and that’s if you’re lucky. If you think, for one moment, I’d allow your ineptitude to send us all to the infirmary, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Michael opens his mouth, but wisely decides to say nothing.

Harry smiles. The boy looks a bit like a fish. And frankly, he thinks the poor marks serve them right. Corner and Macmillan had been fooling around since the start of class; that’s all the two have done since start of term. Harry isn’t sure why they bothered to even return for eighth year. It’s clear they have no real interest in actually learning anything.

Hermione is monitoring their cauldron’s temperature carefully. Such antidotes can be particularly sensitive to heat. Being off by even a few degrees can cause the potion to loose its efficacy.

“Here,” Harry says, indicating the freshly cut leaves. Hermione uses her wand to carefully levitate one piece at a time into their cauldron while Harry counts out five seconds in between each one. Once the plant has been cut, it’s best not to touch with your hands—even with the protective barrier spell Harry cast. And he knows better than to attempt transferring the ingredients wandlessly. It would only take accidentally dumping two leaves in at once to ruin the whole thing. Once they’re added, Hermione sets a timing charm and Harry begins to stir. Their potion is bubbling gently. Harry watches as the colour changes from clear to a milky white and then to an iridescent pink.

“That looks right,” Hermione says, flipping through their textbook to confirm.

Harry glances at the open page. “Yeah. It’s time for the berries.”

The instructions say they should be added whole, but Harry knows better. He takes his silver knife and carefully punctures each berry before dropping it into the cauldron. This potion could simmer for up to three hours. Puncturing the berries will speed up the process, since he assumes Snape will want a finished product when class time ends.

Once the berries are added, Hermione adjusts the temperature to bring the cauldron up to a rolling boil. Then she places the lid on top.

Harry checks the time. “Ten minutes should do it.”

He sits back in his chair to wait.

Their potion is finished with a few minutes to spare. Hermione removes the lid and checks the viscosity. It smells faintly of blueberries.

Snape walks table to table, scowling. A few cauldrons are smoking ominously. Snape banishes their contents without a word. When he gets to Harry and Hermione, he pauses to dip his ladle into their potion. “Entirely adequate,” he pronounces before moving on. Harry has to bite back the smile. Coming from Snape that’s high praise.

When Snape finishes his rounds, a row of five glass vials appears in front of them.
Harry notices that Zabini and Nott and Luna and Hannah Abbot are the only other tables with vials.

“If your potion is still in your cauldron, please decant it into the containers I’ve provided,” Snape says. “It might actually be worth saving. If your potion is not, I strongly recommend reading chapters two through six in your textbook before I see you again. Class dismissed.”

***

Of all his classes, he’s most worried about Defence. After all, the topics and spells they will cover are most likely to trigger the flashbacks, the memories he doesn’t care to remember. It’s enough to set him on edge before he’s even made it to the classroom. His palms are sweaty and he’s fidgety.

He’s adjusting the strap of his bag for the umpteenth time, when Hermione reaches out, puts a calming hand on his arm. “You’re all right, Harry,” she says. “It will be all right.”

He nods but doesn’t feel convinced. Hermione stops him, forces him to turn, to look at her. “I’ll be right beside you. And if something happens—anything at all—you can ask to be excused, ask to go to the hospital wing. Merlin knows you look peaked enough.” She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

Harry wants to pull her into his arms. He wants to thank her and promise her that he’s getting better, that he’s going to be healthy again. But he can’t, not yet at least. And he hates himself for making her worry so much. So he just says, “I know.”

She regards him for a long moment, warm eyes assessing, then she turns towards the classroom again.

“Hermione,” he calls out, stopping her, “thank you.”

Their new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is American. She completed her Mastery at the Salem Institute and only just moved to England to take the position. She’s also very young. Harry judges that she can’t be more than a handful of years older than the eighth years.

He anticipates some sort of practical or test for her to gauge their abilities, to determine which skill sets they need to focus on. The thought fills Harry with a cold dread.

But Professor Murray seems content to assign reading, directing the class to take their seats and open their texts to the first chapter.

A Seventh Year’s Advanced Guide to Offensive and Defensive Spells is, apparently, not very advanced. A scan of the table of contents suggests that there is little in the book that he doesn’t already know. But, as he turns to the first chapter, “A Good Defence is the Best Offence,” he reminds himself that boredom is preferable to panic and he tries to be happy that, at least for the time being, no one expects him to use his wand.

***

It’s in Charms, of all places, when Harry is first forced to deal with the wand situation.

Flitwick starts the year with ward work. The theory is fascinating and, aside from the protection spells he mastered in the long months hunting Horcruxes and the tinkering he’s done with the wards on Grimmauld Place, it’s not magic Harry is all that familiar with. Flitwick begins by showing them how to anchor a ward to a single object. It’s the basis of any more complex warding spells, such as securing wards to a location or creating a personal ward or wards.

This, Harry does know how to do, and it’s simple enough magic that he doesn’t even think about his wand. But when Flitwick has them start layering additional wards on top of the anchor ward they created, the precision required pushes the limits of Harry’s wandless magic.

He’s attempting to manoeuvre a fourth ward around the central point without having the existing wards collapse in on themselves when Flitwick stops at his desk. “Your technique is sound, Mr. Potter. Have you done this before?”

“Not from scratch. But after the war, I had to dismantle some of the wards at Grimmauld Place. After Dumbledore…” his voice catches slightly; it’s still hard to talk about the old headmaster. “Well, the secret keeping and unplottable spells were diluted to such an extent that I had to re-anchor much of the protections. But the wards were already there. I just had to rearrange them.”

“I see,” Flitwick says. “Quite the undertaking, I imagine.”

Harry shrugs.

“And did you use your wand?”

“Yes.”

“But now you are…uncomfortable?”

“Yes.”

Flitwick looks at Harry. It’s clear he understands more than he’s letting on. Harry has to force himself not to flinch under the scrutiny. “Perhaps ward work would be a good place to begin reacquainting yourself with wand magic.”

Just the words send a cold trickle down Harry’s spine.

“After all,” Flitwick continues, “the magic is new and you can take care to tailor your wards in a way that avoids spell sets that you find distressing.”

He’s right. Harry knows that. But even so, he can’t bring himself to reach into his pocket, to curl his fingers around the wand waiting there. Instead, he nods. “I will. I promise I will. But not right now. Not today.”

Flitwick sighs, eyes fixed on Harry. “Tomorrow then.”

***

Harry can’t sleep. Honestly, he can’t remember a time when he could.

The dreams, if anything, have gotten worse and, whenever he does give in to the pull of exhaustion, he wakes sweat soaked and heart pounding, with the taste of Unforgivables on his tongue. His forehead still aches, though his scar is pale and silvery smooth.

And then there’s the inevitable panic. The panic triggered by reliving memory after unwanted memory while he sleeps.

Rather than welcome that prospect, Harry decides to resume his old nightly habit of walking the castle halls. He doesn’t bother with his Invisibility Cloak. He isn’t worried about Filch or his wretched cat. To be honest, he isn’t worried about anyone. After the war, and Voldemort, and dying and coming back to life, a detention for being out past curfew seems inconsequential.

But there is no one else out of bed.

He makes his way towards the Astronomy Tower. He’s not entirely sure why, but it’s something he feels he has to do.

The steep climb up brings back a flood of memories, but for once, there’s no accompanying anxiety. He feels none of the light-headed, pulse pounding panic that’s so quick to debilitate him. Instead he feels surprisingly at ease.

However, when he reaches the top and steps out into the open air, he stops short. He starts to turn back down the stairs, but it’s too late.

“Mr. Potter,” Snape says. He doesn’t turn from where he’s staring out over the parapet. “Resuming your old rule breaking so soon?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. I’ll leave you,” he says, hoping he can slip away and avoid whatever punishment Snape will deem suitable for this transgression.

“You can stay.” There is no rebuke in his tone. No derision. The man only sounds tired.

Harry takes a hesitant step out onto the balcony. The night is clear and cool. The stars look like a thousand pinpricks against the midnight sky.

“You cannot sleep?”

“No, sir.”

Snape only nods. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crushed packet of cigarettes, shakes one into his palm. Harry watches the yellow orange glow as the man holds it to his lips, lights it. A thin stream of smoke unfurls in the air.

“And this place,” Snape finally says, not looking at him, “does not...” he pauses, clearly searching for the right words, “cause you undue stress?”

Harry laughs, a harsh sound in the quiet night. “You’d think it would, right? You saw what the Great Hall did to me.” He shakes his head. “But I’m all right. It’s nice up here.”

“Yes,” is all Snape says, exhaling a pale tendril of smoke.

Harry walks to the wall, stares out over the edge. He is careful to remain a good distance from Snape. He’s already intruding on the man’s evening, he doesn’t need to infringe on his personal space. It’s very dark; the moon is just a thin slash against the black expanse of sky. Far down below, Harry sees starlight reflected on the glass-clear surface of the lake.

“How long do they last?” Harry asks after a long while. “The dreams?”

At that, Snape looks at him. His cigarette has burned down nearly to his fingers. He takes one more drag before grinding it out against the stone wall. “In my case, decades.” His voice is matter-of-fact, devoid of any emotion.

Harry wraps his arms around his chest. It’s cold up here and his jumper does little to stop the wind. “Is that why you come up here? Bad dreams?”

“No. I am used to the dreams.”

“Then why?” The memories of... that night are still branded across the forefront of Harry’s mind, crystal clear, mirror sharp. He can only imagine how it is for Snape.
For a long time, Harry doesn’t think the man will answer. But then Snape pushes away from the parapet and turns to face Harry. “Penance,” he says. “I come here for penance.” Then he strides past Harry to the stairs.

Harry waits until he can no longer hear his footsteps before following.

***

The next night, Harry once again finds Snape at the top of the Astronomy Tower.

The man is smoking. Harry watches his fingers, his hands, as he raises the cigarette to his mouth. “That can’t be good for you,” Harry says.

“I don’t imagine it is.”

“But your throat,” Harry persists, remembering the blood—there was so much blood—sickly and warm beneath his hands as he tried to staunch the flow.

“As I’m sure you recall, the Dark Lord’s pet nearly ripped my throat out. This feels positively therapeutic in comparison.”

At that Harry has to laugh. He stands next to Snape, rests his elbows on the stone ledge. It’s foggy tonight. The mist that hangs in the air clings to his skin. But, for the time being at least, the wind isn’t so biting. “I still miss him,” Harry says after a long while. “Dumbledore.”

Snape only nods. While the man seems to tolerate Harry’s presence, he’s not much for conversation.

“I don’t blame you, you know. Not anymore.” It’s important to Harry that Snape know that.

The man flicks ash off the end of his cigarette; smoke curls around his fingers. “I can’t tell you how relieved this makes me feel,” he says, sarcasm dripping from his tongue. He drops the cigarette on the ground, crushes it beneath his heel. For a while, Harry doesn’t think he’s going to say anything else. But then he does, voice soft: “I will miss Albus until the day I die. But I will also hate him for what he made me do to him.”

***

“You have become reasonably competent at potions. Why did you not, while you were at home, brew some Dreamless Sleep or, at least, a Calming Draught?”

Harry shrugs. Tonight, Snape is seated on one of the low stone benches, sipping a cup of tea. Harry sits down beside him, pulling his jacket closed against the chill. “Those potions can be addicting. You know that.”

“I do,” Snape says, summoning another cup. He pours and Harry takes the tea with a smile. The chipped porcelain mug is warm against his palms. “And I also know that the benefits can far outweigh any potential risks, depending on the circumstances.”

Harry sips his tea. It’s strong and bitter and exactly the way he likes it.

“I could brew you something, if you like.”

“I... yes,” Harry says. “That would be nice.”

***

The worst attack he’s had in months happens in Potions.

Harry’s been doing better. Under Flitwick’s gentle encouragement, he’s gradually becoming more and more comfortable with his wand again. And the Great Hall, the corridors to and from classes no longer trigger the memories that make him panic.

But when Michael and Ernie’s cauldron starts smoking, Harry feels his heart begin to pound. He closes his eyes, tries to control his breathing, but it’s too late.

Smoke fills the corridor. Spell work criss-crosses the air. Icy blues. Bloody reds. Deadly greens. Harry ducks behind a pile a crumbled stone as two masked, cloaked Death Eaters run by.

Isobel MacDougal shrieks as Michael jumps back from the table. His upended chair hits the floor with a loud bang.

“Make yourselves useful,” Snape yells above the clamour. “Ventilation spells!”

Harry sucks in another breath, but his mouth is clogged with smoke. His eyes burn and his head swims. His chest is too tight.

The floor is cold against his palms. Hermione is there, but it feels as though Harry is under water. Her voice is very far away.

And then Snape’s hand is on his shoulder, grounding him. “Breathe, Potter. You need to breathe.”

Pomfrey keeps Harry in the infirmary for two days. He doesn’t mind. She keeps him sedated for the first twenty-four hours and, once the initial grogginess wears off, he actually feels more rested than he has in weeks. Hermione comes to visit after classes let out. She brings him a meat pasty nicked from the kitchens. Harry devours it in three quick bites. Crumbs scatter across the white bed sheet; he brushes them away with his fingers. Pomfrey’s only allowed him soup since he woke up.

“How are you feeling?” Hermione asks.

“Good.” He means it. “I can leave tomorrow.”

She nods, but Harry sees the concern in her eyes.

“Really,” he assures her, “I’m fine.”

She bites her lip, gaze assessing. “That was the worst it’s been, Harry. Since the start of summer. Maybe ever.”

He looks down, twists his fingers in the coverlet. “I know, but I’m getting better.”

***

Harry is a bit nervous when he returns to the eighth year dormitory the following evening. He enjoyed the peace and quiet of the infirmary. Aside from himself, there’d been only one other patient: a second year student suffering the lingering effects of a poorly cast Bat Bogey Hex. But that boy was on the opposite end of the wing and for two blissful days—aside from Pomfrey’s periodic checks—Harry had been left alone.

But, when Harry opens the door and steps into the common room, there are no whispers; no one turns to stare. Rather, Neville comes to greet him with a reassuring smile. “Glad you’re back, mate.”

Even Blaise Zabini looks up from where he’s reading with Pansy Parkinson by the fire and nods. And there is no criticism, no mockery there. No thinly veiled antagonism. Just complete and utter understanding. Harry lets out the breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.

But that night, Harry still cannot sleep. He waits until his roommates are snoring softly around him before heading to the Astronomy Tower.

Snape is there, but Harry knew he would be.

Snape doesn’t look at Harry, but he passes him his half-smoked cigarette. It’s intimate, his lips on the filter where he knows Snape’s mouth has been. He breathes in, lets the smoke fill his mouth, his lungs, before he exhales as he’s seen Snape do countless times before. It burns his throat, though, and makes him cough. Eyes watering, he passes the cigarette back to Snape. The man laughs, but there’s no malice there.

“Don’t worry, it’s an acquired skill.”

“Good to know,” Harry sputters. His chest aches, but in a pleasant sort of way.

“But,” Snape says, “if you’re going to sick up, do mind the wind.”

“Sound advice, that,” Harry manages a smile. “But I think I’ll be all right.”

Snape nods and takes a long drag off the cigarette. Smoke dissipates into the cool, night air. Harry stares out over the parapet; it’s getting colder. He’s going to have to start wearing his cloak at night.

“It was worse than I expected,” Snape says finally. Harry appreciates that there’s no pity in his tone. He doesn’t need to ask what he’s referring to.

“Yes,” he admits. “That one was bad. It hasn’t been like that in a while.”

Snape only nods. “Have you been taking the potion?”

“One drop on my tongue every three nights before bed.”

“You can increase it to every other night, if need be.”

“No.” Harry shakes his head. “I’m actually sleeping pretty well.”

At that, Snape looks at him, eyebrow raised.

Harry laughs. “When I do sleep, that is.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “What happened in class, usually I can control it...usually I can stop it before it gets that bad. Everything just happened so quickly. I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologise for. You were not the one who disrupted my class.” Far down below, a tentacle breaks the surface of the lake. “You’ll be pleased to know, Mr. Corner and Mr. Macmillan have been enjoying detention this week.”

Harry can’t help but smile. “I’m sure they have.”

Snape takes another cigarette from his pocket and lights it. The tip glows bright against the darkness.

***

After a month and a half of doing nothing more than textbook reading in Defence—no discussions, no lectures, no practicals, no demonstrations—Harry has had enough.

He actually likes to read. After the war, in the months he was holed up in Grimmauld Place, he spent the better part of each day in the library. By the end of summer, he’d worked his way through half the books the Black collection.

But A Seventh Year’s Advanced Guide to Offensive and Defensive Spells is painfully elementary in comparison. Harry was surprised that, given the circumstances, Professor Murray didn’t opt for a different text. Sure, in years past, the book was likely adequate, but the majority of returning eighth years (not to mention sixth and seventh years) fought in a war. Chapter sixteen’s “A Brief Guide to When Utilizing Offensive Force Might Be Acceptable and Necessary”—among other sections—feels laughably immaterial.

Harry closes his book. Had he not mastered the text’s idea of “advanced” shielding spells his fourth year, he likely wouldn’t have survived the Triwizard Tournament. And his skills have improved a bit since then, to put matters mildly.

“Professor Murray,” Harry says, approaching her desk. She puts down her copy of The Daily Prophet and looks up at him expectantly.

“Can I help you, Harry? Is the reading giving you trouble?”

Harry frowns. “Er, no, not at all. I was just wondering if we’d be moving on to the practical portion of our course any time soon.”

“After the holidays,” she says dismissively. “I’ve found it best to always begin a Defence study with thorough background reading. That way we have a nice basis for any spells we learn. Otherwise, you risk students attempting advanced spell work they’re simply not ready for.”

“Oh.” Harry has to work to mask his surprise. She seems painfully out of touch. “I understand, and perhaps in a traditional seventh year course, that would make sense, but—”

“Traditional?” Professor Murray interrupts. “Are you suggesting that this isn’t a traditional Defence course?”

“Well, no, but considering the circumstances—”

“I’m going to stop you there,” Professor Murray says with a condescending little smile that sets Harry’s teeth on edge. “I assume you’re talking about your war...” Harry doesn’t miss her choice of pronoun. “And while I am trying to remain sensitive to what you went through, a bit of combat experience simply does not turn you into the defensive experts I fear many of you fancy yourselves being.”

Harry takes a deep breath. “A bit…” The rest of the class has stopped to watch the exchange. Most students aren’t even pretending to read any more. Zabini has angled his chair to get a better view. Harry clenches his fists, feels the press of fingernails into his palms, and tries to slow the pounding of his heart. It’s not panic he feels, though. It’s anger, hot and sharp. It’s a refreshing change. “Right, well,” he says through gritted teeth, deciding to try a different approach, “perhaps then, in the meantime, you could assign some more advanced reading to supplement our text?”

Professor Murray actually laughs, an unpleasant, simpering sound. “I’m sorry?”

Harry takes another breath. “Perhaps you could provide some alternative reading as an option for those of us already familiar with the information in the textbook.”

Her smile is gone. “Are you suggesting that you know all the spells in your book?”

“No, I—”

“Because there are over one thousand spells in your text. Take shield charms, for instance. The index lists...” she flips to the back of the book, “thirty-six spells in that set alone.” She closes the book again, folds her hands primly atop the desk. “How many different shields do you know, Harry?”

Harry has to think for a moment. “Er, four, but that doesn’t—”

Her smile is back. This time, though, there’s something dangerous there. “I see. Then I can’t imagine why you would think you might need ‘supplemental’ reading.” She titters softly, glancing beyond Harry as though expecting the class to join in her laughter, but everyone is deadly silent. Even Parkinson and Bulstrode are looking at Professor Murray with poorly disguised distaste.

“Because,” Harry says, “once you understand the theory behind any type of spell, you don’t need to know countless variations of the same thing to make your magic do what you want.” His voice is louder than he intends, but he’s fast loosing patience. He can’t tell if she’s being deliberately obtuse or if she truly doesn’t understand the way advanced magical theory works.

Murray doesn’t respond; her lips are pressed into a thin line.

“I mean,” Harry continues, “the best duellists will tell you that—once you’ve mastered the magic—it’s not the specific spells that matter anymore, but the spell set you’re casting from, your timing and ability to hide your intentions, and, of course, the magic itself.”

Murray narrows her eyes, regards Harry for a long moment. “Perhaps,” she finally admits. “But you’re talking about advanced duellists, not teenagers completing their seventh formal year of schooling.”

“He defeated Voldemort,” Anthony Goldstein offers matter-of-factly from the side of the room. Several other students murmur their agreement.

Harry glances behind him. Anthony is leaning back in his chair, one ankle resting on the opposite knee. He looks as though he might be watching a television programme. All that’s missing is a bowl of crisps.

“Yes...” Murray says slowly, “and I know we’re all thankful that Harry managed to do so. It just goes to show what a bit of luck and proper support can do—”

“Luck!?” This time it is Hermione that speaks. Her voice is shrill. It takes a lot to make Hermione lose her composure, but Harry knows Professor Murray has crossed a line even Hermione can’t ignore.

“I faced Voldemort ten times,” Harry says softly, forcing his voice to remain calm. “On the ninth time, I allowed him to kill me. On the tenth, I killed him, once and for all, when no one else could. If you’d like to call that ‘luck,’ be my guest. But I participated in four major battles and countless other skirmishes. I fought beside Aurors, witches, wizards, and students...” he waves a hand, “students in this very room. I was hit with curses and with Unforgivables. And I cast more than most wizards will cast in a lifetime.”

Professor Murray’s eyes have gone cold, but she doesn’t stop him.

“So, I’m not sure what you’re definition of ‘experience’ is,” he concludes, voice shaking slightly, “but I’m confident that mine exceeds that of your—” he holds up his hands to make quotation marks with his fingers—“average teenager completing his seventh year of schooling.”

“I see...” A dull red colour has seeped onto her cheeks. It clashes with the auburn of her hair. “And I do acknowledge that you’ve been in more combat situations than most wizards your age...”

“Or any age...” This time it’s Hannah Abbot interjecting.

“Perhaps,” Murray says, not taking her eyes off Harry. “But you said yourself, you only know four shield spells. Do you truly feel that qualifies as ‘advanced’?” This time she makes quotes with her fingertips.

“I know that my shielding is more than adequate for any combat situation,” Harry says, jaw clenched. “I know that it doesn’t matter if I know four shields or four hundred, I can block anything because my shielding adapts to the situation. After all, the spell works for the wizard, not the other way around.”

Murray sighs. She sounds more than a little put out. “Fine. Then show me.” She stands, removing her robe to drape on the back of her chair.

“Excuse me?”

“You say you could block anything, yet you admit to knowing only four shields. I confess I am sceptical, so I’d like you to show me.”

Harry nods. “All right.”

She moves around to the front of her desk and draws her wand. Harry steps to the side, turning so any spell work will be directed away from the class.

“I’m going to cast a basic stinging hex,” Murray begins. “Use whichever of your four shields you deem most appropriate.” Her words drip with condescension, but Harry doesn’t mind. Anger only makes him stronger.

“Cast whatever spell you like,” he says. “I’ve never met an opponent in battle kind enough to announce his intentions in advance.”

She frowns, raising her wand. “Fine.”

Harry takes a deep breath, focussing his concentration, his magic, but Murray only laughs. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Harry? Your wand?”

“I don’t need it.”

“You don’t...” A hint of anger flits across her expression, but it’s gone in an instant. Harry wonders if she thinks he’s mocking her.

The Reducto has barely left her lips when Harry raises his hands. His shield snaps into place with such force that the curse shatters on impact and Murray staggers back several steps as shards of magic ricochet off the shield. She manages to maintain her feet, but it’s clear the power behind Harry’s spell unsettles her.

“Bloody hell,” Harry hears Entwhistle exclaim.

“What was that?” Murray asks, once she’s regained her composure.

“A Protego.”

She frowns. “No, it wasn’t.”

“It was,” Harry says. “Or, at least, that’s the spell I cast. But, as I said, that doesn’t matter once you understand the theory behind it. Every shield spell in that book,” he says, pointing to the textbook on the corner of her desk, “has the same basic purpose. Sure, some are better suited for certain situations than others, but once you understand why, the individual spell should bend to your intention.”

“So why even have individual spells?” Murray asks. “If only the magic and your intentions matter?”

“It’s not as simple as that. You can’t use a shielding spell to attack. Just as you could never use a Crucio to heal. But I can use a basic Protego to protect against a simple stinging hex, a blasting spell, or a killing curse, as long as I tailor my magic appropriately.”

“The Killing Curse is unblockable.”

“Not all the time.”

Professor Murray folds her arms over her chest. After a long moment, she lets out a breath: “I’ll consider selecting a few appropriate alternative texts to supplement our reading.”

***

“I heard you caused quite a scene in Defence today.”

Harry hunches his shoulders against the wind; it whips at the edges of his cloak. Winter, it seems, will come early this year. “I didn’t mean to. Professor Murray made me demonstrate a shield charm.”

“She said as much. She also said your shield—wandless at that—had enough force to nearly knock her into the wall?”

He shrugs. “I didn’t hurt her, but yes. I needed to prove a point.”

“Which was?” Snape turns from where he’s leaning on the stone parapet. “That you’re bloody powerful? I believe, Mr. Potter, the world was already well aware.”

Harry isn’t sure about that. But, “No, the point was that you don’t need to know thirty-six variations of a shield spell to know how to effectively wield shielding magic.”

“Why on Merlin’s name would you need thirty-six different shields?”

“Murray seems to think you do.” Harry shrugs again. “It’s a long story. But I was angry, I’ll admit. And my magic is tied to my emotions.”

Snape nods. “Which is why you’ll always be deplorable at mind magic.”

“True, but it’s also why I’m pretty damn good at other things.”

Snape can’t bite back his smile. “Touché.” Then, “Why were you angry?”

Harry scowls. It makes him upset just thinking about it, but he doesn’t want to complain to Snape. “She said the only reason I defeated Voldemort was luck.”

Creases form across Snape’s forehead; the man looks appalled. “If she truly believes you managed to kill the Dark Lord merely because you were lucky, then she’s far more foolish that I originally thought.”

“I can’t tell,” Harry says. “But she seems pretty out of touch. The whole thing today started because I asked if it would be possible to do some alternate readings in exchange for the more...basic sections in our textbook.”

“And she refused a request for supplemental reading?”

“Pretty much. Said our experiences in the war didn’t mean we were any more knowledgeable or advanced than any other teenager completing his seventh year of schooling.”

Snape laughs, but there’s no humour there.

“She used the fact that I don’t know every one of the thousand plus spells in the textbook as proof. Never mind the fact that I bet I could cast any of them—hell, I could likely do so wandlessly—or the fact that understanding the magical theory behind said spells is what matters in the end anyway.”

“Before term, Minerva suggested that Professor Murray might consider an alternate textbook for seventh and eighth year Defence this year. Considering the circumstances, it seemed wise. But Bianca assured Minerva that she would extend her teaching beyond the text to account for her students’ prior knowledge and combat experience. Has she not supplemented your reading with lecture and demonstrations?”

Harry shakes his head. His fringe falls into his eyes and he brushes it back again. His hair is getting longer; it could do for a cut. “No. She’s hardly said a thing to us—aside from to wish us good morning and assign the day’s reading. And there’s been no practical demonstrations, either. Today was the first day I think I’ve seen her cast a spell. Students haven’t duelled or practiced casting, either. We just read.”

“I see.” The concern is plain on Snape’s face.

“I like to read, too,” Harry adds. “That’s not why I was upset.” At Snape’s look, Harry laughs. “No really, I do. I like learning about magic. You’ve seen. I’m not half bad a student now that I don’t have the threat of imminent death lurking over my every move.”

Snape’s lips curve in what Harry has learned is as close to a smile as Snape is likely to give. “I’ll admit your studies have improved marginally this year.”

Harry laughs again. “Thanks...I think.”

“But, honestly, I wouldn’t mind spending the class reading if the reading weren’t so...” Harry trails off, unsure of exactly what to say. He doesn’t want to sound as though he thinks class work is beneath him.

“If the reading weren’t laughably rudimentary considering your clear knowledge and abilities.”

“Yes,” Harry agrees, tucking his hands into the folds of his cloak. “After everything that happened last year, it seems a waste to be reading about how best to deflect your basic stinging hex or when dodging a spell might prove as effective as shielding.”

“That sounds positively scintillating.” Snape’s voice is thick with sarcasm. “And you’ve done no practical casting?”

“No. Professor Murray said she prefers to wait until second term or students end up attempting to cast spells that are too advanced for their abilities.”

Snape snorts. “I’m sure students who risked their lives fighting Death Eaters last spring were pleased to hear their Defence teacher worries they’ll injure themselves casting seventh year spells in a controlled setting.”

“Kingsley thought we were ready to join the Aurors. Anyone who fought could enter the training programme.”

“He was not wrong,” Snape agrees. “And it is reasonable to expect that you receive the benefit of a modified Defence Against the Dark Arts course. I will speak with Minerva.”

“You should be our Defence teacher,” Harry says, “now that the position’s not cursed and all. You’d be great at it.” And isn’t it odd that a year ago he hated this man—hated him sometimes more than Voldemort himself—and now he seeks out his company nearly every night?

Snape stares out into the darkness. Harry worries he’s said something wrong. Though, he can’t imagine what.

“For the longest time, I wanted nothing more than to teach Defence,” Snape finally says, “but Albus always said my place was in the potions lab. Until, at last, it wasn’t.” His voice has a haunted quality to it that makes Harry’s chest tighten. “I did a great many things for Albus, and I will continue to do what I can for Minerva, for Hogwarts. But I will never teach Defence again.”

Harry thinks he understands.

“It’s expected to rain tomorrow,” Snape says then. “If you feel compelled to wander about the castle after hours, perhaps do so earlier. Come by my office around nine?”
And with that, Snape turns and heads down the tower steps.

It’s another half hour before Harry makes it back to the eighth year common room. The staircase changes on him and he ends up in an unfamiliar corridor. Last year, he would have sworn he knew the castle inside and out, but after reconstruction some places are not as they once were.

Harry thinks he recognises some of the portraits here, but the tapestries are all wrong. And, when he turns a corner thinking he’ll find the Arithmancy wing, he finds a stained glass window he’s certain he’s never seen before. He steps forwards to take a closer look. In the dark, the colours all appear as blues and greys. He peers through the glass and is surprised to see that he’s facing the front of the school, looking out over the main grounds—the grounds that, just a few months ago, Death Eaters had crossed as they advanced on the castle.

Harry takes a deep breath but, for once, he does not feel the fear, the panic that’s so quick to make his legs weak and his heart pound.

He turns around and retraces his steps. He tries not to think about the war. About the people who fought and the people they lost. He doesn’t think about his scar or the dreams that still wake him more nights than not. Instead, he thinks about Snape and the unexpected camaraderie they’ve established. He knows, now more than ever, that the man understands him and, for some reason, that’s beyond comforting.

***

“Where were you?”

Hermione’s voice startles him. Harry hadn’t realised anyone was in the common room. She’s curled on one of the big sofas underneath a worn afghan, a textbook open on her lap. “Were you in Gryffindor? With Gin?”

“No.” The fires are burning low in their grates. It must be well after midnight. “It’s late. Why aren’t you in bed?”

“I’m asking you the same question. You weren’t with Ginny?”

He shakes his head and sits down next to Hermione on the couch. “No, I couldn’t sleep, so I was walking for a bit.”

Hermione looks at him. Her hair is mussed; several tendrils have escaped the knot at the back of her neck. She brushes a loose strand behind her ear. “Things aren’t good between you.”

Harry looks down, twisting his fingers in the woven holes of her blanket. It’s been days, maybe weeks since he’s said more than a few words to Ginny. He sees her in passing—in the Great Hall at mealtime and in the corridors between classes. But she’s busy with her friends and with Quidditch and homework and Harry is...

He doesn’t even know. He could spend time with her if he wanted to. Gin still wants to be with him, but he can’t make her happy. And he’s pretty sure now she won’t make him happy. Harry thinks he should be sad. After all, he always thought he’d end up with Gin. But now... Now it’s actually a bit of relief—one less thing to worry about in a seemingly endless stream of worries. He knows, of course, that that’s not how it’s supposed to feel. Relationships—the good ones, anyway—should make you feel better, not worse. He sees it with Hermione and Ron. No matter how stressed or busy or overwhelmed Hermione may be, she always has time when Ron Firecalls. And she’s always happier, more at ease after their conversations. It makes Harry smile and he wishes he could have something like that, but he knows he can’t with Ginny.

“Are you seeing someone else?” Hermione’s question breaks into his thoughts. Her words are careful, but there is no censure, no criticism there. Hermione, at least, would not be mad at him if the answer were yes.

“No,” he says honestly, “there’s no one else.” Because there’s not, not really. He’s not seeing Snape. The concept is laughable. It just so happens that neither of them can sleep and, if they chanced to find each other’s company tolerable, well, that makes some sense, doesn’t it? It would have to, considering the war and what they both went through. But it doesn’t mean anything.

“You could tell me, you know,” Hermione is saying. “I’m always here for you.”

“I know.” Harry stands, leaning over to press a quick kiss to the top of her head. She smells of rosemary, of lavender. “And I will, if there’s ever anything.”

She nods, but she looks as if she knows more than she’s letting on. How could she, though? There’s nothing to know. He leaves her there and climbs the stairs to his room, hopeful to get a few hours sleep.

***

The following night, Harry heads down to the dungeons a few minutes before nine. He finds Snape at his desk, a pile of essays stacked in front of him.

“Potter,” he says, looking up from his work as Harry steps into the cramped office. “Is it nine already?”

“Yes, sir.”

Snape dips his quill into the waiting pot of red ink and scrawls one final, no doubt scathing, remark in the margin of the paper he’s marking. Then he stands. He’s not wearing his robes; his shirtsleeves are rolled to the elbow. Harry sees a hint of the Mark, black against the pale skin of Snape’s left forearm. He wonders how many people Snape allows to see him like this—exposed, not clad beneath layer upon layer of black.

“Does it hurt?” Harry asks, though surely he’s crossing some unspoken boundary.

“What?” Snape asks, confused, but then he sees what Harry’s looking at. His right hand comes to cover the Mark reflexively. “Oh, no. Not anymore. Not since that night.” He doesn’t say anything else; he doesn’t need to. Not since that night we both should have died. Not since that night you killed him.

“That’s good. My scar still hurts, though, sometimes.”

Snape frowns, moving around the desk towards Harry. He reaches out, brushes the fringe back from Harry’s forehead. His fingers are cool, his touch gentle. It nearly makes Harry shiver as Snape sweeps his thumb across the silvery smooth lightning bolt.

“It only hurts when I dream,” Harry says, more breathless than he should be. “He’s gone. I know he’s gone.”

“Yes,” Snape agrees, “he’s gone. Come with me.”

Harry follows Snape down the hall to one of the Potions classrooms. The lab tables have been pushed to one side, leaving a large open space in the centre.

“You need to duel,” Snape says, drawing his wand without preamble.

“I…” Harry tenses, taking an involuntary step backwards. He can’t panic. Not here.

“It is our job to prepare you for life outside the castle walls. Yet Professor Murray seems to be failing at this task.”

“I can duel,” Harry says. “You know this.”

“You can,” Snape allows. “Better than most. And you will always be more powerful than practically anyone you face. But that will only make you more of a target. It only takes one wizard with something to prove, one errant curse to catch you unawares. If you aren’t prepared or are out of practice, the consequences can be dire.” Snape’s tone is matter-of-fact, but Harry hears the undercurrent of concern there, and he’s right, of course.

Harry nods. “Okay. I’m ready.”

Snape’s Incarcerous is wordless. Harry barely has time to deflect, but Snape is already casting a Stupefy. This time Harry manages to get a shield in place, but Snape is so fast, so strong, and Harry’s wandless magic will never be as precise as it needs to be.

His blasting curse sails wide right, the force knocking a lab table on its side with a loud crash.

“Focus!” Snape yells, wand flashing blue as a freezing hex shatters against Harry’s shield. A shard of magic hits his arm, sending a chill down to his fingertips. His stinging hex hits Snape’s shield with enough force to knock him back a step, but it doesn’t stop his Expulso from connecting squarely with Harry’s defences.

Harry’s arm aches from the freezing spell and maintaining a shield without a wand is exhausting. He’s flushed and short of breath, heart pounding against his ribs. Snape regards him coolly. He hasn’t even broken a sweat.

“You’re better than this.”

“I know.” Harry waves a hand, wordlessly sends a chair sailing across the room. It catches Snape off guard, hits him against the back, knocking him forwards. “Good,” he grunts. But the man sends two spells at Harry before he’s even back on his feet. Harry deflects the first, but the stinging hex hits him in the shoulder, cutting through his jumper to the skin beneath. He gasps, covering the wound with a hand; he feels warm wetness against his fingers.

“Your wand, Potter,” Snape says, pressing his magic against Harry’s. “You must use your wand.”

Harry shakes his head, focussing his power into his shield, but he’s distracted by the pain in his arm and he’s tired. Snape’s Impedimenta is too strong. It cracks through his protections, hitting Harry in the chest. “Fuck,” he gasps, air knocked from his lungs, but Snape is still casting. Harry drops to his knee, dodging the binding spell just in time, but then Snape is standing over him.

“Your wand.” The man’s Stupefy hits him before he can stand. “Use your wand.”

The thought terrifies Harry, but he can’t allow Snape to beat him. He takes a deep breath, musters enough force to recast his shield. That affords him just enough time to climb back to his feet. Snape’s magic is all around him.

Harry slips a hand in his pocket, draws his wand. His own magic pulses warm against his palm. It’s neither paralyzing nor panic-inducing. Rather it feels like coming home. Harry feels the power funnel into his shield, the force pushing Snape back a step.
Expelliarmus,” Harry shouts, and Snape’s wand sails into his outstretched hand.

“That’s it,” the man says, lips curving into a hint of a smile. “That’s it.”

Harry is bruised and aching. He will be sore tomorrow, but that night Harry is asleep nearly as soon as his head hits the pillow.

He does not dream.

***

Defence improves marginally.

Professor Murray brings a selection of texts from the library. And while none of them are close to world-shattering, they’re a marked improvement over the textbook. Harry selects one on utilising non-traditional offensive spells in combat and opens to the table of contents. He’s certain Snape would laugh at any attempt of his to conjure some animal or another to attack—unless, he managed to summon a basilisk or something. And he knows any use of mind magic against Snape would be pointless. After all, the man is the best Occlumens in England. But the section on incorporating dampening magic into duelling is interesting and, for the first time that year, he has reason to take notes.

***

They duel on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Harry finds himself looking forward to those sessions throughout the week. Snape is exacting and he pushes Harry harder than he’s been pushed in quite some time, but Harry is getting better and, when he’s there practising with Snape, he’s able to forget everything else for just a little while. He feels none of the anxiety, none of the fear that has plagued him for so many months. The panic is fading, too. It’s been weeks since he’s had a full-blown attack.

Harry likes watching Snape duel. The man is quick, and there’s an elegance, a precision to the way he moves that Harry can’t hope to match. Harry has more raw power, but Snape seems to have an endless supply of magic at his disposal and, no matter how many times they fight, Harry can never predict what spells Snape will use next.

***

“I broke up with Gin.”

Snape looks at Harry as though he’s just announced his fondness for wrestling Blast-Ended Skrewts naked.

“Ginevra Weasley?”

Harry nods. They’re atop the Astronomy Tower once again.

The night after their first duelling session, Harry had found him there. Snape had merely rolled his eyes. ‘I hoped, Mr. Potter, that by providing you with an activity a few nights a week I might otherwise be spared the…pleasure of your company.

Harry only laughed. ‘Sorry, sir. It seems you can’t get rid of me that easily.

“I can’t imagine,” Snape says now, “why you feel compelled to share that information with me.”

Harry casts a warming charm. White puffs of steam rise from his cloak. Snape scoffs at this, but Harry only flashes him a wide grin. The man loves to make fun of his use of such spells, but Harry sees no shame in keeping warm. “I mean, we hadn’t been good for a long time,” Harry says. “Not since the war, at least. I’m not sure we ever were, honestly.”

“Surely, you have friends better suited to hear this, no doubt, riveting tale?”

“Not really. I mean, there’s Hermione, but Gin’s her friend too, and she’s dating Ron. It’s not really fair to put her in the middle of things.”

“Your year-mates?” Snape tries. “There are other Gryffindors in the lot of you.”

“There are. But it’s not the same. Not anymore.” Harry bites his lip, stares out into the darkness. “Nothing’s the same. I don’t think it will be again.”

“No, likely not,” Snape agrees. “But we are different, too.”

“We are,” Harry says. “You and I. But everyone else? You can’t live through a war and come out unscathed. I know that. And I don’t mean to devalue anyone else’s experience, but I died, Snape. I died,” he repeats. The word still feels strange on his tongue. “And you can’t come back from that and care the same about Quidditch and Exploding Snap and girls and nicking Firewhisky from the kitchens.”

“There are still merits in Firewhisky,” Snape says seriously, and Harry has to laugh.

“And girls?”

“In that, I’ll admit I’m no expert. But there are alternatives...if you feel you might prefer something different.”

“Yes,” Harry says, throat suddenly dry. “I think I might.”

***

Something changes. Harry can’t explain it. But he finds he spends less time thinking about triggers, about the possibility of panic, and more time thinking about Snape.

When he’s with the man—whether they’re duelling, or staring out over the castle grounds from atop the Astronomy Tower or, strangely enough, in Potions—Harry is calm and he’s happy.

He’s not sure what that means—if it means anything at all. But he thinks Snape must enjoy his company too, at least a little bit, as absurd as that seems, or else surely he wouldn’t continue to come to the Astronomy Tower every night, or spend two evenings a week duelling with him.

***

“Did you love my mother?”

“I did...” Harry hears the hesitation in Snape’s voice, but the man continues: “You saw enough from my memories, I believe, to assure you of that.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods. They’re sitting under the awning back away from the parapet. The drizzle has turned into sleet. Hogwarts will be covered in ice by morning. For once Snape didn’t object to the heating charm.

“But did you want my mother?”

“I did,” he says slowly. “Though more, perhaps, I wanted to want your mother.”

“I understand,” Harry says. And he does. “I wanted to want Gin. I really did. But it was never going to feel right. And I think I know why now.”

Snape summons a pot of tea from Merlin knows where. He fills one teacup for Harry and then the second before producing a metal flask from his pocket. He pours a generous splash into his own cup but does not offer any to Harry.

“Have you ever loved anyone else?” Weeks ago, Harry wouldn’t have believed his nerve, but now... He’s still reasonably certain he’s pushing a boundary—after all, the question is clearly inappropriate—but he has to ask.

“I have, though not for quite some time.”

“And not another girl,” Harry says. He’s not sure how he knows, but he does.

“No.” Snape sips at his doctored tea and stares out into the mist. “I worry, Mr. Potter, that you are getting your hopes up. That you think this means something it cannot mean.”

“No,” Harry says quickly. “I don’t. I—it’s not...”

Snape stands, looking down at Harry for one long moment. “It is unwise to look for things that should not be found.”

***

“Today we’ll duel. Mr. Potter, if you please, and Mr. Corner come to the front.”

A general murmur spreads throughout the room; after all, this is the first time since Harry’s ‘demonstration’ weeks ago that Professor Murray has suggested they do anything but read. Luna gives Harry a nudge, shaking him out of his thoughts. He puts his quill down and follows Michael to the front of the room. Murray has cleared the desks to the sides, creating a wide, open space.

“Now, let’s stick to lesser offensive spells, shall we?” she says. “Stunning spells, immobilizers, minor hexes and the like. Nothing too dangerous. First person to yield or be rendered unable to continue the fight loses.”

Michael looks mildly uncomfortable with the prospect, but he nods, pulling his wand out of his pocket. Harry draws his as well.

“Now, now, Mr. Potter,” Murray titters. “I seem to recall that you prefer duelling without your wand? So why don’t you go ahead and put that away.” Her smile is sickeningly sweet.

Harry wants to argue, but it’d likely just land him in detention. He knows he can best Michael Corner even without his wand, and he has better things to do tonight than scrubbing blackboards and desks in the defence classroom, so he sticks his wand in his back pocket and focuses his magic.

Michael looks far more relaxed now. He pushes his shoulders back, wand dangling from his fingers far too casually. It’s a mistake. Harry knows better than to underestimate an opponent. That Michael would do so now is foolish. Harry narrows his eyes and waits for Murray’s signal to begin.

Michael attempts a flashy immobilizing spell to start, but it’s nearly painful to watch how he telegraphs the move. Harry doesn’t bother with a shield. He deflects the spell wordlessly, and the combination of the effort Michael expended in casting and the force of Harry’s deflection knocks Michael back a step. Harry takes the moment to cast a Stupefy. Michael manages to get a shield up in time; it’s weak, but still diffuses enough of the blow. He slashes with his wand in response, but the stinging hex sails over Harry’s head, and Michael curses loudly.

It’s enough of an opening. Harry disarms him, catching his wand in one hand while casting an Incarcerous with the other. Bindings wrap neatly around Michael’s upper body. He grunts, straining against the cords, but they hold fast.

“All right,” Murray says tartly. She waves her own wand and the bindings fall away. “A good thought, Mr. Corner, with the Immobulus. Always a smart choice in a duel. Mr. Potter managed to get lucky, though, and guess what spell you planned to use. I doubt that will happen next time.”

Somehow, Harry forces himself not to roll his eyes, but he smiles inwardly at Hermione’s indignant huff behind him. “Anyone could have ‘guessed’ what spell he was casting. He certainly made it obvious enough.”

Murray chooses to ignore her comment.

Michael and Harry turn to take their seats, Michael rubbing at his arm where the Incarcerous dug into his skin. But Murray stops them: “Boys, I did not say we were done. Please stay where you are, for the time.”

Harry stops where he is, shoving his hands in his pockets, and wonders if she’s really going to make Michael face him again.

“Mr. Boot,” she says after a moment. “If you’ll join us, please.”

Terry ambles to the front of the room expectantly, winking at Lisa Tarpin as he passes her desk. She flushes, but flashes a wide smile.

“Okay,” Murray is saying, “it’s rare that the real world works out as neatly as in a controlled duelling setting. Two against one, though, is certainly something truly experienced wizards would need to be comfortable facing.” Harry doesn’t miss the emphasis she places on the word ‘experienced.’

Terry frowns, but Michael claps him on the back, and Murray gives the signal to begin.

Honestly, they don’t pose much more of a challenge than Michael had alone. Terry is a capable wizard, but he’s far too conservative, preferring to be on the defensive and wait for Harry to attack. He does manage to get Harry off balance with an expertly cast Impedimenta, but he’s distracted by his partner and can’t hold the spell. Michael attempts to replicate the Incarcerous Harry cast but, once again, he signals his intentions and Harry is able to redirect the cords as they fly from his wand to wrap around Terry instead.

“Oi! Mate!” Terry yells, struggling against the bindings. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not!” Michael says. “It’s him!” He goes to tap his offending wand against his palm, but Harry disarms him, ending the duel.

“Hmm...” Murray says. And is it Harry’s imagination or does she sound disappointed? “Ms. Abbot, why don’t you join Mr. Boot and Mr. Corner?”

Hannah casts Harry a sympathetic glance before taking her place between Terry and Michael.

“May I use my wand this time?” Harry tries to keep the annoyance out of his voice, but he’s not sure he succeeds.

“No,” Murray says with a shake of her head. “What fun would that be?”

“I’m not sure about ‘fun’,” Harry snaps back, “but if I were truly facing three opponents in ‘the real world,’ as you say, I would most assuredly draw my wand.”

Murray pretends not to hear. “All right,” she says. “Same rules apply.”

“It’s three against one, Professor,” Terry tries. “Shouldn’t Harry get a partner this time?”

“No,” she says, “I don’t think so.” Murray raises her hand for them to begin.

Harry knows from Dumbledore’s Army and from battle that Hannah is excellent at masking her intentions. He likely won’t be able to predict her moves as he can with Terry and Michael. Instead, he opts to cast a preliminary shield, rather than take the advantage of getting off the first offensive spell.

Michael is gearing up for another Imobulus while Terry is wisely edging to the right, likely hoping to get around his defences.

Hannah’s freezing charm hits his shield. It makes Harry’s teeth clench and sends a shiver down his spine but, for the most part, it is absorbed.

He’s able to catch Michael with a Petrificus Totalus after deflecting his hex. The magic shatters with a crack, a shard hitting Hannah on the biceps. She manages to keep hold of her wand, but Harry knows her arm must be throbbing. He uses the opportunity to cast an Expelliarmus and her wand flies from her grasp, but Terry is out of Harry’s eyesight now, and he casts a cutting hex before Harry has time to adjust his shield.

Harry throws out a hand, magic snapping into place a moment too late. The hex catches his shoulder and he gasps at the pain. He spins, ducking under the blasting curse Terry casts; it hits the wall behind him with a crash. Harry hears a few shrieks from students sitting near by.

He’s tired. Wandless casting is exhausting, as is maintaining any semblance of a shield. But he gathers his power, letting his shield drop just as he funnels all his power into one final Expulso.

Even though Terry has a shield up, the force is too strong. He’s thrown backwards off his feet, landing on his arse with a grunt. He holds up his hands in surrender and Harry lowers his.

Murray doesn’t acknowledge them at all; she merely glances around the room. “Mr. Zabini, please join your classmates.”

Zabini shrugs and slowly makes his way to the front, amidst the growing buzz in the classroom.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Harry says, under his breath.

“What was that?” Murray says, voice terse. “Mr. Zabini, your place, if you will.”

Harry quickly presses his hand to his shoulder, wincing at the tingle of healing magic. He doesn’t have time for a proper spell, but this will have to do. His palm is red with blood when he lowers his hand.

“He’s bleeding Professor,” Luna says softly. “Harry should probably see Madam Pomfrey.”

Murray ignores her. “You may begin in three, two...” She raises a hand.

Zabini casts quickly. Harry deflects and sends a Stupefy at Terry. Michael is standing too close, and he’s forced to shield too. Harry is watching Zabini. He’s the best fighter of the four and, though Harry is reasonable sure he won’t try anything dark, he’s well aware what he’s capable of.

Terry’s leg-locker curse connects with Harry’s shield just as Hannah sends a blasting spell his way. It knocks him off balance and his own curse misses between Michael and Terry.

Hannah’s behind him now. Zabini is to his far left. Harry knows what they’re doing; it’s a good plan. If they surround him, he won’t be able to maintain his shield. It’d be another thing if he had his wand, but without he simply can’t cast to his peripheral while focussing his magic elsewhere.

Harry’s Stupefy connects with Michael’s shoulder, but Hannah’s stinging hex catches him off guard. He grimaces, eyes watering, and manages to hit her with a weak Imobulus, but Zabini and Terry are casting from both sides.

Harry’s heart is pounding, and he’s starting to feel light-headed. He ducks, and two spells collide above his head, fragments of magic raining down.

His chest aches and suddenly he can’t catch his breath. He deflects another stinging hex and tries to tell himself not to panic. Not now. But his shield is faltering and Zabini is behind him. The cutting hex connects with his right arm. He deflects the next one Terry casts, but Hannah’s stunner hits his shoulder, spinning him to the side. He tries to duck out of the way of Michael’s hex, but it hits him in the shoulder. There’s nothing he can do about Zabini’s spell before it lashes across his back.

He falls to his knees.

Harry can’t focus. There are pinpricks across his vision and his pulse is racing.

“Enough! That’s enough!” Harry hears Hermione yell and he knows Zabini has lowered his wand but Michael is preparing for another cutting hex and Terry is shifting to the side, looking for the best angle for his next spell.

Harry presses his hands to his ears, trying to drown out the roar of his heart. Michael’s next spell connects with his forearm, sending a new wave of pain over him. It’s too much. Harry forces himself to focus, summoning all his magic into one place in his gut and yelling Stupefy before collapsing onto the floor.

***

“What happened in Defence today?”

Harry shrugs. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

“Minerva thought it was. She’s putting Professor Murray on temporary leave until she determines if disciplinary action is necessary.”

“Really?” This surprises Harry. “How did she find out?”

“Teachers must file an incident report whenever a student is injured.”

“Oh,” Harry looks down. “I’m all right. It wasn’t that bad.”

“You received lacerations to your chest, shoulders, arm, and back. And Poppy saw fit to administer a Calming Draught.”

“I know.” Harry kicks at the ground with the toe of his trainer.

“Tell me what happened,” Snape says, and though his voice is devoid of emotion, Harry thinks he hears an undercurrent of concern there. It’s nice.

“Murray had us duel. I panicked. Not my finest moment, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. You’ve seen worse.”

“She had you duel her? Or a duel with a classmate triggered you?”

“Classmates, plural. I was the example, per usual.” Harry hears the resentment in his voice, but he can’t help it.

“I still don’t understand what happened,” Snape says carefully. “I’m certain I pose more of a challenge than whomever you were paired with, and you haven’t experienced an anxiety attack in weeks.”

“No,” Harry agrees. “And I was fine at first. I bested Michael Corner in three spells. He only got off one weak Stupefy.”

Snape nods. “Good.”

“She had Terry Boot join Corner then. Terry got me off balance with a decent Impedimenta but my shields were just too strong for them.”

“Undoubtedly,” Snape agrees. “Two against one, though. Were you the only student she had face more than one opponent at a time?”

“Yeah. Then she had Hannah Abbott fight with Terry and Michael. I think that’s where I got the first cut on my shoulder. Hannah’s good at duelling. She’s not terribly powerful, but she makes up for it with technique.”

“Yes,” Snape agrees. “She’s a talented young witch. But, still, you managed to defeat them. What caused your attack?”

Harry scowls. “Three against one apparently wasn’t sufficient. Murray had Zabini join the fun next.”

Snape frowns. “And you were the only one she treated to this...experiment?”

Harry nods. “Even so, I was okay until they got me surrounded. I just couldn’t maintain my shield from all sides wandless and...”

“Wandless?” Snape interjects. There’s a mixture of irritation and incredulity in his voice. “Why in Merlin’s name didn’t you use your wand? You’ve been using it without issue for nearly two months.”

“I know.” Harry stares off at a point in the distance. “I would have. I wanted to, but Murray wouldn’t let me.”

Snape rounds to face him, anger clear on his face. “Excuse me?”

“She wouldn’t let me. Believe me, I asked.”

“Professor Murray required you to face four armed students in a duel alone and refused you use of your own wand?”

“Yeah.”

“And she did not intervene at any point? Even once it was clear you were injured?”

“No.” Harry looks down, kicking at the wall in front of him. “Zabini stopped. He could have kept attacking. Michael and Terry did.”

“Mr. Zabini,” Snape says, “despite everything, has turned into a decent young man. He was never Marked, you know.”

“I know. You notice that kind of thing, sharing a room and all.”

Snape nods. There is something in his expression that Harry can’t read. “I’m sorry,” he finally says. “What happened today should never have been allowed to occur. Professor Murray’s actions are bordering on reprehensible.”

“She doesn’t like me much. Not after what happened with the shields.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Snape says firmly. The man reaches out then and brushes his fingers against the back of Harry’s hand, along the line of his knuckles. The touch is brief, but it sends a shiver of warmth along Harry’s arm and leaves him staring down at the place Snape touched.

Snape takes a step back then, digging in his pocket for the packet of cigarettes. Harry watches his fingers, his hands as he brings one to his mouth.

***

Flitwick is seated at Professor Murray’s desk the following Defence class. “I’ll be monitoring you for a few days,” he announces, “while Professor Murray is out.” He delivers the information as though she’s merely taking vacation and not serving a period of disciplinary leave. “You are free to complete other work, but I expect you to be quiet.”

There are a few pleased murmurs as students begin rummaging in their bags for homework. Harry pulls his Transfiguration text, happy for time to revise, but more so not to have to deal with Murray for a little while.

Flitwick covers their class for a week.

Professor Murray returns the following Tuesday, but she is accompanied by McGonagall, who takes a seat at the back of the classroom, quill in hand. Murray is tight lipped, clearly irritated at being observed, but she sets the class to reading and announces that they would be simulating duels—whatever that might mean—beginning tomorrow.

A simulated duel, apparently, involves calling out spells without actually casting. Harry supposes, in theory, it’s a decent enough exercise. But then Murray advises that they should always enter a duel with a predetermined list of spells to use in succession.

Harry sees McGonagall frown, make a note on her parchment.

Hermione raises her hand.

“Yes, Ms. Granger?”

“Doesn’t coming into a duelling situation with preset spells put you at risk for being predictable?”

Harry agrees. He knows the dangers of having ‘signature’ spells, per se, even when you don’t realise you’ve got them.

“Perhaps,” Murray hedges. “But you’re assuming your opponent knows you well enough to anticipate your selections. Which, let’s face it,” she says looking around to the rest of the class, “Isn’t all that likely.”

“Unless you are a well-known fighter,” Goldstein offers. “But it’s not as though that ever happens ‘round these parts.” His words drip with sarcasm. Harry smiles.

A few students laugh nervously, but Murray only frowns.

Harry raises his hand. For a moment, it looks as though Murray might ignore him, but then she apparently thinks better of it. “Mr. Potter?”

“Predictability aside, doesn’t having a choreographed list of spells hinder your ability to adapt? Even if you accept that your planned set of spells might need to change depending on the situation, simply having a predetermined list can make you less willing to make changes if need be.”

“Again, you’re making assumptions, Mr. Potter. You assume that any potential downside to using, quote unquote, ‘predictable’ spells isn’t outweighed by the benefit of using spells you’re comfortable with. And, of course, you’re also assuming you’re a capable, confident, and experienced enough dueller to be able to adapt under various and extreme circumstances. And,” she titters again, “I think we all know it can take years to develop such abilities.”

Harry takes a deep breath. Again with her implications that they lack the experience needed to be reasonably competent.

McGonagall interjects, saving Harry from a potentially petulant response. “I’m sorry, Professor Murray, but I must ask, do you truly mean to imply that Mr. Potter, along with the other students in this room with extensive combat experience, is not ‘capable’ of adapting his magic depending on the circumstance?”

“I, well...” Murray appears flustered. “Not entirely, but we must remember, Professor, these are children. We cannot expect them to handle adversity in the same way an adult witch or wizard would.”

“With all due, respect, Professor,” McGonagall says, voice steely, “these students are not children. Not any more. And I believe it’s time you stopped underestimating their abilities.”

***

“I’m sorry,” Snape says when Harry arrives at his office on Tuesday night, “I’m afraid I must cancel our session this evening. There’s been an incident in my house I must take care of.”

“Oh,” Harry says, “of course.”

Snape must hear the disappointment in his voice because he glances at the clock. “You are welcome to stay here, though I cannot attest to how long I will be.”

“Okay, thanks,” Harry says, slipping his bag from his shoulder while Snape hurries from the room. He sits down on the worn leather sofa and pulls his Charms book from his bag. He reads for the better part of an hour, but he’s tired and knows he should head back to his dorm. Whatever it is the Slytherins have gotten up to this evening, it seems they won’t have time to duel.

Harry tucks his legs beneath him and rests his head back against the cushion. He only means to close his eyes for a moment before getting up again.

He’s not sure how long he’s been there waiting, but then Snape is there, sitting beside him on the couch, the warm weight of him causing the cushions to dip, causing Harry to shift closer to the man’s body.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep, but surely he’s dreaming because Snape is smiling down at him in a way he’s certain Snape doesn’t smile. And then the man raises a hand, reaches out to stroke Harry’s cheek with his fingertips. The touch is soft and tentative, but it sends shivers along Harry’s spine.

“Please,” he whispers, not entirely sure what he’s asking for but he knows this—whatever this is—is exactly what he’s been looking for these past weeks.

Snape leans down and kisses him, a light brush of chapped lips. Harry reaches up before the man can pull away, before Snape can change his mind as Harry knows he will. Instead he curls his fingers around Snape’s neck, pulls him closer as he opens his mouth against his. Harry has kissed girls before, but it was never anything like this. This is forbidden and awkward and more than a little inappropriate, and it’s absolutely the best kiss he’s ever had. Snape is pressed against him now, one hand falls to the small of Harry’s back, the other cups his chin, holds Harry’s mouth to his.

Harry shifts, stretching out on the pillows, letting Snape fall on top of him. The warmth of the man’s body, the smell of his skin, has Harry so hard he aches.

Harry hears something in the far corner of his mind...footsteps, a door opening? But Snape’s mouth is still on his and his prick is throbbing. He reaches a hand down between them to press against his groin, tries to still the maddening rush of pleasure.

But it’s too late. He groans as he comes, cock pulsing hard into his pants.

“Potter?”

He’s pulled back to waking reality, even as his mind still clings to the remnants of the dream. Fuck. Snape is standing there above him, but Harry can’t bear to look.

He rolls over towards the back of the sofa, hiding the offending stain on his trousers against the cushions, and covers his face with his hands.

Harry doesn’t know what is worse. That he had that dream in front of Snape. Or that Snape was the subject of that dream.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he finally says, peeking out from under his arm. “I fell asleep.”

Snape’s flustered, a dull red seeping across sallow cheeks. “I’ll just, er, give you a moment.” He turns, hip bumping against his desk as he retreats to his rooms.

Harry groans again, face hot with embarrassment and something else entirely. He sits up, horridly aware the wetness spreading across the front of his jeans. He waves a hand over his crotch, wincing at the cleaning spell, then scrubs a hand across his face, pushing his glasses up to his forehead.

It’s not as though he hasn’t thought about Snape before. He has. Late at night, tucked behind the curtains in the darkness of his bed, the images have crept into his head.

He thinks about the way Snape would smell. Pale skin, the hint of almond and bergamot spice, filmed in smoke. He pictures his face—all planes and angles with lines around his mouth where he frowns. And then there are his hands. Harry thinks about his fingers—long and thin and stained from cigarettes and potions—and how they would feel trailing across his skin.

But this dream was so real.

He scratches at the back of his neck and stands. He has to deal with Snape sooner or later.

The door to Snape’s rooms opens at his touch to a small but comfortable sitting room. Bookshelves line one wall. Two old wingback chairs flank the hearth, and an old sofa sits off to the side. He finds Snape here, a glass of whisky in his hand.

“I, er...”

“Oh, Potter,” Snape says not looking up. “I thought you had returned to your dormitory.”

“No,” Harry says. “I wanted to apologise. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep and…well, that was embarrassing.”

Snape takes a rather large gulp of whisky. “It’s a perfectly normal occurrence for someone your age. You have no need to feel embarrassed.” Despite the words, Harry sees the flush colouring the man’s face.

Harry’s not sure what else to say. He glances around. To the left, the room opens on small kitchenette. To the right there’s a hallway leading, presumably, to Snape’s bedroom. The thought sends entirely inappropriate thoughts to the forefront of his brain. He turns back to the sofa; Snape looks nearly as uncomfortable as Harry feels.

“I was dreaming about you,” he says before he can stop himself.

Whisky sloshes over the lip of Snape’s glass as he sets it on the side table.

“Mr. Potter, I—”

“I think about you too,” he says, stopping Snape before he can continue, “sometimes.”

The man swallows thickly. “That is unwise.”

“Perhaps.” Harry shrugs, “but I can’t help what I feel. And I think there could be something between us, if you’d let there be.”

“I won’t,” Snape says quickly; he picks up his glass, draining the rest of his drink in one swallow. Harry thinks he sees his hand shaking. “You are a student. There are rules.”

“I won’t be a student forever, and you know that some rules deserve to be broken.”

“You are young. This...unfortunate attachment you feel will soon pass. You will realise there are far more suitable objects towards whom to direct your attention.”

“I’m eighteen,” Harry says, “and I think I’ve lived enough to know what I want.”

“Potter—Harry, I can’t. We can’t.” The words come like pulling teeth.

Harry sighs. “I know.” And he does. That he is here at all saying these things to Snape is surreal. He would have to be insane to think the man would agree. Snape’s objections are expected. The man would never approve of a student/teacher relationship.

But Snape did not reject Harry flat out. Rather, he said the things he had to say. He could have said he was not—could never be—attracted to Harry, that he would never think of him in the way Harry just admitted to thinking of him. But he didn’t. And Harry considers that a win.

***

The tension is palpable during their next duelling session. Harry half expects Snape to cancel, but when he doesn’t, he arrives at the man’s office to find him bent over his essays per usual. Snape doesn’t say anything as Harry follows him down the hall to the classroom they use to duel.

Harry feels awkward and stiff. He’s too aware of Snape, of his movements, his magic.

Snape seems distracted, too. His first spell misses wide right and Harry manages to fracture one of his shields in a way he’s never done before.

Still, Snape recovers. He’s so bloody powerful and his creativity, his technique, never fail to impress Harry.

Harry watches the way he moves. The flex of Snape’s forearm, the ripple of muscle under the white fabric of his shirt.

And he feels him.

Snape’s magic is everywhere. It’s intoxicating, overwhelming, and...it’s arousing.

Harry loves magic. He loves the way it feels and the way it smells. He loves the way it slips between his fingers, heats his blood, and tugs at his spine. And he loves what it can do.

But Harry is certain he’s never been affected this way by another person’s magic before.

Snape casts an Imobulus just as Harry casts an incendiary spell. Their magic collides. Harry should throw him off. It’s easy enough, typically. But Snape is strong and every time Harry thinks he has the upper hand, Snape manages to push back.

Harry has a distinct memory of Voldemort’s spells locking with his in this way. But where Voldemort’s magic felt sickly, felt like a violation, Snape’s is enticing. For a moment Harry thinks he could draw the man’s magic closer, rather than repelling it, and absorb it into his own. The idea is tempting. He steps backwards, twists his wand, and layers the existing spell work with more magic.

“Don’t do it,” Snape’s voice breaks his concentration. Harry looks up but does not sever the connection. “It might seem like a good idea,” Snape continues, “but it’s not. It never is.”

The man drops his wand then. His spell collapses onto the floor. He ducks and Harry’s Incendio hits the wall behind him with a crack.

Harry exhales. His heart is thudding and he’s out of breath. He’s exhausted, but his magic is thrumming through his body like electricity. “How did you know what I wanted to do?”

Snape runs a hand through his hair. His forehead is sheened with sweat. “I didn’t use Legilimency, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No.” He knows this, knows he would have felt the press of the man’s mind.

“But I understand the allure,” Snape says. “To take in someone else’s power. Especially someone whose power...” Snape trails off and looks down, cheeks reddening.

“Fuck,” Harry breathes, because he realises Snape had to feel it, too.

“Language, Mr. Potter,” Snape says but not harshly. When he looks up again, Harry can’t read the expression in his dark eyes.

“There are far more inappropriate things I’d like to say,” Harry says. Snape is watching him. It’s almost as arousing as their duel had been. His cock is hard. He’s not sure how long it’s been like that. Surely Snape can tell. “Your magic,” Harry shakes his head. “Fuck, Snape,” he repeats. “It’s never felt like that before.”

“You’re getting stronger,” Snape says carefully. “Powerful wizards experience magic in ways other wizards cannot.”

Harry nods. He shifts his hips, readjusts himself. Snape follows the movement with his eyes, swallows thickly.

“Do you feel it too?” Harry asks. “Is it...” He can’t bring himself to ask if Snape felt the excitement, the pleasure there. (Does it turn you on?)

“Your magic...” Snape begins.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes.”

***

They’re by the parapet, looking out over the grounds, when it happens. It’s been snowing; the tops of the trees are frosted white. Snape is standing closer than perhaps normal, closer than perhaps appropriate. Harry can feel the warmth of his body, of his magic. And when Harry turns towards him, Snape is looking at him, an odd expression on his face. It unsettles him, and for a moment he worries Snape is thinking of his mother, of her eyes and her hair. But then Snape leans in, presses his mouth to his and Harry can’t think of anything save the touch of lips, the taste of smoke on Snape’s tongue.

It’s awkward at first. Their noses bump. Harry doesn’t know what to do with his hands. But Snape’s palm settles on the small of his back, right above the curve of his arse, and the feel of Snape’s body against his is better than he could have imagined.

“You have kissed men before?” Snape asks, words a warm gust against Harry’s cheek.

“No,” he manages. Everything is shaky and out of focus as Snape opens his mouth against the line of his jaw, the pulse at his throat. He knows they’ve crossed a line—his life forever divided into the before and after of this one moment—but he can’t think clearly with Snape’s hands, his lips on him.

“Is this what you’ve wanted?” Snape asks, voice rough with what must be arousal. “Does it make you hard?”

Oh my god...

“Will you go back to your dorm and touch yourself?”

“You could touch me now,” he gasps, shifting so that Snape can feel the line of his erection against his thigh. “Wouldn’t take long.”

Snape groans, presses closer still. The pressure is nearly enough to undo him and he knows he would come if he rubbed himself against him for just a little bit.

“No,” Snape whispers, mouth against his jaw, “I don’t imagine it would. And you would like that? If I touched you, made you come all over yourself?”

“Yes.” Harry grits his teeth, forces himself not to move his hips.

“Unfortunately,” Snape says, voice rough, “this isn’t an appropriate time or place.” Harry wants to disagree. Wants to take Snape’s hand in his and pull it down between his legs. But Snape kisses him once more, a slow slide of warm lips, and pulls away.

“Please,” Harry says, as Snape shakes his head.

“I’m sorry. I can’t. Not now.” And with that he turns and disappears down the stairs.

Harry feels like glass. He could shatter.

He imagines the sound a goblet makes, wet fingertip swirled around the rim, tension and wanting pulled taut to a single, high note.

***

The showers, as expected, are empty when Harry returns to the dormitory. He stands there for a long time, letting the hot water massage his shoulders, his back. Finally he soaps his hair, his arms, his chest, stomach, and legs.

He replays images from earlier that night as he closes his eyes, washes his face.

Harry knows Snape is not ruled by his emotions. That would be too indulgent, too weak. But that kiss was nothing if not impulsive—not to mention ill-advised.

Finally, when he is clean, he allows himself to reach down, to curl his hand around his cock. He strokes himself quickly, palm slick with soap, and thinks about Snape’s mouth, his hands. It doesn’t take long before he’s coming, spunk streaking through his fingers to splatter on the tile in front of him. He allows himself a minute, heart pounding, forehead pressed to the cool wall, before he shuts off the water and heads to bed.

***

The following night, before they duel, Snape catches Harry’s wrist in his hand—his fingers five burning points of pressure against Harry’s skin. “What happened last night...” He drops Harry’s hand again, looks down, flustered. And Harry waits for him to say it was a mistake, that it was something they can never do again.

“I should not have touched you.”

Harry scowls. “I wanted it. We both did. You know that.”

Snape sighs, runs a hand through his hair. “I know. And I’m not saying it can’t happen again, but I need time.”

Harry almost smiles. The knot in his stomach loosens slightly.

“Okay. I’ll wait.” Time he has. For once in Harry’s life, he has all the time in the world.

***

Later, he returns to the dormitory tired and sore. Snape landed a stunning spell that’s going to leave a mark, but Harry is getting better at layering his casting magic so he can deliver spells nearly simultaneously. He’d been ridiculously pleased with himself when he came up with the idea, but Snape had only shrugged. ‘It could work, I suppose, in theory.’ But Harry knows the man will be impressed—whether he admits it or not—when he actually figures it out.

He’s distracted as he opens the door to the eighth year common room, replaying the duel in his head, remembering the way Snape’s magic felt against his, and he doesn’t notice Pansy Parkinson and Anthony Goldstein curled on the sofa closest to the fire.

“Nice night for a stroll, Potter?” Parkinson says, startling him. He stops and turns. She’s sitting on Goldstein’s lap. His legs are spread beneath her and he’s one arm wrapped around her waist, palm resting on her stomach. His other hand strokes her hair, her neck. “Another good night for star gazing?”

Harry feels something cold unfurl in the pit of his belly. “Excuse me?”

“Now, now, Pans,” Goldstein says, hand slipping beneath the bottom of her t-shirt. “I think we both know Potter wasn’t atop the Astronomy Tower for the view.”

“True,” she says, glossed lips curving slightly. “Though from where I stood, the view was quite appealing, nonetheless.”

“Astronomy Tower?” Harry tries to sound confused, as though he hasn’t a clue what they’re on about. But his voice has an edge to it that betrays his unease. “I wasn’t...”

Parkinson’s smile is predatory. “You mean you weren’t snogging Professor Snape on the Astronomy Tower last night?”

An entirely new type of panic is setting in. “I...” He can’t make his mouth form words, but, even if he could, he’s not sure what he would say. His hand itches for his wand. Could he Obliviate them? Without knowing what they actually saw and when, it would be risky, but what other choice does he have?

“Relax,” Parkinson is saying, “we’re not going to tell anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’m not... We’re not...”

Goldstein chuckles. “We saw you, mate.”

“It’s not what it looked like,” Harry tries.

“Really?” Parkinson’s smile is back. “Because what I saw made my knickers a bit damp, so I don’t think he was showing you his potions collection.”

Goldstein laughs again. “Not up there, he wasn’t.”

“Unless, of course, we’re talking in euphemisms.”

Harry’s chest is tight; he feels as if he might vomit. His magic clenches in his stomach like a fist. The lights in the common room flicker.

“Whoa there,” Goldstein holds up his hands, a conciliatory gesture.

“You can’t tell anyone.”

“I already said we wouldn’t.” Parkinson speaks slowly, carefully, as though trying to calm a wild animal. “I wouldn’t do that to Severus.”

“What?” Harry frowns, and Parkinson narrows her eyes.

“Not everyone hates him, you know.”

“I don’t...”

She lets out an impatient sigh. “Well, I’d hope you don’t. But Severus deserves to be happy.” She looks down at a perfectly manicured fingernail, feigning nonchalance. “Besides, if we were to tell, who do you think would get in trouble? Certainly not the Boy Hero.”

Harry hadn’t thought of it like that. But she’s right. While he is of age, Snape is still his professor and the man will always be an ex-Death Eater. “No one can know.” Harry’s voice is harsh, but the world is shaking beneath his feet and they have to understand.

“No,” Parkinson agrees. “I think not.”

“Best keep your hands off each other, though, next time you decide to venture up to the Astronomy Tower,” Goldstein suggests. “You’re not the first people who thought to go up there for a bit of alone time, if you catch my drift.”

“Nor will you be the last,” Parkinson says, turning her head to allow Goldstein to press a kiss to her neck.

“Right,” Harry says turning to go. His hands are shaking. He counts out his breaths as he walks to the stairs.

“Oh, and Potter,” Parkinson calls after him, “I meant what I said about not telling anyone. But, so help me, if you hurt him... We might be dorm mates now, but I will always be a Slytherin. And Slytherins watch out for each other. Don’t you forget that.”

Goldstein smiles at her. “She’s right,” he says, voice fond. “You don’t want to mess with them.”

“Understood,” Harry says, retreating up to his room.

***

With the holidays fast approaching, McGonagall calls each eighth year to her office individually to discuss his or her post-Hogwarts plans. A month ago, Harry would have dreaded this conversation, but now he knows what he will say.

“Defence.” He takes a biscuit from the plate McGonagall offers. It’s chocolate with a dollop of raspberry jam in the centre.

“Defence?” McGonagall raises an eyebrow. Harry finds the expression rather Snape-like. “Yet you were adamant that you did not want to join the Aurors.”

Harry shakes his head, mouth full of biscuit, then takes a sip of tea to wash it down. “No, I don’t want to join the force. I mean I want to pursue my mastery. I think I’d like to teach.”

McGonagall regards him for a long moment, teacup poised over her saucer. The china clinks delicately when she sets it down again. Finally, she says, “Mr. Potter, I believe you would make a wonderful teacher. There is a section devoted to graduate studies in the library. Madam Pince will direct you. And, when you’ve decided on a programme, I will happily write your recommendation.”

***

“Are you going somewhere for the holidays?” Aside from the brief snapshots of memory Harry has seen of Snape’s childhood, he realises he knows nothing about the man’s life outside of school.

“No, I’ll stay here. Hogwarts is the closest thing to family that I have.”

Harry understands. “Hogwarts was the first real home I ever had,” he says, breaths coming in little white puffs. “In a way, it will always be home to me.”

Snape nods. It’s cold tonight. They’re sitting back on the bench, out of the wind and cloaked in warning charms, but Harry’s fingers are still numb.

“Your parents?” Harry asks after a moment.

“My father drank himself to death when I was sixteen,” Snape says. “And my mother... My mother died six summers ago.”

Harry hears the sadness in Snape’s voice; it makes his chest ache. “I’m sorry.”

The man doesn’t say anything else. He’s staring off at some point in the distance.

“I could stay here if you like,” Harry says, leaning over to bump his shoulder against Snape’s. “Keep you company.” He tries to keep his tone light. He doesn’t need Snape to know how much the idea appeals to him.

“As tempting as that sounds,” Snape says dryly, “I think it would be best if we took a bit of time. Besides,” he says, fishing in his pocket for the pack of Dunhills Harry knows is there, “don’t you have a slew of Weasleys to see to?”

Harry laughs. “You’re right. Molly would kill me if I didn’t come to Christmas supper.”

Snape lights his cigarette, holding it to his lips and inhaling deeply. He passes it to Harry. He lets the smoke fill his lungs and exhales, ridiculously pleased when he doesn’t cough. “I won’t change my mind, though,” he says, passing the cigarette back. “We could be happy, if you’d let us.”

Snape grunts but doesn’t deny it. It’s as close to confirmation as Harry is likely to get.

He doesn’t tell Snape about his conversation with Parkinson and Goldstein. After all, it’s not as though they’re together right now. Harry’s not sure they ever will be. And he thinks that—if there is a chance of some sort of future with Snape—it’s probably best not to bother him with such information.

The man is paranoid enough.

Besides, Harry believed Parkinson when she said she wouldn’t tell—at least as long as it serves her interests not to do so.

***

The eighth years are given the option to Apparate or Floo home in lieu of taking the Express. It’s a nice allowance. Hermione and Harry walk together across the grounds past the wards to the Apparition point; days-old snow crunches under their feet. Hermione pulls him into a hug before stepping away. She will Apparate to her parents’ house, Harry to Grimmauld Place. They will see each other in a few days at the Weasleys’.

It’s nice being back. Harry enjoys the quiet solitude of the old house, and he looks forward to sleeping in his own bed. He spends the afternoon reading in the library before heading down to the kitchen for dinner. Kreacher makes one of his favourites and he asks the elf to eat with him. Kreacher obliges, and together they sit at the long wooden table.

“Masters Harry,” Kreacher says, dunking a heel of bread into the cup of tomato soup, “you is happier now.”

“I am,” Harry agrees, taking a bite of his sandwich. “I am.”

“This is good,” the elf says with what could pass for a smile.

The holidays pass quickly. Harry reads. He takes care of a particularly nasty Boggart that’s been residing in a trunk under Sirius’s parents’ old bed. He naps. One afternoon, he even ventures outside to walk around London. The city is blanketed in fog. It’s cold, but the chill in the air is nothing compared to Hogwarts and Harry enjoys watching the people hurry about, greeting loved ones, finishing up last minute shopping. He finds an Indian restaurant and has lunch alone at a table in the corner. The samosas are spicy and flake apart under his fingers, and the dal fry is perfect with the buttery nan.

***

Harry Apparates back to Hogwarts three days before start of term. He finds Snape in his office, crouched down in front of an open cabinet. “Ah, Mr. Potter, and here I thought I had another day or so respite.”

He smiles. “I was ready to be back. Besides,” he says, glancing around, “it looks like you could use some help.” The room is a mess. The contents of the large glass supply case are emptied out upon the table, and Snape’s got two boxes on the floor.

“My personal stores needed reorganisation.” He gestures to the desk. “Check the dates. Anything that’s gone off, put in one of the bins. Carefully,” he adds.

Harry begins sorting through vials. “Did you have a good holiday?”

Snape looks up from the cabinet. “Minerva’s sister was visiting from Glasgow; those two old cats are a right nuisance when they’re together. But otherwise the break was tolerable. You?”

“Yeah, it was nice to relax. I slept. Helped Kreacher make some headway on clearing out old spells in the master bedroom.” He shakes his head, setting a jar filled with some questionable liquid into one of the waiting bins. “Let’s just say Sirius’s parents didn’t care much for half-bloods. Though, to hear the way Sirius used to talk, I don’t think they much cared for anyone.”

“No,” Snape actually laughs. “They didn’t.”

“I spent Christmas Day at the Burrow with the Weasleys. It was a bit awkward with Gin, and everybody was sad about Fred—first holiday without him and all. But it was nice to be there. Molly and Arthur always make me feel like family.”

“The Weasleys are good people,” Snape says. “And you are family to them.”

They work in companionable silence for a while. Roughly half of the vials Snape had out on the desk end up in the bins on the floor. “That’s it,” Harry says finally, setting down the last one. “What now?”

Snape stands and reviews the items remaining. “You can put these back in the case. Try to put the oldest dated ones near the front.”

“Okay.” Harry begins replacing the ingredients. “I missed this,” he says, sliding a vial of powdered dragonfly wings to the back of the shelf. The shimmery blue glints in the light. “And I haven’t changed my mind.”

Snape only grunts and turns back to his task.

***

They continue duelling.

Snape won’t admit it, but Harry knows he enjoys their sessions. The man is obsessed with magic—manipulating spells, experimenting with new techniques, forcing their magic to do new things.

And he’s fascinated with Harry’s power.

“Have you decided on a masters programme?” Snape asks over the crack of Harry’s Reducto. He’s trying to distract him. Sometimes it works.

“London.” Harry’s short of breath. How Snape can carry on complete conversations while they fight is beyond him.

“Over Berlin?” Snape’s stunning spell hits Harry’s shield. He’s amplified it with some type of freezing charm; it jars Harry’s teeth.

“Yeah. I like the research they’re doing on neutralising dark magic for use in offensive spell work and…” he ducks, narrowly missing a binding spell as he pushes more magic into his shield, “I can live at home.”

“Home?” Snape speaks as though they’re sitting down for tea. “You consider Grimmauld Place your home?”

Harry shrugs. “I like it there. The place isn’t half bad once you get past the curse work and some of the more…interesting wards.”

“Ah.”

Harry attempts to cast a dampening spell on Snape’s magic but his own shield gets in the way. “Fuck,” he cries, as Snape’s cutting hex hits his thigh. “That hurt.”

“That’s the risk you take whenever you try to dampen my magic.”

“It worked last week.”

Snape lowers his wand. Harry breathes an inward sigh of relief. He’s tired; Snape clearly has the upper hand tonight and he hates to lose.

“And it will work, in theory. But you need to think of it as a layering spell, not an offensive one.”

Harry sinks to the floor, leans back against the classroom wall. He feels his hair catch on the rough brick. “But my offensive spells never interfere with my shields.”

“No.” Snape sits down beside him. Harry smells the sweat on his skin, the magic clinging to his clothes. “But think of your spell sets. Offensive and defensive spells naturally repel. A dampening spell, in contrast, can and does affect any type of magic.”

“But if I layer a dampening spell with an offensive one,” Harry says, understanding, “then it will function with that spell.”

“Exactly.”

Harry shifts, wincing at the pain in his leg.

“You are injured.”

His jeans are bloodied. Harry pulls back the torn fabric to reveal the gash underneath.

Snape reaches out, places a hand on Harry’s thigh. His touch is warm. Harry shudders at the healing magic as it trickles through his bloodstream, knits the skin back together.

“Thank you.”

But when Snape goes to pull his hand away, Harry covers it with his own, presses the man’s palm to now-healed skin.

Snape’s breath catches in his throat. “Potter…” It’s a warning, but there is wanting there too.

“Shh…” Harry murmurs, guiding Snape’s hand lower. He inhales, waiting for Snape to stop him.

He doesn’t.

“Oh,” Harry groans when Snape’s fingers brush against his erection. The man tenses, but then moves his thumb up and down.

Oh…

Snape seems to come to a decision then because he turns, moves Harry back to where he’s half lying, half sitting, as Snape hovers above him and presses his mouth to his. This kiss is different than their first. There is a frantic, desperate quality there that makes Harry ache.

Snape slips a hand between them, curses when he touches Harry again. “This is what you want?” he asks, feeling the size, the shape of him. His voice is too low, too rough.

“Yes.”

“You’re so hard, so eager for me to touch you, to make you come.”

“Please.” Harry arches up, pushes against Snape’s palm.

The man strokes him faster, and Harry bites his lips, tries to distract himself, but it’s too much.

“Snape, I’m going to—”

“Yes,” Snape says, kissing him roughly, teeth scraping Harry’s skin.

Then he’s shaking, cock pulsing against Snape’s hand. “Oh my god…

Snape kisses him once more before pulling away. He sits up again, his back against the wall. He looks positively wrecked. Harry can only imagine how he must look.

“Can I touch you?” Harry knows he is hard, can see the bulge in his trousers.

“Not tonight. Sometime.” It’s not a no but, still, it feels like loss. Snape waves a hand; the spunk seeping through Harry’s pants to darken the front of his trousers vanishes.

Snape sits there for a few more minutes, eyes closed. Harry watches the long line of his throat, the bob of his Adam’s apple when he swallows, sees his pulse flutter there. Then the man stands. He smoothes his trousers and straightens his shirt, runs a hand through his hair. “I must go,” he says, before slipping from the room.

Harry waits a while longer. He’s still dizzy, strung out from orgasm. His skin is too hot, hands shaking. But it’s late; it has to be. And, as they draw closer to exams, to NEWTs, more and more students are staying up late. He doesn’t need people wondering where he’s been when he returns after curfew.

He stands, tugs at his jumper, and checks the front of his trousers. Snape’s spell did the trick, though he can’t help but think evidence of what they’ve done is blazoned across his face.

He turns off the light and closes the door behind him.

“Harry?”

He stops short; coldness floods his stomach. Hermione is seated in an alcove, a weak Lumos illuminating her Potions text. Had she not spoken, he likely wouldn’t have seen her.

“What were you doing?”

“I, er...” Harry’s mind races as he tries to come up with a suitable reason for being in the dungeons at half-past eleven.

“I saw Professor Snape,” she adds quickly, as though anticipating the lie Harry is about to tell. “He didn’t see me. He was rather distracted.” There’s something suggestive in her tone that unnerves Harry.

“We were duelling.” It’s true; they were.

“Duelling?” Hermione frowns. “It’s nearly midnight.”

“We start at nine. Why did you follow me?”

Hermione frowns at the accusation in his tone. “You’re gone nearly every night. Neville says sometimes you don’t come to bed until nearly dawn.”

“We duel on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes Saturdays.” His voice is clipped. Still, when he says it out loud, he realises how excessive it sounds.

“You meet Professor Snape three nights a week to duel?” Hermione sounds unconvinced.

“Two, usually. But yes, we duel.”

“That’s all?”

“Of course, that’s all.” Harry tries to sound exasperated. “What else would we be doing?”

“Nothing, I’d hope,” Hermione says. “Though you must admit it sounds a little untoward.”

Harry starts walking. Hermione jumps to her feet to scramble after him.

“Well, it’s not,” he says too harshly, not waiting to see that she’s caught up. “He’s helping me, that’s all. I need the practice, especially as I’m applying for Mastery. It’s not as though Murray’s been preparing us.

“No,” Hermione allows. “And the other nights?”

“I like to walk,” Harry says too quickly. “You know that.” He pulls at his jumper; his t-shirt is untucked beneath. He realises that he must look dishevelled, but it can’t be helped.

“I do. If that’s what you’re truly doing.”

“Yeah, it is.” He sounds defensive, but he’s upset that she’s confronting him like this.

“All right.” Then: “I could understand, you know,” she adds after a moment; her voice is soft but it still echoes in the empty corridor. “If there were something else...”

“There’s not,” he snaps. “And no one can think there is, either.”

“Okay, okay.” She holds up her hands as though in surrender. “I just want you to be careful, Harry. Professor Snape...” She doesn’t finish whatever it is she starts to say. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

***

Potions is torturous. Harry can’t concentrate. He’s half hard and he can’t think of anything save Snape. Snape’s mouth. Snape’s hands. The words the man had said. The way he made him come.

“Fuck!” Harry says, as the knife slips, cutting his thumb. He pulls his hand away, but it’s too late. Blood drips on the cutting board, smears on the root he’s chopping.

Hermione, to her credit, doesn’t get angry, though the ingredient is now unusable. “Here,” she says, gently, as Harry sucks his thumb into his mouth, “let me see that.”

Reluctantly, he holds out his hand. She waves her wand; her healing magic is a cool pulse against his skin. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, looking at his thumb. “Thank you.”

Hermione looks as though she’s about to say something else, but decides against it. “Let me just go see if there’s any asphodel left in the cupboard.” Harry nods. He checks their cauldron. From the look of it, they have about three minutes to add the last ingredients before their potion is ruined. He banishes the root he was chopping and carefully cleans the cutting board. In any potion, the addition of extra ingredients can be disastrous, and blood is particularly dangerous. Harry isn’t entirely sure what would have happened to their Dreamless Sleep had they added tainted asphodel, but he knows it would be better to take a failing mark than find out.

Hermione returns with one sad-looking battered stalk. “It’s all that was left in the cabinet.”

Harry nods. The asphodel is wilted and bruised, certainly not ideal. “I guess it’s better than nothing,” he says, as he begins chopping, careful to keep his movements precise and even. Hermione nods, lips pressed tightly together. Harry knows she’s frustrated. She’s become far less obsessive about her grades, but he knows poor marks still bother her.

He adds the asphodel just in time, stirring until the potion begins to change colours. It’s murkier than it should be, no doubt a result of the damaged root, but it will have to do.

Harry sits back in his chair and watches as Snape makes his rounds. The man hasn’t so much as glanced at him the entire class period. When he stops at their table, he looks, if anything, more distracted than Harry feels.

“Passable,” Snape allows after a cursory inspection. “Though, in the future, do try not to be the last person to the supply cabinet.” As he walks away, Harry swears the man’s hand brushes against his back.

Harry takes a steadying breath and forces himself not to look at Snape as stops at the next station to assess Luna and Hannah’s potion.

When he turns back to Hermione, she watching him, a peculiar expression on her face. “Would you like to tell me again that there’s nothing going on between you?”

“I—” Harry begins, flustered.

But Snape announces: “Class dismissed,” saving Harry from attempting a response.

***

“Have you finished your essay?” Hermione reaches across the table for the platter of eggs.

“No,” Harry says, mouth full of toast. His fingers are sticky with jam. He wipes them on his napkin. “But I’m working on it.”

“Are you? The deadline is next week.”

Harry refills his cup of pumpkin juice. Takes a big swallow. “I know. And I am working on it.”

“Okay,” she says, though it’s clear she doesn’t believe him. “I just know you’ll feel a lot better when you get it done and submit your application.”

She’s right. “I’ll get it done,” he promises. “I’ll go to the library after class today.”

***

He does go to the library. He finds a quiet seat by the window and pulls out his application. He’s been putting the essay off, not because he doesn’t know what to write about, but rather because he does.

He takes out a new quill and his inkpot, ignoring the prickle at the back of his neck, the knot tightening in his chest, and he begins to write. He doesn’t write about the war, or about his ‘accomplishments.’ He doesn’t write about the spells he can cast, and he doesn’t write about Voldemort.

He writes about panic.

Later that night, he shows Snape his completed essay. The man reads, a half-smoked cigarette suspended between two fingers. Then he smiles, a genuine twist of thin lips. “I think, Mr. Potter, that will do just fine.”

***

Two weeks before exams, Harry receives his acceptance into London’s graduate programme in Defence, pending results of his NEWTs.

Though Snape and McGonagall both assured him that his chances of acceptance were strong, the relief he feels is overwhelming.

Hermione beams, throwing her arms around his neck when he shares the news. “Oh, just wait till we tell Ron,” she says. “He’ll be thrilled we’ll all be in London.”

Hermione has already been admitted into the Unspeakable programme. She’ll report to the Ministry to begin training two weeks after term lets out.

With NEWTs fast approaching, the atmosphere in the eighth year common room is more frenetic than usual. Each night, the long worktables are full of students revising. And, on nice evenings, groups gather in the outdoor courtyard to practice spell work in preparation for the practical portion of their exams.

Harry isn’t worried. Maybe he should be, but Taylor and Flitwick have prepared them well; Snape has reluctantly admitted that his potions skills are more than adequate to pass the NEWT; and Harry knows, despite Professor Murray, there is nothing that could appear on the Defence exam that he can’t handle.

Still, he humours Hermione. He lets her organise his notes. He listens as she devises a complicated revision schedule. He agrees to study with her in the evenings before his duelling sessions. And Harry starts counting the days until end of term.

***

“The year is over.”

Snape stands from where he was crouched over his supply cabinet, wiping his hands on his thighs. “So it is. And yet, you did not board the train with the rest of your classmates.”

Harry shrugs. “Most of the eighth years Apparated. And I’ve got something to take care of before I leave.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, now that I’m not a student—not your student anymore.”

“I see.” There is something almost hesitant in Snape’s voice. It feels like honey, warm and sweet against his skin.

Harry waves a hand; the lock on the door clicks into place.

“Are you trying to impress me?”

“Maybe. Did it work?”

Snape laughs, a low burst of sound.

Harry walks around the desk to stand before him. “Will you kiss me now?”

Snape does.

It’s just a brief touch of lips, but it’s enough to make him want.

Snape steps back, his face carefully blank. But something flashes in his eyes and, for once, Harry thinks he might let his control slip. He reaches a tentative hand up, traces the line of buttons down Snape’s shirt, rests his palm on the man’s belt buckle. “I want to touch you. Today, you have to let me touch you.”

Snape nods, then turns, striding towards the door leading to his rooms. Harry follows without a word.

He has never been in Snape’s bedroom.

The bed is unmade. Snape sits down on the end, begins unlacing his boots. “You are certain this is what you want to do?”

Harry smiles. “Yes.”

“Then get undressed for me. Let me see you.”

Snape has touched Harry before. He’s stroked him off through the fabric of his jeans. He’s reached his hand down into his pants to curl long fingers around his cock. But Harry has never been naked before him.

The thought makes him shiver. He toes off his trainers before tugging his t-shirt over his head, discarding it on the floor.

And Snape stares. The intensity of his gaze—his eyes black as pitch—sends spirals of want slipping through Harry’s veins. And the fact that he is here with Snape at all causes heat to bloom in the pit of his stomach, flush his skin with warmth. Harry stands there for a moment, shoulders back, spine straight, as Snape’s eyes drift down his body, expression calm, lips twisting into the faintest hint of a smile.

“Come here,” the man says.

Harry steps into the open space between Snape’s thighs.

Snape leans forward, presses a kiss to his collarbone, traces a circle around Harry’s nipple with his thumbnail. Harry gasps.

“You like that?” Snape says, and it sounds like disbelief.

“Yes.”

Snape closes thumb and forefinger around the nipple, pinching gently, watching as it pebbles beneath his touch.

“Trousers now,” Snape says. “Let me look at you.”

The bed is soft and warm.

Snape flicks off the light and only then, cloaked in shadows and semi-darkness, does he undress. His skin feels like magic against Harry’s, and he hasn’t stopped touching. Fingers skim softly over hipbones before tracing a line along the curve of his thigh. Harry trembles and wants, wants, wants…

Snape is too thin. Harry can count the knobs of his spine as he runs a hand down his back; he wants to trace them with his tongue. But Snape kisses his jaw, the arc of his throat, and Harry is paralyzed in a way that has nothing to do with panic.

“You want this...” You want me?

Harry hears the unspoken question, trails his fingers down the puckered line of scars on Snape’s neck. “Yes.”

Snape gets him ready with oil-slick fingers. Each movement slow and patient and waiting, waiting, until Harry is gasping and arching against him. The press of his cock is painful in a way that blooms with pleasure too, and Harry is so overcome by the sensations that he must close his eyes and press his forehead to Snape’s shoulder so as not to be overwhelmed.

“Are you all right?” Snape asks, concern bleeding into his voice as his hips still.

“I, yeah…” Harry breathes out, amazed his mouth has formed the words. He shifts a bit beneath Snape, scratches his nails against his back. Then Snape touches a spot inside that makes his vision go white, and Harry cries out, “Oh fuck, fuck, do that again.” And Snape does, thrusting over and over until Harry is coming slick and warm between them.

After, they lie curled together for a long time. Harry likes the way they fit together, like puzzle pieces, like spoons.

“When do your classes start?” Snape asks, voice muted from sleep and sex.

“End of June. I’ll have few weeks to get situated, get my books and things.” He butts his head against Snape’s hand, sighs when the man cards his fingers through his hair. “I’ll come visit, you know.”

Snape doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Harry braces himself for the inevitable. No, that won’t be necessary. I don’t think that’s wise, Mr. Potter. I can’t imagine why you would feel the need to do so...

But instead Snape kisses his shoulder, rests his hand on the flat of Harry’s stomach, and says: “Yes, I think that’s for the best.”

Harry used to imagine himself stockpiling moments of calm for later use. But now, he thinks he could learn to live against Snape’s skin, thinks if he could just touch the man forever, he’d never panic again.

***

Epilogue: Two years later.

Harry finds Snape in the chair by the hearth, a book open on his lap, cup of tea by his elbow. It’s no doubt laced with something stronger.

“I see my wards still admit you?” the man says without looking up.

“I was here just last week.”

“Last week you Floo’d like a civilised guest. You didn’t simply appear in my rooms without so much as a knock.”

“I know you can feel my magic. Probably knew I was coming before I’d even reached the dungeons.”

“The stairwell, actually,” Snape admits, marking his place and setting the book on the side table.

“See?” Harry grins. Then: “Can I have some of whatever that is?” He points to Snape’s not-tea.

“If you insist. The tea service is on the countertop. You know where to find the Firewhisky.”

Harry walks to the small kitchen. The teacups are delicate bone china, so thin they’re nearly translucent. They must have been beautiful once, but the design has long since worn away. Harry knows they were Snape’s mother’s. Aside from his books, the man has very few personal effects. But there are some things—a few framed photographs, some old composition books filled with handwritten spells, a mantel clock painted with red and yellow flowers, a porcelain figurine of two small children sitting under a tree—that Snape took from his father’s house before he sold the place during the war.

“So it’s done,” Harry says a few minutes later, taking the seat opposite Snape.

The man looks at him; his expression gives nothing away. But then he shakes his head and laughs. “So Minerva followed through with her threats, after all.”

Harry flashes what he hopes is a winning smile. “We’re colleagues. Can you believe it?”

“I’m positively speechless.”

“Yes, of course. I’m sure it will take some getting used to. Do try to contain your excitement, though.” Harry takes a sip of his tea, wincing. “Oh, might have gone a bit overboard on the whisky there.”

Snape rolls his eyes.

Harry frowns. “I suppose there is always the chance it could only be for a year. I’m not entirely convinced the position isn’t still cursed.” Though the curse Riddle placed on the Defence position when Dumbledore denied it to him should have lifted with his death, Minerva has yet to retain a professor for more than one year.

“The curse is gone,” Snape assures.

“Then I’m here to stay.”

“So it would seem.” Snape takes a sip of his drink.

“Minerva invited me to stay for dinner,” Harry says. “Asked that I make sure you make an appearance as well. She said it’s been over a week since she’s seen you in the Great Hall.”

Snape glowers. “Meddlesome tabby.” But then: “She knew you were coming to see me?”

It’s Harry’s turn to roll his eyes. “I think she’s known about us for a while. I’m here far more often than I would be if, say, I were just popping ‘round to see Hagrid or to take a turn about the Quidditch pitch. And I’ve never put in a request for guest accommodations, so there’s that.”

“I suppose so.” Snape looks horridly displeased at the thought.

“And now I’ll be around permanently. We should celebrate. Want to duel?”

That elicits a begrudging smile. “And let you try out whatever new and no doubt painful spells you invented for your mastery examination? Unlikely.”

Harry laughs. “Oh come on. You know it turns you on, seeing all my fancy magic.”

“Perhaps,” Snape allows, hiding his smile behind the lip of his teacup.

“Then afterwards, I thought we could try that thing with your tongue where you...”

Snape sets his cup down and stands. He has found that, sometimes, kissing Harry is the best way to make him be quiet.