In the end, Hermione went alone.
Ron refused to believe there was a problem, although he did ask her to report back. Everyone else felt it wasn’t their business to interfere in a lovers’ quarrel. They all assumed that’s what it was.
Ginny had made her position clear.
“I’m not going back there. Ever.”
She’d landed on the doorstep of Hermione’s London flat on a cool summer night, shaking alarmingly, her face pale, tear-streaked, entirely confused. Hermione bustled her in to the kitchen for tea, soothing her with perfunctory words, and gestures learned from books, until she could demand an explanation.
Ginny didn’t bother to start with, “It’s Harry.” Despite shared experiences, they weren’t close friends. Harry and Ron were all they really had in common, and Ron was in the bedroom fast asleep, exhausted as ever after a long day’s Auror training at the Ministry.
“At first he was just a little distracted, you know,” Ginny said, looking to Hermione for expected agreement.
Hermione nodded; everyone had been in a sort of shell-shock at the end, moving in a daze, picking up this piece and that of their shattered lives, slowly moving toward one another, slowly starting to think and feel again, to look to the future.
Harry had stayed at Hogwarts for the first few weeks, out of sight, and everyone talked about him as they righted rooms and cleared away debris and bodies and the worst of the memories. Later, when the physical work was done and they were forced to sit down and face what to do with their lives and their world, Harry bought a cottage on the edge of the lake and moved in, the single trunk holding everything he owned trailing behind him as he walked away from Hogwarts.
He’d never refused to help. It just turned out that no one ever asked him.
Ron had considered it for a minute, shrugged, and said, “Well, he’s done the biggest thing. What else do you want?”
“I’d like him to come back to us,” Hermione’d said.
“He will.” To Ron, it was a fact, and any further discussion just whinging.
Hermione and Ginny had walked down to the cottage on a bright summer’s morning. Harry’d come out and smiled at them, absently, rather like Dumbledore. Ginny’d flung herself at him, rocking him, but he’d caught her and hugged her, and when Hermione asked if he was OK, he’d shrugged and said, over Ginny’s shoulder, “Sure. Just have a lot on my mind.”
When Hermione left that day, still worried but with too much else already on her plate, Ginny stayed.
“I know he felt bad about Snape,” Ginny said, her voice narrow, mean with faked understanding. “He talked about him … well. He didn’t talk. Once in a while, I’d try to ask him if he was all right, you know, what he wanted to do, or if he was hungry or wanted to go for a walk. And he’d say some weird thing about Snape.”
“Such as?” Hermione prodded, but Ginny shrugged it off, sympathy exhausted.
“Who knows? Who cares? That he was a hero after all, or that nobody understood him.”
The truth, Hermione thought, but didn’t say it. It was beside the point now.
“Then … after a bit, he was quiet all the time, and he stopped sleeping. He’d get up and stare at the lake. At the mountains. At Hogwarts. All night. Then he started going for walks in the Forest. He’d come home, mud to his knees, carrying handsful of plants and roots and disgusting-smelling things that he’d take into the kitchen and …” Ginny shook her head, remembering. “He’d … he’d start brewing. Brewing,” she repeated as though it were murder. “He’d make things and bottle them and then the next day ask me what they were, what I was doing making potions when he wasn’t around.” Her lips quivered. “He didn’t believe me when I said he was doing it. He got mad at me.”
“Did he …” Hermione tried to say it, almost more careful of her own reaction than Ginny’s. “Did he hit you or…”
“No.” A firm shake of the head, red hair flying. “Nothing like that. At first. He just … did these things and didn’t remember, and then he’d be himself for a bit, only sort of tired and distracted, and then he’d … go off again.
“Then one night he was tossing and turning, having a nightmare … making these sounds in his chest like he was suffocating … and I shook him awake. I was saying his name.”
Ginny squeezed her eyes shut. “And he woke up and looked at me and he said … ‘I’m not.’”
“Then he really woke up. And … he was frightened. He was really frightened. He looked at me and it seemed as if he was actually seeing me for the first time in days, and he said my name and he hugged me.
“I asked him to go to St Mungo’s, and he said he would. Then we fell asleep.”
Ginny stared past Hermione at the wall, eyes bleak, and for a moment Hermione got a real sense of the hurt she was trying to bottle up inside, behind a calm façade.
“In the morning I tried to get him to go to St. Mungo’s. He looked at me as if I’d gone spare. As if we’d never even had the conversation. As if … as if he hated me.
“He went straight into the kitchen and started doing something with a big vat of … I don’t know, some noxious red stuff he’d been brewing the night before. I followed him. I begged him. I said … I said there was something wrong with him.” Her voice started to waver. “I said I loved him and that I wanted to help him. I didn’t know what to do.
“He screamed at me. He threw an iron ladle at me and screamed at me to get out.”
“Gin …” Hermione began. “I’m sure he didn’t …”
Ginny blurted, “He said ‘get the fuck out of here. Get out of my life and don’t come back.’”
“Something is very wrong,” Hermione said, getting up to pace, to think, to try to fix it.
Ginny hugged herself, thin arms tight, fingers curling into her arms. “As long as he doesn’t want my help, I don’t see how I can help him.”
Hermione stopped, looking across her tiny parlor at Ginny, small and pale, dark circles under her eyes.
“You are helping,” she said. “Whatever it is, we’ll find out. I’ll find out.” Then, thinking of immediate concerns, she said, “Do you want to spend the night? I can—”
Ginny shook her head. “No. I’ll go to The Burrow. It’ll be …” She stopped. Closed her eyes tight. Opened them. “Let me know if … what happens.” She looked up at Hermione, eyes filling, overflowing. “If he … needs my help. If he asks for me …”
Hermione returned to the sofa and gave her a hug, stiff, awkward, her thoughts already leaping ahead to Harry, to what could possibly have happened to him.
Hermione walked cautiously up the serpentine path of tilted paving stones, noting with a strange alarm the expanses of freshly turned earth on either side, the new-planted herbs and flowers tiny and delicate in tidy rows where once there’d been only the hippie-like waves of uncut grass in the front garden. It wasn’t like Harry to be interested in gardening, but Ginny hadn’t mentioned anything about this.
She rapped on the weathered door, timidly at first, then with more force. Then she tried the handle, opened the door, and stepped into a cloud of bitter reek and the arrhythmic clang of metal on metal.
“Harry!” she called, then coughed. “It’s me!”
The parlor was tidy enough – Hermione suspected Ginny’s influence there – but every flat surface bore a tower of books, some only a few high, some reaching unsteadily toward the ceiling. Several scrolls were tucked into a corner of the sofa, and a big book of soft brown leather lay open and face down on the rug, a cushion beside it, as if Harry had been sitting on the floor studying.
She glanced at the kitchen doorway, saw a billow of grey steam wash along the ceiling and wisp out through the doorway. The smell was half onion, half laundry – she had no idea what it signified.
“I’m in here!”
She made her way around more stacks of books on the floor and stopped in the kitchen doorway.
He was bent over a huge cauldron, a long heavy iron ladle in one hand, his loose black clothes flapping as he stirred with long, powerful strokes.
“What are you –” she began, stopped, swallowed, feeling foolish because it was obvious what he was doing, although why was a complete mystery.
He turned and scowled at her, and her heart leaped jittering into her throat when she saw a stranger.
His hair was much longer, uncombed, wild about his heat-flushed face, damp black tendrils wrapped around his neck like a venomous tentacula. Ginny’d described him as vague, distracted, but his eyes pierced Hermione, making her feel transparent, then invisible, in the space of perhaps three seconds.
“Well?” he demanded. “What do you want? I’m busy.”
“H-Harry …?” Instantly she felt stupid saying it, but he was so changed, his body stiff, knotted, his face drawn and angry and old …
“What do you want?”
Even his voice was different, deeper, with a harsh, scraping undertone.
“I … came to see if – to see that you were all right.” She took a nervous step forward and he flung out a hand.
“You can see it from there. Now that you’ve seen, you can go.”
“Harry!” The reproof sprang automatically from her lips. “What is wrong with you?”
He straightened, facing her fully, the ladle clenched in one fist, and her heart jittered into her throat.
“You want to know what’s wrong with me?”
He paused, but she couldn’t speak, and it turned out the pause was for emphasis rather than for her response.
“What’s wrong with me is stupid whinging females constantly hovering around me, disturbing my sleep and my work, constantly pestering, constantly –” his voice dropped to a hiss – “asking me what is wrong with me.”
He raised the ladle – Hermione, shaking, flinched back, sick at the idea that he’d actually strike her – then stopped.
Stopped moving, stopped breathing – and shrank in on himself, shoulders curling, fists clenching, head drooping until all she could see was the jagged part in the thick black hair.
He shuddered, once, a violent, whole-body spasm, and automatically she started forward, reaching out. “Harry – ”
He slapped her hand away before his head came up, his face mottled with heat and emotion, his eyes beaming pure hatred through the mist of confusion suffusing the room. He flung the ladle aside and had his wand in its place before Hermione heard the ladle clang against the floor.
”Now will you get out or do I have to hex you out?”
She didn’t realise she’d moved until her back thumped into the front door. She half-turned, scrabbling for the handle, not taking her eyes off the tight-faced glaring specter before her.
“Harry,” she whispered, tears springing to her eyes, but she grasped the handle and wrenched the door open. “I’ll – be back.” She sidled out, turned, and ran.
“Just let me do the talking, dear. I’ve had a lot of experience with this.”
Madame Pomfrey strode briskly along the path to Harry’s cottage, Hermione beside her and Ron trailing after them, several paces, as if to disavow any involvement in their mission.
“We don’t even know what this is,” Hermione reminded Poppy, but gently. None of the Mediwitches or wizards at St Mungo’s would listen to her. Well, they listened. But they wouldn’t help. Not without more proof than just the word of two teenaged witches that the Savior of the Wizarding World was acting very strangely. Finally she’d gone to Hogwarts and asked Madame Pomfrey, who hadn’t seemed in the least surprised.
“Well, if it’s not physical it must be mental,” Poppy said, slightly out of breath. “The poor child went through so much. It was bound to affect him sooner or later.”
“But how could that make him look so different, look …?” Hermione stopped, realising how she would sound. Like a stranger. Unrecognisable.
“Mental stress takes a toll on the body,” Pomfrey said; she sounded reassuringly certain, but Hermione couldn’t shake the fear that once she saw Harry she’d be as shocked, as mystified, as Hermione had been.
Poppy peered interestedly at the gardens as they passed through, then rapped smartly at the front door. Hermione remained a step behind her; she was ashamed, but couldn’t make herself move. Ron continued to stay back, forcibly reminding Hermione of how hard she’d had to argue to get him to come at all, to get him to admit there might be something really wrong. If she hadn’t understood in her heart how sick to death they all were of fear and danger and death, she would have been angry, would have thought him a coward.
I don’t want this to be true either, she thought, echoing the words she’d shouted at Ron the night before. But he’s our friend and we can’t pretend nothing’s wrong.
The door flew open, crashing against the wall to reveal an empty square of space. Poppy’s hand hovered in it a moment, then dropped.
From the back of the house came a voice Hermione would not have believed, two days ago, was Harry’s – deeply hoarse, crackling with furious impatience.
“Am I never to have a moment’s peace?” It was an indictment rather than a question.
Madame Pomfrey cast a startled glance at Hermione, then stepped inside.
Harry stood in the front room, a fat book tucked under one arm, both hands awkwardly holding a parchment open in front of him. He lowered his hands, glaring over his shoulder at them, and Hermione realised he was in his nightclothes – barefoot and draped in a grey nightshirt, though it was past nine. His face was drawn, shadowed with tiredness, but he spoke sharply.
“Well? What do you want?”
Hermione heard Ron’s intake of breath even as Pomfrey stepped forward.
“Harry dear. We – your friends were concerned –”
“Perhaps—” he said, not loudly but with the heavy, inexorable force of a guillotine – “my friends should concern themselves with their own business, and stop meddling in mine.” He released the parchment from one hand and it rustled back into a tidy roll, which he set on the mantel, followed by the fat book he’d had tucked under his arm.
“Bugger,” Ron hissed. “That’s not Harry.”
“And now…” Harry turned back to them; his wand between his fingers. “Kindly get out and leave me in peace.” He didn’t look angry; he looked … contemptuous, Hermione realized. Impatient with a trivial annoyance.
“Harry—” she began, stepping forward, hardly knowing what to say, but his focus flicked to her and she sensed Pomfrey’s sudden movement behind her. She stopped and his gaze snapped back to Poppy, but her wand was in her hand; one flick and the word “Defervescero” left her lips in a whisper.
Harry whirled … eyes rolling, he collapsed sideways onto the sofa, wand tipping from his fingers to the floor.
Poppy took in and let out one big, noisy breath. “Well. Now let’s get a closer look at him.”
Hermione slipped around her, looking Harry up and down; his face in repose looked dreadfully tired, his body too thin, his fingers covered in scratches, cuts and stains. She collected his wand from the floor; it felt unnaturally hot in her hand.
Poppy passed her wand over Harry, chanting a diagnostic spell.
“He looks awful,” Ron said, his voice small.
Pomfrey stopped, head cocked. “I can’t …” Her expression firmed and she made another pass with her wand, this one slower, invoking a different spell.
“What is it?” Hermione pressed.
“There doesn’t seem to be … that is, I cannot detect any sign of physical or magical illness. No hexes, no curses, no poisons, no dark artifacts … he’s a little underweight and somewhat dehydrated, but not ill otherwise …” Mouth pursed, she pressed her fingers to Harry’s forehead and murmured another spell.
Nothing happened for a moment, then Harry stirred and his eyes fluttered open.
“Mr Potter,” Poppy said briskly. He looked at her. “Are you able to sit up?”
She took her fingers away and he pushed himself, with obvious effort, into a vaguely upright position. He blinked at Poppy, then Hermione, then Ron, without malice, but also without any particular signs of welcome, or even recognition.
Then he started. “Where’s my wand—?”
“Here,” Hermione said, raising it but not offering it back to him. “It’s safe.”
He stared at it blankly, making no move to take it, and Hermione eased closer.
“You’re all here,” he said.
Hermione, Ron and Poppy looked at one another. It was clear none of them knew what he meant.
“We are,” Poppy said finally, falling back on bedside manner. “We are … concerned about you, Mr Potter. You’ve … you’ve not been well.”
His eyes bored holes in the floor, his hands limp in his lap.
“I’m all right,” he said woodenly. “It’s just … he’s inside me.”
“Bloody hell,” Ron breathed. “How’d this happen?”
Hermione and Harry shook their heads as one. Hermione had sorted through the outrageously cluttered kitchen and made tea for them all. Harry never shifted from his slumped position on the sofa, barely moving even to accept his cup. Hermione noted as she took a seat how the three of them had positioned themselves, surrounding Harry as if they could ward off any evil. Unfortunately, it was past the point at which any external defenses would help.
“I’ve never seen such a thing in all my years as a healer,” Poppy said. “But I’ve read about it. It’s quite …” She hesitated, then glanced at the trio as if remembering they were past the point of being shocked out of their innocence. “It’s quite dark magic, I’m afraid.”
“And we thought it was all over,” Ron went on. “We thought we were through with You Know Who forever.” He made a face, no doubt intending to look fierce, Hermione thought. Instead he looked like a pouty child. “Don’t worry, mate. We’ll get that snake-faced bastard out of you and destroy him once and for all.”
Harry’s head jerked up, his face angry, the teacup tilting in his hand. He ignored the tea that splattered onto his knee, though it had to have burned through the rumpled nightshirt.
“It’s not Voldemort, Ron,” Hermione said, wondering why she was surprised, after knowing Ron for so long, that she had to explain the obvious. “It’s Snape.”
Harry’s head hurt. He wished they’d all just go away. Just be quiet and go away.
Then he remembered why they were there and cold fear splintered inside him. They couldn’t leave. He needed someone to help him. He didn’t know what was happening to him – he hadn’t even really known something was, and that scared him.
The last few weeks … he couldn’t honestly say they were a blur. They were less than that. He hadn’t thought about them. Hadn’t thought about anything that he could, now, put his finger on. The final battle, the violence and deaths and revelations that had rocked him, felt, not distant, but shrouded. Vaguely he knew that that was something he’d chosen, that he’d deliberately shut himself off from everything that mattered, both outside of himself and inside. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t questioned these weeks of numbed, dreamlike existence.
Or … perhaps it had all been because of Snape. Snape taking him over a little at a time, that bastard, using him … but there was no anger in him, no venom in the thought – no real belief in it. He couldn’t believe Snape had done this deliberately, almost couldn’t believe he himself hadn’t imagined it all. If my choices are that I’m insane, or that I’m sharing my brain and body with Severus Snape …
“You all right, mate?” Ron asked gently.
He forced a smile and shifted the teacup in his lap as if to indicate that he was fine, yes, just sipping his tea. He was wearing a nightshirt. He never wore nightshirts. It was grey. Grey. Icy fingers crawled up his back and he took a quick, unsteady gulp of the tea.
“He must’ve done it just before he died.”
Harry shook his head; whenever anyone talked about the people they’d lost in the war, there was always a funny little respectful pause before the word “died.” Except for Snape. But then, nobody’d really lost Snape, had they? He didn’t have anyone. He was just dead.
“On purpose?” Ron said.
Hermione looked at Harry.
“I can’t imagine him wanting Harry of all people to be carrying his soul around inside him,” Ron went on, and Harry smiled.
“He’s right,” Harry said. “I don’t think it’s what he meant to do. He meant to give me … certain memories. Maybe that connection, with him so close to …” His throat tightened and he stopped, surprised. Was he getting choked up about Snape dying, or was that Snape, inside him, again? He felt alone in his skull at the moment, but …
“Yes, that’s possible,” Madame Pomfrey said. “At the moment of death, it’s possible the connection drew his living spirit into the nearest living vessel.”
Hermione scowled. “I’ll have to do some research.”
Pomfrey looked at her for a moment, as though measuring her ability to tackle this. Finally she said, “I recommend Erasmus Spookes. He is the foremost expert. You might check with Kloob, in Warsaw, or Professor Slibbersauce, but when it comes to possession—”
“I’m not possessed!” Harry barked. Then snapped his mouth shut.
“I’ll look into the proper sedative potions—” Pomfrey went on.
“Sedatives? What for?” Harry said, and her eyebrows rose.
“Harry,” Hermione said hesitantly. “You … this seems like the first time you’ve been … yourself … in a while. It only happened after Madame Pomfrey hit you with a sedating spell. It may be the way to keep … to keep Professor Snape … sort of …” She waved her hands, clearly unable to pinpoint her meaning.
“Dormant,” Poppy suggested. “There are a number of potions that—”
Harry snapped, “I can –” Then stopped himself, springing up from the sofa, twitching with panic. He’d almost said “I can make them myself.” He’d almost said something he would never say. Something Snape would say.
He paced, dodging the piles of books and parchments and the furniture and his nervously watching guests.
“Okay,” he said then, his stomach clenching. “Sedatives. Right.”
“I’ll whip up a batch of something mild and owl it to you straight away,” Poppy said.
“That’s fine for now, but is there a way to reverse it?” Ron said. “I mean, to get him out?”
“That’s a question for Erasmus Spookes,” Poppy said. “I believe he is in Prague at the moment at a conference.
“Can we Floo him?” Hermione asked. “An owl would take days.”
Poppy considered. “The conference is being held at The Willard Institute. Hogwarts has a Floo connection.” She stood up, as if it was all settled; Hermione rose as well.
Ron said, “You okay, mate?”
Harry shrugged. “Yeah.”
“You don’t … that is, you seem pretty calm about all this. I’d’ve thought you’d be furious the old bat did this to you.”
Harry looked at Ron for a long moment, hardly seeing him. I don’t really mind and it’s not so terrible seemed, even though the words sprang easily to his mind, admission of madness.
“I … expect he didn’t do it on purpose,” he said finally. Ron scowled at him.
“Go ahead,” he said, although Ron had shown no sign of wanting to join Poppy and Hermione, and they certainly didn’t need his help to Floo anyone. “I’ll be fine. I’ll just … wait here.”
Ron grinned crookedly. “Try not to turn back into Snape, all right, mate?”
Harry smiled. “I’ll try.”
Erasmus Spookes suited his name more than any man Harry had ever met. Thin, pale, elderly, slow-moving and slow-speaking, he looked one breath, one final exhalation, away from ghost-hood.
“Most, most interesting,” he said in a sliver-thin voice. “I’ve read about accidental transference as a theory, but as you might imagine, the circumstances required to bring it about are all but impossible to stumble upon.” He sat across from Harry, spindly fingers pyramided before him as he looked Harry over in darting, measuring glances. “Thank you,” he added as Hermione brought him a cup of tea.
“But it can be reversed, can’t it?” she asked.
“Oh yes. It’s fairly easy, in theory. After all, souls are not comfortable sharing the same corporeal form – it’s unnatural.”
Harry coughed out a laugh, surprised at himself. Was that coming from Snape, or me?
“They tend to yearn toward freedom,” Spookes went on. “It’s not a difficult spell.”
Harry took his cup from Hermione, waited ’til she’d sat down, and cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry. Hermione, Mr Spookes. I’m sorry you came all this way. But I’ve been thinking about this, and I can’t do it.”
“Hermione … he’s … I can’t just cut him out like a cancer. He’s … he’s alive again, in a way. I can’t kill him.”
Alarm flashed in her eyes. “You have to. This is making you physically ill. There’s no telling what it’s doing to you mentally.”
Harry shook his head.
“Harry.” Her tone sharpened. “Are you taking Madame Pomfrey’s potion?”
“This isn’t Snape!” he snapped. “It’s me. I just can’t do it.”
“You … need not simply allow Professor Snape’s essence to evaporate into thin air,” Spookes said. “You may use an arcanima.”
“A what?” Hermione beat Harry to it, all concern for him swallowed up in keen curiosity.
“It is a magical container designed for this use.”
“For this use?” Harry blurted. “Other people have done this? On purpose?”
Carefully neutral, Spookes said, “It is still considered dark magic by some, but … it is a way to preserve Professor Snape’s … soul, if you will …”
Hermione was shaking her head. “No. Harry, no.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.” Harry leaned forward. “I mean, is it legal? How is it done?”
“It is not strictly outlawed,” Spookes admitted, “probably because it has not been used for centuries. But it should not surprise you that such a spell has rarely been used for … beneficent purposes. It would be best to be circumspect about it, should you elect to pursue this course.”
“Harry!” Hermione said. “This is wrong. His body is – gone—”
“It is, isn’t it?” Harry said pointedly, but she didn’t take the bait. Snape’s body had disappeared. A lot of bodies had done that in the crazy aftermath, and when it came to Snape, not many people cared. In the end Snape’s name went with a fewscore others on a memorial obelisk in front of Hogwarts. Harry’d tried to argue that it wasn’t enough, but he could never seem to form the words, to spit out that he thought Snape – Snape! – deserved his own monument.
As much as it bothered him, he hadn’t been able to summon the energy to do anything about it. To do much at all, really – his memory of the last few months held little but blurred images of eating, sleeping, walking ... then he’d look into the kitchen, or out at the garden, and shudder. He mightn’t have done much, but Snape, in his body, had been busy.
“It is gone,” Hermione said. “His … soul should be set free. To go to … whatever is there for the soul after life is over.”
Harry’s head was moving, determined, back and forth, in response to the only thought in it at the moment: No.
“No,” he said. “I’m not killing him.”
“He’s already dead!”
She froze, startled at his tone. He leaned toward her, holding her eyes.
“He’s inside me.” He touched his chest with an emphatic index finger. “He isn’t dead. He’s … some part of him is alive, and I can’t just stomp that out. I can’t.”
Spookes seemed unconcerned. “Arcanimae are … rare and expensive.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Harry said. Hermione was still shaking her head, her expression dark. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
Despite her reluctance, there was no chance of Hermione refusing when Spookes asked her to assist in the spell. Harry found it anticlimactic, to say the least, less interesting even than the quest amongst the seedier Knockturn Alley shops looking for the arcanima. It turned out to be a plain globe of crystal that fit in the palm of Harry’s hand, the only thing odd about it its unnatural coolness to the touch.
Spookes had him lie naked on his bed, the globe in both hands resting on his navel, which went numb from the cold in about a minute.
Spookes gave a small, unbelievably fat book to Hermione and instructed her to stand at the foot of the bed, open it to a particular page, and prompt him when he faltered. Harry looked down at her as Spookes fished out his wand; it was disconcerting to see Hermione standing at the foot of his bed while he was lying there naked.
Spookes held his wand aloft over the arcanima and began to chant. Harry felt the cold spread from the globe, oozing out in all directions across his skin. He started to shiver – then gasped aloud when the cold … sank. Sank through his skin and into his body, into his muscles and bones and organs, weird and numbing and invasive and oh my god…
“Is he all right?” Hermione whispered from, suddenly, very far away.
Spookes shushed her and continued, pausing occasionally until Hermione reminded him of the words of the lengthy spell. Harry twitched and trembled, his body silently screaming get it out, get it out! as the cold penetrated to his core, drew in on itself, and faded. His convulsions subsided into shivers again, and as Spookes’ cant ended, he became aware of his fingers. Clutching the arcanima against his belly.
It was warm.
Harry struggled into a seated position and Hermione politely flung an edge of the duvet over his lap as he raised the globe to eye level. Spookes and Hermione both leaned in to look. The once-clear crystal was clouded, swirling. Living.
“It is done,” Spookes said, quietly triumphant.
“How do you feel?” Hermione asked Harry. He nodded, not sure “all right” was accurate. He felt the globe shift a little in his palm and wrapped his fingers tighter around it.
Spookes took in a deep, satisfied breath. “I must thank you both for this opportunity. It is rare in my field to see ancient magic in action, let alone take part.”
“Thank you, Mr Spookes,” Hermione said. “I’m not certain we did the right thing, but I know Harry and I both appreciate your help.”
Harry looked up at the sound of his name. “Oh. Here – let me –” He pressed the arcanima carefully into Hermione’s hands and sprang from the bed to throw on jeans and a jumper before escorting his guests into the front room. He snatched the globe back – earning a startled glare from the fascinated Hermione – and said:
“Do I … I must owe you something, Mr Spookes, for your time and effort in doing all this for me.” He felt horribly awkward about offering to pay the man, a scholar, so much older than he. Thankfully Spookes waved the idea away.
“Not at all, Mr Potter. This was a once in a lifetime experience.” Another deep, proud breath. “I feel quite invigorated.” He went to the door. “Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any more questions along these lines.” He gave them a nod and departed with a bounce to his step Harry didn’t recall from before. He couldn’t help the devilish thought that a little dark magic was apparently good for the …
He sank slowly onto his couch and looked into the cloudy swirl within the globe; alive, mysterious, not unlike a pensieve. Strange to think it was so small. Was it all really ... all of Snape?
As if reading his mind, Hermione said, “Every thought, feeling, memory, power … everything nonphysical that makes a person who he or she is.” She nodded at the sphere. “It’s in there.”
Harry stared at the arcanima, heavy in his hands – then set it with frantic caution onto the table. Then picked it up again – what if it fell? – and cradled it in his lap like a quiescent dragon hatchling.
Hermione gave him a McGonagall look. “So now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?”
Take care of it. “I don’t know.”
That evening, he walked up the hill, past Hogwarts, to the obelisk, a dark stone finger pointing to the sky, writ with the names of the dead. Harry stopped, scanning with unfocused eyes for the trio of snakelike Ss near the end of the list.
He knelt and laid his fingers against the carven letters, wrapping his other hand around the arcanima, warm and substantial in his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t know … I never know what the right thing is to do, and I didn’t know this time either. If I’ve done the wrong thing, I’m sorry.”
That night, the dreams started.
He’d gone to bed with every intent of simply setting the arcanima in the bedside table drawer, close enough that he wouldn’t worry about it. But when he let go, it rolled into the corner of the otherwise empty drawer, making such a forlorn, fragile sound he couldn’t stand it. He pulled it out, into his lap as if it were a needy puppy, wondering what to do with it.
Then he smiled at himself. He could hardly blame Snape for his own neurosis. He set his wand on the table, climbed into bed and slid the arcanima under his pillow, leaving one hand over it.
The globe fit perfectly into his palm, warm and sleek, a strange comfort as he slipped into sleep.
He knelt, Snape’s cock in his hand, heavy and hot and smooth, like the arcanima, but alive, pulsing. Snape’s black eyes were on him and he stroked, nervous but wanting to do this right, to make up for … everything. Snape’s eyes stayed on him as he took the hot satin length into his mouth, and then those eyes closed in pleasure and he knew triumph, knew the pleasure of giving another pleasure … and when the growl rumbled from Snape, Harry felt it through his stomach and into his own cock…
He started awake, coming, hot and confused, riding out his orgasm with choked gasps of pleasure.
He lay twitching and amazed, catching his breath, only realising after a few moments that he was petting the arcanima, as if in the aftermath of lovemaking.
He yanked his hand away. “Lumos!”
He pushed the pillow aside and stared at the globe, resting in a slight dent in the bedding. It looked exactly the same, the same calm, mysterious swirl of silver-white cloud.
It’s not Snape. It’s not the arcanima. It was just a stupid wet dream, y’berk. Forget it.
A soft abluero removed the evidence of his pleasure and he snuggled back down into the warm covers, determined not to be embarrassed about having a wet dream about a dead horrible man.
Harry smirked into his pillow. “You’re a freak, Potter. What else is new? Nox.”
He sank into the bed with a long exhalation, and became acutely conscious of his very empty hand creeping up toward the arcanima. Only when he let his fingers curl round it again could he relax enough to fall asleep.
In the days that followed, he found himself, as if by accident, tidying up. He’d make himself a sandwich, or a cup of tea, and, somehow, in his free hand, would be a book or two, or a scroll, fragments of the explosion of books and parchments he’d collected – where had they come from? – while Snape was inside him. He’d shrug and stack them in corners and on shelves and tables, so they didn’t look quite so … lunatic. After thinking about it for a while, he visited Madame Pince and asked her if he’d forgotten to return any books lately. She gave him a hard, lengthy look and said:
“Don’t worry about it, Mr Potter.”
It struck him later that that was about the most worrisome thing she could have said.
Snape’s hands were on his shoulders, heavy, prisoning, his fingers digging in to the tendons as he pulled Harry in, and it felt so good to be wanted like this, to be palpably needed. He slid his own hands around Snape’s wiry thighs and took in his cock, as deep as he could take it, feeling hot, feverish, his own cock pulsing at Snape’s thrusts and gasps … and when Snape groaned his name, his voice broken, naked, Harry came so hard he awakened, shuddering, eyes filled with inexplicable tears.
He woke to a loud rap on the door and stumbled, bleary and confused, into the front room, unlatching the door to squint at Hermione, limned by glaring sunshine. She looked at him as she had when he’d been possessed. Harry glanced down at himself, but he didn’t think he looked any worse than anyone would who’d been awakened unexpectedly.
“Sorry,” she said, with a vague wave. “I didn’t think … it’s after 11 …”
“I overslept a bit,” he admitted. “What’s up?”
“I just came to bring you some of Ron’s mum’s guilt trips.” She waggled the basket she carried slung over one arm, and Harry became aware of the scent of sweet baked goods. “She brought a tonne of goodies round this morning and I thought I’d redistribute the calories.”
“Come on in,” Harry said. He shut the door behind her and followed her into the kitchen, where she began bustling about with such undirected energy that he knew something other than Molly Weasley’s baking was on her mind.
While placing blueberry scones tidily on a plate, Hermione finally said, without looking at him, “Have you spoken to Ginny lately?”
He considered lying, but she obviously knew the answer. “No.”
Still not turning – still needlessly adjusting the scones – she said, “Why not?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
He didn’t know if the sigh he thought he heard was just his own guilty imagination.
Then she turned, gazing at him, not unkindly. “Harry, if …” The patient look twisted into a scowl. “What are you doing with that?”
He glanced down. Realised he was cradling the arcamina against his hip. Realised he’d rolled out of bed, half awake, and, rather than grabbing his wand, or a robe, or clothes, had carried Snape to the door.
He said none of this. What was the point? Having it in his hand was a complete confession.
“You sleep with it?” Hermione pressed, surprised.
“I’m afraid it’ll break,” he half-lied.
Hermione tilted her head at him and, suddenly, he wanted to smack her, or yell at her, for thinking that she could possibly know what it meant that he had Snape’s soul in his keeping.
“It’s more likely to break if it falls out of your bed while you’re –”
“It won’t,” he snapped. “I’ll take care of it. I am taking care of it.”
Three minutes later he was watching her stomp irritably away from the cottage and wondering why he’d ever thought it was difficult to get rid of unwanted visitors. Perhaps he had learned something from Snape after all.
Some days later, he went into the garden with his morning tea to gaze at the herbs and flowers, now flourishing in their severe rank-and-file on either side. He had no idea what most of them were, and for an instant he felt stupidly proud of that fact. Then he felt a little ashamed. That seemed even more stupid.
He walked up to Hogwarts again, ate the lunch the house elves pressed on him, and borrowed a few books on Herbology from Professor Sprout.
It wasn’t that he cared; it just seemed wasteful to let them all die when he’d gone to the trouble of planting them.
Even if it hadn’t been him who’d really gone to the trouble.
He was gathering dandelion roots, and mint and sage, placing them in little bags in a borrowed basket – with attached tags identifying them, because he had no confidence any of Snape’s knowledge had stayed with him – when the faint slap of running feet caught his ears and he looked up.
“Harry!” Hermione was trotting down the path from Hogwarts, her balance unsteady on the uneven flags, hair and newspaper flapping. “They’ve found Snape!”
Harry felt his face and his gut twist in horror – and Hermione, reading the look, clarified.
“Alive, Harry. He’s alive.”
Snape lay still but for the rise and fall of chest and eyelids, clean and tidy in green pyjamas, but thin and white, the horrible scars on his neck red and ridged against his pale skin.
“How – how’d he get here?” Harry asked Phillip Burns, the mediwizard in charge of Snape’s case.
“He was in a muggle convalescent home in Edinburgh when a witch visiting a squib relative saw him there and reported it to us.”
“Reported,” Harry echoed, not realising how he’d sounded until the Mediwizard winced.
“Not like that. Severus Snape’s loyalties are common knowledge now, thanks to you and Hogwarts’ headmistress. She just thought he needed magical care rather than chicken soup and restraints.”
Harry unclenched his fists. Restraints. “How’d he get there, though?”
Burns shrugged. “Their records indicated he’d been there some months, that he’d been dropped off anonymously by a man who said he’d found him wandering Ferry Road. How he survived, in this condition, up to that point …” Another shrug.
Harry looked at Hermione – realised in that instant that he’d backed into the wall, pressed against it as if terrified of Snape.
He cleared his throat, said to her, “Can we give it back?”
Hermione scowled. “I don’t know.”
From her, that was as good as a promise, but Harry, frantic, said, “Help me find out. Please.”
She nodded, solemn, and he loved her in that instant for somehow understanding how much this meant to him.
“I’ll owl Mr Spookes.” She moved toward the ward entrance, three empty beds down from Snape. Burns, looking puzzled, followed her.
Surprising himself, Harry asked, “Can – may I stay for a minute?” Burns squinted at him for a moment, then shrugged.
“I don’t see why not – you can’t do him any harm.”
“Thanks. Hermione – let me know, right?”
She nodded. “As soon as I learn something.”
When they’d gone, Harry edged closer, until he was pressed against the side of the hospital bed. He stared for a long while, until the sick fear that Snape would suddenly open his eyes and scream at him – or even just look at him – had faded.
When it did, Harry at last breathed, reaching out to touch the horrible scars on Snape’s neck, wondering how they’d got healed, how Snape had survived.
And who had thought even to try, when he had not.
Snape’s pulse beat strong and slow against his fingertips. Harry felt the tears well, running hot down his face to drip, cold, onto I Must Not Tell Lies.
Floo powder in hand, Harry had “St Mungo’s” on his lips when someone knocked at the door. He hesitated, arm ready to fling the powder anyway, and heard Ron’s voice.
“Harry? You home?”
He poured the powder back into the jar he’d appropriated for it, brushing the residue off his palm and the impatience off his face before he opened the door.
Uncharacteristically, Ron stayed on the stoop, peering in as if concerned he was intruding.
“Cheers. How’s it going?”
“Good. Come in.” Harry stood aside and Ron stepped just a few steps into the cottage, radiating discomfort.
Harry shook his head. “I was going out, but there’s no rush.” It wasn’t as though Snape would notice when – or if – he arrived.
Ron turned, grinned. “How’re you and Snape getting on?” He nodded at the arcanima and Harry had to smile through his inexplicable irritation.
“I think the honeymoon’s over,” he said, sliding the globe into his pocket. “What’s up?”
“Well, we were wondering if … you know, we haven’t seen you in a bit – I mean, mum and dad and all, and mum’s been a bit worried, so … d’you fancy popping by the Burrow for dinner this weekend, maybe?”
Harry, caught between conflicting impulses, froze.
“It’d be the whole family, you know, so you don’t have to feel … weird or anything.” Ron stopped, clearly struggling for words, and Harry stared, blank, until Ron blurted, “About Ginny, I mean.”
“She wants to see you, mate,” Ron said, sounding suddenly very mature. “She loves you, y’know.” It was a good look on him, Harry thought, adulthood. Wonder if I’ll ever sound like that, look like that.
He shook his head. “I’m not ready yet.” When he thought of Ginny, instead of warmth, he felt … burdened. She was a complication, right now, and he had too much already spinning around in his head.
“She’s worried,” Ron pressed. “She wants to help.”
“She can’t,” Harry said flatly.
“How d’you know?”
“I just do. I don’t mean to … hurt her, Ron. I just need to work this out on my own.”
Ron squinted at him. “What exactly are you working out?”
Harry shook his head, not wanting to say it – knowing it was no kind of answer, not even to his own ears or mind.
But it was the only true answer he had.
“That won’t help.”
Harry stopped, looked up, blinking as his focus lengthened from the words on the page to MediWizard Burns, standing in the doorway to the tiny hospital room.
He slid his finger in to mark the page and closed Potions Weekly on his lap, on top of the arcanima. Some whim had driven him to try to put the globe into Snape’s hand, but his fingers had no strength or control, and Harry was afraid he’d drop it.
“What won’t help?”
“Reading to him. Talking to him. This isn’t the usual coma or catatonic state.” He came to the bedside and waved his hand in front of Snape’s staring eyes – Harry felt a spark of irritation. In the past week he’d come every day and read to Snape, and he hadn’t seen Burns at all. Not once.
“He can hear, physiologically, but so far as we can tell there’s nothing inside to enable him to understand.”
“But if he’s whole physically, he can relearn, can’t he? Even if we can’t … give it back.”
Burns looked at him, the same pitying look he’d given Snape, but said, “We don’t know. This is new to us. No one’s ever done this to himself before. He has a brain, but no mind, and we don’t know what that means in terms of … trainability, as it were. But he can’t hear you in any of the usual senses of the word.”
Resting the magazine on his lap, Harry looked at Snape. Just looked at the pale, craggy profile until the healer left.
When the door clicked shut, Harry read on.
One afternoon when he found himself staring down at the white, veined, big-knuckled hand on the coverlet, Harry set aside the latest issue of Potions Weekly and touched it. Laid his palm over it. Feeling the cool soft skin, feeling a combination of daring and self-loathing at the liberty. Would it help, or would Snape have resented it?
Both, maybe. He took Snape’s hand in both of his for a moment. Relaxed, harmless. Harry brought it to his face and drew it, like a handkerchief, across his cheek.
Half alive, Snape had never seemed so human.
He lay floating, on his back, feeling the tickle of hair trailing down his body, his flesh almost painfully sensitive to the silky touch, the warm breath over his belly, the hard fingers sliding possessively around his hips … oh, god … the hot wet mouth that slid over his aching cock ’til he was fully sheathed, the tongue that pressed and teased as Snape sucked him, clutching his ass, urging him deeper …
“Look at me.”
Harry jumped, alarm flaring in his gut, burning away the haze of desire. He pushed himself up. Snape was staring at him.
“Look at me. Look at me.” The black eyes pinned him and the words echoed in his head and he couldn’t move, he couldn’t get away. “Look at me look at me look at me look at me look at me…”
The world turned green, then black.
He woke with a violent start, thrashed free of the covers and jerked upright, sweating, heart pounding.
This time, he didn’t even attempt to go back to sleep.
The next day was evidently bath day. The young healer’s aide, possibly inexperienced in this sort of thing, had wrapped Snape’s freshly washed body in a robe and was attempting to dry his hair, an awkward proposition given that she was 18 inches short of her target.
Harry found himself hurrying into the room, blurting, “Here, let me help.” He grabbed the only chair – by the window, where he always left it – and helped her maneuver Snape into it. He could be positioned, Harry and the medical staff had discovered, not unlike a doll, even directed to make simple movements, but there was no awareness or control within.
And she was so friendly, so properly clinical, that he found himself falling into the rhythm with her, drying Snape off, oddly content to help and amused to think that only a zombie Snape would let him.
But when he stood back to let her ease pyjamas over Snape’s still, unprotesting body, he found himself watching as the pale chest with its V of black hair disappeared under a shirt, then staring as the wiry legs, more hairy than he’d have thought, were swallowed by loose cotton trews that slid innocently over the soft curve of his genitals.
He swallowed, throat dry, thought of the dreams, and flushed, squirming with embarrassment. Freak, you freak, what the bloody hell is wrong with you thinking about him like that?
Then the aide pulled out a big comb, hesitated, and said, “Could you? Would you mind? I’m running late.”
He stretched out a hand, accepting comb and grateful smile without thinking, only realising after the aide had trotted away that she must have assumed all along that he was family or a loved one, that he’d have no problem helping her bathe Snape, or combing his hair. That Snape would have no problem with it.
Harry looked at Snape, seated slightly slouched in the chair, shining clean, with his hair still damp and knotted, unfocused eyes disturbingly dull. He had no problems with anything Harry might do, at the moment, and having Snape utterly at his mercy made Harry feel strangely merciful.
“I’ve got it,” Hermione said even as she barged into the hospital room. “There is a spell – it’s in The Rytes of Bodie Magick.” She hefted the small, hugely fat book he remembered, carrying it as though it were a football. “Mr Spookes put me on to it.” She set the book on the meal tray. “He said he didn’t want to know what we were doing, but that we could probably find out how in here.” Two fingers tapped the brown tome.
Harry looked up, blinked. “How’d you know I was here?”
“You’re always here,” she said matter-of-factly. Then blushed.
Harry dropped the magazine he’d been reading aloud – he’d learned more about potions in the last fortnight than any sane man could wish to – and went to peer over her shoulder as she opened the book.
“He didn’t offer to help again?” Harry asked.
Hermione smiled. “I think he wanted to, but he’s a little nervous about …”
“Whether it’s legal?”
Hermione nodded. “He said you could probably get away with it, but he preferred not to risk his reputation.”
Harry bristled. “Why does everyone always think I can get away with anything? Does my life look so bloody perfect to everyone else?” He gestured around the narrow, tidy hospital room.
Calmly, Hermione said, “How’d Snape get a private room?”
“I asked them to—” Harry stopped. Bit down on the surge of anger, his hand sliding into his pocket to squeeze the arcanima. “Anyone could have asked, Hermione. They had a room available. It wasn’t a big deal. If that’s your idea of me getting special treatment, it’s ridiculous.”
“If you say so.”
“My friends ought to remember what my life’s been like,” he said sourly, and she relented.
“Sorry, Harry. I do think people treat you differently, but I know as well as anyone that it’s not always in a good way.”
She began flipping the thick, parchmentlike pages.
“Speaking of friends, by the way, I saw Ginny the other day. She’s well.”
Harry cocked his head at her, let his annoyance show. “I know. I do talk to Ron.”
“But not to her,” Hermione said.
Harry shook his head. “I’m not ready.” He kept his gaze focused on the book, a silent hint for her to let it go, and she sighed, flipping a few more pages.
“It’s here.” She tapped the spell. “I could do it, but I think you ought to, as you have the connection with the arcanima and … and with Snape’s soul.”
He read the procedure through, twice. “It seems simple.” He glanced at her. “Make sure I don’t muck it up, will you?”
She smiled at the acknowledgement of his nervousness.
“Right. First, it requires blood.”
“Right.” Harry dug out his penknife, flicking it open. Hermione caught his wrist, her thin fingers surprisingly strong.
“His blood, Harry.”
She scanned the instructions. “Not a lot – I think we should just prick his finger – and then his blood and flesh must touch the arcanima.”
He drew out the globe, held it and his knife as if he were about to practice juggling – how was he going to hold his wand as well?
Seeing the dilemma, Hermione said:
“Give him the arcanima. It needs to be touching him anyway.”
Harry dropped the penknife on the bed and wrapped Snape’s limp hands around the arcanima, settling it in the hollow just below Snape’s sternum. He drew out his wand and Hermione took up the knife.
“I’d best do this part – that way you can concentrate on the spell. You’ll pass your wand over him, head to toe and back, and speak the spell, once the blood touches the globe.”
“Right.” He clutched his wand tighter, drew in a steadying breath. “What’s the spell again?”What if it doesn't work? What if I make a mistake?
“I can’t believe this isn’t illegal,” Hermione said.
“Sorry. Rediranimus.” She set the book on the edge of the bed, scanned the page once more, then brought the penknife up to Snape’s hands, gathering up an index finger and pressing the blade to it.
“From head to toe, then back,” she repeated.
“Rediranimus,” he said, wand poised above Snape. “Got it.”
He nodded and she pressed the tiny point of his penknife into Snape’s fingertip. A pinprick spot of blood appeared, growing as she squeezed. She touched Snape’s finger to the arcanima and the contact sparked, giving off a soft crackling sound.
Harry swallowed, cleared his throat, and said, “Rediranimus,” moving his wand up and down over Snape’s still body. A faint burning scent, as of just-snuffed candles, tickled his nose as he completed the wand motion.
When Hermione stepped back, Snape’s hands fell away from the blood-speckled globe.
Harry lowered his wand, still tasting the strange, burnt smell in the air. Nothing else, as far as he could tell, had happened.
“Did … did it work?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” she whispered back.
The globe rolled – no, jumped – from Snape’s stomach off the bed. Harry watched, hypnotised with horror, as it struck and shattered on the tile floor, releasing a thin stream of yellowish smoke.
Hermione’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God …”
Then Snape coughed.
A horde of mediwitches and wizards descended in response to a Medi-Alert charm, unceremoniously brushing Harry and Hermione aside and up against the wall as they crowded around Snape with wands and phials and charts and questions and amaze.
Bodie Magick tucked between elbow and ribs, Hermione stood arms crossed, expression twisted.
“They could just ask us what happened. After all, we are the ones who did it,” she said, but only sotto voce to Harry.
Heart racing, Harry sidled into a corner where he could see a sliver of Snape, no more than a pale beaky nose and a strand of black hair, between two green-coated backs. The medical staff asked questions, one after the other, then on top of one another, and Harry caught the occasional indecipherable rasp that he guessed was Snape, responding.
Wonder if he knows? Knows he was inside me? Harry shivered. Oh my God. He’s alive. All the things he’d done, things that at the time had made sense and felt like kindnesses, lined up in his brain, intrusive, violating, criminal acts that Snape would hold him accountable for.
“Yes,” MediWizard Burns said, half turning, and suddenly Harry was caught, in full view, nothing between him and Snape but Burns’ words.
“It was Mr Potter who had your … noncorporeal self contained in an arcanima. I don’t yet know how he managed to return it to its rightful home, but it is indeed he to whom you owe your thanks.”
Flushed, frozen, Harry vaguely heard Hermione snort, but had eyes only for Snape.
For weeks Harry had seen, in those black eyes, nothing – no hatred, no malice, no life whatsoever. They held him, now, sharp, glittering, unreadable but stirringly, startlingly alive, and he shivered again. God. It was worth it. Snape might be the meanest, nastiest bastard who ever lived, but he was alive, and Harry felt magnificent.
The feeling lasted about five seconds.
Snape’s lip curled, a feeble imitation, but sufficient. “Potter,” he said – or, at least, his mouth made that shape. Harry didn’t hear his name, but he felt the cold needles of Snape’s contempt, and flushed anew.
Oh God. I’ve seen him naked. Oh God …. Heat flared throughout his body, embarrassment so fierce he felt dizzy for a moment.
Another wave of questions and proddings from the medical staff swept Snape from Harry’s view, and he breathed shallowly for a bit, steadying himself.
He realised it had gone quiet and looked up to see the medical staff, their mouths identically tight with annoyance, begin a conga line out the door.
MediWizard Burns looked at him and Hermione.
“He should rest a while.” It was a dismissal, and Harry got the impression Burns was passing it on to them with some relish mostly because Snape had dismissed him.
“Can I stay a bit?” He peered around Burns, asking Snape.
Snape looked at him. Harry looked back. Snape blinked first – surprising Harry – and lowered his eyes.
Burns, obviously waiting for a verbal cue, finally snorted and said, “Not too long,” before sweeping out of the room in a faint haze consisting of the tattered remnants of his authority. Harry would have smiled – not that he disliked Burns – but he was too nervous.
Hermione waited a moment longer, fidgeting with Bodie Magick, then edged to the door. “I’ll be outside.”
She left, shutting the door very quietly, the way you would if you didn’t want any sudden noise to upset the two lunatics inside, Harry thought.
Snape was staring at his lap, shaking his head in slow, evident appallment.
Harry edged closer, kept his voice quiet. “Why me?”
Snape shut his eyes. “You were there.” His voice was hoarse, the words all but crumbs.
Harry stared. Blankly. “But—”
The eyes snapped open, black and sparking.
“It was not deliberate. Do you really think I would choose to share myself with you?” He waited for the enormity of that mistake to sink into Harry’s brain, then added, “You should have destroyed it.”
Harry shook his head, vehement. “Then you’d just be a shell. A zombie.”
Another stabbing, mortifying glare. “By definition, I wouldn’t have known, you imbecile. The part that mattered – the part that cared – would be gone.” Again the eyes shut, squeezed tight, blocking out the world. “I was done with it. Can’t you understand that? I was done with it all, and glad to be.”
Harry stopped the automatic protest before it sprang from his lips. He stepped back, sliding his hands into his pockets, acutely missing the feel of the globe he’d carried for weeks. He’d thought – imagined – that he understood Snape better, now, after those nights of dreams and days of pondering. He hadn’t for a moment imagined Snape preferring death.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was trying to do the right thing.”
Snape’s eyes stayed closed. “Merlin help me, I entirely believe you.”
Hermione waited until they’d apparated back to Harry’s cottage.
“Well? What happened?”
Harry slammed through his front door. Stopped. Yanked off his cloak. Strangled it.
“I take it it didn’t go well?” she prompted from behind him; her slightly amused tone didn’t do anything to damp his anger.
“He’s the same as he was!” Harry threw the balled-up cloak onto the couch as Hermione shut the front door behind them. “Exactly the same. I can’t talk to him, I can’t say anything right, I can’t …” He stopped, clenched all over, and blurted, “Do anything!”
“Why aren’t you glad he’s all right?” Hermione asked, softly, as if she knew the answer. “Why are you so angry?”
He shouted, “Because I—” Instinct silenced him even as the words formed in his throat.
She leaned closer. “Because you liked him better when he couldn’t answer back?”
She jumped, drawing away, and he pressed closer, hot, resentful, jabbed by the truth in what she’d said.
“That’s not it. It’s not. I wanted …” He stopped again, sighed. Hermione was the last person who’d tell him he was being stupid for feeling. He flopped onto the couch. “I wanted to help him, and now he won’t let me.”
“I think that’s the same thing,” she said, “only nicer.”
He looked at her. She was smiling.
“I don’t know why,” he said, mollified. “It’s not as if I like him any better than I did.” He ignored the taste of falsehood on his tongue. But then, it wasn’t false, was it? He’d liked his imaginary Snape better, a lot better – but now the real Snape was back.
“But … don’t say it’s my saving-people thing.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Hermione said. Then winced. “Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help people, Harry. Snape … he was on our side. Even if he isn’t the nicest man in the world. It’s not so odd, you wanting to help him.”
Harry snorted a laugh. Yes it is. It’s buggerin’ odd. “Doesn’t matter anyway. He’d rather Crucio himself bloody than let me.”
“He might,” she said.
“He won’t.” Harry shook his head. “And I don’t bloody care. If he wants to be left alone, if he doesn’t want my help, that’s just fine with me. I don’t care. To hell with him.”
“How is he?” he asked the duty witch the next day.
She made a face. “Horrible. He hates the food, he hates the bed, he hates the staff, he hates the bloody curtains.”
Harry smiled nervously, thinking, then drew his wand and backed away from the reception desk.
“Thanks. Back in a bit.”
Half an hour later, he tapped at Snape’s door, then plunged into the room while his courage was up.
Snape was sitting up in bed, in dull green pyjamas only half buttoned up in front, with a copy of The Prophet lying like a dead carp across his rumpled lap.
He glanced at Harry. The glance turned into a stare.
“All right if I come in?”
Snape blinked. Harry counted it a victory and entered, letting the door swing shut behind him.
“I’ve brought you some curry.” He hesitated. “If you like curry.”
“If I’m not mistaken, you’ve brought it regardless of whether I like it,” Snape said, his words alarmingly bland.
Harry came in, setting the sack on the side table.
“It smells good,” Snape said, and Harry gulped, almost panicking.
“Are you all right?”
Snape spared him half a sidelong glance. “I’m hungry, Potter.”
Harry nearly dropped the container in his hurry to pull it free of the bag and set it on Snape’s tray. He fished out a serviette and a plastic spoon, setting the latter down with a grimace.
“Sorry. D’you have a real spoon here somewhere?” He looked around, pointlessly, but Snape peeled the lid off the curry and picked up the plastic spoon.
“Do not fuss,” he hissed, stirring the steaming curry. “It’s humiliating.”
Harry stopped. Huffed a laugh. “For me, or for you?”
Snape’s lip twitched.
While he ate, Harry gingerly pulled the Prophet off his lap. “May I?” He ran his eye over the front page. “This is old.”
“It’s the only one I could find.”
“I’ll bring you one tomorrow,” Harry said, pleased to be of some use. “Anything else I can bring you?”
“You would be the last person in the world whom I could imagine able to find nothing better to do than visit me,” Snape said, spooning in a healthy mouthful of curry and closing his eyes. The face he made – pure animal appreciation – made Harry completely forget that he hadn’t understood the remark. That he didn’t like this man. That this man didn’t like him.
Snape swallowed and looked at Harry, who felt embarrassment blaze across his face at what he’d been thinking.
“N-nothing.” Harry backed up. “I’m – er – glad you’re enjoying the curry.” He waved the old Prophet at the curry. “Um … I’ll just go, then, shall I?”
Snape continued eating, entirely as though Harry’d already gone. He backed to the door, considered saying goodbye, remembered it was Snape, and slipped into the bare, echoing hallway.
And stopped. “Bugger.” He hadn’t meant to let himself be driven out by his own stupidity, but there was no point in going back now. He should probably just go home, go on about his own business, his own life. He should probably just let Snape alone. It’d be for the best.
A timid tap, and the door to Snape’s hospital room opened, letting Ginny halfway in. “Harry?”
Snape paused, fork hovering over his shepherd’s pie. His eyebrow twitched, then he continued eating. Harry got up from his chair, stood for a moment warring with the unkind, unmerited urge to just tell her to go away – then realised that if he didn’t go out, she’d come in.
He moved to the door and she backed into the corridor. She looked very pretty in a green jumper and blue jeans.
“What are you doing here?”
Her hands twisted around each other. “Hermione told me I could find you here.”
Harry sighed and pushed through the door, shutting it softly behind him, closing them both in the dimlit, bare green corridor. Why did they have to make them so ugly? So loud, echoing, naked?
Ginny didn’t hesitate. “Why are you angry with me? What did I do?”
“I’m not,” Harry said – a lie, because at the moment he was angry, but he knew there was no reason for it. “I’m not angry. You didn’t do anything. I just …”
“I know that when you were … you know, him—“ With a sharp, irate nod toward the hospital room—“You weren’t yourself. But you’re all right now, aren’t you?”
Considering that I’m hanging out in Snape’s hospital room every day, that’s seriously debatable. “Yeah.”
He’d had a moment of genius in realising Snape wouldn’t throw him out as long as he fed the man – whether with good food or information – and after that he made sure every visit involved either treats or a periodical. He never said anything about Snape’s interest in the activities of the Malfoys, or his unsuspected passion for truffles.
“Then why haven’t you called or come by? Or … anything?” The worried tone had edged into ill-used, and Harry felt his anger surge.
“For what, Gin?”
The pleading look hardened. “And you expect me to believe you’re not mad at me? I obviously did something—“
“You didn’t. I just … I don’t feel the way I used to feel …”
“About me,” she concluded, her gaze falling, tears edging the words.
“About anything.” Harry paused, struck by that, by the alarming weight of truth. “I … something’s changed in me, Gin, and I … I don’t know what it is. I don’t know quite what I’m doing, or what I’m going to do, or what I want—”
“But you’ve decided what you don’t want?”
“I don’t want us to not be friends,” he said, knowing it was stupid and pointless. “I do care about you. But … whatever it was that was between us … I don’t know why – and it’s nothing you did, I promise – but …” He shrugged. That was probably a mistake.
“You cold bastard,” she hissed, hands fisted. “When were you going to tell me? When were you going to just talk to me? I can’t believe you were going to just go on ignoring me forever and never tell me that it was nothing I did, that it was just you turning into some kind of—” She bit off the words, red-faced, and Harry, startled, nonetheless thought:
Freak. And she’s right.
“I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it, his anger gone.
“But you couldn’t take five minutes to tell me that?” she snapped, eyes wet. “Not even by owl?” She gave her head a violent shake, red hair flying, and spun away from him. His instant relief was shattered when she turned back, now crying, her expression broken, lost.
“I can’t believe I meant so little to you that you couldn’t spare me even one minute for the courtesy of a goodbye.”
Harry bit back another apology. He didn’t understand it himself, and by the time he realised that that simple truth – that he had no real idea why he was doing any of this – would be the best answer, Ginny had turned away, walking up the corridor, one hand out, as the tear-blinded do, to guide herself.
Harry stood, stunned anew that he hadn’t the slightest urge to follow her.
What is wrong with me?
Snape started when Harry shoved the door open.
Harry stopped. “What?”
A sharp head-shake sent strands of black hair flying. “I thought you had gone.”
“Oh.” He came in, let the door close. “No. Unless you want me to.”
“You need not babysit me, Potter, if your little girlfriend is pining for you.”
Harry, staring at a fold in the coverlet, laughed softly. “I’d rather.” When did being with Snape become easier than being with Ginny?
Harry shrugged. “Sit with you. If you don’t mind. At least ’til she’s gone.”
“Trouble in paradise?” Snape collected a measured amount of his shepherd’s pie onto his fork and conveyed it tidily into his mouth, all the while giving the impression that he was still listening politely. Harry was puzzled – Snape couldn’t possibly give a toss.
“Yah. I mean, it was never paradise. It was nice and all.” He shrugged, staring now at the side of the bed, sorting strange thoughts and all but undetectable feelings. “I don’t know. I think it was more … expected than right.” He looked up, as if Snape might be able to sort this out. Ridiculous.
“That is a common difficulty with those who’re more swayed by others’ opinions than their own.”
Startled, Harry said, “Did you do that?” He didn’t expect an answer.
“I am a living cautionary tale regarding that precise failing, Mr. Potter.”
Harry smiled, though Snape had spoken seriously. Then, “You could call me Harry.”
Snape blinked, a slow, deliberate gesture. “Why?”
“I’ve been … sort of intimate with you.” He flushed hot, raising his hands to ward off Snape’s sudden laser stare and vivid flashes of dream-memory. “Not like that! I mean … you know, I …” He stopped, slumped. “Never mind.” I am a freak.
“Is that why you’ve been plying me with edible, though pedestrian, cuisine for the past few days?”
Delighted to get off the subject of their various intimacies – real and dreamed – Harry shrugged.
“Well, it’s sort of my fault you’re here. Alive, I mean. And I just thought—”
“It is not your fault,” Snape said, teeth clenched. “Never force me to say those words again.”
Harry gulped against a nervous laugh.
“It was an accident. You did what anyone might have done. It is not … why are you shaking your head?”
“I didn’t do what ‘anyone’ might’ve done. No one gave a damn,” he said, feeling the old anger well. “They didn’t listen, didn’t care. They didn’t even care that you might be alive, after everything you’d done.”
“But you did?” Snape challenged.
“Yeah.” He didn’t expect thanks, and Snape didn’t disappoint him. “It wasn’t right that no one cared, after all you’d done.”
“Welcome to my world.”
Harry smirked. “I’m just a visitor, though, aren’t I? You live in that world.”
Snape blinked – startlement? Hard to tell with him, but his gaze, resting on Harry’s face, didn’t seem quite so flinty.
“You don’t have to stay, you know,” Harry said. “A lot has changed. You can do what you like.”
Snape still said nothing.
“There’s a memorial,” Harry went on. “I tried to get them to build a statue …”
“Almighty Merlin.” Snape’s eyes closed, and Harry grinned.
“They wouldn’t go for it. Didn’t occur to me – until just now – that you wouldn’t have wanted one anyway.”
The eyes eased open, narrowing at Harry. “Certainly I would not have wished to live to see it.”
He’d just missed the bath this time, Harry noted as he entered the room. From the tight, blanched expression of suppressed anger on the aide’s face, he reckoned it was just as well.
The aide all but slapped the comb into Harry’s free hand, then left. Snape’s hand, half raised to take it, fell into his lap and he glowered at Harry.
“I … I helped when you were … you know, before.” He set down the takeaway bag from Antonio’s and cast a warming spell on the pasta therein, then piled the Potions Quarterly editions beside it. Then he moved behind Snape and started combing, tiny, wary strokes through the split ends of Snape’s coarse black hair, ready for the man to jerk away or yell at him.
“I’m capable of combing my own hair again,” Snape said. He’d begun physical therapy on his third day back amongst the living; Harry’d only heard about it from the staff, and their tales made him grateful for that.
Harry, noting that despite his words he didn’t pull away, kept his tone frantically neutral.
“I like doing it.” He let his hands trail over, under, through Snape’s thick wet hair as he combed, reinforcing his words. He wondered if the faint trembling he could feel from Snape’s body was suppressed anger, or something else. Like abject astonishment at Harry’s admission.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you … I was you for a while, in a way, and I began to …”
Snape snorted, half-turning in his chair. “Understand me? Like me?” The words were daggers.
Harry shook his head, touched fingertips to his own chest, seeking the words. He flattened his hand, rubbed – as if it might revive that time, those impressions – and looked at Snape again.
“I began to feel you.”
Snape’s body jerked back around, and Harry’s chest stung with the surprising stab of rejection. Then he thought that if Snape had been angry, he wouldn’t have turned away – he’d have attacked, full-on, as he always did.
“I don’t want you in my head,” Snape muttered.
“I know that.” Harry resumed combing, ready at each stroke to stop, draw away, defend himself. “Anyway, I wasn’t. You were in mine.”
In the stiff silence that followed Harry imagined he could see the fumes rising from Snape’s body. He grinned and kept working the comb through Snape’s hair, rhythmic, mindless – pleasant – until Snape relaxed.
“You have nice hair,” he said then, thoughtlessly, and flushed.
Snape stiffened again, glanced over his shoulder.
Harry took in a few quick, semi-panicked breaths. “Whatever shampoo they use here … smells nice.” He realised in horror that he was stroking Snape’s hair and almost dropped the comb as he jerked away from the man.
Snape turned, brows knitted. “What are you doing?”
Harry winced as his fingers clenched around the comb. “Nothing. I was just … um … noticing…”
Snape rose, abruptly looming over Harry. Harry had a flash of … of … swirling excitement/fear, weird, but not entirely bad – before Snape swayed and sank back into the chair.
“Are you all right?” Harry dropped the comb and knelt at Snape’s side.
“Don’t. Fuss,” Snape snapped, pressing his fingertips to his forehead. “I felt dizzy for a moment. Nothing unexpected. You irritate me to the point of forgetting caution. Also not unexpected.” He opened his eyes to Harry’s smile and appeared entirely taken aback.
“What …” Snape blinked, got himself under command again. “What are you grinning at?”
Harry got up. “Nothing. I’m glad you’re feeling well enough to insult me. Sorry I irritated you. But you do have nice hair.” He stepped back and collected the comb, wondering whether it was cool or cowardly to not stand and await Snape’s reaction.
“You’re out of your mind,” Snape muttered.
“Yah. Probably. What would you like for supper tomorrow?” Only then did he look at Snape. The man was watching him. Expressionless. Just looking. No malice, no scowl, no questions … he looked almost kindly, and Harry felt something gentle stir in his chest.
“I wouldn’t object to steak,” Snape said, his tone as mild as his expression.
Harry grinned. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Harry apparated in at about 11 a.m. and gave a nod to the duty nurse at the front desk before taking his usual route to Snape’s room on the third floor.
As he passed the row of windows overlooking the hospital gardens, stretched between two wings of the building, he gazed out idly, wondering if he could get Snape out there for a walk one day soon. They wouldn’t let him sit in on the physical therapy sessions, so he didn’t know how Snape was progressing – Merlin forbid the man would ever volunteer information, of course – and he wasn’t sure it was his place to even ask when Snape would be released, but for a few days he’d been considering a rash plan of action that he thought might best be broached outdoors.
Where he could get away quickly if necessary. He grinned to himself – then spotted a flash of green and black passing in the opposite direction along the gravel path outside. He stopped, leaning close to the window.
Snape, still in his hospital pyjamas and robe, moving with cautious, upright determination along the hedge, head bent, expression fierce. Harry quickly found the doors and slipped out into the misty grey day. He darted across the lawn to meet Snape on the path, not wanting to suffer the consequences of alarming him. Snape’s head shot up at the sound of his approaching footsteps.
“They finally let you take a walk,” Harry said. “Good.”
Snape stopped, blinked, and continued on, and Harry fell in at his side. They walked a while in silence along the deliberately meandering, foliage-lined paths that made the small garden seem larger and more secluded than it was. Snape moved carefully, a little stiff, as though he were, not in pain, but anticipating it at each step. He kept his hands clasped in front of him as he walked, and after a few minutes Harry observed he was rubbing them together.
“They ought to’ve given you a cloak or something if they were going to let you out in weather like this,” he observed, reaching up to unfasten his.
“I’m not cold,” Snape said.
Harry stopped halfway. “You sure? You’re rubbing your hands together.”
“I’m aware of that.”
Harry realised it was the right hand, the hand he’d spent so many hours holding, that Snape was massaging, as if it hurt. He wondered if somehow Snape could remember that. He wondered what Snape did remember, about anything.
“Er…” The sound caught in his throat and his daring deserted him when Snape stopped to look at him, as if he could sense a revelation forthcoming.
“I could see …” He gulped. “I – that is, I thought … I thought you should know.”
Snape’s gaze sharpened, cutting sharp, legilimency sharp though Harry felt no attempt at invasion. Could Snape even perform legilimency without a wand?
“I mean, it was probably … I thought it was my imagination. But I think it … I think I was seeing real things. Memories. Thoughts. Yours, that is.” God. Don’t tell him about the dreams! He’ll think you’re a sick perv!
“I know,” Snape snarled. “Don’t you think I know it?” He shoved a dew-damp strand of hair out of his face, an almost violent motion, and Harry put a hand on his arm, light as a fallen leaf.
“It wasn’t on purpose,” he said, looking up into Snape’s startled face, ghost-pale in the wan morning light. “But … I’m not … I mean. I didn’t deliberately intrude. But I’m not sorry that I know you a bit better. That I understand you a bit more.”
“Your random flailing about in my memories can hardly have given you any insight into who I am.”
“In the first place, it wasn’t me flailing about in your memories, it was you—”
“—flailing about in mine. Sort of.” Harry drew his hand from Snape’s arm, not failing to see that Snape’s gaze followed. “In the second place, I don’t think I have any insight. It’s not like that. I’m only telling you so that … you know,” he concluded lamely.
“Full disclosure,” Snape said, sour.
Harry brightened. “Yeah. That is, do you … do you know the things I saw, or do you want to know?”
Snape shook his head. “No. It’s enough to know the circumstances. I’ll assume the worst. There was no risk of your opinion of me being lowered, and even less risk that I might care.”
Harry let himself smile, unamused. Was there anyone he would be willing to be that naked in front of? This was a kind of power he didn’t want over anyone.
“There was nothing bad. It was just normal human stuff. Memories of your mum. Dumbledore.” He took a mental breath, bracing himself. “My mum.”
Snape shook his head, a gesture of wonder. “It’s beyond the realm of possibility that you saw nothing worse than that.”
“Well, I don’t … when your soul was inside me? I don’t exactly remember that time very clearly.” Now he was rubbing his own hands together, as though they were kindling he hoped would fire some ability to express those strange, vague months. “I mean, it’s only now I understand which bits were you and not me. If you see what I mean.”
Snape gave his head a last, sharp shake, dismissing Harry’s attempt. “Had I cherished any hopes that you might effectively communicate the experience to me – which fortunately I did not – you may consider them dashed.”
“If you wanted clarity,” Harry said, “You should have given your soul to Hermione.”
Snape snorted a laugh.
“She’d’ve given you eight feet, with footnotes,” Harry went on, pleased that Snape wasn’t angry. “All I have is feelings and images.”
“I was dying, not assigning homework,” Snape growled, a whispery, irritated sound. “It doesn’t matter to me in the least how well or how badly you analyse or report the experience.”
“I won’t report it to anyone.” Harry seized on what he assumed to be Snape’s chief concern – it would be his, he knew. “I know you didn’t even want me to know all that. No one else will hear about it from me.”
“I’m hearing about it,” Snape said.
“Because I want to understand,” Harry blurted, and Snape sighed.
Harry paused, biting his lip. “Shall I shut up and just let you walk?”
Snape said nothing – generous permission, Harry figured, to continue his blitherings. “May I ask you a question? About my mother.”
As if he’d been waiting for it, Snape answered immediately.
“I loved her when I was a child. After she … after that, it was no more than being overly attached to what passed, in my life, for good memories.”
Harry smiled. Some part of him supposed that wasn’t appropriate, and he was well aware Snape’s statement was somewhat revisionist, but he didn’t care. “Good.”
Snape glanced at him. “Why? Does it make you sick to think your mother could ever have felt a kind feeling toward me, or I toward her?”
Harry shrugged. “No. I’m just glad you’re over it. Unrequited love is sort of …”
“Yes, I know,” Snape said, waspish.
Harry let it go. He wasn’t prepared to explain – to even examine – why that pleased him. “So … em … what’re you going to do now?”
Snape cocked his head, a weirdly endearing gesture. “Address a mocking request for specificity to you, in all probability.”
Harry grinned, pretty sure he’d got that joke. “I mean with your life. What are your—”
Snape held up a hand and Harry fell silent, ready to apologise for prying.
Snape’s head went up like a deer’s. Voices – Harry recognized MediWizard Burns’ rough baritone – carried toward them. Snape stopped, and Harry did the same, jumping when Snape grabbed his arm and shoved him into a small hothouse just off the path.
“Wh—” Harry began and Snape shushed him. Pushing him against a wooden storage cabinet, Snape pulled the door to, and they were shut in with the half-fogged glass and the close damp, the thick scent of mulch and fertilizer and rust.
Although Snape didn’t let him go, he seemed to have forgotten Harry was there as he watched Burns through the smudged glass.
“Um.” Harry edged back a little so he could look up. “Why are we hiding from Burns?”
Snape didn’t look down. “We are not. I am. You are merely collateral damage.”
Harry got a flash. “Oh. You’re not supposed to be walking about, then, are you? You sneaked out.”
Snape shook his head, once, hair swirling around his indifferently shaved chin. “Not yet.”
Another flash. “You were trying to escape?” Harry chuckled. “In your pyjamas and slippers? You must be mental.”
“Sh.” The admonishment, accompanied by a raised finger, was unexpectedly gentle – probably because Snape didn’t want Burns to hear – but Harry smiled.
Then Snape’s hand shifted, touching Harry’s face, and Harry froze at the simple, accidental intimacy.
Snape looked down at him, and the world went suddenly hotter, and much smaller. And a bit off-kilter, to judge by Harry’s brain, whirling in his head, jostling his balance. This close, he could see the flecks of warming brown in Snape’s black hair and black eyes, the surprise and confusion and wary calculation in his expression. Snape’s hand fell away and Harry felt a low, hot pulse of arousal, so different – so different – from the fear and impotent anger he’d felt as a child this close to the man that he all but gasped.
Snape stared at him, his expression pinched, pained, then leaned close, an abrupt, awkward move.
Harry flinched, then realised that Snape had kissed him. A quick, hesitant kiss, hardly felt – but a kiss.
Snape drew back, looking startled, one hand rising in a half-hearted warding gesture.
Harry, as stunned as Snape, blinked up at him, his tongue darting out as if in disbelief, as if seeking proof that their lips had touched, seeking a reason for his own sharp flare of pleasure. Snape tilted his head and – warily – did it again.
It was the strangest thing, Harry thought crazily, the way Snape kissed. Gentle, almost timid, but eager – as though wanting to enjoy it as much as possible before it was taken away. His lips were soft, his face a little ticklish with beard, and Harry felt a giggle in his throat that melted into sweet fire down his throat and along his nerve endings.
He opened his mouth and Snape grunted, grabbing him hard by the arms, bumping him into the storage cabinet, filling Harry’s mouth with his tongue, hot and hungry, and –
– a crash yanked them apart, gasping, looking wildly around for the source of the noise.
“Shit.” A man’s voice, just outside, startlingly loud. “Sorry.”
Then another, saying, “Hold on.” And the door clattered.
Harry, still gasping, trying to blink some semblance of reality back into a world that had just gone down a sort of erotic rabbit hole, stared at Snape, unable to form a single word. Even when he saw his own hands knotted in the front of Snape’s pyjama shirt.
He worked them loose. “Sorry.” He pointlessly smoothed the wrinkles for a second, blushing, then dropped his hands.
The door banged open and Burns stepped in. “Oh.” Stopped. “There you are.” He glanced out into the garden. “I’ve found him. Thank you.”
“We were out for a walk,” Harry blurted, hot all over, awkward, shifting on his feet, away from Snape, then back toward him – should he move away? Would that offend Snape? Or would he prefer it?
“In the shed?” Burns said mildly. Snape hadn’t moved.
Harry shrugged eloquently and Burns dismissed him, looking at Snape.
“I was looking for you, in fact, Mr Snape. If you’ll come to my office for a few minutes?” He stood aside and Snape silently preceded him through the doorway, Harry trailing after, half-protests half-formed on his lips at having been interrupted in something he still could only half-believe he’d been doing. They’d been doing.
“We won’t be long, Mr Potter, if you’d like to wait,” Burns said, sparing him a glance before leading Snape up the path.
Harry watched the two of them, Burns solid in his Mediwizard uniform and Snape, tall and straight beside him, his robe pulled tight, as they walked the path to the hospital doors. He realised he was shaking his head, unable to make what had just happened fit into any sensible box or slot in his mind, unable to believe how good it had felt but also unable to deny it. No dream, no vision: Snape had kissed him. He’d kissed back. It’d been good. So good he ached, right now. So good that if Burns hadn’t interrupted he and Snape would be on the floor of that manky shed right now …
A flashed image of Snape’s hand around his cock made said appendage throb, and he groaned. No. This wasn’t the place for that. Still blushing, still dazed, he pulled his cloak around himself and strode toward the doors, out of your mind repeating in his brain to the brisk rhythm of his footfalls.
Harry glanced up from the Potions Quarterly he was staring mindlessly at when Snape banged back into his hospital room.
He stopped, eyes widening, and Harry cocked his head to look at the sheaf of papers in his hands.
“They’re letting you go?”
Snape spun away from him, toward the window, hands suddenly clenched on the papers, creasing them, deforming them.
Despite a sinking sense that this whole thing was about to go pear-shaped, Harry continued.
“Er … I was planning to mention this today anyway: I’ve got a house near Hogsmeade and you can stay with me if you want. Until you, you know, get your feet under you and decide what you want to do. I have a spare room. It’s small, but …”
Snape’s shoulders rose and fell as he exhaled, hard, audibly, silencing Harry. He got up, inched closer.
Snape half-whispered, “Why are you still here?”
He was breathing in great, heaving breaths. Harry moved up behind him, wary, and touched his arms, turning him. “I … ”
“Go,” Snape hissed, staring at the floor. His face was tight, blotched with red. “Just go. You’ve already … go.”
“You don’t have anyplace to stay,” Harry said.
Snape took an awkward step back, moving around Harry toward his bedside table. He dropped the papers on top and began opening drawers, drawing out his pitiful aggregation of donated or borrowed clothing, stacking them on the bed in clumsy, abrupt stabs.
Oh. Harry backed up. “Right. I didn’t – sorry.” Obviously the man did have somewhere he’d rather be, someone he’d rather be with. Okay. Guess I misunderstood. He kissed me because I was there, not because it was me he wanted to kiss. Maybe my mum, maybe someone else, but not me. “Sorry. I mis – I made a mistake.”
Okay. So much for all those ideas. Harry shook his head again – this time to erase his interpretation of the last half hour – and went to the door. They were crazy ideas anyway. What the hell were you thinking? It’s Snape. He hates you.
“Wait.” Urgent but strangled, the word sounded as if someone else had forced it from Snape’s mouth. Harry stopped, not breathing.
Snape said, “Look at me,” and Harry felt the unformed anger in his stomach roil, surging into his throat. He turned.
“No. You look at me.” He lunged forward, gritting his teeth. “See me for a change.”
Snape shook his head. “I do. I have for …” He stopped, as though he’d surprised himself.
Startled, then delighted, Harry blurted, “Good.”
Snape grabbed him again – rough, but awkward, as if the roughness were accidental – and held his eyes. Harry stared back with not the faintest clue what the man was looking for.
Snape’s black unfathomable stare shifted to his mouth and Harry gulped, heat flaring to his toes.
He shifted closer, tilting his face up, meeting Snape more than halfway. His eyes fell shut as Snape’s mouth covered his, warm, gentle, hungry still, but patient now that permission had been granted.
He clutched Snape’s elbows and pulled their bodies closer together, and a low sound welled up from his stomach when their bodies met. Snape backed him into the wall with a soft thud and pressed full length against him, and Harry broke from the kiss to gasp.
“Oh …” His cock throbbed, nearly painful, wanting this, wanting more.
A sharp series of raps on the door was followed immediately by a nurse plunging briskly into the room. Only to stop, mouth and eyes Os of disapproving shock, as Snape and Harry jerked apart. Snape turned away and Harry stood up from the wall, unsteady, knowing he was rumpled and red-faced and hard and having no way to hide any of that.
As if he’d been the one pressing Snape up against the wall, Harry thought, clearing his throat and adjusting his trousers.
“What?” he counter-attacked, embarrassment fairly swiftly taking care of at least one of the visible problems. “Serves you bloody right for barging in here.”
She stiffened further, a monument to starch and propriety. “I’m simply doing my job, Mr Potter. A hospital is no place for …” She waved a hand. “Such carryings on.”
Snape turned back, just as stiff as the nurse, though somehow in an entirely different way. Harry breathed in, seeking patience. He could taste Snape’s tongue. That made him flush hot all over again.
“I did knock,” the nurse added with a drop less starch.
Snape ground out, “Did you wish something?”
She started. “I was bringing you the signed release papers. And I’m to ask if you require assistance in leaving the building.” She held out a parchment, rolled and bound with a St Mungo’s-green cord.
Snape took the roll. “No.”
“I’ll see to it he gets home safely,” Harry insisted, without the faintest idea whether he could do that, or where home was to Snape.
“Very well.” She turned on her heel and marched from the room, closing the door with exaggerated deliberation.
Harry made a face at the door, then turned back to Snape, who was mucking about with the knot of his dressing gown belt, determinedly not looking at him.
“Did you want to dress?”
Snape looked at the stack of clothing on the bed and pulled off the dressing gown, draping it across the foot of the bed. The shirt had followed suit before Harry quite caught what Snape was doing. Hot, he ventured:
“Do you want me to … leave?”
Snape slid the bottoms off. “You’ve seen me far more naked than this.”
Harry blushed and turned away, the image of Snape’s lean pale back and the curve of his arse burning in his mind. “Yes, but …” But you hadn’t kissed me. Hadn’t …
Not now, not now. When he turned back Snape was in his donated black robes – Harry seemed to recall they were sent by Minerva – adjusting the lie of fabric against his chest with long strokes of his hands. Harry also seemed to recall that no smalls had been included in that CARE package.
He tried to adopt a nonlustful, nonnervous smile. He probably looked like a clown.
“So … em … my place, then?”
A cold wind was whipping off the lake; Harry shoved his hair out of his face and glanced at Snape, who was doing the same thing with a weirdly echoing gesture. The black eyes darted around, taking in surroundings that Harry guessed felt strange and familiar at the same time, loaded with memory and emotion. Then the eyes returned, calm, or at least shuttered, to Harry, and he gestured toward the door.
“Come on in.”
He watched Snape take in the garden in two sharp glances, but without comment. Harry led the way inside and through the front room, heading for the main bedroom, but Snape hesitated in the corridor, looking into the narrow room Harry’d been using for weeks.
“You sleep there?” he asked.
Harry nodded. “I wasn’t at first, but after Gin – I mean, I’m more comfortable in a smaller room.” He flashed a smile. “It’s what I grew up with. It …” Feels less empty. “It’s cosier. This room is yours.” He gestured and Snape eased past him into the main bedroom. He looked around, set his bundle of clothing and personal items on the big four-poster as if one or the other might break, and stopped. Harry guessed he was at a loss.
“Let me show you the rest of the house,” he said. “It’ll take about two minutes.”
Snape stopped in the kitchen doorway and Harry almost bumped into him. He waited; then, when it seemed Snape had forgotten him, said, “What’s wrong?”
Snape didn’t jump, but he did take a quick step to the side, glaring down at Harry as he slid by.
“You’ve been brewing.” It was half a question, somewhat less than half an accusation.
Harry looked around the kitchen, startled. He’d forgotten how odd it must seem to someone who hadn’t been around him the past few months.
“Oh. Yeah. A bit.” That sounded stupid even to him. He forced himself to meet Snape’s stare, surprised not to see anger.
“Well, when you … when I had your, you know, soul. Or whatever. It started to sort of – affect me.” Infect, the word that had leapt to his mind, stayed there, impolitic but true. “I planted the garden—” He waved in that direction – “and started making a few …” He winced. The pharmacopeia around him made that an evident lie. “… making potions.”
Snape moved into the room, scanning the shelves, his lip curling – at Harry’s sloppy scrawl on the labels, he guessed. Snape stopped at one, then glanced at Harry, this time sharply accusing.
“You brewed somnioviatoraetus?”
Harry blinked. He had to think back. “Yeah. I couldn’t sleep for a while. It was complicated.” In retrospect he realised that was a dramatic understatement – he’d had to owl away for several ingredients, and spent one six-hour shift monitoring the stuff as it reduced – but he shrugged. “It gave me something to do. I enjoyed it.”
“Why was it fun?”
“Why did you choose to make somnioviatoraetus?”
“I didn’t. It’s just what occurred to me.” He realised Snape didn’t have a clear idea of what had happened. “I was sort of – well, apparently, your personality took over, sometimes. You came to the surface and I turned into a potions-brewing—” He bit off the word but it hung in the air between them as clearly as if he’d said it. And Snape smiled. A snide smile, but still …
“Are you hungry?” Harry asked, abruptly mindful of his duty as host. “Or … or tired or anything?”
“I wouldn’t mind tea.”
“I can do that.”
Nervous excitement led to a rather frantic preparation of the sort of tea that would have made Aunt Petunia proud. Only as he carried the tray, groaning with sandwiches and cakes and scones and fruit and jam and biscuits, into the sitting room did Harry think he might’ve overdone it a bit.
Snape’s eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything, merely joined Harry at the small table under the front window. Harry watched him pile a surprising amount of food for such a thin man onto his plate, recalling that even in hospital Snape had preferred to take his one real meal of the day at teatime. Perhaps he hadn’t prepared too much after all.
They ate in silence, Harry growing more uncomfortable as the minutes ticked by, anticipating some sort of explosion from Snape, some expression of anger or resentment over past issues – god knew they had a lot of past issues.
Finally Snape set down his cup and said, as though to his tea, “If you are regretting your invitation, say so. I can be gone in two minutes.”
For some reason that made Harry smile. “Two?”
Snape glanced up. “I haven’t unpacked yet.”
“I don’t regret inviting you,” Harry said. There was no point in saying he was likely to, sooner or later. That was a given. “It’s not that. I was just thinking – and don’t bother with the smart remarks—”
Snape sat back, still looking at the table, but the side of his mouth quirked. “I had no intention of belaboring the obvious.”
Harry picked up a biscuit, fiddling with it, crumbling it. “Are you … did you not want to come here? I – if there was somewhere else, you should have said. I know you don’t want me of all people helping you, but …” But then again, you kissed the bloody hell out of me and I really want you to do it again … Harry shook his head. Mad. Absolutely gone. Both of them, probably.
Snape stared into his teacup for a long moment before speaking, his voice clenched.
“I … loathe knowing that you have seen so far into my thoughts and memories.”
Carefully, Harry said, “I know it. I’d feel the same way. I’d hate you for it.”
Snape looked at him, startled.
“I understand if you do.” Harry didn’t meet his stare. “I’d undo it if I could.” He could, technically – a global Obliviate would see to it – but that he wouldn’t do even if Snape were to ask it.
“I don’t hate you,” Snape said. “I never hated you.”
“Could you try to sound a little more convincing with that?”
Snape shook his head, dismissive. “It’s far more complicated than you realise.”
Harry considered. Snape had a history with his parents, one he could only guess at until he’d carried Snape’s soul around with him. Even then he’d got only glimpses of the years of the bullying and hostility and, perhaps worse, the aloneness that Snape had carried with him through his Hogwarts years. He’d felt it, and it resonated. He’d been alone in the most important sense of the word for his first 11 years of life; Snape’s experience had differed in many ways, but Harry hadn’t forgotten that feeling, and he’d recognised it instantly in Snape’s memories.
“I believe you,” he said, still careful. “I – you should be free to do whatever you want.”
“That would be an interesting novelty.” Snape finished his tea and collected a chocolate biscuit. He ate with gusto and tidiness, just as he had in hospital when Harry’d brought him food – though he’d scorned the in-house meals.
Eyeing the last bite of biscuit, Snape said, as if it hurt, “I … have not … thanked you. For …”
“No,” Harry said. “And I don’t expect you to. I don’t need you to.”
Snape glanced up, under his brows, and Harry shrugged.
“Seemed to me it was about time someone did something for you.”
Snape’s expression was dubious, but Harry didn’t elaborate, and Snape let it go.
“I do not … I had nowhere else that I preferred to go. Not at this time.”
A ringing endorsement, Harry thought. “Right, then. More tea?”
They’d cleared the dishes and Snape was standing sentinel over Harry’s spell-casting, saying nothing but clearly finding Harry’s dishwashing charm sorely lacking, when a faint shriek, like a banshee cry, cut through the clatter and splash.
Both men looked up, then at one another.
“What was that?” Harry said. Not a banshee, he thought, though it was oddly familiar. Snape’s eyes widened and he stilled, then turned away as though hypnotized. Harry followed him through the front room and to the door. Snape grasped the handle and the shriek came again, louder. Snape’s hand clenched on the handle, white-knuckled, before he opened it and walked out.
Harry went after him. It took him a moment of scanning to spot what Snape had already figured out.
“Oh my God …” Harry breathed. “Fawkes.”
The phoenix stood on a stump beyond Harry’s garden fence, wings outstretched as if just alighting, or about to fly away. He cawed at Snape as the man approached, and Harry held his breath, wondering – he wasn’t sure why – if Fawkes would take off, or attack Snape. The phoenix watched Snape as the man took ten very deliberate steps toward the stump before stopping and sinking slowly to his knees.
Harry held himself back, fighting the impulse to help – to interfere. Fawkes bent his head to look at Snape, beak working although Harry couldn’t hear anything. Snape sat back on his heels, looking at Fawkes, and Fawkes looked back; Harry, watching, felt his throat tighten. He hadn’t seen Fawkes since Dumbledore’s death, and seeing the phoenix now brought back that dreadful night for him – and for Snape too, Harry had no doubt.
He moved to the gate, took a step beyond it. Fawkes looked up at him, briefly, before returning his focus to Snape.
Another couple of steps, and Harry saw Snape stiffen, sensing his presence.
Harry edged closer, one hand half-raised. “Are you—”
Snape shook his head, a sharp warning to stay away, and Harry dropped his hand, backing up. Neither Snape nor Fawkes looked at Harry as he turned to go back inside.
It was dusk when Snape finally came back into the cottage, draggled and windblown. Harry got up, setting aside the book he hadn’t been reading, as Snape shut the door and stood there, closing his eyes, as though exhausted.
“You all right?” Harry asked. Snape nodded, visibly drawing a deep breath, and walked past him into the main bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Harry went to the window, but if Fawkes was still out there, it was too dark to tell.
At 10 p.m., Harry sat on his narrow bed, sleepless, curious, and very irritated at himself. He’d hoped – expected, almost – not to be sleeping alone tonight. Obviously seeing Fawkes had really upset Snape.
Harry smiled at himself. Obviously. Can’t imagine why seeing the familiar of the man you were forced to kill – the only real friend you’d ever had – would upset anyone.
Fawkes hadn’t seemed angry – but what was angry, for a phoenix? After having been gone for so long, what did it mean that Fawkes had come here, to the man who’d killed his master? Had he brought a message from Dumbledore? The look on Snape’s face had been pain; there was no way for Harry to know if it was the pain of condemnation, or of forgiveness.
Harry got up, restless, and paced the few steps the tiny room allowed. Perhaps he should go to Snape, at least knock and see if he was still awake, if he wanted to talk. If he wanted someone to take his anger out on, Harry thought, and smirked.
He stopped pacing at the window and automatically shifted the curtain to peek out at the lake.
And froze. And stared, unable for an instant to believe what he was seeing, to take it all in:
Snape, naked, a streak of moon-white flesh topped with blackness darker than the night, striding – nearly running – into the chill blue-black waters of the lake.
“What the hell …”
After wasting precious seconds gaping in absolute disbelief, Harry grabbed his wand, tucked it into his pyjamas, and plunged out of his room. In the parlor, he grabbed his cloak off the hook and ran outside, circling round to dash toward the lake, bare feet slipping on the damp grass, his eyes locked on the slight splashes that were all he could make out at first, his lips ready to spit out the bubble-head charm.
By the time he reached the pebbly shore he realised, through his panic, that Snape was splashing toward him, coming out of the water rather than going deeper. Harry lunged at him and flung the cloak around his body, feeling the ice-cold of his pale skin as he pulled him back toward the house. Snape was breathing hard, staggering a bit – barefoot, the mad bloody sod! – as Harry hurried him back inside, kicking the door shut and all but dropping Snape on the couch.
“What the bloody hell.” He knelt before the banked fire, flinging on fresh wood and whipping out his wand to cast a fresh fire charm on it. Flames blazed up, spitting ash and sparks, and he drew back to glare at Snape. “Are you fucking insane?”
Snape sat still, dripping, staring into the fire. The cloak was soaked through and hanging open; Harry could see Snape’s pale chest still heaving as he gulped in air, open mouthed, eyes huge and black in his bloodless face.
Harry darted into his room and grabbed the blanket off his bed, coming back in to hear Snape say:
“No.” Then, “Perhaps.”
Harry yanked off the sopping cloak and flung the heavy blanket around Snape, tucking it against his body, anger and panic churning in his gut.
“You could have drowned. You could have frozen to death, for God’s sake! What –”
And he stopped, gulped, his throat clenched around the truth. “You were … you meant to kill yourself.” Fawkes. Dumbledore. Of course. He stepped back, needing to see Snape’s face. “You did. Bloody hell…”
Snape, a bulbous cocoon with dripping hair, hunched over on the couch and began to vibrate.
Until he spoke, Harry had no idea he was laughing.
“I meant nothing of the kind.” His voice bubbled with amusement – with outright laughter. “If anything, I meant the opposite.”
Harry backed up a little farther, bumping the corner of the mantel, staring in wonder. He’d never heard Snape sound like this. Happy.
Snape threw his head back, spraying water, and sprang up, dropping the blanket. He advanced on Harry, his eyes fierce, penetrating, and pressed full-length against him, his body chilly and damp still, even through Harry’s t-shirt and pyjamas. Snape slid one hand into his hair and one hand across his arse, grabbed with both, and pulled Harry’s head back to cover his gasp with cold lips and a very hot tongue. Captured, Harry could only hang there, heart stuttering into high speed as Snape sucked his tongue and forced their bodies together, his hips grinding into Harry’s.
Abruptly Snape jerked back, his teeth scraping painfully around Harry’s tongue, and pulled Harry’s t-shirt off with one careless yank.
Harry reeled. Licked his lips. Breathed.
“God …” He swallowed, forced words out over the pounding clamor of his body for more. “I hope this isn’t you being stark raving mad, because I don’t want to stop, but it wouldn’t be right to take advantage of a lunatic.”
Snape held him, hard, said against his ear, “You are a lunatic to have me here, to want me here.”
Harry started to protest but Snape’s mouth stopped him, his tongue sliding deep, filling, all but choking – then gone.
“And I intend to take advantage of you,” Snape growled against Harry’s tingling lips, then created a trail of bites down Harry’s neck, his breath hot and harsh, loud in the quiet of the room.
“Oh, fuck …” Harry pulled himself closer to Snape, hanging there with his face in Snape’s neck, smelling lake-water and skin, while Snape pulled his pyjamas down around his knees and collected Harry’s arse in both hands, half-lifting Harry’s body against his, forcing their bellies together. Harry swallowed a whimper as his cock rubbed against Snape’s, the tender head catching against damp skin and coarse hair, the feeling rough and fucking incredible …
Snape’s hand – hot now, no longer icy – slid down, between his cheeks, fingers pressing, hard, possessive, and Harry cried out, arching into Snape’s body. His cock surged, a stab of almost painful need, at Snape’s low, hungry words, half threat, half promise:
“I will have you.”
“Oh, god …” Panting, Harry hooked his fingers in Snape’s damp hair and looked down; seeing his own cock hard and aching, pressed up against his belly and against Snape’s thick red cock, pulsing together, sliding against each other as Snape worked his hips along Harry’s … god … it was too much …
Snape growled and flattened him to the wall, his teeth and tongue still worrying Harry’s throat, and Harry groaned, trapped between the press of hard fingers on his hole and the weight of Snape’s body, the rough friction of Snape’s erection sliding along his …
“Oh, Chr—oh…” A strangled moan punctuated Harry’s orgasm; he clutched at Snape’s shoulders, clinging and gasping as his cock spurted hot between their bodies; Snape didn’t stop moving, massaging every last drop from Harry’s cock with his hips and his own cock, until Harry slumped, still gasping, against him.
He’d had no idea how much of his weight Snape was supporting until he dropped Harry back onto his own feet, leaning against him, both of them half-supported by the wall. All he could hear was his own panting, Snape’s harsher breaths, hot across his neck, and the crackle of the fire.
One indrawn breath before Harry could blurt something stupid, Snape grabbed him again, turning them both and pushing Harry backward across the sofa. Harry landed with a grunt, laughed, and kicked off the pyjama bottoms that had tangled around his feet. Snape spread his own body over Harry’s and kissed him again, demanding, overwhelming kisses, his tongue again taking over Harry’s mouth, hot and hard as the erection Harry felt rubbing against his belly.
Snape lifted himself up, catching his breath, and Harry, doing the same, looked down, snaking his hand between them to wrap his fingers around Snape’s cock. Damn. It was big. And hard.
Snape hissed in a sharp breath and Harry grinned, stroking, wondering what it would taste like … what it was going to feel like …
Snape pulled his hand away, rasped through his teeth, “Do you have anything—”
Harry blanked for an instant, then remembered and scrabbled for his wand, tangled in his pyjamas on the floor.
“Accio polirunguero!” He held out his hand, but Snape’s arm shot out and he intercepted the bottle that sailed into the room. It smacked into his palm and he smirked down at Harry, flicking off the top with his thumb and stroking Harry’s balls and cock upward, out of the way. Harry shivered inside at the focused, intent way Snape tipped the bottle, letting the cool drops fall one at a time against Harry’s hot skin, letting them roll tingling down to tickle at his opening while his other hand gently massaged Harry’s balls. Harry let his head fall back, swallowing down the nervousness, feeling, feeling the oily drops, feeling …
“Ohh …” Feeling Snape’s fingers there, stroking, teasing, pressing …
Harry flopped, legs wide, arse and cock pulsing, and dropped his wand over the side of the couch.
“You like this.”
Smug bastard. But it came out: “Oh … god … that feels … oh …” The gentle massaging turned to a careful slide inside, and he froze for an instant, but Snape continued, gentle, insistent, and the swirl of pleasure relaxed Harry again, even when he felt Snape’s fingers slip deeper, stroking in and out, in and out … then out, and Snape grasped his thighs, pulling them close.
“Breathe,” he rasped, and slid into Harry. The pressure was strange and the pain a surprise, but that was lost in the strange surprise of the sound Snape made in his throat, a long, starved sound of deep need and pleasure that pulsed into Harry’s core. He felt his body respond to that cry, his cock throbbing, filling as Snape filled him, moved in him, curling over him, breathing against his chest. He relaxed into the rhythm and the pain faded, even as Snape’s slow drive into him accelerated, hard, deep, relentless. Snape’s eyes were tight shut but his expression was open, naked, and Harry stared until the sensation and need in his own body took over, washing over him in hot-cold, clenching waves. He writhed, working his body against Snape’s, grasping his cock, and when Snape stilled, then thrust deep, his groan of completion drove Harry’s orgasm from him, mindless, irresistible.
In the morning, Snape was gone.
Harry turned over, limp and bleary-eyed and a bit sore here and there, and blinked at the empty half of the bed for a moment, unable to remember how or when they’d even made it to the bed. Then he looked around the room, as empty as the other half of the bed.
He got up – right, more than a bit sore – and explored the rest of the cottage, then threw on his tatty bathrobe and went into the garden, walking all the way around the cot even though it was obvious that Snape was gone. He stood at the back, arms wrapped around himself, and looked at the still, mist-frosted lake, but he knew Snape wasn’t there. He was gone.
His first clue that he’d perhaps stood there an unreasonably long time was that when he breathed in, it hurt, as if he hadn’t inhaled, hadn’t moved, in hours. He dropped his clenched arms, shaking life back into his numb hands, and went inside.
In the kitchen he put the kettle on and stared at it, thinking over the night before, trying to figure out what he’d done, until the kettle screamed at him.
He made tea and took it into the front room. The blanket he’d wrapped Snape in lay crumpled like a corpse in front of the cold hearth. While his tea grew similarly cold, Harry sat with his hands curled helpless on his knees and thought what did I do? Nothing came to him, but that was hardly reassuring, given his practically flawless record of pissing Snape off without meaning to.
He got up, collecting the blanket, rolling it into a ball, cradling it in his arms. It had a musty smell combined of hearth smoke and lakewater. Harry closed his eyes and the scent became Snape’s scent, their scent together, their bodies together …
He forced his eyes open, dropping the blanket on the couch, looking blankly around the room, needing something, something else, to think about.
The cottage was in a fairly sorry state, cluttered with books and papers and unwashed items both hard and soft. He’d ignored the domestic basics during his time visiting Snape at St Mungo’s.
He picked up the blanket again. This he could do. This was easy, it was necessary, it would keep him moving, busy … life went on, didn’t it, no matter what happened, no matter who left you or why. So Snape had gone. Life went on, and his life would go on. After all, it was only Snape, wasn’t it?
He cleaned and dusted and washed and tidied for hours – as if he were possessed by the soul of a house elf this time, rather than Snape, he thought more than once.
He vaguely understood that he was grieving, daft though that seemed in regard to Snape, and that he should just give himself the chance to feel whatever he needed to feel and get over it (that sounded, in his head, as though he was possessed by Hermione, which thought brought him a smile). Unfortunately he didn’t know how to do that when he didn’t seem, on careful examination, to be feeling much of anything.
But that night, when he dreamed about arguing with Snape and woke up with tears on his face, he sat up in the darkness and laughed even as he wiped his damp cheeks.
Reckon you’re feeling something after all, eh?
Three mornings later he woke feeling a bit more lively; after breakfast, he ventured into the garden as if it were a neglected pet that might bite him.
A few weeds had started encroaching through the fence, so he started with those, taking some slight pleasure in ripping them out by their roots. That took the edge off his somewhat manic energy, and he settled for a few hours of blank-minded mulching, snipping, and plucking.
When he got to the yarrow, he paused for a break, wiping a dirty arm across his sweaty brow and looking across the small field of his day’s endeavours.
He’d planted alphabetically, thinking nothing of it at the time. Of course, he’d thought nothing about pretty much everything at the time. Now, though, he knelt in the rows and found himself mildly amused that anyone seeing this garden would wrongly think him both adept at gardening and severely anal retentive. Even though he’d planted it, it was really Snape’s garden.
But that didn’t seem right. After all, Snape had never had anything to do with it. And here he was, caring for it and even enjoying it a little, despite everything.
Maybe it was his and Snape’s, in a way.
He gazed at the feathery leaves in his hands. It was teatime, but he didn’t … Snape had enjoyed a hearty tea. Harry could take it or leave it; lately, taking it seemed rather lonely. Perhaps he ought to go into Hogsmeade, or visit Ron and Hermione. He hadn’t talked to them in more than a week; it would do him good to remember there was more to life than Snape being gone.
Harry shook his head. How could it matter this much, that Snape had gone?
Had buggered him and then left without a word.
Harry laughed sourly and bunched the yarrow in both hands, squishing it a bit before dropping it into the basket on top of the witch hazel leaves that had dropped from the neglected plants. He’d go see Ron and Hermione today, or maybe tomorrow.
A blood-chilling shriek overhead made him duck and whip out his wand; he peered into the cloud-dotted sky as a rather scraggly bird soared downward, scarlet and grey, long tailfeathers trailing.
The phoenix fluttered clumsily down to a fencepost, tucked its wings in demurely, and cocked its head at Harry, uttering a soft cry.
Harry stood up. Smiled, feeling like the sun had come out after a week of darkness.
Snape appeared with a pop. He wore properly fitted wizarding robes, as he had while at Hogwarts, and a startled expression, as though he hadn’t expected to see Harry right there in front of him.
Snape’s jaw worked for a moment, his brows seemingly unable to decide between a scowl or surprised arches. “I … if you…”
Harry brushed off his hands, hearing the defensiveness and sensing that he ought not overplay this. “Tea’ll be ready in a bit, if you’re hungry.” He headed for the door, glanced over his shoulder. Snape stepped forward, hesitant for one step, then two – then, clearly giving in to inertia, he followed Harry into the house.
Harry went to the cooker, picked up the bone-dry kettle, and went to the sink. “Half a minute.” He felt Snape’s eyes on him – a strangely comfortable thrill – as he filled the kettle and returned to the stove.
Snape’s words made him start.
“You weren’t having tea.”
Harry set the kettle down. Turned. “No. It’s … I don’t, usually.”
He watched Snape, knowing he comprehended his meaning but seeing no reaction. Then Snape came to him – three swift steps across the kitchen – and took Harry’s face in his hands. His eyes danced over Harry’s face, exploring, not probing so much as absorbing; Harry wondered what his expression was giving away, and found he didn’t much care. He didn’t mind Snape seeing him this naked.
A small sound, like surprise, escaped Snape’s lips before he brought their mouths together, kissing Harry as though he’d just made some breathless declaration of undying adoration.
It’s just tea, he thought, before grabbing Snape’s shoulders and pulling him closer, opening to Snape’s tongue, melting around it, under Snape’s hands …
Under a touch gentler than before. It took Harry a moment to know it, past his own body’s immediate response, but Snape was … touching him, and his lips were gentler on Harry’s, letting Harry deepen the kiss, letting Harry taste his mouth, his tongue. Pleased, surprised, Harry let his own hands slide down Snape’s back, down to the lean curve of his backside, pulling their bodies tight and feeling the hum of pleasure from Snape’s throat.
When Harry left Snape’s mouth to sample the soft skin of his throat, Snape snarled, “Fuck tea,” and pushed Harry toward the door.
This time Harry remembered the trip to the bed, though it was not memorable. Not in comparison to what happened once they got there.
“I want to undress you,” Harry said, and was instantly a little embarrassed and wondering if this was some weird kink left over from Snape’s hospital days.
Snape’s mouth curled – a grin, for him – and he held out his arms, a clear invitation.
Harry’s fingers shook a little as he worked the buttons loose; he could sense Snape’s amusement, like a barely restrained chuckle, and found himself smiling in response.
“I never said I was good at it,” he muttered into Snape’s throat, licking and nibbling while his hands continued to work farther down. At last he got Snape’s outer robe, and the lighter under robe, open, and he could slide his hands across the pale flesh and sparse hairs, and taste the dark nipples that perked under his tongue and teeth. Hearing Snape’s indrawn breath – a tiny one, just a hint – sent heat surging into Harry’s cock. He pushed the robes off Snape’s shoulders and slipped both hands into the loose drawers Snape wore, pushing them down and sinking to his knees.
Now that was a proper gasp, Harry thought as he watched Snape’s cock pulse and rise in front of his eyes. He smiled, and Snape’s cock pulsed again when he licked his lips. He waited, still smiling, until Snape’s erection was pointing at him and Snape’s hands were clenched on either side of his hips. Then he opened his mouth and took it in, as much and as deep as he could, thinking of how he liked it, how much he loved being sucked, how much he wanted to hear Snape make that needy sound again …
Another gasp, and Snape’s fingers knotted into his hair, but he didn’t push or pull, just held on as Harry got used to the feel of his cock, the silky-hard texture, the length of it as measured by his tongue. Then he sucked, hard, and Snape’s hips jerked, as if he couldn’t keep still.
Harry backed off, glancing up to see Snape watching him, his face rapt, unguarded. Knowing he was the cause made Harry feel bloody marvelous.
“Never done this before,” he said, giving Snape’s cock a cheeky lick. “I like it.”
“Do you?” Snape’s hand slid around the back of Harry’s neck and pulled him in – Harry let it happen, opening as wide as he could, feeling Snape’s cock press against the back of his throat. His gag reflex made him draw back, and he pulled off, saying, “Sorry,” but Snape just shook his head and pulled Harry to his feet, kissing him again, slow, wet, luxuriating kisses that erased Harry’s embarrassment.
When he stopped, it took only a speaking glance down his body for Snape to express to Harry that he was wearing too many clothes.
Harry kicked off his shoes while Snape laid claim to the bed, watching him and leisurely stroking his erection.
Harry stripped, clumsy in his haste, setting aside his wand only after accioing the lubricating potion. Then he crawled onto the bed and looked in wonder at Severus Snape, lying sprawled, pale and erect, one hand loosely coiled around his cock.
“You’re staring,” Snape said, his voice smoky.
Harry smiled, fumbling the bottle open and pouring the oil onto his hand. He had a moment of awkwardness tryin to recap the bottle until Snape, with a smirk, lifted it out of his hands and set it on the bedside table. When he had lain flat again, obviously letting Harry steer this encounter, Harry bathed both palms in the oil and wrapped them around Snape’s cock, one after the other, stroking, loving the way Snape’s breathing went fast and harsh, the way his stomach quivered, the suppressed signs of his enjoyment.
Nervous but determined, Harry positioned himself athwart Snape’s thighs, watching the surprise flash on and off Snape’s face as he wrapped his hand around Snape’s cock, then hesitated, not quite sure how to do this.
Snape’s hands stilled him, and he let go, looking up to see the man’s scowl.
“You had never …”
Harry shook his head. “No. But …. I … I liked it. I want you to …
Snape’s fingers curled hard into Harry’s hips. He thrust upward, slow, his cock sliding under Harry’s balls, then across his hole, back and forth, wet, teasing, tempting.
“Oh … yeah ...” Harry gulped. “I want you inside me.”
The black eyes fell shut, then opened, and Snape coaxed him forward. Willing, Harry moved, puzzled at first when Snape kept pulling – then flushing hot with sudden arousal when Snape sat up and took his cock into his mouth.
“Ohh…” There was no awkwardness, no lack of expertise, in Snape’s performance. His tongue pressed against the underside of Harry’s cock as he took him in, deep and hot and hard, his fingers digging into Harry’s arse. Harry grabbed the headboard for balance and pumped, panting, knowing he was shamefully close to coming already – then Snape pushed him back, letting his wet cock loose with a pop and pushing him back into position. Harry hardly had time to register that he wasn’t being magnificently sucked off any more before Snape grasped his thighs and drove, slow and slick, into his body. Harry arched, viscerally startled by the feeling, just like the last time, unable to breathe or move until his body eased around Snape’s cock and he settled with a sigh against Snape’s slowly working hips. The easy slide in and out seemed to pump heat through his body, filling his cock to aching hardness while it made the rest of him bend limp over Snape’s chest, as though all his blood, all his awareness, was in his arse and his cock. Breathing fast, now, through his teeth, Snape curled his fingers around Harry’s cock and Harry all but wailed at the sudden hard compression.
Snape threw his head back, ramming his cock deep and fast while he pulled, just as frantic, at Harry’s cock. Harry exploded into orgasm, shuddering, his vision blurring even as he watched his own come splatter thick across Snape’s hand and chest. Snape stopped, jerked, and arched up, his face tight, mouth open, clutching at Harry as he came with a low, drawn-out groan.
Harry slumped and Snape pulled him close, held him with sudden fierce strength as their bodies shuddered against each other, then eased into stillness.
After a while, and with no small effort, Harry sat up and looked down at Snape, his white skin, angular face, the black hairs on his chest, the black, unreadable eyes. If this man, whose soul he’d carried, whose self he’d been, was still such a mystery to him, he wondered if it was even possible for one person to ever really know another.
“Where’d you go?” Harry blinked, touched Snape’s arm. “You don’t have to answer—”
Harry made a face. “But … well, you didn’t say anything. And after we’d … you know. Made me feel a bit odd.” He breathed. “More than a bit. Worried. Thought I did something wrong.”
“It was nothing to do with you,” Snape said.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Thanks.”
“I have … matters I left undone. I wanted them done. I want to be free of …”
“Everything?” Harry guessed.
“As regards previous debts and entanglements, yes.”
“How’d you apparate without a wand?”
Snape shrugged, a surprisingly sexy gesture, Harry thought, when indulged in nude and horizontal.
“Fawkes, I think. The phoenix has … chosen me.” His expression twisted; it took Harry a moment to realise he was trying not to smile.
“Why’d you leave without saying anything? I mean, ‘bye,’ or ‘see you later’ or something like that.” In another snap of insight, Harry knew the answer. Snape had had no plans to return. Possibly had firmly intended not to.
And still, he’d come back.
Harry grinned and Snape squinted suspiciously at him, probably aware Harry’d figured him out.
“So can I call you Severus now?”
Snape pillowed his head on his hands and closed his eyes. “I never said you couldn’t.”
At the faint scrape of the gate against the flags, Harry dropped the foxglove into the basket and looked up.
Harry waited, on one knee, for the swell of loathing to burn through his body and push him to his feet.
It didn’t happen. He and Malfoy simply looked at one another for a moment. Draco was taller, thinner; dressed in plain dark greys, he looked much like his father. Or a slightly gaunt, slightly less elegant version, at least.
Lacking fury to propel him, Harry simply dusted off his hands and got up. “Malfoy.”
“Potter.” Draco’s voice had grown up, too, deeper, a bit rough, showing, like his face, the scar tissue of experience.
After dismissing “what can I do for you?” and – barely – “what do you want?” Harry settled on the neutral, “What brings you here?”
“I –” Draco blinked. Imperiousness had never come to him as it came to his parents, Harry thought.
“I understand that Professor Snape … that he was here.”
Harry brushed off his hands. “If you’d like to speak to him, I’ll get him.” Let him tell you why. If he even knows. Merlin knows I don’t.
But the door opened when his hand was inches from the handle, and he stepped aside as Snape came out onto the walk.
“Professor,” Draco said, respectful, and Harry remembered how he’d called Severus’ name the night before, desperate, intimate, a thousand miles from Draco’s decorous address.
“Mr Malfoy,” Snape returned in the same tone. “You are looking well.”
“I’m glad to see you, sir. Surprised to see you here, though.”
“No more surprised than myself,” Snape said smoothly.
“I’ve come to issue an invitation to you,” Draco said, somehow formal and sullen at the same time. “The Malfoy family invites you to our home. I – we all – owe you a life debt and would be happy to have you as an honored guest in our home for as long as you wish to stay.”
Harry snapped shut his suddenly open mouth and looked at Snape.
He stood very still, arms wrapped around his thin frame. The breeze tugged at his loose shirt, whipping strands of hair across his face, obscuring his eyes. He looked … a bit lost, Harry thought. As if he’d just had a choice not offered, but taken away.
Draco waited, eyebrows up, obviously surprised at Snape’s hesitation.
“I … appreciate the honor of your family’s offer,” Snape said, despite his hesitation clearly more comfortable with the formalities than Draco. “And it would be my honor to accept, but I must consider it.”
“Well, you can’t want to stay here,” Draco sneered, formality and discomfort departing hand-in-hand.
“Why not?” Harry cut in, drawing Draco’s sneer to him.
“With you?” The finality in Draco’s voice hit home. The grey eyes rose, took in and dismissed the cottage. “In this … shack?”
Harry clenched his jaw, squeezing the cutters in his fist until it ached. How could insults from Malfoy, of all people, take away the sense of home he’d enjoyed these past weeks?
To Snape, Malfoy said, “I understand that your circumstances have been difficult, that you felt you had nowhere else to turn. Both my parents and I are … we understand the position you found yourself in, and we regret that you were left feeling friendless. We … we failed you. And we acknowledge that.” His hands twisted around each other, making him appear awkward and earnest, even to Harry, who had no desire to think well of Draco in even the smallest sense. The words – we failed you – the weight of them in Draco’s voice and face, made Harry suddenly wonder if it had been the Malfoys who had abandoned a soulless Snape to the tender mercies of that Muggle hospital all those months ago.
Draco steadied himself. “But you do have friends, sir. We want you to stay with us.”
A faint shift in Snape’s expression – a softening, a look almost of longing, as if Draco’s words had moved him – drove a spike of panic into Harry’s chest.
Snape’s and Malfoy’s heads jerked around, as if they’d forgotten he was there.
“He’s not going with you,” Harry said, hearing and ignoring the warning shouts from his good sense. “He’s staying here.”
Snape’s brows shot up; Malfoy’s went the other way.
“I don’t recall asking you, Potter, nor do I recall hearing Professor Snape ask you. In fact, I don’t think it’s any of your business where he lives, or with whom.”
Harry didn’t look at him, only at Severus.
“He doesn’t want to live with you,” he said, every word a risk, a challenge to Snape, to himself. “He wants to stay here. I want him to stay here. He’s staying.”
Snape stared back at him, tense, his expression hard, eyes unreadable.
“With you?” Draco scoffed. “What in Merlin’s name for?”
Eyes locked to Harry, Snape said softly, “Are you laying claim to me?” His tone spoke of danger, and Harry didn’t know which answer would draw that danger down on him. But he knew which answer was true.
“Yeah. If that’s what it takes, I am.” He matched Snape’s soft tone, matched his stare. “I am claiming you.” He had no idea what that meant formally – if anything – whether he was getting himself into some complex wizarding difficulty. All he knew was it felt serious. Scary. Right. “I am claiming you.”
Still holding the stare, Snape said, louder, “Thank you for your kind offer, Mr Malfoy.” He blinked, turned to Draco. “But as you see—” with a tilt of the head toward Harry – “I must decline.”
Draco looked from Snape to Harry and back, mouth open.
“Great seeing you again, Malfoy,” Harry said loudly. “See you around.” He planted what he suspected was rather a nasty smile on his face until Draco shut his mouth, pouted, and disapparated.
Taking with him some portion of Harry’s certainty. He squinted sideways at Snape, now watching him with a strangely abstract expression of curiosity.
“Er … did I just muck up your plans?”
“Personally, I’d think the idea of living with the Malfoys would drive you right back into the lake, but…”
Snape huffed a short laugh. “I was not trying to kill myself. Nonetheless, I take your point.”
“So you didn’t want to go.” Harry grinned. “Good. I mean, I want you to stay.”
“So I gathered,” Snape said. “You have no idea what this means, have you?”
Harry shook his head. “It means you’re staying.” Then, with a stabbing flash of doubt, “Right? I mean, it does, doesn’t it?”
Snape shook his head, said ominously, “It means a great deal more than that.”
“Well? Tell me.” Evidently he’d once again stepped unwitting into some mysterious wizarding tradition.
“For a start, it means the construction of a considerably larger and more modern brewing facility.”
Harry’s jaw dropped.
“Your kitchen is entirely inadequate to my needs.” The corner of Snape’s mouth quirked upward.
Snape turned to face the bookshelves framing the mantel. “And your library – frankly, the word scarcely applies – falls pathetically short of my needs.”
“Sadly, I shall further be forced to ask your indulgence in the form of a small loan to set me up in business, as I have no intention of living off the Potter largesse any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
Harry managed to snap his mouth shut against both stammering and the laughter that suddenly threatened.
“I shall pay you back promptly, of course,” Snape went on, “at a reasonable rate of interest mutually—”
“But I claimed you,” Harry cut in, finally getting it. “If you belong to me, isn’t that rather like you being a house elf, now? Don’t I get to tell you what to do, not the other way ’round?”
Snape rolled his eyes and Harry soldiered on, fighting a smile.
“What exactly are the wizarding rules about claiming someone, anyway? Are there rites, or do we have to sign anything?”
Snape snorted. “There is no wizarding tradition of … ‘claiming,’ as you put it.”
“So my claiming you doesn’t actually mean anything?”
Snape didn’t respond, and – tellingly – failed to meet his eyes.
“I think it means something,” Harry said softly.
Wary, Snape glanced at him. “And what do you think it means?”
Harry grinned. “I suppose we’ll find out.”
And Snape almost smiled. “I suppose we will.”