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He looks to the sky. Without reason, but a black feather drifts down, lost from some passing bird, and he catches it — again without reason.

He twirls it experimentally as his eyes return to the dense grey print of the book on the bench in front of him. The writing is severe, long strokes and sparse angles, like rows of tiny daggers.

The image draws forth a smile, a rarity for him of late; he reads on, trailing the rough tip of the feather across the page as if adding his own wicked twist to the spells. He can’t — he’s no Half Blood Prince — and they don’t need the added cruelty anyway.

The edge of his mind registers the french doors opening, slight sounds of movement — two people — on the terrace above. He tucks the feather into the book and flattens his hands on the pages, covering the flaying spells with his own warm skin, thinking briefly that, over the last year, spying on people has become reflex.

He hears paper rustling, a snapping, decided sound. The Prophet.

“They did it. They closed Hogwarts,” Hermione says in a tiny voice.

Harry feels Ron’s presence, though Ron doesn’t answer.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Does it matter?” Ron says. “It was a target. Anyway, p’raps it’ll only be for a little while.”

“Professor McGonagall looked like she was going to cry,” Hermione continues.

“Least it means they’re taking ’im seriously.”

“Finally,” Hermione says tartly. “P’raps we can get some help out of them now.”

“But what help?” Ron’s frustration is palpable; Harry shifts as if getting an inch or two nearer will help him hear. “They couldn’t find ‘im last time. Scrimgeour doesn’t even believe in the horcrux theory; he won’t even ask the Death Eaters the Order catches.”

“It’s no theory.” Hermione’s firm tone trickles warmth into Harry’s cold stomach, warmth erased when Ron hisses:

“So where are they? Where’s even one of them? We’ve been over and over Dumbledore’s pensieve memories, Hogwarts records … have we accomplished anything? We get the Death Eaters, one here and one there, but that’s not the core of the problem, is it?” For a moment, he sounds determined, not whinging — he sounds, Harry thinks, startled, like a man.

Hermione says, “Stop it.”

Harry sits up, gets on his knees on the bench, craning his head to see over the shrubbery.

“Can you do this somewhere else?” he snaps, as if they were eavesdropping on him.

“I’m trying to read.”

His two closest friends jump and turn to face him, then come down the steps and around the bushes.

Hermione looks at the fat leatherbound tome beside him and blanches. Harry almost laughs. After all she’s done unflinching, she still thinks of this in terms of good versus evil. But they all have their necessary lies, so he doesn’t attack hers.

“What are you doing – ” with that book – Harry hears the thought, quickly stifled. “Out here by yourself?”

He quells the protective instinct to close the book, one of several volumes he’d taken from the private Black library. Instead, he turns and flicks his wand at a chunk of firewood on the lawn. It explodes into violent blue flame that snaps skyward and is gone in a moment, leaving little more than a wisp of smoking ash.

“Learning,” he whispers. So many things come easier now; it’s one more thing to scare him. And not just him.

“Christ, Harry!” Ron hisses.

“It has to be quick.” Harry’s eyes never leave the tiny pile of ash. “It has to destroy them straight away.”

“What if it’s metal?” Hermione says, serious, still white-faced.

Harry immediately casts an equally violent melting spell against a battered tin bucket. The garden is littered with things, metal and china and wood, any inanimate substance that could be made into a horcrux.

“Now we just have to find them,” Ron says.

“I know,” Harry barks, and his friends flinch. He has something inside him now, somewhere behind his lungs, small and hard, some core of concentrated … he doesn’t know what, but he’s aware of it all the time, like a tumor that might one day suddenly shift and kill him. Just now, though, it hones his focus and feeds his power, and he’s glad of it.

Everyone else feels it, too. They’re not glad.

“There may be something in The Restricted Section,” Hermione says, an old argument. Ron sighs.

“You’ve been over it and over it.”

“I haven’t come close to looking at everything there. It’s the closest — it’s the only place with the kinds of books that might tell us something about where Voldemort’s hidden these things.”

“You won’t find that in books,” Ron says, speaking Harry’s exact thoughts.

“Then where else should we look?” she says, expectant although she knows they’re all flailing. “I’m open to any ideas.”

“Dumbledore knew—”

“Dumbledore’s gone—”

Look,” Harry cuts in, “if you’re just going to chatter, can you do it inside? I’m trying to read.”

It’s the signal to them to stop trying, to stop working to include him, yet it still bothers him that they give in so quickly.

“Okay, Harry,” Ron says.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Hermione says. They all but stumble over each other going back up to the terrace, inside the house.

Harry turns back to the book, coils his fingers around the glossy feather, not seeing it or the spells.

They just don’t seem to get it — it’s all on his back, and he’s not ready. They keep nattering on about Hogwarts and the Ministry as if either had anything to do with the real issue.

He’s not ready. Nothing else matters.

He rests his cheek on the warm, rough pages before him and watches the breeze toy with dead leaves — green still, startled to death by an early frost — whirling them in tiny, halfhearted spirals. The unkempt garden, with its scattered debris, should look like a junkyard, but it looks, instead, like a graveyard. His own personal graveyard of fears and failures, the invisible ones heavier than those he can see.

Still he shuts his eyes.

He dozes on the sunwarmed bench, head on his folded arms, sleeping mind wandering among vague images, latching desperately onto the first that isn’t bad — a formless, harmless wank fantasy.

He’s lying covered by a body, heavy, almost protective save for the hard curve of cock he feels against the soft cleft where his legs meet his arse, not demanding entrance but pressing, teasing, and a big hand reaches under, grasping him, squeezing, and he swells and thrusts, but he doesn’t come until the hand’s twin splays warm on his stomach, and a hot mouth breathes against his neck — then heat explodes in his body and he gasps—

—and he’s standing at a door. The door to 12 Grimmauld Place.

He looks down and a hand — his but not his, bigger and older, a hand he knows from somewhere — reaches out to grasp the door handle.

The door shouldn’t open — he shouldn’t even be able to touch it — but the handle moves, and there’s no alarm, there’s no flash of defensive magic. The door merely opens.

He steps into the dim hall, glances at the scorched patch of wall where Mrs. Black had been, then steps deeper into the musty house. Intruding, Harry thinks, invading, though the traitor house does nothing.

He turns, full circle, then bends to place something small — Harry has no sense of what it is — on the first step of the stairs. When he lets go, a soundless shriek explodes in his head and he jerks upright, steps quickly back.

He catches himself against the hall table and glances up. The dusty mirror shows Harry half a face, just for an instant—

– then nothing.

Harry snaps awake, gasping, wand already in his shaky hand. He sits up, looking about him for a blank unsteady instant before apparating to 12 Grimmauld Place.

The front door gapes, left wide open, itself an intrusion, but Snape is long gone and the house stands empty, broadcasting abandonment as it has since the Order gave it up more than a year ago.

He silences the magical alarm he himself had set, breathes a sigh of relief when the mental shrieking stops, and enters the Black house.

Not his house. It was never his house, never his home.

On the first stair, there’s something round. Another step closer reveals it to be a rock, the size of a chicken’s egg.

He picks it up, expecting no trap — certain there’ll be none, though with no certainty of why — and wraps his fingers around it. The stone pulses warm, as if trying to escape, and an image flashes in his mind:

A rough hillside under a lowering sky, carpeted with purple and grey, dotted with huge jumbled stones. One stone is split in the middle, offering a crack of darkness that draws him forward, squinting, almost leaning into the waves of magic pulsing from it. It’s like wading through sewage, burning with evil, stinking of hate — but he forces himself forward, one foot at a time, knowing what’s inside. He can all but taste it through the protective curses: the small stone font that is horcrux number four. He reaches—

— and he’s jerked out of the vision, stumbling back, into the wall, blinking against the map still burning behind his eyes, the sure knowledge of the place and where to find it.

He apparates back to the Order’s new headquarters, to the precise spot he’d left, and sits on the bench. He’s sticky from the wet dream, but a quick spell takes care of that, and he’s left wondering what to do, all the obvious questions parading before his brain in circles, like a carousel: is it a trick, is it a trap, is it a genuine clue, was it really Snape, am I imagining things?

His book is undisturbed save for the stray black feather, lying like a bookmark across the pages.

Harry picks up the feather, twirls it absently in his fingers, his mind on the stone, the cairn it showed him, the horcrux sitting inside, too tempting to refuse the chance.

He slides stone and feather into his pocket and goes inside to tell the others.

~*~*~

“…Crabbe, and Koster.”

Tonks’ voice is followed by Ron’s.

“Koster?”

“Hieronymus Koster, from Devon,” Lupin puts in.

“Not even a pureblood,” Kingsley adds. “He’s getting desperate.”

“Oh. So who’s left?”

Tonks snorts. “I’m not keeping a tally.”

“Don’t you think someone ought to?” Hermione says; everyone knows she already is.

“I keep track of who we lose,” Tonks snaps. “I don’t give a damn who they lose.”

And even though she’s half wrong, Harry thinks, it’s the half right part that keeps anyone from arguing.

Spellbook tucked under his arm, he leans against the wall outside the closed sitting room doors; no need for extendable ears in this house. His house. He’s never had a chance to enjoy the money his parents left him, but he’s the only one who has wealth, and he’s made use of it. There was no question that the Order would reconvene here. Like his money, his power separates him from the others, but it’s made this house safe.

“Where’s Minerva?”

“In the kitchen with Molly,” Lupin says, and silence blankets the room.

In the silence, Harry feels the memory of the two who are absent – not absent, dead, they’re dead –  the reason so much life has gone out of both women.

He shoves off from the wall and goes out into the back garden, not shutting the terrace doors behind him. He knows where the conversation’s going, where it always goes – Dumbledore, Dumbledore and Snape and Dumbledore and –  and he can’t stand it.

He claims his favorite bench and opens the book on his knees, sliding out the feather he’s adopted as a bookmark and forcing his eyes to focus on the next tiny step on this endless bloody road. There’s so much, so much he doesn’t know, so much he can’t do, so much he’s done wrong …

An unmeasured time later, a hoarse, hacking birdcall makes him raise his head, blinking, startled that it’s dusk. A black bird with a bare, dun patch around its face stands on the sundial. He stares at it and it stares back, then he glances at his book, and the words have changed. In place of the incantation for protection against fire curses is a single phrase, fading as he reads:

The rook is the harbinger of death.

He looks up as the bird cocks its head, then flaps heavily up to the top of the wall. Harry slams the book shut and rolls to his feet.

It hops into flight, a smudge against the darkening autumn sky, and he runs for the back gate, speaking the spell to let him outside the house’s protections and into the lane behind just as the street lamps come on.

It’s idiotic — he can’t keep up with a bird, and has no real idea why he wants to — but as long as the thing’s in sight he can’t seem to stop his feet.

As the last of the natural light — and any real hope of pursuit — fails, the bird flutters down to the pavement in front of a tiny corner park, avoiding the feet of the few huddled pedestrians on their way somewhere safe and warm and well-lighted. It’s a quiet, lightly traveled neighborhood; Harry’d chosen it for that reason. He stops across the street, half-behind a letter box as though the bird might see him. This draws a few idly curious glances, but no real attention.

When the block is clear of people, the rook shimmers, stretches, and reforms with gorgeous symmetry and inevitability into Snape.

Harry feels his throat clench, his hands curling into fists he has no idea how to use. Snape, of course. Always Snape.

He’s furious that he knew from the start, furious that, even so, he still has no idea, no sense, whether to trust him or not. Both reason and instinct lead him in circles when it comes to Snape. He’s furious that Snape will not, will not just fucking let him hate him cleanly.

Snape turns to Harry as though he’s spoken — and it’s a shock greater even than seeing him that Snape has a beard, a trim, glossy beard that softens his face, that makes him almost—

Almost different.

Snape pays no further attention to Harry, swirling up the street like an empty sack caught in the wind, around a corner and into the blackness of a narrow alley. Harry follows. He has no fear that it’s a trap, and no surprise that he has no fear.

At the other end of the alley, in the pool of piss-yellow light from the streetlamp, Snape waits for him, close-furled in a hooded black cloak.

Harry stops, half-turned as though to present a smaller target. The thought almost makes him laugh. There are a few people about here, too, parking cars, entering or leaving shops, but as if they are invisible, no one takes the slightest notice of them.

Snape looks down at him, seeming somehow more than only a few inches taller. “Potter.”

Harry shoves his fists deeper into his jacket. It’s all he can do to hold the black stare with his own, but he does it.

“No recriminations? No screaming? No attacks?”

Harry doesn’t shrug, doesn’t move. Doesn’t hate. “You’re helping us.” Doesn’t understand. But he remembers the horcrux, the dark and the rank stink of the tumulus, the flash of the curse that took the heads off two Order members before Harry could blast the ancient stone font to pieces. He knows that, and it’s enough for right now.

“We got it,” he says.

“I can see that on your face,” Snape counters, and Harry resists the urge to reach up, to cover the tiny shrapnel scars on his cheek. The price he’d paid was little enough.

“Why?” The word bursts from him before he’s aware he’s thought it, but the truth is it’s a constant in his universe, the wrapping he’s put around Snape in his mind, one giant question.

“Why what?”

Why everything, Harry thinks, but knows better than to say. Snape’s face is lined with weariness, a sick color under the yellow light. Harry guesses he must look about the same — then is aghast that he is equating the two of them in any way. But that’s stupid. They’re more alike than any two people he knows, and he hates it.

Snape’s gaze snaps upward, suddenly, to the overcast sky, then back to Harry. “Why did you follow me?”

“I don’t know,” Harry says. “Why did I?”

Snape’s mouth twitches. The beard — its very tidiness, somehow — makes him more alien, more sinister.

“I have something for you.”

Harry’s face flames; he feels suddenly small and embarrassed, out of his depth, but excited — for no reason.

He blurts, “Why don’t you tell us where they all are and be done?”

Snape’s eyes flicker, sharp, seeking glances, alert for predators even as his voice remains classroom-calm.

“Because I cannot trust you to do it in the proper manner.”

“I didn’t know order mattered.”

“It doesn’t. Not giving yourselves, or me, away, matters.” The eyes lock onto him, grave, and Harry feels a chill rush up the back of his neck. “We must get to the end of this, I because he trusts me, you because you alone can destroy him.”

Harry closes his eyes briefly. He’s so sick of this. He wants it over.

Snape snorts. “Yes, Merlin help us, you alone.”

Harry bristles. “I hate you.” It’s a lie, but he has no true words to replace it with. He resents the loss — hating Snape had fueled him — but he doesn’t have the energy to hate more than one person at a time.

“Lean on someone else, Potter.”

Harry starts — Snape’s answered his thoughts — and Snape smiles, even more alarming.

“You were always pants at occlumency.” He grasps the iron lamp with one long-fingered hand, then circles it, circles behind Harry, who forces himself not to flinch as Snape looms behind him.

Legilimens,” Snape whispers against his ear. Harry shivers, forcing up hasty mental blocks, but no magical intrusion follows.

Instead fingers curl warm around his hand and something is pressed into his palm, the shape and feel startlingly familiar. He looks down — a Tube ticket — and when he raises his head again, Snape is gone.

~*~*~

Five of them go to Tower Hill, buy tickets, and descend, following Harry as he follows the spelled ticket squeezed in his clammy fist. They pass through the crowds slowly, like tourists, stopping at this and that junction as Harry waits for the slight magical tug that will lead him.

They descend stairs and travel tunnels until they come to an alcove with a padlocked gate — the public isn’t allowed past, and the others watch while Harry performs a wandless spell to destroy the stainless steel lock; the hollow, constant, mechanical sound of the Tube announcer’s voice — Harry can’t make out a word of it — covers the sudden noise.

The service corridor beyond, unused and therefore unlit, seems to sparkle in Harry’s mind, beckoning. Nervous, he spares a moment to wonder why Voldemort would choose this place. A train rumbles past in an adjacent tunnel, sound and vibration, invisible power, and the others crowd close, out of the path of the hurrying commuters in the tunnel behind them. Harry guesses it’s the hustle and bustle, the stink and noise and constant muggle motion that suggested this place to Voldemort — what wizard, after all, would think to look here, in the heart of muggledom, for a horcrux?

“What’s it look like?” Ron asks at his shoulder.

Harry shakes his head. “I’ll know it when I see it.”

He moves on and they trail behind him; with each step the noise of the Tube falls, though the oily smell and the rumble of passing trains remains constant. Harry passes machinery and doorways and nuts and bolts and cables and electrical boxes, all meaningless, as he tracks the only sort of power that matters.

They’ve been descending for what feels like an hour — perhaps, Harry thinks, ten minutes — when Tonks stops. “Someone just bumped my shielding charm.”

They gather in a quick circle, looking at each other. Nothing muggle could affect the spell.

“Go,” Harry hisses, waving the others back. “Go. Just lead them away. I only need another few minutes. Don’t come back. We’ll meet you at the house after.”

“I’ll stay,” Ron says. Tonks, Bill and Mad-Eye dash off before Harry can argue the division.

He clutches the ticket – come on –  and starts forward again, Ron close to his elbow.

They scurry down another corridor, narrower than the last, under uncertain bluish light from flickering fluorescent bars overhead, but Harry can feel the horcrux, through the ticket, like a pulse against his fingers, growing stronger … stronger …

A door, marked “Storeroom.” He blasts the lock with a wandless spell, without thought or pause, and shoves the door open to reveal a big, square room, dim and dirty, lined with shelves. The shelves are scattered with things, but only one seems to glow, a sickly, infected glow, visible only to wizarding eyes. A small metal can, bigger than a soup tin, dusty and scuffed and stupidly ordinary, containing a seventh part of whatever Voldemort once possessed by way of soul. Harry is no longer surprised — he knows he never should have been — by how small these containers are.

“There.” He tucks away Snape’s clue and reaches for his wand.

Ron cries, “I’ve got it!” He lunges for the canister and in that split second Harry remembers it’s the first time Ron has gone with them for a horcrux hunt, that he didn’t remind him—

“Ron — no!”

Ron freezes and goes white — drops the canister. It rolls to the side and Harry tracks it with his wand, blasts it. The force of the spell — the power it yanks from him — rocks him back on his heels and he grabs for the nearest wall, briefly blinded by the red-black flash.

He blinks; Ron still hasn’t moved. Realisation screams from his face for an instant before Harry sees blood spring in the corners of his eyes, trickle from his nose, bubble from his lips — and Harry turns away, his heart screaming coward but he can’t,he can’t watch, can’t have that as his last memory of his best friend.

The curse bursts in the room, silent, stinking, hot with evil, crawling over Harry’s bent back, clawing fingers across his skin, and he retches, biting his tongue to keep from being sick.

He blinks at the floor, panting, groping for control, and sees a slow dark puddle creep round the soles of his shoes, like a hand stretching out for help, but it’s too late, too late.

It’s Ron, oh, god, it’s Ron …

He drops, knees sinking into thick ooze of warm gore, bits of shattered bones stabbing his knees and palms as he bends, unbreathing, choking on pain and hate and helplessness.

I can’t. I can’t.

His head moves back and forth, without thought, denying everything, straining to block it all out.

I can’t do this, I can’t stand this, I can’t…

He hears a hiss, then a curse, and he’s grabbed, hard.

“Potter. Damn it, move.”

Snape hauls him bodily to his feet, where he sways a moment, limp and empty as a rag doll, until Snape yanks him away, back up the service corridor.

“Come on, come on …”

He remembers — everyone’s gone, and with Tonks gone, the obscurus spell hiding them from spying wizarding eyes is also gone — and lets Snape drag him along yet another narrow, ill-lit corridor. They bounce off the walls a couple of times before Snape pulls him into a tiny metal room, no more than a box, dimlit from a filthy bulb, buzzing and vibrating from the passage of trains above, around — Harry can’t tell.

Snape closes the metal door, halving the noise, and Harry’s finally able to breathe, but a dreadful sound rips from his chest when he exhales, and he starts to shake.

Snape wraps his arms around Harry, panicked, holding him hard, pressing Harry’s face into his shoulder.

“Sh … shh …”

It’s restraint, not affection, but no one has held Harry in months. Years. And Snape feels strong. Hard. Alive.

Harry sobs into his shoulder and Snape’s hold eases as he realizes Harry won’t fight or make too much noise. He draws Harry down ‘til they’re both seated, and Harry pours himself onto Snape in tears and muffled, senseless sounds.

Wrung out at last, Harry dissolves into exhausted sleep just as he feels the hand on the back of his head slide down a little, like a caress.

~*~*~

He wakes abruptly, lying against Snape, who’s still holding him, and the man goes stiff.

He feels — odd. Sticky and rested and safe, blinking fast to adapt to smudged glasses and the light that goes back and forth, dim to dimmer, without warning.

He realises he’s feeling Snape’s erection against his stomach, a hard, intimate pressure. Heat flashes through his body, painfully, but he wants to … he wants. He’s grateful, maybe, crazy maybe, but he …

He sits up, reaches, laying a hand over the hot curve of black fabric before Snape can move or protest.

“Let me.” He and his voice shake. “Let me.”

Snape is rigid, face tight, jaw and eyes screwed shut, his body an arc of astonishment, but he doesn’t say no as Harry fumbles him into the open.

The bulb flickers with the rumbling passage of a train overhead. Harry wraps his hand around Snape — he’s bigger than Harry, flushed and hard, and surprise pulses in Harry’s stomach, low, exciting. He brings up his other hand, exploring veins and ridges, and Snape gasps. Harry’s never used both hands in his own wanking, doesn’t need to, and it’s exotic and alarming to feel his flesh moving over someone else’s cock. Hard and fast, he thinks, Snape would want it, putting some muscle into it as the bulb overhead dims sharply.

Snape slides his forearm over his face, and Harry senses he’s biting down to silence a cry. His body jerks and warm fluid spills over Harry’s hand, warm and thick like the ooze of blood, and Harry panics.

“Lumos!”

His eyes snap from his fist, still wrapped around Snape’s red cockhead, both streaming with come, to Snape’s face, also red behind the strange, handsome beard, staring at Harry with a new look in his eyes, a look like fear.

Panting, Harry lets go, and Snape scrambles to his feet and apparates in silence, leaving Harry in the tiny rumbling chamber. Abruptly it is too small, too hot, too dark, too wet, too rank with the smell of sweat and come and death. Harry scoots awkwardly up the wall, frantically wiping his hand on his trousers, throat clenching against welling acid. He fumbles his wand out of his twisted clothes and apparates. In the icy cold split-second of between time, his own erection deflates like a punctured balloon.

~*~*~

They watch him for a while after that, and he hates it. He knows why, but it stifles him, makes him feel as if he can’t grieve, can’t cry — can’t let himself feel all that Ron’s death means — not while everyone is watching him.

It’s a relief almost like tears when he sees, from his bedroom window, that the rook is back, hopping agitatedly along the frost-rimed garden wall.

He grabs his jacket and races downstairs, past people he hardly sees, each no more than a head whipping round and the first words of a question.

They meet in the shabby little corner park; the rook hops behind a tree and Snape steps out, scanning the empty, leaf-strewn patch of bare trees and yellowing grass as Harry trots across the street.

He watches Harry approach, narrower than ever, drawn in, uneasy. Once Harry’s in front of him, he turns and sits on a damp, leafy park bench.

Harry stands over him, demands, “What are you doing to me?”

Snape looks up, unimpressed.

“They’re called hints, Potter.”

Harry shakes his head. It’s more than that, but he can’t say it, can’t speak of what he’s done. He doesn’t know whether he’s hiding it, or hoarding it.

“You are hopelessly without guile,” Snape says, not looking at him. “I used that.”

Understanding bursts in Harry’s brain. He thrusts his hand into his jacket pocket and pulls out the battered feather.

Snape’s lips twitch. “Half a point, Potter, for a realization months too late to do you any good whatsoever.”

“No. You’re helping us.”

“And if I had not been?”

Harry begins to argue, then realises Snape’s point is anything but hypothetical. He sits, face averted, angry and helpless again, speaks through clenched teeth.

“I’m trying.”

Snape says, “I know you are.”

Harry’s throat tightens. He blinks, fast and furious; he won’t cry, not here, in broad daylight, but the ruthless tension in his gut eases, just a little, and the relief is painful.

“I had to make you trust me — or at least, open a hole in your distrust big enough for me to get through to you.”

Harry turns to him. “But I—” He chokes, but his blush is enough.

“That was … unanticipated.” Snape shifts, glancing away, fingers twitching — suddenly as awkward and stupid as Harry, who doesn’t like it on Snape any better than he likes it on himself.

“Then you didn’t—”

“Do you honestly think that all this — all this –” Snape hisses, fists and jaw clenched for an instant of total recall — “is so I can bask in your coerced affections?”

Eyes downcast, Harry mutters, “I honestly think if you could humiliate me along the way, you’d do it.”

A laugh, short, almost pained, bursts from Snape.

“True,” he says. “But I didn’t think of it.”

And Harry finds himself smiling. Naturally, as if this were a pleasant chat with a friend. As if this isn’t Snape. Whose cock he’s touched …

His face and body go hot and he moves, nowhere, anywhere, to get away from his own thought, the way it makes him feel. He stops when he realises he’s shoved the feather back into his pocket, where it’s ridden all these months, and his fingers are still closed around it.

He turns, deliberately pulling his hand from his pocket. “I’m done with being anyone’s puppet.”

Snape holds his eyes, as if anticipating attack. “I understand you.”

The simple respect in those words melts Harry’s anger and wariness and he returns to slump onto the bench beside Snape. Their shoulders touch, and it takes a few seconds for Harry to realise that it doesn’t bother him.

Snape grabs Harry’s hand, as startling as if he’d slapped him. “What is this?”

Harry looks at the countless scratches, the scabs and spots of fresh blood partially obscuring I Must Not Tell Lies. He shrugs, pulls away. “I was … thinking.”

Snape lets it go without further reaction, like someone who’s been there. “You must understand this. The Inferi and the Dementors are the only ones Voldemort relies upon to guard him now, when he sleeps or casts his deep spells. They have no fear, no doubts, no sense of self-preservation — and above all, no ambition. He …” A faint sneer. “… trusts them.”

“That’s why they aren’t guarding the horcruxes?”

Snape nods. “He has spells for that — although this may change now that he’s lost two more of them. He feels it every time you destroy one. He doesn’t understand how, but he’s sure you’re reading his mind.” He shakes his head, once, too weary to be sarcastic. “If he only knew.”

“Ha ha,” Harry forces the required response, also without genuine feeling. “How are you finding out where they are?”

“He also trusts me.”

The words are lifeless, and, as when he’d held Snape’s stone, Harry sees Dumbledore’s face in a flash of understanding — understanding what it had cost to win Snape his place.

“There was no other way,” Snape half-whispers, and Harry knows they both need to believe that, whether or not it’s true.

“There is a spell, an ancient one. I will teach it to you. It will turn the Dementors on the Inferi. They will do what they do — attempt to suck the joy, the very soul, from them. As Inferi have neither, and as Dementors do not stop — unless stopped — until they are sated, the spell binds them in a helpless parasitic loop. Forever.”

Harry pictures it, and shudders. “That’s … almost not fair.”

Snape doesn’t laugh or even sneer. “What, in your life or mine, has ever been fair?”

Abruptly, he stiffens. Harry does too, though he sees and feels no threat.

“It’s time to go.” Snape grabs Harry’s wrist again, pressing something warm – body heat, Harry thinks, and flushes — into his cold hand. He stands and Harry does the same.

They look at one another, but there’s nothing to say — not even when they notice, simultaneously, that Snape is still holding Harry’s hand.

Snape lets go and steps behind the tree. Harry, knowing he should scan for observers, can’t take his eyes from the spot until a small black bird hops ‘round the other side and flutters into the sky.

He glances at the warm thing — a heavy, old-fashioned brass key, dull and scratched — shoves it into his pocket next to the feather and heads home.

~*~*~

Eyes tearing from the pain of the first fire curse, Harry ducks as the second misses, streaking past his head to splash against the garden wall. He has a sudden vision of himself standing tall, like some stupid cartoon hero, chest out, cape snapping in the wind, announcing, “I’ll come with you.”

It hadn’t been like that. He only wants to help. Needs to.

Kingsley all but carries Scrimgeour, still in his pyjamas and frozen in disbelief, from the wreckage that had been the back of his house. The others, scattered round the back garden like gnomes, fire defensive spell after defensive spell at the trio of Death Eaters who’d been expecting a simple kidnap of the Minister of Magic.

Harry crouches behind a bin, panting from the pain of the burn, and Mad-Eye grabs his chin, lifting it.

“Not too bad, boy.” He pulls Harry’s chin down to look him in the eye. “You all right?”

Harry jerks free, snaps, “I’m fine.” The air stinks with spent curses, a sharp smoky smell over the damp, compost scent of the back garden. There’ll be a lot of obliviating for the Ministry to do.

Kingsley rushes down the garden, dodging an air-sizzling curse from Lucius Malfoy.

Mad-Eye, wand upraised, has time to cast a blocking spell and grouse, “Bloody incompetent … what kind of Ministry head doesn’t protect his own bloody home?” He pushes Harry ahead of him, around the corner of the garden wall. “Shacklebolt’s got ‘im. Let’s get out of here.” He ducks, peers out, and charges across the garden toward Kingsley, who’s shoving the minister toward Tonks, waiting at the garden gate to disapparate them.

Harry peeks out — yanking his head back as a fire hex blazes past — and sucks in a breath, ready to run.

“What are you doing here?”

He jumps a foot, spins — Snape is behind him, wand out and feet braced.

At the house, Malfoy shouts something Harry can’t make out and Bellatrix screams back at him. Another curse explodes in the air close to the shed. Snape grabs him, whirls them both around the corner and against the wall, plastering Harry to the cold rough metal of the garden shed, pressed against him, his voice pressing into Harry’s mind.

“You fool, you unutterable, unmitigated fool. Have you learned nothing from what this has cost?”

He touches the wound on Harry’s neck, his fingers trembling, painfully cold against the burned flesh. Harry flinches, reaches up as well, and their fingers tangle for a moment before Snape pulls free to grasp his shoulders and shake him.

“You must not risk yourself — you must survive to face Voldemort or all this will have been for nothing.”

He hears, distantly, Tonks’ voice, “Got ‘im!” followed by the pop of disapparation and the crackle of a too-late curse, then the sound of shattering glass.

“I can’t just sit while people go out and … and die. I can’t.” He’s touching Snape, petting him, a pull in his gut drawing him against Snape’s body, and Snape lets him, easing his grip on Harry’s shoulders until they’re all but embracing.

“Don’t you understand that he’s looking for you? That he wants you to reveal yourself like this?”

Harry knows. He knows and has no defence. For a moment they both simply breathe, and silence falls around them like cold rain. Everyone else has gone.

He leans, his face in Snape’s neck, feeling him, smelling him, drunk on it. Snape hesitates — then slides a hand, broad and warm, between Harry’s legs, discovering him, discovering that he’s hard …

“Harry.”

Harry’s world tilts at the touch, the sound of his name, like that. He whimpers into Snape’s collarbone.

“I’ll teach you the spell. Now. I’ll see to it you remember.”

Snape’s hand curls and Harry’s on his toes, stretched and gasping. Snape sighs, a rough breath of understanding. With his other hand he undoes Harry’s trousers, then pulls them and Harry’s smalls down. He cups him again, warm flesh to warm flesh, and Harry shivers.

“Oh, god … please …”

“Shh …” Snape turns him around, facing the wall, pressing his fingers between Harry’s cheeks.

Harry flushes, boiling hot all over, and stammers, “I … don’t … I’ve never …”

“Shh.” Snape slides his free hand over Harry’s mouth and it’s almost a kiss, rough and strange and erotic. He purrs, “Good. That will help.”

His fingertip tickles Harry’s hole and Harry jumps, shuddering, involuntary sounds captured by Snape’s palm. He pants desperately through his nose, breathing the musky-herbal scent of Snape’s flesh. Held in, his cries echo in his head, oh god, oh god, please, please, as Snape strokes and tickles and whispers, and magic trickles against Harry’s skin.

Then something bigger is against his cheeks, against his tingling arsehole, pressing damp and hot, Snape’s fist, Snape’s cock, and he wants it, god, he must be insane, but he wants Snape inside him. Then Snape begins to speak — to chant.

“Vos alent, vos satiabunt, vos complebunt … ea petite, ea concipite, ea exhaurite …”

Snape pierces him, and there is no pain, but the shock of it, the splitting surprise, drives him splayed against the cold metal wall, overwhelmed, keening into Snape’s warm clenched hand. Never, he’s never felt or imagined this, being this opened, naked ….

“Vos alent, vos satiabunt, vos complebunt … ea petite, ea concipite, ea exhaurite …”

Snape’s body and words blanket him, and Snape’s cock moves in him, in and out, and it feels huge, oh god, he’s seen it, touched it — that memory makes his own cock pulse painfully — and Snape’s hand is around him, stroking hard; his body convulses, melting, and he sobs against Snape’s palm.

“Vos al …”

The cant collapses into a groan. Then another, and another, low, animal sounds, and Snape fucks him harder, faster, pressing his face into Harry’s shoulder and squeezing his cock. Harry’s body arches as he comes, helpless, falling against Snape for an instant as Snape drives deep into him, stops, gasps against his neck …

Then the hand slips from Harry’s mouth and Snape is gone.

Harry collapses against the wall, sliding until he hits the ground, his blurred stare at the level of his own come trailing white down the grey metal, his mouth full of the taste of his own cries and Snape’s fingers, his arse — his whole body — pulsing, his head throbbing with the words of the incantation, repeated to the tempo of his hammering heart.

~*~*~

He curls exhausted into his bed that night — after fending off the endless panicked questions with snarls and a headlong plunge to his room — and drops into a black sleep. And dreams of Snape inside him, and comes hard, waking with tears in his eyes.

He has no memory of Snape saying the words — all he remembers is the feel of it, of Snape in him — but the cant is there, constant, permanent.

Brilliant. He has to admit it, not knowing whether it makes him hate Snape again, or admire him, or both.

~*~*~

The last horcrux was hard. Not because they had to kill the Death Eaters guarding it, but because it was at Hogwarts. A Hogwarts silent, abandoned — worse, invaded, infected by Death Eaters and by that festering sliver of Voldemort’s soul that Harry watched go up in crimson and black smoke and flame.

Service to the school, he’d thought, and smiled.

They look at him, expectant, all sitting together across the kitchen from him, and he’s struck again by how … separate he is. He can’t explain how it happened, and he has no idea how to fix it. He wonders if he really wants to.

He gulps half his cup of scalding, too-strong tea. “I know how to end it.” He explains, watching the faces around his kitchen table tighten with fear.

“Will it work?” He has no idea what to do if someone says no, but he has to ask. Too much is riding on this, and the spell is too … too deep, too hard for him to grasp.

Eyes narrowed, Minerva asks, “How did you learn of this incantation?” She’s like a stray cat without Dumbledore and Hogwarts, a stray, rainsoaked, miserable cat who watches everything, lashes out at anyone who comes too close, and otherwise sits curled in a corner making herself small.

Molly — and now Hermione — spend a lot of time sitting with her.

“It’s … very dark magic,” Tonks puts in. “If—”

“Don’t question me!” The shout twists in his throat, coming out a hysterical half-shriek, and he slams a fist onto the counter, eyes prickling, choked with anger and frustration. “Don’t question me. Will it work?”

“It will work.”

Remus is leaning in the doorway. He’s always either leaning or sitting. Harry can’t remember the last time he saw the man standing straight.

He comes to the sink, repeats, “It will work,” and looks sidelong at Harry, a look so knowing it infuriates him. He flings his cup across the kitchen and it crashes against the wall by the door, spraying drips of brown.

My bloody house, he thinks at the looks of shocked disapproval. My house, my wall, my tea.

He strides from the kitchen and out onto the terrace again before even thinking my life.

~*~*~

Everyone’s looking at you.

Harry tries not to think it, tries to pretend it isn’t so, at first, but that’s stupid.

Everyone is looking at him, some subtly, some brazenly, all of them as if it’s never occurred to them that even the hero of the wizarding world might run out of floo powder or owl treats and need to visit Diagon Alley.

Not that “everyone” is all that many people. The streets are emptier than Harry remembers from his last visit. Before the War.

It seems every other shop is shuttered, some of them actually abandoned. Those who haven’t moved away have retreated into their homes, fearful of Voldemort, maybe a little fearful of the other side too — but either way not knowing what’s really happening, who’s winning, what it will mean, when it will be safe for them to resume their lives. The home front, Harry thinks, feeling the needling hurt of each life disrupted by this, by every day, every week, every month that passes before he can end it.

He stops, shaking his head once, violently; he can’t be responsible for everything. He can barely manage what’s expected of him now. Maybe, he can’t even manage that.

He hears a scratchy caw and raises his head to see Snape — it makes him laugh, a little, to call the black bird that, even in his head — sitting on Ollivander’s swinging sign, cocking his naked face at Harry.

The rook blinks and flutters down, through the open shop door, and Harry follows.

Ollivander is at the counter. He watches the bird fly past, then turns to see Harry in the doorway. Smiles.

“Ah. Mr. Potter. Do pass through.”

The rook stands in the middle of the floor in a small, tidy sitting room at the back of the shop. Harry closes the door behind him, prepared to cast a warning spell on it — but it already has one. Harry wonders, not for the first time, what role Ollivander has played in all of this.

The moment Snape changes, Harry says, “There’s only the one left.” He doesn’t want to give either of them a chance to say something stupid, something about what happened last time.

Snape inclines his head. “Nagini. She is always at her master’s side now.” He bares his teeth. “Be sure to give whoever killed Bella my thanks, by the way.”

Harry almost smiles. “Okay.” Neville will be mortified.

“You must gather the Order and attack. When you cast the spell, he will call me — call all of us — back, to protect him. I shall take care to … arrive first, and I shall kill her.”

Harry waits.

“Then you must finish it.”

“I will.”

Snape looks hard at him, but not the way he used to; hard as if, at last, he thinks Harry can take it.

“You will need to mean it.”

Harry remembers Ron. The air in the room wavers, colors shifting, as he stifles his magic.

“Not now,” Snape says, impatient rather than afraid.

Harry breathes. “I can do it.” On impulse he reaches, takes Snape’s nearest hand in his, clumsy, like grabbing a broom handle. Snape looks down and a dull red burns in his pale cheeks. He is blushing, accepting Harry’s idiotic overture as though it were a dozen roses, and Harry feels dizzy.

“Why … why this? After I …” Snape swallows. “You know that it’s all due to the spell. You have the power to … to resist.”

Harry stares until his eyes fill, blurring the ridiculous picture their hands make twined together. “We have … an understanding.”

Silence. He feels Snape’s mind touch his, a mere whisper, while he blinks away tears. When he looks up, Snape is staring at him.

“You know.”

“That I killed him?” He chokes out the name. “Dumbledore?” Harry feels tremors start, deep, as if he’s going to vomit. “I figured it out.”

“Not only you,” Snape says. He grabs Harry and pulls him in, tight, not a hug or even empathy, but drawing the ragged edges of a wound together to give it a chance to seal.

Too soon for that, Harry draws back.

“You can … let go,” he says, not meaning the embrace. Snape backs off, shakes his head; Harry’s fingers trail from his suddenly rigid shoulders.

“No.” The word is brittle. Terrified.

Harry nods, for this instant the strong one. “Right. Then let’s end this. Let’s finish it. Let’s finish this bloody thing.”

~*~*~

They apparate, en masse, an hour before midnight, to a barren, mist-laced cemetery, long abandoned by the living.

“Ugh.” Hermione shudders.

Moody is more sanguine. “Perfect. We can bury the bastard right here.”

“There won’t be anything left to bury,” Harry says.

“Will he know we’re here?” Tonks asks.

“That’s the point,” Lupin says. “Right, Harry?”

Harry nods, watches the condensation from their words dissipate; it’s a cold night, all but cloudless. He can see the faint light from the ruined mausoleum on the hill, glowing yellow from the gaping cracks in the walls and through the shattered roof.

“It shouldn’t take long,” he says, and as if his words conjured them, they appear, the tall dark shapes of the Dementors and the tall pale shapes of the Inferi, pouring like roaches from the cracks in the mausoleum.

He hears the motion, the gasps, the whisking sound as wands are drawn.

He half turns. “Wait.”

The Order does not mistake his tone, but he’s already forgotten them. He faces the gathering dark tide of Dementors and Inferi, closes his eyes and begins the incantation.

“Vos alent, vos satiabunt, vos complebunt … ea petite, ea concipite, ea exhaurite …”

At first the words flow out of him soft, seemingly ineffectual, but as the cant builds he sees — or imagines — the spell becoming visible, a stream of subtle magic flowing toward the crowding Dementors and Inferi. They stop, and seem to become aware of one another for the first time, turning to each other, forgetting their orders.

Harry feels the power leaving him, burning from his core, along his arms, out to his fingertips, exquisitely painful in a way that makes him long never to stop.

One by one, a macabre dance, Dementors claim Inferi, clutch them, draw them, struggling, close enough to Kiss. Harry continues the spell until they have turned completely on each other, oblivious to all else, a closed circle of eternal hunger and hopelessness.

He stops, gasping in a deep breath, the air so cold it burns his lungs, making him wonder when he last inhaled.

The he turns to face the awe of his fellow Order members.

“He’ll call his Death Eaters back,” he says, sharply, to bring them to focus. “Those who’re left. We need to be ready for them.”

Kingsley straightens his broad shoulders. “We’ll be ready.”

“Harry …” McGonagall is wide-eyed, steadying herself with evident effort. “Well done, Harry. Well done.”

A rumbling, sizzling sound vibrates in the night air, and they turn to see the Dark Mark shoot sparking into the sky over the mausoleum. Enrapt in one another, the Dementors and Inferi do not react.

With a pop, Snape appears — not in response to the Dark Mark, but only he and Harry know that.

The others erupt into the expected cacophony of doubt, breath clouding around them like a sudden influx of fog.

Snape doesn’t move. Harry does; one efficient step between the startled Order members and their spy. His spy, his harbinger bird.

“Harry!”

“What are you doing?”

“How do you know we can trust him?”

“He killed Professor Dumbledore—”

That one, Harry answers, with a heavy shake of his head. “No. He didn’t. I did.” Speaking it, now, to those — unlike Snape — who don’t know, don’t share the guilt, lifts a crushing weight from his heart. “I killed him.”

A fresh babble of confusion springs from a dozen throats, more fog into the chill night air.

I did it!” Harry shouts, cutting them off, bringing startled faces around to him again. “I killed him. Dumbledore … he knew it, he planned it.” His throat clenches, but he feels no grief — he’s too scared, too tight-strung. Too ready. “He planned it all for this moment right now. Now we’ve got to end this. Now, tonight, or he died for nothing. And we’ll probably all die too.”

They quiet, refocus. Harry hears a soft, nerve-scraping wail, coming from the Dementors or the Inferi or both, constant, otherworldly. He doesn’t look at them again.

“You need to watch for the Death Eaters. You need to keep them away while Snape and I take care of … the rest.”

“Hurry,” Snape says, and he turns from them. He and Snape walk up the hill, within sight of the arched, crumbling doorway.

“I’ll go in first,” Snape says. “Watch the sky. He will either know I have betrayed him, or he will trust me enough to let me close to Nagini. You will know which.”

Harry nods. He knows the distinctive red-black flash that means another horcrux is gone. He knows the bright killing green of Avada Kedavra. He will know.

“Make sure the others keep watch. There are still a few who will answer his call.” Snape squares his shoulders and turns toward the mausoleum.

Hands knotted, Harry blurts, “Snape. Snape.” Helplessly, a desperate incantation.

Snape turns, grabs him, forcing their cold mouths together, ruthless, as if taking something he needs, but Harry wants to give it to him. Whether it’s strength, hope, the will to survive, Harry wants him to have it.

Snape wrenches him away, presses the back of one pale bony hand against his own lips for a moment as he stares at Harry. In fear. Not of Voldemort, not of death — but as though finally having something to live for might break him.

“Watch the sky.” And he’s gone, striding up the curving steps, silhouetted black in the yellow-lit doorway, gone. Gone.

Harry scrubs an arm across his eyes, unclenches his fists, glances at his bloodied palms.

And looks to the sky.

 

The End

 

Vos alent, vos satiabunt, vos complebunt … ea petite, ea concipite, ea exhaurite: They shall feed you, They shall sate you, They shall glut you…Go to them, Absorb them, Drain them.