Harry skidded to a halt, staring down at the face of his daughter. The grey tendrils of old-man's-shroud had wrapped around her legs and waist and were beginning to creep up her torso despite her attempts to pull them off.
"Dad!" She held out her arms, reaching towards him, her heart-shaped face turned up like a flower to the sun. "Daddy, help!"
Harry drew his wand and aimed a shrivelling spell at the heart of the plant. It hissed as it subsided like a deflating balloon, the fronds collapsing into a soggy heap.
"What have I told you about never going into the wood alone?"
Harry heard the exact moment that her hiccupping sobs morphed from genuine distress into the sniffling of a child who'd decided that she wanted sympathy, not chastisement, but he was just too damned glad that she was safe to care. As if Ginny hadn't kicked up enough fuss about allowing him access to his own children, without giving her the additional stick of 'careless neglect' to beat him with.
Harry carried Lily along the sunny, winding path through the trees, past the empty Nargle nest and the wood nymph colony, and put her down on her feet once they reached the open fields. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "Hankie," Harry said automatically and she glowered.
"I am ten, not five."
"So you're big enough to blow your nose properly and you are certainly big enough to know that you were told to keep away from the woods for a reason."
Lily pouted. "Yeah, okay."
"No, it is not 'okay'. If I hadn't come looking for you, that stuff might have throttled you. What were you doing anyway?" She muttered something and Harry glared. "What were you doing?"
"Lily. What were you doing?"
"You could have been killed. 'Private' is being allowed your own space, it doesn't mean you wander off alone into a magical wood, which you know is dangerous and which you've been told is out of bounds, just because you feel like it."
"I wasn't doing anything really wrong!"
"You were disobeying one of our most important rules."
He wondered how it always came down to this, to petty squabbles and a feeling of helplessness in the face of the women in his life. "If you can't even be trusted to comply with simple rules that are in place for your own safety, then perhaps you should wear a child-tracking charm again."
"I knew it!" Lily glared at him with all the ferocity of a female wronged by fate. "I knew you hated me! I shan't wear a horrid baby charm!"
For once, Harry managed to hold onto the Gryffindor temper that his daughter had inherited in full measure.
"Do you mean I hate you enough that I want to keep you safe from old-man's-shroud? Stop being a drama queen and act like you're ten, then, instead of a spoiled toddler. Give me a good reason for your being in the wood and I might have more sympathy."
She was taken by surprise and Harry wondered if Ginny ever spoke to their daughter as if she was an intelligent being, rather than alternately berating and indulging her.
"I was looking for the pony."
"I don't think anyone grazes ponies in Thickwood," Harry said carefully, knowing better than to simply dismiss her claim. Lily gave him a sullen look.
"It's a ghost pony, not a real pony. It's around all the time."
"I see," Harry said, although he didn't, really. "Thickwood's a magical wood, Lily, there are some nasty things in it as you found out today. I think you'd be wise to keep out and leave ghostly animals strictly alone."
"No 'But Dads' if you please, you saw what can happen."
"But it comes into the garden too," she exclaimed, "and I bet it was going to save me if you hadn't come along! It would look after me; I know it would! Al says it always looked out for him."
"I only 'came along' because I was alerted by the charm that warns me if anyone goes trespassing in Thickwood."
Which was how Harry Potter found himself wrapped in a blanket and warming charm, keeping watch over his own garden at dusk, waiting for Lily's phantom pony.
It stepped into the moonlight as delicately as a dryad tiptoeing into an enchanted pool. Harry blinked and wondered as if he was dreaming, if he had stepped back for a moment into the past, when life had been fragile and death was just an error away; a time when he had been aided by the most unlikely of allies. The shimmering animal trotted out of the darkness under the beech trees and paused in the middle of the lawn, gazing around warily.
"There!" Lily nudged him, gripping her own charm-warmed blanket around her shoulders. "See? I told you it would come!"
"Lily Potter," Harry whispered, "that isn't a ghost." He blinked and pushed his glasses further up his nose, staring at the indistinct outline and trying to make out its shape. It was slender, long-legged and coltish, but its rump was too square, its tail too short and it had no mane.
"Of course it’s a ghost, Dad; are you going daft?" Lily giggled and leaned against his shoulder.
"That's a Patronus."
"Oh." Lily sat up straight, peering across the lawn. "It looks like a ghost. I've never seen a Patronus before."
"Of course you haven't…" A child of peacetime, she had no reason to ever encounter a full corporeal Patronus.
"If it's a Patronus, someone must have made it, mustn't they?"
"Who made it, Dad?"
"I don't know." Harry gritted his teeth together to stop them chattering. Goose bumps stippled the skin of his back. The silver figure paused and for a moment he could see it clearly, the leaf-shaped ears, the arch of its neck and eyes as dark and shining as treacle. "It isn't a pony, either."
"I s'pose not," Lily agreed reluctantly. "Is it an antelope or something?"
As if his words alarmed it, giving a name to its shape and fixing it in place, thus denying the fluidity of its nature, the Patronus dissolved away into the darkness.
"Oh…" Lily stared at the place where it had been, bereft. "Oh, it's gone. Who could have sent it?"
"I've no idea, love. Come on, it's getting cold and way past time we had something to eat. Do you fancy mushroom risotto?"
"Are you going to look for the Patronus again?"
"Of course not," Harry said, following his daughter into the cottage, locking and warding the door.
How could he sleep, when the moonlight washed across the garden like surf, carrying quick-footed ghosts out of his past? Harry sat in the window, staring down at the striped shadows of the poplars and the humps of the herbs and vegetables in their winter sleep. Somewhere, someone was casting a Patronus, and not just any Patronus but a doe: the sign of either his dead mother or the man who had loved and died for her.
The doe was back, drifting like a cobweb through the hedge, glimmering faintly with reflected moonlight. Harry grabbed his wand, pulled on his dressing gown and slippers and hurried down to the front door. The doe moved away and he called softly "Don't go! Please, don't go…" but she was fading, shrinking as she floated away. Harry lifted his wand and thought of his children and said "Expecto Patronum!"
Silver light billowed from the tip of his wand, coalescing rapidly into the form of his stag. The doe paused, one shining delicate forefoot raised, looking back over her shoulder in a manner that was almost coy, as if she was inviting the stag to follow. "Go on, then," Harry murmured, and the stag leaped after the doe. She whirled on the spot to face him, her ears pricked. The stag tossed his head and moonlight sparkled in his antlers, as if winter flowers had caught in their branches. Harry almost expected his silver Prongs to bellow and paw the ground. The doe shivered, wavering under the moon.
They came together like water flowing downhill, two streams meeting and becoming one, but in the intermingling mist Harry saw the proud arch of antlers rising high, the stag's larger body blanketing the form of the doe and her head rubbing up against the side of his great neck.
Harry rubbed his eyes, no longer able to make out the distinct bodies of the two deer, only a single glowing shape that twined around on itself as they melted together. They faded, their edges dispersing until there was nothing left. He watched for an hour but she did not return, and he went back to his cold, empty bed.
He ran through open beech woods, moonlight slanting through the pale grey trunks and dappling the leaf mould. Ground ivy shimmered with tiny, submerged glints as the waxy leaves shifted in the breeze. He felt the muscles rippling in his powerful haunches and his breathing was loud and joyous as he galloped. Far ahead, he could just make out the pale blur of the doe's hindquarters, but she paused now and again, as if to ensure that she never quite outran him. He smelled the sweetness of her musk, underlying the heavier stink of his own sweat.
Finally she turned to face him, her flanks pulsing in quick, hard pants as if she was laughing, not at him but with him, from delight in the chase and in the power of their bodies. The stag threw back his head and bellowed, a roar to challenge the sky, and she with her sly, liquid eyes and her flirting tail, turned her back and stood still. He approached her and sniffed, filling his lungs with the scent of her body, hot like horse but lighter and wilder. She blazed in his sight, pale yet solid, and she braced her legs as he reared over her and clasped her, plunging into her welcoming heat and settling into a long, slow rhythm in which she met him thrust for thrust, pushing back as she flexed her back and shoulders and neck, their coarse hair rasping and prickling as their hides rubbed together. They panted, billowing steam into the moonlight. The air was rank with the odours of sweat and sex, and the deep, cold smell of disturbed earth as their feet dug into the leaf mould.
The dream was dirty and rank and wrong but Harry woke to find himself clutching his aching cock. He stifled a moan and thrust into the circle of his fingers, coming fast and hard as the sense-memory of heat and animal rutting dissolved into the reality of a grey winter morning and a wet patch on his duvet.
Over breakfast, Lily chattered on about school and her best friend, Dolores, who had been promised a pony in the spring.
"And Mum says I can have riding lessons if I clean out Cuthbert's cage and feed the Pygmy Puffs," Lily said brightly. "Can I have a pony when I'm older?"
Harry opened his mouth to give the usual parental "we'll see" and looked at his daughter's hopeful face.
"I doubt if your mother would allow that," he said, "But I'm going riding too."
"Wow!" Lily sat up straight, her eyes shining. "Can we go together? Dol goes to Miss Spriggs' Riding Academy."
"I don't see why not, although we won't be going to Miss Spriggs, we're going to see Hagrid."
An hour on the back of a flying horse, even an obliging one, left Harry aching in places where he hadn't even realised he had muscles. Lily was hopping with delight that was only dampened by the realisation that she could not immediately tell her friend all about it. Harry gave up a silent prayer of thanks that despite Arthur Weasley, the Wizarding world had not yet discovered the mobile phone.
Hagrid, highly amused, offered to ask Olympe to let Harry know when one of her mares was due to foal.
Harry sat on the bench beside Hagrid's door, watching as Lily helped Hagrid to groom the placid mare, brushing her chestnut coat and smoothing the glossy feathers of her wings.
"Conker here's an Aethonon," Hagrid was explaining, "She belongs to the new Muggle studies professor, but me lady friend in France breeds Abraxans, them's palominos and the size of an elephant an' they on'y drink single malt whiskey. Tek a deal o' handling, they do."
"So that's why you think Dad needs one, then." Lily said, grinning.
"Well, I were on'y kidding really."
"I should think so," Harry remarked.
"You comin' again? Professor Ampleforth says Conker needs to 'ave more exercise. He's right, but I'm too heavy for a little beast like 'er. The students need too much supervisin' to ride 'er every day an' the professors are too busy."
"Oh please, Dad? Can we? She's so lovely."
The mare snuffled as Lily offered her an apple, and lipped the fruit skilfully from the child's hand.
"Makes a change from riding a broom, I suppose."
"Cool! I can't wait to tell Dol!"
Riding Conker was something pleasurable that Harry could do with Lily. He enjoyed his daughter's delight and the horse's friendly nature, but he soon realised that he was yearning for something darker than the soaring flight over the lake. He wanted to run under the moon in his own body, not perch upon a domesticated animal.
He dreamed messy dreams in which he melted between his own human shape and that of the stag, while the doe shivered and dissolved beneath him, never completely taking on another form. The sex was muscular and sweaty and completely different from the sweet, simple lovemaking that he had had with Ginny.
He realised that he had indeed enjoyed sex with his ex-wife but he craved this wicked, mythic rutting in the woods. Harry no longer desired the smooth, yielding, perfumed flesh of a woman. He wondered if he was going slightly mad.
The Patronus doe left no imprint in Harry's asparagus bed as she trotted towards him. He cast his own stag and watched in frustrated melancholy as the two figures merged together. As he turned away, he almost cried out in shock.
She stood just outside the garden gate, casting a black shadow; her hooves denting the dry winter grass of the verge and a faint haze rising from her back, as if she had been running. Her eye caught the moon in a liquid gleam. She was corporeal, the tendrils of her whiskers twitching as she sniffed the air. Harry walked slowly towards her, staring as if mesmerised.
"Hello, so you've finally decided to show yourself." Her ear flicked once. "Are you who I think you are?"
The doe gave a little snort, a huff that lanced through Harry like the sound of a once-familiar voice. "Oh God," he whispered, "Is it really you? Have you been here watching over me and my kids all this time?"
The doe tipped her head to one side, her black eyes considering him. Harry opened the gate. "Please, come in."
She stepped in regally. Harry walked towards the house, watching her out of the corner of his eye as she condescended to comply with his request. At the doorway she paused, looking up at him. "The wards have always been set to recognise my friends," Harry whispered.
As she walked through the doorway and the wards shimmered over her skin, the doe elongated upwards, changing from dappled brown to black and white, a man with black hair and a black robe. Harry let out a long breath. He was unable to move, staring as Snape turned to face him.
The lines had deepened around Snape's eyes and mouth but something about him had softened, as if he no longer lived on spite and adrenaline. There was a streak of iron grey running through his hair from each temple and he shone in the lamplight like a wax statue.
"How?" Harry asked, "I saw you die! How did you live?"
Snape tipped back his head, taking obvious pride in knowing more than Harry, in keeping his own secrets. Then he lifted a hand and tapped two fingers lightly against the high collar that covered his throat.
"You lost your voice? Because of Nagini biting you?"
Snape spoke in a hiss of breath, enunciating precisely so that Harry was able to read his meaning from his lips.
"The venom destroyed the nerves of the larynx."
"Oh God, I'm so sorry. We should have tried to help you."
"I believe that you had other priorities at the time."
With that simple voiceless phrase, Snape bestowed an absolution that Harry had expected to receive only after his own death. It felt like a weight falling away from his soul, leaving him buoyant and unsteady.
"You were prepared to die as long as Voldemort was destroyed," Harry said with all the respect that the man was due, and which Harry had never granted him as a student.
"As were you."
Harry narrowed his eyes.
"Hang on, how do you know what happened? You can't have had any contact with the Wizarding World, everyone thinks you're dead."
"I should have known! The bastard could have told me."
Snape shook his head.
"You told him not to? Oh." The draught at his back reminded Harry that he was still standing in the open doorway. He shut and warded the door, and nodded towards the kitchen. "Can I offer you a drink? Mug of tea?"
Snape acquiesced, following him along the stone passageway to the kitchen at the rear of the cottage. As Harry waved a hand to light the lamps, he heard Snape give a little snort, and looked around to see a smirk on the thin, pale face. Snape quirked an eyebrow at the pots of herbs on the windowsill, the gleaming implements lined up in their racks on the walls and the big Muggle range.
"I like to cook," Harry said, slightly defensively. "My aunt made me learn and I hated it then, but cooking for my family and friends is different. I enjoy blending Wizarding and Muggle cuisine; I'm told my chocolate and hazelnut gateau is to die for."
"Potions," breathed Snape.
"I did okay in Slughorn's class," Harry protested and the expression on Snape's face, not-so-polite disbelief, made him grin. "Yeah, I used your old textbook, I know. But you needed me to hate you and I hated Potions too by association."
Something made him pause then, and re-evaluate the complex emotions in Snape's black eyes. "You did hate me," he guessed. "You hated me, because I was Lily's son and she died to save me, and because you loathed my father."
Snape gave a single, slow nod and Harry sighed. "I see. There's nothing I can do about that, I'm afraid. I never treated you with the respect you deserved, neither as my professor nor as a spy, but you never gave me a chance."
"My father and Sirius were bullies," Harry said quietly as he filled the kettle and tapped it with his wand. "They treated you very badly and Remus didn't do anything to stop them, but I won't apologise for something that happened before I was born."
Snape would never accept that he had become a bully in turn. At least he had not continued the feud to the third generation. Harry spooned tealeaves into the teapot and summoned mugs, milk and sugar.
Harry realised that they were becoming locked into the roles that everyone would expect: ex-pupil and teacher meeting after twenty years. The stag and doe were fading away like dreams, overtaken by the waking world of banal conversation and mugs of tea. Harry had a sudden, powerful sense that he would be reduced to viewing his erotic dreams in his Pensieve, or sliding into dubious bookshops to buy magazines, keeping a watchful eye open for roving reporters. Soon, he might ask Snape if he was brewing potions for sale by owl order, and they would talk about the Malfoys, and agree to meet sometime for a drink, and the subtle heat between them would grow cold and be forgotten.
He looked up into those densely black and Occluded eyes and perhaps his pain was visible on his face, or Snape could Legilimise without him even knowing, because Snape drew in a quick hissing breath. His face was schooled now, into the old mask of condescension, but Harry's mind was full of the memory of the intertwined Patronuses, and he reached out without thinking.
He could smell Snape, not the reek of animal but the subtle scent of a clean male body and he wanted to fill his lungs with its musk. Snape had always seemed so big in Harry's memories of the Hogwarts days, yet now he found that they were of a similar height. The shoulders under Harry's hands were bony and angular. Again Snape's breath hissed between his teeth but he did not pull away. He did not pull away. Was this, then, an invitation? In the complex, nuance-laden language of their suddenly altered relationship, did 'I won't stop you' equate to 'I don't mind', and could 'not minding' become 'wanting'?
"Stop me if you need to," Harry whispered, and his mind was screaming 'don't stop me! Don't stop me, please don't stop me!' and Snape, the Occlumens who had fooled the Dark Lord, gazed into his eyes and waited, watchful and silent, as Harry leaned to touch their lips together.
Snape barely moved, just the tiniest sway of his body towards Harry betrayed him and gave Harry the hope he needed. He wrapped his arms around the lean torso and touched his mouth to Snape's. The thin lips softened against his, parting and allowing his tongue to enter, then Harry felt arms closing around his back and his heart bounded like a stag.
Harry was rapidly gaining an erection so hard that his cock ached and his balls thrummed with energy; he had not been this aroused in decades. He parted his legs so that he could press himself against Snape's thigh and hip. Something rigid nudged his side and Harry abandoned Snape's mouth to press his heated face into the man's neck. Snape's hair smelled not dirty or particularly unpleasant, but warm and human. Harry remembered the stag, the feel of a body rippling and thrusting against his groin and he groaned.
Snape's hands moved, rising to clasp Harry's head and lift it, so that they were eye to eye.
"I want you," Snape said, on a voiceless breath. Harry offered up his vision of the stag, both gift and plea. Snape's eyes widened and then he was plundering Harry's mouth, sucking and biting, and his hands were busy at the fastening of Harry's jeans. Harry tore at the tiny buttons fastening Snape's robe, shoving the heavy garment back over his shoulders and struggling to unfasten the white shirt and black woollen trousers underneath. Buttons pinged across the kitchen and fabric ripped in their desperate need for skin against skin. Then, oh then Snape's thin, clever fingers closed around his prick and Harry very nearly came straight away. He keened through his teeth, leaning back against the edge of the work surface and thrusting helplessly into Snape's grasp.
"Oh fuck, Snape!" He grabbed at Snape's bony shoulders and hung on as he spurted into the wicked hands, jerking like a marionette. Harry subsided, gasping and helpless, relying on Snape to keep him on his feet.
Snape lifted him upwards and back, so that Harry's arse was perched on the smooth, cold slate of his pastry slab and his legs dangled bonelessly. Snape held up an imperious hand.
"Oil?" He had to mouth the word three times before Harry's brain grasped the concept.
"Oh. Accio butter!"
The butter dish zoomed out of the larder, narrowly missing Snape's beak of a nose, and settled in Harry's hand. "Or there's olive oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil…" Harry only began to understand as he watched Snape pinch a lump of butter from the block and smooth it along the shaft of his cock. Snape was going to fuck him. In his post-coital haze, the idea was nothing like as bad as he would have imagined. When Snape inserted a finger into his arse, he had second thoughts, but as the seeking finger moved, brushing lightly against something that sent sheer pleasure zinging along his nerve endings and making him squeak in shock, he wanted nothing else in all the world.
Snape stretched him carefully, inserting another finger, then a third, all the time playing his prostate as if Harry was an instrument, attuned to only him. By the time he was ready to line up his cock and nudge at his entrance, Harry was erect again and whimpering with need.
Despite the generous layer of butter and the care with which Snape broached the ring of muscle, he stung and burned. Snape thrust and Harry squeezed his eyes shut against the tears of pain.
Then Snape adjusted his angle, snapped his hips and hit that sweet spot dead on and all the pain was suffused with pleasure. Harry wrapped his legs around Snape's waist and held on to prevent his head being thumped against the kitchen wall with every stroke, and it was all as good as he had dreamed.
Snape was muscular and wiry, his hands hard on Harry's hips. Harry could smell the musk of their fresh sweat and his own semen and hear the rapid straining of Snape's breath. The Wizarding lamps cast a dim light that softened the planes of his face and lent mystery to his dark eyes, and diminished the knot of scar tissue at his throat.
Snape reached completion in a series of abrupt jerks and a harsh gasp, in which Harry imagined that he heard his own name. Then they were collapsing, sliding down to the floor, the handle of the wooden cupboard bruising Harry's back. They lay in a tangle of discarded clothing, chests heaving as if they had run through the woods.
"Oh God," Harry said, half-laughing, "God. I never imagined…. You, it was always you." After a while, he said, staring up at the ceiling, "Can I call you Severus?"
He felt Snape shrug. How strange, that the man who had used words as a weapon and a shield, whose voice was once an instrument capable of delivering barbs as lethal as any cast by the wand of a lesser wizard, now seemed able to make himself understood so completely with just a nod, a shrug, a tilted eyebrow.
"Severus," Harry murmured, tasting the word on his tongue, the snake-hiss echoing between the clean, pale walls of his kitchen. "Severus, let's go up to bed. It'll be bloody cold on this floor."
They helped each other up to their feet. Harry's knees were trembling and his legs felt as weak as uncooked pastry. They gathered up their clothes and Harry banished the butter and the makings of the tea that they had never drunk. He led the way up to his bedroom, his jeans and his shirt draped over his arm.
The old Wizarding cottage creaked faintly, settling for the night. Harry's tawny owl, Bridie, pushed out of the owl flap and hooted to let him know that she was going hunting; somewhere a Kneazle yowled at a rival.
Harry believed that he was too full of emotion to sleep. He was excited and astonished, freed from one of the regrets that always lay deep inside his heart, that he had allowed Snape to die without making any effort to save him. Yet when he settled into the bed and felt Snape's chest warm and firm against his back and smelled the faint, sharp odour of satiated sex, he sank down into slumber like a child, at home in his own bed after being long away.
Harry woke to grey daylight, a heavy arm across his waist and the moist heat of Snape's breath against the side of his neck. Harry stretched, and his arse reminded him that it was no longer a virgin with a sharp twinge. His cock, on the other hand, was entirely eager. He stroked it encouragingly and a hand moved over his to cup his balls and fondle them.
"Hello," Harry whispered. Snape placed his lips against Harry's cheek and mouthed the words "Good morning" in response. Harry stroked down the long line of Snape's sides and cupped the lean curves of his arse.
Barely pausing to give a perfunctory tap on the bedroom door, Lily bounded in, clad in pyjamas and fluffy slippers.
"Dad, can we have eggs and toasted muffins…" There was silence for a moment. "Wow! Wait till I tell James and Al about this!"
"This is …oh." Harry glanced aside at Snape, who had pulled the duvet up almost to his chin.
"Severus Snape," Snape said, the sibilants of his name giving it sufficient shape to be audible even without his voice.
"My lover," Harry stated.
"Cool," said his daughter. "I bet he can't cook as well as you. Can we have eggs?"
"He makes the best potions," Harry said, lacing his fingers behind his head. "You should ask him to show you, some day."
Lily eyed Snape with mild interest.
"Really the best? Like, famous?"
"Entirely famous," Harry said with satisfaction. "Severus is a legendary hero."
"Like Uncle Ron? That's nice. Can we have the eggs scrambled? I don't like poached, they're wobbly."
Harry watched his daughter scamper out of the room.
"I'm sorry. I never told the kids much about the war; she doesn't know who you are."
"A new beginning," Snape said in his soft whisper. "Perhaps this time, all will be well. Harry, look at me."
So Harry did.