Of Cabbages and Kings
The light at the tip of the wand was hypnotic as it moved over him, and Harry found himself mesmerized, staring blankly at the middle distance, feeling a pleasant sort of nothingness.
He could hear voices, but they were a far-off buzzing, and he let himself drift away for a while, until one of the voices began calling him insistently.
"Mr. Potter? I need for you to sit up; can you do that for me?"
The lime-green robes came into his field of vision, and then the concerned face of the Healer as she tried to get his attention.
Harry fought the lassitude that had enveloped him and nodded, though he made no move to do as she'd asked. He felt strong hands on one side of him, and then smaller but no less steady ones on the other.
"C'mon, Harry, up you get," Hermione encouraged, then she addressed the Healer with a sharper tone. "Do you see? This is how he is all the time now. It's not normal."
"I quite agree, Miss Granger; however, we simply cannot find anything wrong with him. We've exhausted our research; we've even developed new diagnostic techniques specifically for his case, and they are working wonders with other patients. Unfortunately, the only thing that registers for him is fatigue. The potion we concocted for him should help with that." She looked at Harry. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter. I wish there was more that we could do for you."
"Yeah, so do we," Ron put in angrily as she left the room. "Thanks for nothing." He made a noise of disgust, and then added, "Useless, the lot of 'em."
"Since she was the last of the so called specialists St Mungo's has to offer, I'd have to agree." Hermione sighed in frustration, and then pressed a potion bottle to Harry's lips.
Harry accepted the offering, though with some reluctance. The potion was part Pepper-Up and part Invigoration Draught. Its taste was not nearly as bad as some potions he'd had to ingest over the years—Skelo-Gro, for example, was vile beyond measure—but the side-effects: an unpredictable shakiness; an inability to focus; and in large doses, an accompanying sensation of being stretched taut, like the skin of a drum, he could live without. Not to mention, the actual desired effects didn't last nearly long enough for Harry to do anything meaningful, and often left him more tired after it'd worn off than before he'd taken it.
"That's it, Harry. Nice and easy," Hermione encouraged.
He decided not to be insulted by the tone she was using. As the smoke from his ears cleared, so did his mind, and he became increasingly aware of his state of undress—only the cheap, breezy, hospital-provided gown kept him from full exposure.
"Hermione, you know I love you, right?" he asked quietly.
Her grim but determined face softened, and she smiled gently. "Yes, of course."
"Then you won't be hurt if I ask you to wait out in the corridor?" He gestured to the gown.
"Oh!" She chuckled. "Sorry. Actually, I have to get back to the Ministry anyway." She kissed him on the cheek, then offered a much friendlier one to Ron. "I'll see you both at home later."
After she'd gone, Ron helped Harry down from the examination table, then, as the shakiness made him unsteady, Ron helped him with his clothes. He wondered vaguely if it was really any less humiliating without Hermione than it would have been had she remained.
It was a terrible feeling, this being so dependent upon his friends.
"Don't mention it." He smiled, but there was concern around his eyes, and Harry hated that he was the cause of it.
"Listen, go on to the shop—I'll be all right."
His friend looked torn, but then responded, "If you're certain. George'll be ready to tear his hair out by now, with school about to start."
Harry squeezed the hand Ron was using to steady him and nodded. "Kreacher?" he called out to the room.
"Kreacher is here, Master Harry."
"Could you take him home, please, and make him comfortable?" Ron asked, then added, "And make him eat something, while you're at it."
Harry gave a half-hearted snarl, knowing Kreacher would pester him relentlessly until he ate, which was, of course, precisely why Ron had made the request.
"Kreacher will take good care of Master."
By the time the little elf had settled him on the sofa in the refurbished and more than habitable lounge at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, the small dose of his potion had begun to wear off and Harry sank into oblivion.
"I'm not depressed, Hermione."
Hermione pursed her lips, and Harry realized that she'd likely considered this for a while and not said anything. "I know you think you aren't, Harry, but you do have a number of the classic symptoms, and there are people you can talk to about it."
"What? You want to send him to a Muggle headshrinker?" Ron looked aghast.
"They're not headshrinkers, Ron, they're doctors who specialize in afflictions of the mind."
"So you think I'm a nutter, then?" Harry couldn't really muster the level of indignant he thought the sentiment deserved.
"No! Don't put words in my mouth, for heaven's sake. I'm just trying to say that it's perfectly understandable if you're suffering from depression, after all you've been through." She hesitated, and then added, "I just don't want you to give up, or rule out other possibilities. I know for a fact that the Healers didn't check for anything Muggle. There are other things—unusual anemias and chronic fatigue syndrome, for example—that might be at the root of it as well." She took a ragged breath, then added, "We only want you well; it's just so unfair."
Her eyes welled up, and before Harry had fully formed the thought, every handkerchief in the house, including the one in Ron's pocket, flew at him. He brushed them off of his head and chest, and trying for levity, said, "Well, good thing I didn't need a knife."
Ron and Hermione exchanged a look, then Harry handed one of the handkerchiefs to Hermione, though it didn't seem as if she actually needed it anymore.
"That's not funny, Harry. Next time it really could be knives. You have to be more careful."
"Don't think I don't know it." He wanted so very much to be shirty with her, but just couldn't work it up; he sighed instead. "It's hard not to use magic after being able to for so long. And see, Hermione, how could it be something Muggle? I don't think a psychiatrist could explain this, d'you?" He gestured to the bits of linen that were scattered on the sofa around him. "How can I have no energy, but more magic than I can handle?"
"Wish we knew, mate."
They exchanged a look again, and Harry asked suspiciously, "What's up with you two?"
Hermione began, "Well, we have a bit of news…" then looked to Ron.
"We're getting married." Ron managed to look both ecstatic and uncertain.
A thousand thoughts and feelings charged through Harry at once, not the least of which was genuine happiness for them, and he concentrated on that one very positive thing in particular. "Excellent. Congratulations! When is the big day, then?"
Looking relieved, Hermione answered, "We're hoping next year sometime."
She didn't say that they were waiting for Harry to be well again, but he heard it nonetheless.
"Course, you'll be best man…" Ron looked at him hopefully.
Even though he was feeling the drain of the unintentional magic, Harry smiled as widely as he could and said with determination, "Just try to stop me."
Beaming at him, they both rose to their feet and Hermione bent down to hug him. When she released him, Ron stuck out his hand—rather formally, Harry thought, all things considered—but when Harry offered his own hand, Ron used it to hoist him up for a hug that involved much thumping on his back.
Though he was pleased by the affection, it sapped him of his remaining strength.
Ron settled him back down on the sofa, taking care to tuck the blankets around him, and Harry had to swallow hard around a knot in his throat, his love for these two people momentarily overwhelming.
"Will you be all right, Harry, if we go out for a bit?" Hermione asked.
Harry's world was going fuzzy, but he managed to respond, "Yeah, I'll be fine. Where're you goin'?" Though he was beginning to fade, he caught a look passing between them again. "What?" he asked.
It was Ron who answered, "We're going to the Leaky. With Ginny… and, er… Neville."
Harry twigged to it, sluggish brain or not, when Ron shuffled from foot to foot, looking as if he were expecting an outraged explosion.
"Oh," was all Harry managed.
How did he feel about that?
He hadn't taken back up with Ginny immediately after the war. There had been funerals to attend, rebuilding to be done, as well as some healing—basic setting-the-world-right-side-up-again things—and in the midst of it all, he'd become aware that his health was slowly, but steadily declining. In the two or so years since then, he and Ginny had developed a comfortable friendship, and because Harry never thought much beyond getting well, he could no longer see what had at one time been so clear to him—that happy little family seemed as fantastical and unlikely as a Quidditch career at this point in his life.
He felt nothing, he decided. Nothing but well wishes for them, at any rate, accompanied by a small, razor-sharp pang that all of his friends were getting on with their lives, while he stagnated.
He sighed, and managed to murmur, "That's nice. Tell 'em I said 'lo," before slipping into the blackness.
Having Kreacher to help care for him was both a blessing and a curse. Harry heard the commotion before the house-elf popped into his bedroom.
"Kreacher told her Master will not be seeing her, but she will not go away."
"The odd girl. Kreacher told Miss that Master is not to be disturbed until he is well."
Luna. A visit from her was a rare thing, but it never failed to throw poor Kreacher into a tailspin. He had never actually expressed a dislike for her, but Harry thought her rather dotty personality was too erratic for Kreacher, who liked for things to be predictable and routine.
"It's all right; I'd like to talk with her for a little while. In the lounge."
Kreacher harrumphed, acquiescing while letting Harry know he didn't approve, then Apparated them into the lounge.
Settling on the sofa, Harry bit down his ever-present frustration at having a wealth of magic that he could not use: all magic was fatiguing to him and difficult to recover from afterward, but he'd discovered the hard way that Apparating was the worst.
Though at this point, he'd have been ecstatic to simply walk down the stairs without collapsing from exhaustion.
"Thank you, Kreacher."
The house-elf fluffed pillows and straightened blankets, and Harry waited until the job was done to Kreacher's satisfaction, then said, "Tea would be nice, if it isn't too much trouble, and the little fairy cakes you made the other day? I think Luna would like those."
Looking very pleased at the request, Kreacher agreed easily, "It is no trouble for Kreacher to please Master Harry."
He popped out of the room, then returned a moment later, with Luna in tow.
Harry generally enjoyed Luna's visits for two reasons. For one thing, her voice was sort of … floaty, and so was kind to his system. For another, and more importantly, Luna never looked at him with pity. Yes, her conversations sometimes became too tangled to unravel, but Harry found that agreeing with her, whatever it was she'd said, went a long way toward passing the time pleasantly.
Having enjoyed tea and cakes, they were in the midst of just such a jumbled dialogue, when Harry was brought up short.
"I'll let Uncle Xanthus know," Luna said, in her dreamy-floaty voice. "You'll like him, Harry. He's very wise."
Luna, being Luna, didn't seem at all put out at having to repeat herself. "On Thursday, we'll go to see my uncle. He's a genius and he'll know what's wrong with you."
She was sincerely confident, and Harry considered for only a moment. What did he have to lose, really? The man was likely as barmy as the rest of the family, but the visit would cost him nothing more than energy, and if by some miracle he had the answer, then it would have been entirely worth it. "All right."
Ron and Hermione had looked skeptical, but they were supportive once Harry had presented his reasoning, if no more hopeful than he was about the outcome.
When Luna arrived, Harry swallowed his dose of potion, and Hermione tucked an extra into his pocket, should he need it while away. It was the first time he'd traveled without Ron and Hermione since he'd become… unwell, and they were acting like concerned parents.
Harry grinned. "Thanks, Mum."
Hermione's cheeks pinked, and a bit flustered, she said, "Just be careful."
Ron laughed. "You're only making it worse, Hermione," he said, then put a comforting arm around her, pulling her closer to his side.
"Don't worry. We'll take good care of him," Luna breathed in parting, then Apparated them to Uncle Xanthus's doorstep, which belonged to a very non-descript-looking house in Ottery St. Catchpole, at the edge of the village proper.
"Uncle Xanthus is always best on Thursdays, Harry, as long as you don't use the word 'Squib'—he's very sensitive, you see."
Harry turned to her, astonished. "Your uncle is a … he's non-magic?"
"Yes, of course, that's why he'll be able to help you," she replied matter-of-factly.
Typical Luna. Her logic had his head spinning, but he was amused despite it. There was nothing to be done at this point; he was already here, he might as well see what would come of it.
Luna pressed the bell, calling forth what sounded like an elephant trumpeting. Just as unusual, though not wholly unexpected, was the man who answered the door. He looked like a crazed Albert Einstein, with wild white-blond hair standing on end, and glasses so thick, his eyes seemed to be peering out at them through long tunnels from the back of his head.
"Hullo, Uncle." Luna beamed. "This is Harry Potter."
Uncle Xanthus had a distracted manner about him, and seemed unimpressed by the mention of Harry's name. He blinked slowly, then said, "Yes, you did say you were coming today. I suppose you'd best come in out of the rain, then."
Harry looked toward the bright blue sky, but decided it would be easier just to go with it, employing the same strategy that had landed him in this in the first place: nodding and smiling.
While the exterior of the house was non-descript, the interior was altogether different. Stepping inside was like stepping into another world. A world that Jules Verne might have inspired, Harry thought. All of the windows were covered, and the dimly lit room contained furniture that Harry, who had no real knowledge of such things, would label Victorian. It was a bit fussy for his taste, though not terribly unusual on its own. But when coupled with the abundance of gadgets and gizmos, and bits of mechanical debris lying about—there was even an entire wall, in what had likely been intended as a dining room, devoted to buttons and dials and switches, wires and brass fittings, and gauges and lights that flashed and zapped at random—the effect left no doubt the man was an inventor of some sort, and the display was as dazzling as it was bewildering.
Bewildered was apt to describe what Harry felt when Uncle Xanthus, muttering to himself, put what looked like a stainless steel colander on his own head, and Harry finally questioned the wisdom of the outing.
"You are skeptical, Mr. Potter." Though it wasn't an accusation, Harry shifted uncomfortably as Uncle Xanthus continued, "Typical wizard, you know. Oh, they talk of Muggles choosing not to see magic, and this is true. But wizards always underestimate Muggles, don't they? Muggles have ingenuity!" He punctuated the statement by stabbing the air with a pointed finger.
The man moved around the room, flipping switches and adjusting dials as he spoke. "But wizards, my boy, wizards are just as blind and twice as arrogant. Look at Luna's lovely Crumple-Horned Snorkack, for example: they’ve been roaming northern Europe freely for centuries, yet wizards refuse to acknowledge their existence! Wizards cannot see house-elves, extremely powerful creatures, mind you, right in front of their noses, until they wish to see them." He muttered something to himself that Harry couldn't discern, then proclaimed, "There are none so blind as those who will not see!"
He picked up a palm-sized gadget that seemed to be made of wood and brass, with more dials and two antennae sticking out of the end, equal in length to the thing itself. Uncle Xanthus turned one of the dials clockwise, and suddenly, Harry's wand flew out of his pocket and stuck to the contraption's antennae, as if it were a magnet and his wand a metal rod.
"Oi! What're you doing?" Harry asked, astonished and more than a little frustrated that he'd been too sluggish and shaky to stop its flight across the room.
"Just illustrating my point, Mr. Potter." He handed the wand back to Harry. "Wizards, who in polite company will blanch in dismay upon hearing the term 'Mudblood', will bandy about the word 'Squib' without pause. They do not understand, you see, that the Magically Unencumbered, whom you would so easily dismiss as duds—"
Harry lifted his hands in front of him to fend off the indictment and began to protest, "I wouldn't… I don't…"
"The Magically Unencumbered have the best of both worlds, you see. We have the ingenuity of Muggles, and the knowledge of wizards, and ours is a world full of limitless possibilities!"
Seeming satisfied that he'd made his argument, the man began fiddling again with the dials and gauges on the wall, muttering to himself absentmindedly.
Harry looked to Luna, but unsurprisingly, found no ally there—she was smiling fondly at her uncle and humming softly.
Uncle Xanthus took the colander off of his own head and placed it on Harry's.
"Now then, this will not hurt a bit." He laughed for the first time since Harry had been there and it wasn't a comforting sound. "Famous last words, eh?" he added, flipping a switch.
As predicted, it didn't hurt, but it did raise the little hairs on Harry's arms and the back of his neck.
"My, my, my, yes. That is unusual." Consulting another gauge, he made a tsking noise then turned to Harry. "You seem to have enough magic for two people. Very unusual, indeed."
Harry sat quietly, while Uncle Xanthus seemed to become lost in his gauges and dials, appearing to make sense of the beeping and whistling and flashing that was happening on the wall in front of him, muttering to himself all the while.
"Yes, yes. Here it is, yes. Hmmm. Interesting, isn't it just…"
"What?" Harry asked, becoming impatient and a bit irritated by the man's vagueness and muttering. "What is it?"
Uncle Xanthus started, as if he'd forgotten they were there. "Oh, yes yes. Have you, by chance, been near the dead or dying, my boy?"
Harry stared in disbelief. "Are you joking?"
"Oh. Yes, of course." The man harrumphed, and slowly blinked his eyes. "My readings, that is to say, the Magimeter's readings indicate that you've entered into a Life-force Bond," he pronounced as a well-timed clap of thunder rent the air, bringing with it a hard rain, beating an ominous tattoo on the roof.
"Well, it seems there actually is such a thing as a Life-force Bond," Hermione said by way of greeting as she walked into the room.
"You've found something, then?" Harry asked, though he didn't dare get his hopes up. "We believe Luna's uncle now?"
He pulled out the well-worn slip of paper Uncle Xanthus's machine had spat out, which read cryptically: Life-force Bond, Incomplete, and held it up, waving it like a tiny flag. Once again, he was filled with warring emotions—thrilled to have an answer and frustrated that the answer had only created more questions.
"Eglantine—the Ministry research witch who's the expert on bonds—has heard of it." She sighed, sounding as weary as Harry felt.
"Did she wonder why you wanted to know?"
Despite his many trips to St. Mungo's, they'd managed to keep Harry's condition quiet, but it was always a concern. As it was, he had enough trouble with the Prophet, which ran a story every few months, speculating on his whereabouts since the end of the war. Only last week the headline had read: The Boy Who Lived. Or did he?
Hermione looked at him slyly. "I told her that I was studying bonds from a legal standpoint and I'd run across mention of this Life-force Bond and wanted to know more about it." She smirked. "There are some advantages to being a known swot. She didn't bat an eyelash."
Harry chuckled and looked to Ron to share in the amusement, but found him intently reading one of Harry's composition books, looking pale and horrified. "Ron? What's wrong?"
When there was no response again, Hermione moved to the chair where Ron sat and touched his arm. "Ron?"
Finally, Ron looked up at her. "You told me all of this… I thought I understood. You… I can't believe…"
Hermione plucked the book from his hands and began thumbing through the pages with interest. "Is this your diary, Harry?"
Ron's white-knuckled hand gripped the chair arm, the one which Hermione was not occupying, then made a fist and pounded it. "I had no idea—I am such an arse. You had to face that… that snake thing by yourselves."
"Goodness, Harry!" Hermione exclaimed. "I was there, of course, but this brings it to life so vividly. It's amazing; it reads like a novel."
Harry flushed, both embarrassed and pleased by her praise.
"I'm so sorry I wasn't there." Ron was sincerely beside himself, and Hermione put a comforting arm around his shoulders.
Harry offered some comfort of his own. "It's all right. Really. You showed up when it mattered most." He gave him a small smile, because it was the truth—Harry would have most certainly died in that icy water.
Ron leaned into Hermione, looking slightly less miserable. "Still… big, giant arse."
Harry smirked. "If it makes you feel better, Ron, then yes, big, giant arse."
"Thank you." Ron gave a satisfied nod.
Hermione had buried her nose back in the book, then looked up at Harry with a gleam in her eyes.
"When I suggested, at the beginning of your illness, that you write down everything you could remember about the final battle to see if we could narrow down what or when this happened to you, this," she lifted the black and white composition book, "is not quite what I had in mind. It's incredible, Harry. Do you have more?"
He looked away, his embarrassment reaching a new level. "Actually, I, er, got a bit carried away," he confessed, the heat in his face nearly unbearable. "They start with our first year at Hogwarts."
His friends exchanged a look then gaped at him incredulously. Actually, Ron gaped—Hermione's eyebrows appeared to flee into her hairline.
"What? I've had a lot of time on my hands the last couple years."
Hermione recovered first and asked, "Will you publish them?"
She was so serious that Harry couldn't possibly mistake the question for a joke. Yet the very idea had him laughing anyway.
"Yeah, right. Gilderoy Lockhart Potter." He snorted dismissively, not without a slight chill of horror.
"No way, mate. This stuff is so much better than that idiot's books. For starters, you didn't once mention your favorite color in the bit I read."
Harry raised a finger in a show of appreciation for his friend's support, and Ron burst out laughing.
"Honestly, Harry, I don't think you should rule it out. This is really good."
Harry blushed again, very ready to stop talking about it. "Nah. I couldn't, Hermione. I'd feel too weird. Did your Ministry friend say if the bond would make someone feel the way I do?"
She accepted the subject change graciously. "I didn't specify, but she didn't know of any debilitating side-effects. Though, she's not researched it before, of course, so she doesn't know very much about it either. She's going to keep looking and promised to let me know as soon as she has found something more detailed. She actually seemed quite eager to work on it."
She hesitated, then added with a contemplative look on her face, "You're certain about Luna's uncle asking if you'd been around the dead?"
"Yeah, I'm certain, but he didn't know what it meant when I asked him—he was only reading what the machine said. Why, is it important?"
Hermione hesitated again and Harry instinctively braced himself for bad news. "Harry, Eglantine thinks the reason the bond is so obscure is that it's highly specialized, that it'll only work with people who have some sort of existing bond."
It wasn't nearly as bad as he'd thought, so he relaxed a bit. "Oh. Well, that's why I had Kreacher bring down the books, so we could look through them and maybe figure out who it might be." He remained wary because of the look on her face and a niggling sense that he already knew whom it was she was about to suggest.
"I've been thinking—"
"Now there's some news," Ron put in with a chuckle.
Hermione narrowed her eyes at him, then turned to Harry and continued, "What we've learned so far is: you have this someone's magic, along with your own; that it has to be someone you're already connected to; and this someone was dying at the time you encountered them." She stopped and Harry's heart began pounding, anticipating what she was about to say. Hermione covered her mouth with her hand, then blurted, "Oh Harry, what if he's alive after all?"
Ron sat up straight. "What? Voldemort?"
"No. I didn't even consider him." She turned back to Harry for confirmation. "It didn't seem… intimate enough. You'd already effectively killed the connection between the two of you when you destroyed the Horcrux in your scar, and you weren't very near him at the time he died…"
Harry scrubbed a hand over his face. "No, I think you're right."
"You've lost me, then," Ron replied.
"She meant Snape, Ron."
Harry sighed wearily, the exhaustion creeping over him. Saying the name had caused a familiar tugging, a sort of pull in the center of his chest, which he'd taken for guilt since the first time it'd happened, shortly after the war. Guilt for not trying to save him, guilt for not going back soon enough to retrieve his body, guilt for any number of things that remained unresolved because of his death.
If the man were still alive…
"Hang on. Harry didn't have a bond with Snape, Hermione. You're mental."
"They did though, in a way. Harry and Professor Snape had an enormously tangled history—it goes back to before Harry was born even. Professor Snape owed Harry's father a Life Debt, then played a part in his death. It's possible the debt was passed on to Harry. And that's just one thing."
"You've no need to convince me; every time I think of him, or you say his name, I feel this weird tugging in my chest. I thought I was just feeling guilty, but now, I'm not so certain."
He didn't tell them that he felt as if that tugging was actually trying to pull him toward something, or someone, it now seemed, mostly because he was fading fast. Harry decided he needed to put a little more thought into it before broaching the subject again, as he was fairly certain he had to go to Snape, wherever he might be.
The pulling sensation, which he now found oddly comforting, followed Harry into the abyss of unconsciousness.
"Have you gone round the twist, mate?"
"No, I haven't." He could tell Ron was mostly joking, so Harry tried to keep the frustration at bay. He'd expected Hermione to argue with him, but not Ron. "Look, it makes sense—I'm going to have to find him anyway, don't you think? And what if he has a part of the puzzle that we don't?"
Hermione walked into the library where they were sitting, and, clearly sensing the moment of tension, immediately asked, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Have you found anything?" Harry answered shortly, at the same time Ron said, "Harry thinks he's gonna go find Snape."
"I—" Hermione began, then knitted her eyebrows together and looked at each in turn, choosing to address Harry's question first. "No. Madam Pince was very helpful, but I can't help thinking we're looking in the wrong places for it. It's mentioned in so few of the books on traditional bonds, and never in detail when it is." Then added, "You're going to find Snape?"
"Well, I'm not going to trudge around the country, looking under rocks, if that's what you mean," Harry said sardonically, immediately defensive.
"Probably where you'll find him." Ron snorted.
Hermione huffed. "No, of course that's not what I meant."
"I'm sorry, Hermione, I didn't mean to snap like that," Harry said, truly contrite.
She smiled. "I know, Harry. Why don't you tell us what you are planning, then?"
"D'you remember what I said, about the tugging, that pull I feel? Well, I'm certain it'll lead me right to Snape if I follow it."
Surprisingly, Hermione didn't object, or even offer an argument. She looked thoughtful for a moment then replied, "That makes sense, actually."
Ron looked just as surprised as Harry felt, and Harry looked at him smugly.
"What? Are you mad? He could be anywhere—you don't know. He could be…" Ron thought for a moment. "He could be a prisoner somewhere… Lucius Malfoy's sex slave!"
"Lucius Malfoy is in Azkaban," Harry pointed out.
"Okay. Then he could be… he could be working in a carnival, divining futures with snake entrails."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Because of his recent, bitter snake experience."
Ron was laughing now. "Lame. Yeah."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, laughing too.
Not at all deterred, Ron tried again. "All right. He could be at Durmstrang."
"Now you're being ridiculous."
"…and being Karkaroff's sex slave."
"Of course. Except that Karkaroff is dead."
"Right. Yeah, that would put a damper on things." Ron laughed, but clearly wasn't ready to surrender. "He could be… he could be a rent boy in Knockturn Alley—polyjuiced to look like Malfoy the younger."
"Is there something you're trying to tell me?" Hermione interrupted him, an eyebrow raised inquiringly, arms folded in front of her.
"All but one of your scenarios seem to involve Professor Snape as a sex slave in one form or another," she began. "I'm just wondering where your interest lies."
Ron gave her a lopsided grin and traced an invisible pattern on her leg. "I've absolutely no interest in Snape, if that gives you any idea."
She snorted inelegantly. "I have no intention of being your sex slave, Ron. Ever."
Ron turned toward her and pushed a wayward curl behind her ear. Leaning in closer, his lopsided grin became somewhat lascivious as he replied, "That's not quite what I had in mind—what say if I were yours?"
He waggled his eyebrows suggestively and Hermione giggled. "Well, that's altogether different, isn't it?"
"Oi! Still here," Harry reminded them, biting back the chuckle that was threatening.
Shameless, Ron smirked at Harry and waggled his eyebrows again, until Harry, unable to hold back, finally burst out laughing.
The mirth didn't last long. Ron sobered after a moment, and said, "Seriously, Harry, you have no idea where Snape could be, or what kind of situation we might land smack in the middle of."
"I know, Ron. I do. But… I have to find him now. There's no question about that."
"How is it that we'll be doing this, Harry?" Hermione asked him.
"Apparate, of course. How else would I follow a tugging in my chest?" He hadn't meant to be sarcastic, but he was already on the defensive, and there would be more to come, knowing how what he was about to say was going to fly. "And I have to go alone."
Both of his friends objected, but it was Hermione's "Absolutely not!" that rankled more.
"What d'you mean, 'absolutely not'?"
Hermione backed down a bit, looking slightly sheepish, but didn't give up her argument. "I mean, how can you possibly think it's a good idea to Apparate into an unknown situation, alone, knowing full well that the magic used to do it will likely drain you completely? It's insane. Do you have a death wish?"
Ron rubbed a hand on her leg in a soothing manner, and said quietly, "She's right, Harry. And you know she is. It's not just insane, it's bloody stupid."
Harry rubbed a weary hand over his face, the ups and downs of the conversation taking their toll on his flagging energy. He was determined to stay calm, understanding that it was their caring that drove them to fight him on this, but Harry had given it a lot of thought and felt really strongly about it.
"I know it sounds mad and bloody stupid, but I'm certain I have to make the initial contact with him by myself. Can you imagine how he'd react if I showed up with an entourage?" He paused and took a breath. "If we're right, he likely has no magic—don't you think he'll feel threatened enough by one wizard, let alone three? And where would that leave us, if he turns me away, refuses to speak with me?"
"No magic? D'you really think you have all of his magic?" Ron asked in disbelief.
"Luna's uncle said I have enough magic for two people—how could I possibly believe anything otherwise?"
Hermione and Ron shared a look, and Harry could see by the fall of her shoulders that he'd won the argument, though he felt far from triumphant, as the look on her face was one of genuine concern, mixed largely with resignation. She closed her eyes briefly and sighed. "I don't like it, Harry, I truly don't. It's far too risky. But I understand what you're saying."
Ron looked more grim than resigned. "If he kills you, I will be seriously hacked off."
Harry gave a small smile, both despite and because of Ron's words, and offered a compromise. "I can't do Side-Along, because it's even more draining than Apparating, but what if I call Kreacher, once I see where I am and who or what is there? Even if something should go wrong, Kreacher'll be able to find me without me calling for him and could bring me home straight away, if need be," he added hopefully.
Sighing again, and looking no less worried, Hermione asked, "When will you go?"
"Tomorrow. Friday at the latest." Rather than feeling victorious, Harry felt a bone-deep weariness and sighed.
As he rode the wave of exhaustion, he heard Ron mutter with exasperated affection, "Bloody-minded twonk."
Two thoughts occurred to Harry when he landed that Friday afternoon. The first was that Ron would be sorely disappointed—the sort of rambling but charming cottage in front of him didn't seem to be the place one would typically find sex slaves. The other was that Hermione would be very unhappy with him, because it was the last thought he had before he fell to the ground, sinking into oblivion, before he could call for Kreacher.
Harry stirred as he felt strong arms lifting him, and he thought for a moment he was at home and Ron was carrying him, which had happened on a few occasions in the past. Then he remembered his mission and cracked an eye open, but instead of calling for Kreacher, he breathed, "You're alive."
He heard the replied, "As are you, Mr. Potter. It seems it is a day for surprises," just before slipping into unconsciousness once again.
Harry awoke slowly, keeping his eyes closed, savoring the very unusual fact that he actually felt rested to some degree. He could feel the sun shining into the room, the warmth of it pooling on his left side, and a soft breeze, scented of late summer, tickled over him, gently stirring his hair. He stretched very much like a cat before finally opening his eyes.
The room that greeted him was unfamiliar, and because he could see it, he realized he'd slept wearing his glasses. Reality crept into his consciousness, and Harry sat up suddenly. "Kreacher?"
"Kreacher is here, Master Harry." The little elf appeared bedside, wringing his hands, clearly beside himself. "Kreacher waited, just as Master said. Kreacher was very worried when there was no call."
Harry bent down and put a comforting hand on Kreacher's bony shoulder. "I'm fine, Kreacher. You did well. How long was I out, d'you know?"
"Kreacher does not know for certain. Master Prince had already put Master Harry here when Kreacher arrived."
Master Prince, was it?
"I haven't talked to the profess—er, Master Prince yet, obviously. Could you please go let Ron and Hermione know that I'm all right and come back for me when I call?"
Though the elf didn't look any less disgruntled, he responded, "Kreacher will tell Master's friends. Master Harry should not worry his friends so."
The censure was well placed, Harry knew, and he got the distinct impression that Kreacher had included himself in the latter statement as well. Again, he laid a hand on the house-elf's shoulder, and said sincerely, "I'm really sorry, Kreacher. I misjudged how I would feel after Apparating. I didn't mean to worry you."
Kreacher nodded, looking appeased but no happier about being sent away, then said, "Kreacher will do as told and wait for Master Harry to call for him."
Then he Disapparated with a pop that might have sounded displeased, if it were possible for displaced air to express such a thing.
Harry sighed, then wondered at his energy. He could feel it waning a bit, but on a good day, an exchange like that normally would have put him under for a few hours.
An odd noise from outside caught his attention and he moved to the window, opening it a bit wider.
What he saw was so outrageous he laughed aloud.
"Stupid bloody fucking chicken! Get back here, before I use you for soup!"
Severus Snape was chasing the errant bird, and though funny, that wasn't what Harry had found so completely outrageous. Neither was the fact that Snape seemed to be wearing Muggle work clothes. No, the outrageous, the nearly unbelievable, was that Snape, grouchy git extraordinaire, was laughing.
Perhaps talking to Snape about this bond wouldn't be as bad as Harry had thought—Snape could have easily used Harry for soup too, but he'd put him on a very comfortable bed, in what Harry assumed was his home. So he was already starting out further ahead than he'd expected.
After locating the toilet, thankfully on his second try at the four or five other closed doors on that level, he made his way slowly downstairs. Only one wrong turn later, and he had moved through a comfortable looking, somewhat rustic, moderately sized cottage.
In the kitchen, Harry finally found a door that opened to the outside, where he'd seen Snape through the window, and his heart started hammering in his chest—pure adrenaline, born of fear and anticipation and a small bit of anxiety.
Because knowing instinctively that a man you'd presumed dead was actually alive, and seeing him, within feet of you, were two entirely different things.
Luckily, Snape's back was to him and Harry took a deep breath to settle his nerves as he quietly pulled the door open and stepped outside, closing it soundlessly behind him.
He should have known he couldn't sneak up on Snape.
"Pennyfeather is not unlike you, Mr. Potter—she's adept at getting herself into trouble." Snape seemed to be working on the wire enclosure surrounding the chicken coop as he continued, "And she possesses a seemingly limitless capacity for trying my patience."
Harry smiled, finally on familiar ground with Snape. That feeling didn't last long, however.
When Harry opened his mouth to answer, Snape turned suddenly, his wand fixed on him. It was a move done with a familiar flair, and Harry realized Snape was just as menacing in the khaki work trousers, soft plaid shirt, and sturdy brown work boots as he'd been in stiff black robes and the heeled boots that wizards seemed to favor.
Green sparks flew out of the tip of the wand as Snape demanded, "Now, Mr. Potter, please tell me how it is that you not only found me, but managed to cross my wards so easily?"
Putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender, Harry was baffled by Snape's apparently functional wand. But his mind was a bit sharper than it had been of late, and a moment of consideration had him trusting his instincts. "Snape, we both know that wand isn't going to work for you."
Snape didn't budge though. "Explain yourself."
Harry said confidently, "For starters, if you had magic, you would have put me in a Body-Bind while I was unconscious. But that's not how I know for certain you don't have magic." He paused, wanting to add a bit of drama to his next statement. "I know, because I have your magic."
The dark eyes narrowed, but Snape lowered the wand. Harry remained a bit wary, and it was a good thing too. Though he'd already seen it once before, Harry was quite unprepared for Snape's reaction.
Snape threw his head back and laughed. Hearty, nearly uncontrolled guffaws burst out of the man, and Harry moved closer, thinking he'd gone hysterical and would need some help.
Snape swiped at his eyes, still snorting, and said dryly, "Perfect. Absofuckinglutely perfect."
"I don't know how it happened. Hermione is researching for us." Harry knew he wasn't giving Snape a lot of information, but he was still a bit thrown by Snape's laughter. "I guess it's time we talked."
Snorting once more, then considering Harry for a moment, Snape recited with a smirk:
'"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—"'
"Of cabbages and kings," Harry cut in, happy to have his turn at throwing Snape off.
Snape asked, mildly surprised, "You know it?"
Harry answered sincerely, "I do—I've had a lot of down time in the last couple of years, and Hermione has a lot of books." He wondered aloud, "Does this make you the walrus or the carpenter?"
"I am neither—it's a nonsensical poem, hallucinogen-induced rambling. Only its absurdity made it suitable for this occasion."
Not convinced, Harry shrugged and replied, "Dunno. Honestly? I feel a bit like I've stepped through a looking glass, or fallen down a rabbit hole."
Snape raised a questioning eyebrow, though he didn't say anything, clearly looking for elaboration.
"I think you're very different than I remember, and I feel better than I have in nearly eighteen months, maybe more, so falling down a rabbit hole is not so farfetched."
Snape, with a slight bow, made a sweeping gesture over the cottage and the surrounding grounds. "Well, then, welcome to Wonderland, Alice."
Harry snorted, but didn't say anything, enjoying this new, odd Snape.
Acting resigned now, Snape said, "I expect tea is in order, to make the metaphor complete."
"I could do with a cuppa, actually—just please don't throw any mad riddles at me. I think our situation is puzzle enough."
Snape moved toward the door, then held it open for Harry. "Puzzles are solved easily enough, if some thought is put into it."
"What? You know the answer? Cos that would be really handy." Even knowing it was impossible, Harry couldn't help the hopeful note that invaded the question. He'd found, while making his way through Hermione's collection, that he was partial to mysteries—no surprise given his history—but this was one mystery he could have done without.
"No, I do not," was Snape's terse response.
He turned and led Harry into the kitchen, which Harry now noticed was an L-shaped room, just as rustic as the rest of the cottage, with stone floors and an enormous fireplace on the longest wall. There was a swing arm holding a small cauldron, though there was no fire. Off to one side was an arched niche with wooden doors, which Harry presumed was an oven of sorts, and off to the other was a large, ancient-looking cooker.
There was a long trestle table situated in front of the fireplace, and Harry settled on one of the sturdy chairs his host had indicated with a gesture, watching as Snape, using a long wooden match, lit the hob, which appeared to be wood-burning, and placed the kettle on top.
The entire room gave the impression of great age, but seemed comfortable, lived in, and he decided he quite liked it.
Harry meant to offer to help Snape, even if it would have been just a token effort—it was only polite. Instead, he rested his head on his arms, which were conveniently folded on the tabletop, meaning only to rest for a moment.
Next thing he knew, he felt a warm hand gently shaking his shoulder, and heard the clink of china.
Bleary-eyed, he apologized. "Sorry. Must have overdone it."
The kip had helped a bit, the scent of tea and cake helped even more, and Harry pulled the cup Snape had placed in front of him a little closer. He yawned behind his hand—with the other, he reached for the milk and sugar, which flew across the table without warning and crashed into Harry's outstretched hand with a slosh and clank.
"Er, sorry," Harry apologized again.
He sopped up the spilt milk with the towel that Snape silently handed him. Hermione's customary admonishment to be more careful rang clearly in his head as the unexpected magic made him yawn once more.
Snape eyed him for a moment, taking a sip of his own unaltered tea. "Why is it, Potter, that you slept for nearly twenty hours and now can barely keep your eyes open?"
"Twenty hours, eh? I hadn't realized. It's not that unusual for me, actually, considering that I Apparated here."
As Snape didn't look any more enlightened, Harry explained, "I sleep all the time but never feel rested, and doing magic drains me more than anything." Harry hesitated, extremely curious but wary because he didn't know this Snape; he remembered quite clearly how the old Snape had felt about questions. They'd never get anywhere if they weren't able to talk, so Harry plunged ahead. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You already have."
Git. Harry sighed inwardly—people didn't change that much, it seemed.
Harry took the small incline of Snape's head as assent.
"Back there, when you had your wand on me—how did you make the sparks?"
Snape studied him with narrowed eyes for a moment, so intently that Harry was certain the man wouldn't answer any questions. Then sighing and looking resigned, Snape said, "I've retained enough underlying magic to brew potions, though nothing as volatile or complex in nature as I once concocted."
Harry thought he'd leave it at that, but then Snape added, "Admittedly, I was quite as surprised as you were to see the sparks." The admission seemed to cost Snape. He had a pained expression on his face before it shut down into neutrality. Then, in true Snape fashion, he cut to the heart of the matter. "What brings you to my home, Potter?"
It was an odd question, Harry thought, considering he'd already told the man that he had his magic, but he plunged into his explanation of what he and his friends now knew, precious little that it was, and what they were speculating.
"I see," was all that Snape had to say about it. He stood abruptly and began clearing the tea dishes from the table, and Harry felt a spot of disappointment that Snape wouldn't be adding new knowledge to the pot.
He marveled for a moment at the man's odd reaction. Then, because he didn't feel the customary weight of exhaustion as keenly as usual, Harry decided to offer the help he'd neglected to offer earlier, taking his plate and teacup to the sink, which was deep and wide. He felt no small amount of triumph when he was able to remain on his feet after two such trips.
An absolutely insane idea popped into his head. Even yesterday, he wouldn't have believed he'd consider such a thing. Now, the mere possibility, however remote, had his heart hammering in his chest. He really had nothing to lose by asking.
Snape turned away from the stove to look at Harry. The only encouragement to continue was the rise of a single eyebrow
"D'you think… Would it be possible for me to… stay? Just until we figure out how to fix this thing?" Harry rushed on, "I'll be as unobtrusive as possible, I promise. It's just, I haven't felt this awake in ages, and you seem to have more magic when I'm here—"
Snape raised a hand, cutting him off. "Mr. Potter, by virtue of your continued existence you are obtrusive."
Before Snape could continue, Harry put in, "I won't be a bother, I promise and I have a house-elf who helps me. I'm hoping I won't need it here, the help, but you needn't worry about me collapsing again or anything."
"I'm well aware of that wretched creature." Harry wasn't certain if he was calling the elf by name or just labeling him. He took a breath, unclear about what he meant to say but fully prepared to beg if necessary. His dignity was a small price to pay for actually feeling alive. Snape held up a hand, halting the words on Harry's lips. "However, you may stay for the duration."
It took a moment to sink in, and when it did, Harry was so appreciative he couldn't begin to express it. He was so overwhelmed, in fact, he nearly hugged the man, and while this new Snape seemed to have a sense of humor and was nearly magic-less, he was still a bit larger than Harry. Not to mention, there were infants, he was certain, who were stronger than he was.
Still, it was only the thinnest restraint that kept him where he stood.
The kettle reaching a boil was a welcome distraction, and Harry was able to offer a simple, "Thank you. You won't regret it."
It was then that it registered that Snape had put the kettle on again, and Harry couldn't help commenting. "Thirsty, are you?"
Snape lifted the kettle off of the stove and looked at Harry with a smirk. "If you are to stay, Potter, then there are a few things you should know about this place," he said, with a challenge in his eyes. "This dwelling is ancient, and the last resident to update it died before either of us was born. There was electricity installed at some point, so you will notice wall switches and plug-ins, but you will also find them quite useless. Heat comes from the fire, water comes from a well, the source of which is a mountain spring, and it is quite frigid. So bathing, whether it be dishes or humans, requires heating water."
He held the kettle aloft, then poured the contents into the basin over the dishes.
Harry wanted to ask, but hesitated, though Snape must have seen the question in his eyes. "The heating charms on the water heaters have become somewhat… unreliable without any refreshing over the years."
Snape turned back to the sink, pouring what Harry assumed was soap from a square glass bottle over the dishes, and then adding cold water from the taps to temper the hot. Harry didn't press the issue of the failing charms, sensing discomfort in Snape's admission.
Instead, though he was fighting the fatigue creeping over him, Harry made one last trip from table to sink.
"Which is your cold-cupboard, Snape?" he asked, holding the little pitcher of milk up, so that Snape would know why he asked.
"None of them," Snape answered tersely.
Apparently, he'd stepped in it again. Harry sighed inwardly. "Oh."
When Snape turned to look at him, the cross look on his face faded. "You are dead on your feet, Mr. Potter." He took the little pitcher from Harry and placed it next to the wooden draining board. "I shall give you a tour of the root cellar and the cold storage in the morning, if you still have an interest."
Harry nodded his agreement. While he'd certainly been more exhausted over the past couple of years than he was now, he felt the fatigue closing in on him fast. "Should I take the room I woke up in, then?"
"Yes. Go. Before you pass out on my floor—my back is not up to the task of carrying your carcass up the stairs twice in two days."
Harry gave Snape a tired half-smile, gratitude filling him. "Thank you."
He made his way to what was to be his room, as quickly as the sluggishness would allow, calling for Kreacher, who was thrilled to tuck Harry in snugly and promised to relay Harry's plans to Ron and Hermione.
As he drifted off, he wondered what he could do to repay Snape for letting him stay, then sleep claimed him completely.
When Harry awoke again, it was fully dark. He considered risking the drain of a Lumos, just as moonlight filtered in through the window, bathing the room in a bluish glow. It wasn't enough light to read his watch by, though, so Harry decided it didn't matter—it was obviously the middle of the night.
He stretched slowly, once again feeling as if he'd benefited from the sleep. So much so that he didn't think he could fall back to sleep right away. His growling stomach cemented that decision, prompting him to action, and he moved out of the room toward the staircase, hoping to find an apple or a piece of bread that he could nick from the kitchen without much fuss.
That he was hungry at all was a novelty and cause for a minor celebration, but actually having the energy to seek out food had him thrilled beyond words.
Halfway down the stairs, he noticed a warm light stretching out across the floor from the kitchen, and Harry slowed his progress, uncertain now if he should interrupt Snape. Even though Harry couldn't see him from where he stood, Snape was clearly working on something.
He hesitated in the doorway, considering a retreat, until he heard, "It is safe to enter, Potter."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you."
Without looking up from his task, Snape snorted and replied sardonically, "It is far too late for that."
Harry wasn't certain how to take that, but was saved from a response by his growling stomach.
"Ah. Help yourself." Snape pointed at a cast iron pot with the knife he'd been using to chop. "There is bread, and butter as well. You will find a bowl in the cupboard above the bread, and cutlery in the drawer below it."
The scent of the savory stew had his mouth watering and Harry added a fairly generous portion to his bowl, then took his midnight supper to the table, sitting at the end farthest away from Snape, just in case one of the ingredients he was using was poisonous.
It was a challenge to keep the moan of pleasure from escaping as he took his first spoonful. Lamb stew. He dove in with gusto and didn't look up again until the last bit was scraped from the bowl.
Harry pushed back from the table slightly, but remained seated in a sated stupor. He hadn't eaten like that in a long time and he didn't think he could move he was so full. Instead, he watched Snape brewing. He was still wearing the work trousers and flannel shirt, but he had a long black apron on over the top of them.
A sleek black cat trotted out from under the table and stopped next to Harry's chair. It seemed to peruse Harry for a moment, taking his measure, then it stood, putting its front paws on the chair next to Harry's leg and butted its head against Harry's arm.
"Hullo there. Who are you, then?" Harry asked while scratching the cat behind the ears. The cat's only response was to purr loudly, pressing eagerly into Harry's hand.
"That is Pendragon. He is a shameless attention seeker."
As if to prove Snape's point, Pendragon flumped down onto the floor and presented his belly to Harry, who bent down and accommodated the cat's silent demand with a soft chuckle. "You really are shameless."
Snape snorted, though Harry thought the noise more affectionate than derisive.
A short while later, Pendragon seemed to think Harry had done his duty. He stood, expressing his thanks with a sound that was more a drawn-out purr than meow, and trotted back under the table.
Harry watched Snape move about the room and decided that he truly was in his element with potions. It was like watching a dance, the moves practiced and graceful. The tugging in his chest started again, filling him with an odd warmth. He pressed a hand to the spot, wondering why it should happen, now, when he was already there with Snape, but he was too muzzy-headed to worry much about it at the moment.
Sleep was not far off, but Harry fought it for a little longer.
"Hmmm?" he responded distractedly, stirring the cauldron hanging above the fire.
"I was going to have Kreacher bring some of my stuff—clothes and whatnot—but I was wondering if you needed anything? Food, maybe, since I'm another mouth to feed? Or anything, really—something you've maybe wanted but couldn't get? I really appreciate your letting me stay. And don't tell Kreacher I said so, but that was the best lamb stew I've ever had—I'd've eaten the bowl if I'd had any room for it."
"I can assure you it is not necessary to eat the crockery—there's plenty more stew. As for needing anything, no, I do not. Thank you. Food is one thing I have in abundance, as I grow or make most everything I consume. Feeding you will not be a burden."
"But the lamb?"
"Was from my nearest neighbor, who, thankfully, is three or four miles downwind from here. He is as reclusive as I am, and we have a very agreeable arrangement. He keeps me in ham and bacon, and the occasional lamb, and I keep him in chickens, eggs, butter, and cheese. As well as this potion: an analgesic for his arthritis."
"Chickens? So Pennyfeather…?" Harry thought of Snape's soup threat and couldn't bring himself to say it—it seemed so heartless.
"Pennyfeather is the only chicken I have given a name. She was the first, and I found rather quickly that naming an animal moves it firmly from the 'supper' category to the 'pet' category." Snape actually looked sheepish, which made Harry smile for some reason. "It seems I do not have a stomach for slaughtering animals. I leave it in Mr. Paskin's capable hands."
That was quite all right with Harry—as far as he was concerned, meat came from the butchers', wrapped neatly in paper. Where it had been before that was something he chose not to contemplate. "Wait, you make cheese?"
"It is, essentially, a chemical process. I have one milk cow, and I am contemplating another, and possibly a goat. I have a fondness for goat cheese."
Snape seemed fairly offhand, but Harry was impressed, and couldn't help asking, "How did you get here, Snape?"
Harry had meant it metaphorically, this life so different from his one in the wizarding world, but Snape took him literally.
"I purchased this property ten years ago, and it became my sanctuary every moment I could get away in that time. I thought it unlikely that I might survive the final battle; however, as a precautionary measure, I carried a Portkey with me at all times. When I awoke in the Shack, I activated the Portkey and it brought me directly here. I've been here ever since."
Except not really simple at all.
"I thought you were dead. I'm so sorry—I would've done more to help, if I'd known you were still alive." Harry was sincere about that, and hoped he believed him. "Why didn't the snake bite kill you?"
"Arthur Weasley's harrowing experience with Nagini provided me with enough motivation to concoct an antivenin, as I spent a great deal of time in the presence of that infernal snake." A pained expression flitted across his face before he continued, "I miscalculated the rate at which I might lose blood—poison or no, a strike to the jugular will bleed out rather quickly, and I did not get to my Blood-Replenishing Potion until I arrived here. By all rights, I should be dead. I cannot account for the fact that I awoke at all—or couldn't, until you arrived with your speculations."
The last was nearly an accusation, and Harry decided he'd pushed Snape to his question-answering limit.
Instead of responding, Harry sat quietly, watching Snape's potions dance, thinking about all that he'd learned. He was lulled by the soft sounds that filled the room: the crackling fire, Pendragon's contented purring, Snape's occasional cauldron stirring, and the steady beat of rain falling outside the open window over the sink.
He couldn't imagine what Snape had gone through, that Portkey dumping him there, nearly bleeding to death. Harry still felt incredibly guilty that he'd left the man lying in a pool of blood. He shivered, remembering that snake attacking Snape. He'd relived that moment so many times in the past, and still, he couldn't say exactly why he'd given up his hiding place and gone to Snape. There was no logic to it, but Harry had just known, in that moment, what Snape had really been about.
"Look… at… me…" Snape had whispered, and Harry had not only looked, he'd seen.
He swallowed hard against the memory. However they'd managed it, Harry felt reasonably certain that the bond had happened in that moment.
The moment in which Snape the monster had become Snape the man.
Harry's second day at Snape's began with a soft, warm breeze fluttering the curtains, sunlight pooling on the floor near the window, and the unexpected but enormously welcome return of his libido.
Throwing the covers off, he grabbed his glasses from the bedside table and shoved them on his face, staring down at his tented boxers, very nearly bursting into tears. Slipping a hand inside his pants, he pushed them down to gaze at his erection lovingly.
"Oh god, it's good to see you, mate." He cradled it in his hand for a moment, enjoying the sensation, then gave it a good squeeze, moaning softly in relief and the simple joy of arousal.
It'd been two very long, very limp years since he'd felt anything of the sort. In fact, had he known the last time he'd wanked that it truly would be the last time, it certainly would've been much more memorable than that quick and furtive rub in the shower at Bill and Fleur's overcrowded cottage.
There was no telling if he'd get another opportunity; he certainly wasn't going to waste this one. So knowing it would put him down again for a while, but not caring a whit, Harry, falling easily into the achingly familiar rhythm, set about making it memorable.
When he awoke again, he felt particularly refreshed and hoped against hope it wouldn’t be another two years before he got the chance to do that again. Falling asleep sated was better, by far, than falling asleep exhausted without reason.
Harry called for Kreacher, giving him a list of things he would need from home, then asked him to fix the hot water charms and the cold cupboard. It was the least he could do for Snape, for letting him stay there.
While Kreacher worked his magic, Harry decided to check the other rooms on that level, to be certain there was only the single toilet and bath.
Just past the linen cupboard was the first of the three remaining unknown doors, which led to an office of sorts—there was a desk, among other things, with parchment strewn about its surface.
The next door turned out to be a narrow storage space containing a rolled up rug, a stiff-looking chair, and a couple of heavy, old lamps with electrical cords snaking alongside of them.
The final door, which Harry thought must be Snape's bedroom, was in reality nearly empty; the only thing there was a polished wood platform with a woven mat in the center of it. There were windows framed with gauzy white curtains that moved gently in the breeze and candles scattered about the room. Harry got the impression that its minimalist feel was intentional.
He strode out of the room, wondering why there was no other bedroom and enjoying the bit of temper, rising steadily with his suspicions, nearly as much as he had the arousal earlier in the day, and made his way downstairs, in search of Snape.
The man was nowhere to be found inside the house, and he wasn't in the area immediately behind the cottage so Harry made his way round the side and stopped short, staring. In front of him was an amazing garden, a sea of color, a lot of it taller than he was. There was a clear path through the seemingly endless field of flowers and Harry followed it, enchanted as the taller bushes and trees danced lightly in the soft breeze, adding lovely scents to the air.
The path twisted here and there, and he passed a small clearing with a tempting bench, but he pressed on, determined to find Snape. When he reached what he thought was the center of the garden, Harry finally found him, wearing what looked like loose black pyjama bottoms and a loose white tunic, open at the throat, sitting cross-legged under a pergola, on a platform similar to the one in the house.
Sunlight filtered through the roof, casting a crosshatch pattern of light and shadow on Snape's still form and that of Pendragon, who sat regally next to Snape with his tail curled around his body, seeming to stand guard over the man. Flowering vines entwined over nearly the entire wooden structure, and the air smelled deliciously of honeysuckle.
Walking through the garden had diminished Harry's temper considerably, and finding Snape like this—sitting so serenely, Harry wondered if he were sleeping—made him reconsider disturbing him.
"What is it you require, Mr. Potter?"
Harry was startled out of his thoughts; Snape hadn't so much as cracked an eye open.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me that I'm sleeping in your bedroom? I can take the sofa, Snape. I didn't want to be an imposition."
"Calm yourself, Potter. I have no need for a bed, so you are welcome to it."
"How could you not need a bed?"
The black eyes finally opened and met Harry's.
"I do not sleep, and so, do not have need for a bed."
Things started falling into place for Harry. Until that moment, he'd assumed it was the overabundance of magic in him that was making him so tired, and being near Snape had moved some of the magic back to him, giving Harry more energy.
The truth made much more sense—he felt a bit stupid now that he thought of it, as it was called a Life-force Bond. It should have been obvious. Clearly, they'd made an exchange: Harry's energy, his vitality, for Snape's magic. Maybe he'd somehow saved Snape's life after all.
But what a cost for both of them.
He knew firsthand what it was like to sleep all the time; he couldn't even begin to imagine not sleeping at all.
"That must be awful. Between the two of us, I don't know who has it worse."
"My vote goes to you, Potter." Snape paused, seeming to weigh what he said next. "It was a slow process; I began to require less and less sleep, until I required none at all. During that time, I prepared for such an event by learning to meditate, and when that wasn't enough to stave off the madness from lack of REM sleep, I developed a potion which simulates the REM effect."
Harry was slightly in awe of Snape's resourcefulness. He'd landed here a bleeding mess and managed to carve out such an existence, facing a life without magic, and finding ways to not only compensate, but to thrive.
Luna's Uncle Xanthus and his Magically Unencumbered came to mind. That's exactly what Snape was, he realized. And Harry knew full well that if their positions were reversed, he'd have slipped into madness long ago.
He could never say such a thing, of course. So instead, he said, "Your garden is extraordinary."
Snape took the change of topic in stride. "It is a work in progress which I find very satisfying." The look on his face said as much as he looked over his own handiwork. "There is a small greenhouse on the other side, and the vegetable garden is back the way you came."
Magically unencumbered, indeed.
Kreacher found him in the living room, perusing the books lining the built-in shelves along its walls.
"Miss Hermione wishes to see you, Master Harry."
Snape passed by the doorway from the staircase and Harry called out to him, "Snape, d'you mind if Hermione pops in for a bit?"
The pained expression on Snape's face was fleeting, but Harry saw it, understanding at once—the man had lived in solitary for two years, then Harry had invaded his home, bringing even more people with him. He was about to offer to go to her, when Snape replied, "That is acceptable."
"Thank you," Harry said sincerely.
"Go ahead and bring her here, Kreacher."
A moment later, Harry was hugging Hermione. "Goodness, Harry, you've only been here two weeks and look at you!" She released him, spotting Snape in the doorway. "It's so good to see you, Professor," she said, sounding genuinely pleased. "You're looking well, too."
"Thank you, Miss Granger, as are you. Though I am no longer a professor, thank Merlin."
Harry held back a laugh—Snape had said the word 'professor' as if it tasted bad.
"Mr. Snape, then?" Hermione asked, wrinkling her nose.
"I think not. Severus will do."
"Then you must call me Hermione."
"Very well. Enjoy your visit, Hermione." With a small bow of his head, Snape headed toward the kitchen, then out the door.
A tiny streak of envy shot through Harry; it was so easy for Hermione.
Or maybe not—she looked at Harry in disbelief, and then giggled into her hand. "I don't know if I can actually call him that to his face."
She hugged him again and he pulled her into the room and towards the sofa.
"I guess we're in Wales, then?"
"How d'you know that?"
She pointed up at the bookcase on the wall across from them. Harry had been in the room several times in the past couple of weeks and hadn't noticed the stained glass window centered high above the bookcase. The fierce red dragon glowed against the white and green background with the afternoon sun behind it, 'Y Ddraig Goch' carefully lettered beneath it. The Red Dragon.
"Huh. Yeah, I guess we're in Wales."
She rolled her eyes at him good-naturedly. "Ron sends his love. We miss you, you know."
Harry snorted. "Right. You've the house to yourselves, and don't have to take care of me all day. Plenty of time to put Ron's sex slave plan into action."
He waggled his eyebrows and she blushed. "We are doing no such thing, and we don't mind taking care of you, Harry. We love you."
"I love you, too, but I hate being a burden." He didn't want to get into this sort of conversation. He waved his hand dismissively and took a different tack. "Have you found anything new?"
"That's why I'm here, actually." She put a hand on his arm. "Eglantine is just absolutely stumped, and I wonder if it isn't our fault."
"How d'you mean?"
Hermione pursed her lips for a moment, hesitating. "What would you think about giving her full disclosure?"
Harry didn't respond straight away so Hermione pressed on, "I just think if she knew the whole story, had a bigger picture, she might have a better idea where to look."
"D'you trust her, Hermione?"
"Yes, I do. We've become quite good friends, actually. She's an incredible researcher, the best in the department, so I truly believe that we've held her back from finding the answer for us by not telling her everything we know."
"All right, then, that's good enough for me."
"Excellent. I think I'll go to see her now—the sooner the better." She hugged him one more time as they stood. "I would tell you to take care of yourself and remind you to eat, but you look as if you're doing that already."
There was a hint of sadness in her voice that he hoped he'd interpreted correctly. "Don't worry, I still need you, Mum."
"I know that, silly." But she looked pleased. "See you soon. Oh!" She came to a halt and pulled something out of her pocket, then used her wand to enlarge it, pressing the velvet-lined box into his hands. "I thought you might've forgotten about this."
Hermione was right, he had forgotten about it, but when he looked for Snape, he couldn't find him before he'd started to feel the fatigue creeping over him.
Not to mention, now that he knew Snape didn't sleep, he made it a point to be awake in the middle of the night.
He'd been thinking about what it might be like to never sleep and figured that the wee hours must be the hardest to get through, the time when everyone and nearly everything was sleeping, the time when it was darkest. He was determined that wouldn't be so for Snape, if he could help it.
Harry awoke to the scent of baking bread wafting through the air and smiled, his mouth watering in anticipation of his midnight snack. He loved baking nights—it had become his favorite part of the new routine they'd developed over that past fortnight.
Led by his nose down the stairs, Harry leant against his customary chair in the kitchen, inhaling the delicious scents, watching as Snape used a wooden paddle to pull two loaves of bread from the hearth oven. Pendragon wound through Harry's legs in greeting, then sat between his feet, rubbing his head on Harry's shin.
Before Harry could reword what was surely a whinging plea into a reasonable request, Snape slid a plate onto the table in front of him.
"To save you the humiliation," he said dryly as Harry sat down, dropping the items he carried with him onto the table.
Harry inhaled again, then picked up one of the two pieces on the plate, biting into it and closing his eyes. Snape had buttered the warm bread and drizzled honey over it.
"Mmmmmm." He opened his eyes when he heard the clink of the teacup being placed on the table, and didn't know what to make of the look on Snape's face.
Bemused, Harry sent Snape a lopsided grin. "Thanks."
Harry took another bite, then remembered what he'd brought down with him. Mouth still half full of bread, he said, "I've brought something for you."
He sucked the honey and butter off of his fingers so he wouldn't get the box or the book dirty, and when he looked up, he found Snape looking at him oddly again. Harry shrugged it off and handed the black velvet-lined box to him.
Snape took the offering cautiously, as if he thought it might explode or shoot ink at him when he touched it. When he opened the box, however, he seemed stunned, and Harry thought for a minute that he might actually let his fingers run over the purple ribbon's bright gold stars, maybe trace the inscription on the heavy medal attached to it. But Snape's hand dropped abruptly to his side; his face became a stony mask.
"What is this?" he demanded.
Wary now, Harry replied, "It's your Order of Merlin, First Class. I thought you might like to have it."
"I see." He closed the box with a loud clap of the lid and put it down on the table. It wasn't lost on Harry that the man had laid it as far away from himself as he could while still standing in place, and then had actually turned his back to the thing, though Harry didn't know what to make of the gesture.
"And this?" Snape pointed at the other item Harry had brought with him, and Harry tried not to regret his rash decision.
"Er, it's my diary. Only, you've never asked once about how it all ended, and I thought you might be curious to know." Harry cringed internally at the nervousness in his voice, and he deliberately took a calming breath. "I wrote down everything I could remember when this first started, to see if I could pinpoint when and what happened to me. And I just thought you might like to read through it, at your leisure, so you'd know what happened after you… after you'd gone."
Snape picked up the black and white speckled book. "It's a Muggle book."
Harry smiled. "Yeah, the stationers at Diagon Alley carry them." He face pinked slightly. "I have quite a few of them, and I didn't fancy a bundle of scrolls. These fit in the bookcase nicely. Anyway, you're welcome to read through it, if you'd like."
"Ah," was Snape's only response.
Harry hoped he'd made the right decision—he'd been as honest and accurate as possible, and his feelings about Snape hadn't changed for the better until the end. Too late now to do anything but hope for the best.
Snape didn't say another word about it that night and the brief tension disappeared into their normal nightly routine. But the next morning, Harry noticed that both the velvet-lined box and the diary were gone.
Harry didn't know if it was the late hour, or the dark pressing against the windows—which sometimes made Harry feel as if they were the only two people in the world—or if Snape just relaxed more in the evenings, but he certainly seemed more inclined to answer questions during their late nights in the kitchen.
Or rather, most nights he was less inclined to become irritated with Harry for asking questions, however reluctantly he might answer them.
"Hmmmm?" Snape continued to stir without missing a beat.
"How d'you get the things you can't make or grow?"
Snape did look up then. "Why do you ask?"
Harry shrugged. "You're nearly out of tea, and I wondered how you get more."
"In the usual way: I purchase it."
"Oh." Harry didn't want to push it, but Snape must have sensed that Harry wanted more.
He sighed loudly. "I have a vehicle. I drive to the nearest town—Hay-on-Wye—make my purchases, enjoying very little interaction with the locals—I am English, they do not trust me living in their midst, for which they have my undying gratitude—and then drive home again. On occasion, if I have a need, I make the trek to Hereford. It's all very exciting."
"You have a car?" Harry asked, incredulous.
"A small lorry. It came with the property."
"I've not seen it."
"It is in the barn."
"You have a barn?"
"Yes, Potter. It's were the cow lives."
"Oh. Well, I've only been outside twice since I've been here," Harry said, shamefaced.
Snape took a moment before speaking. When he did, there was a challenge in his voice. "Perhaps, then, a chore is in order, to get you out of the house."
If Snape thought he would argue, he was in for a surprise; Harry was actually all for it. He wanted to play a part in some way. Though, of course, his enthusiasm for the task would depend on what it was. "All right. What can I do?"
"Eggs. It is now your job to collect the eggs. It must be done daily, the earlier the better; it should not be overly taxing to you."
Harry went to bed that night, leaving Snape to whatever it was he did when Harry became too tired and abandoned him to the night, looking forward to his new task. It would feel good to make some sort of contribution.
Harry learned a bit about Snape, too, in the wee hours. Some of the things he learned were easily understandable.
"No, I do not drink."
"Not even a little? It might help you sleep."
"Do not think I haven't made an attempt, Potter. It is not quite sleep, but does help achieve a state in which I do not know anything nor do I care. I've found it is too tempting an oblivion." He added somewhat wistfully, "I do miss Scotch at times."
Harry found himself curious about Snape and his cat. They seemed to have a symbiotic relationship that reminded him of Filch and Mrs. Norris. Snape appeared to understand Pendragon's various meows, unerringly providing the cat with what he might have requested: an opened door, a bit of fish, a saucer of milk.
Though he hadn't noticed if Uncle Xanthus had a cat, he remembered Mrs. Figg had had a houseful, and he wondered now if there was some sort of connection between Magically Unencumbered and cats—like the witches and their familiars that appeared in many Muggle stories.
"Snape, where'd you get Pendragon?"
"Well, I just can't see you at a pet shop, picking out kittens, really."
Snape snorted. "Truly."
He paused long enough that Harry thought that was all Snape would offer on the subject, but he finally continued. "I had a need for a mouser and sought one out at the cat rescue in Hay. He was meant to be a big tom, a ruthless hunter." Snape gestured at Pendragon, who seemed pleased to have their attention, rolling onto his back in a silent demand for belly scratches. Snape rolled his eyes. "Instead, this one claimed me."
"He was small—too small for my purposes, which were of no import to him, of course. He jumped onto my shoulder as if he'd always done so. The woman who ran the place claimed he'd never done anything of the sort before, that he'd actually been rather aloof—an admirable quality, I find. She said, 'Looks like he's yours.' I now believe she was speaking to the cat."
Some nights, the confessional atmosphere led to more questions, though Harry often exercised restraint, fearing he would push Snape too far, and he'd come to enjoy their nighttime chats too much to lose them for being nosy.
"Kreacher calls you Master Prince, did you know?"
Snape looked up from his chopping—surprise flickered across his face so fleetingly, Harry thought he might've imagined it—then returned his attention to his task before answering, "I suspect he remembers me as such. It was the name I used when I was introduced to the Blacks."
He didn't elaborate, but Harry was astonished, and so filled with questions he didn't know which to ask first. "You… When… Sirius's parents?" he finally managed to blurt out.
"Regulus's parents." Snape looked at Harry for a moment, eyes narrowed, then added, "Regulus and I were…" he cleared his throat, "…friends."
Ah. Well, that made sense, Harry thought, so much so that he wondered why he'd never thought of it before. They had only been a year apart, in the same House, had the whole Voldemort thing in common. Snape's hesitation over the word 'friends', though, had Harry intensely curious, but he didn't dare ask, sensing it wouldn't be as well received as the other questions he'd peppered the man with over the last few weeks.
So instead, he asked, "Why'd you change your name?"
"You know what they were like, Potter. Prince, while not a name of influence and power in the wizarding world, was at least an old-blooded one."
There was a tightness in Snape's expression, but he didn't look angry. Yet. Harry didn't want to press his luck, so he tried to segue away from there, asking, "What name d'you use here, then?"
"Perhaps you haven't noticed Potter, but there is not anyone here who would use my name."
Taking a chance, Harry asked, "I'm here—may I call you Severus?"
Though he'd held no real hope of getting a yes, he couldn't let it go without pointing out, "But you let Hermione."
"Because Miss Granger is far less likely to use it."
Inwardly, Harry was amused. Outwardly, for the other man's benefit, he grumbled in the face of Snape's smirk.
They fell into a comfortable pattern as the weeks turned to a month, then to two. For Harry, that meant never taking his morning wank for granted, gathering eggs, and keeping Snape company during the wee hours, though he was becoming concerned about the tugging in his chest, which had become a somewhat chronic condition.
This routine continued uninterrupted until the day Harry heard, Whack. Thunk. Whack. Thunk… coming from outside, over and over again.
When he found the source of the sound, he stopped dead, stunned, watching through the kitchen window as Snape bent to stand a piece of wood on the stump, then lifted an axe and brought it down hard, neatly splitting the log in two.
He was shirtless, and the play of wiry muscles was fascinating, or it must have been anyway, because Harry couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from the shoulders and the way the black hair brushed against them as he moved. Couldn't stop watching the flexing muscles of Snape's legs as he bent to put a new piece of wood on the stump. He'd never noticed before the way the khaki trousers hugged the narrow hips and slightly rounded arse and…oh god he was ogling Snape!
At a man.
Not a man… Snape.
Wanting to lick the bead of sweat rolling down his spine…
Harry had never fancied a bloke before. Why on earth would he start now? Well, okay, maybe he had a little bit, maybe one or two—Bill or Charlie, and okay, Neville once—maybe they'd snuck into a fantasy here and there.
That was normal, right?
But why the fuck was he ogling Snape?
Merlin, Snape would kill him. Did one need magic for Legilimency? Oh god, why hadn't he learned to Occlude?
The man kept chopping that wood, and sweating and flexing and looking lickable, as if Harry's world hadn't just been set on its ear. And he might have resented it if his entire body weren't throbbing with arousal.
Suddenly, it no longer mattered that it was Snape who'd caused this incredible need. He scrambled out of the kitchen and up the stairs, hurrying towards his room, pulling his clothes off as he entered and diving onto the bed, his hand on his cock before his back hit the mattress.
Desperate now, he let the images play out in his head: flat, firm chests; broad shoulders and narrow hips; rounded arses and hard cocks, things he'd never before let himself imagine. He'd never been this hard, never been this desperate, never had his skin felt so alive and needy, demanding touch. So with his free hand, instead of rolling his balls, as was its usual duty, he used it to pinch and flick hardened nipples, caress his belly and chest and thighs, then back up again to the nipples.
His hips got into it then, thrusting his cock up into his hand, and he squeezed and pinched and stroked and thrust, heat coiling at his center, building, building, building, until finally, it couldn't be contained.
"Ahunghhh!" he cried out his release, thrusting once more, then melting into the bed, his body vibrating with pleasure. He just barely managed to clean himself up before he was sucked into unconsciousness.
Harry fought through the fatigue. How long he'd been asleep, he didn't know, only that he wasn't quite finished. But something pulled him partway out of the tide of oblivion.
Fingers. Caressing his forehead. A warm hand cupped his cheek and Harry sighed, nuzzling into it happily as the wave of oblivion reclaimed him.
When he woke again, it was dark. He stretched, feeling better than ever, then lay quietly for a moment, thinking about what had transpired.
He'd have felt mortified, he was certain, if it hadn't felt so bloody fantastic, if he hadn't awoken feeling so good. He thought of Snape and felt heat rising in his face, along with that insistent tugging in his chest. He'd wanked with images of Snape in his head.
And he truly couldn't account for it.
Snape wasn't a god by any stretch of the imagination. He was skinny and dour and aloof and sometimes cruel, and yet, Harry still wanted to take a bite of him.
Because he was also strong and smart and resourceful and funny and sarcastic and troubled and courageous and often mysterious and sometimes kind and always seeming to thrive in the face of adversity. It was a package of contrasts that was so fucking appealing to Harry, he didn't know why it'd taken him this long to see it.
Oh god, he was attracted to Snape.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and sat up, putting his feet on the floor. What would he do about it? What could he do about it, really? Nothing, he decided. He couldn't afford to alienate Snape; he needed him. In more ways than one, it seemed.
And anyway, he didn't even know if Snape went for blokes, though his memory kept prodding him with Snape's peculiar hesitation when he'd spoken of his friendship with Regulus Black.
Gah. He waved the tiny hope away. It really didn't matter, even if Snape were a flaming poof, and there really was very little in the way of evidence to support such a theory, it didn't mean he'd want Harry.
He stood, pulling on his clothes, which he'd found strewn about the room. Keeping things status quo was for the best.
As he moved toward the door, he touched his cheek, a shadow of a memory hitting him. Had that been real? Or had he imagined it?
He straightened his spine with resolve. It didn't matter. Status quo. Which meant, he was going to head down to the kitchen to keep Snape company, just as he always had.
Except Snape wasn't in the kitchen, or anywhere else in the house as far as Harry could tell. Maybe Snape had known what he'd done after all, and it disgusted him.
Get a grip, he ordered himself.
He went to the door and opened it, peering out into the darkness, the rain falling steadily on his head. He couldn't tell for certain, but it looked as if there was a light in the garden. Instead of heading out to investigate, though, Harry went up to Snape's meditation room. There was a window that overlooked the garden side of the cottage, and sure enough, the greenhouse was lit from within.
The tugging in his chest started again and Harry pressed a hand to it. An idea occurred to him suddenly, which caused him to go still.
What if they were related, the tugging and his attraction to Snape? Was it possible that the bond was making Harry feel this way?
He found comfort in the thought, and hoped that Hermione would have an answer for them soon.
Harry made his way back down to the kitchen. He considered waiting for Snape to come in, but decided against it. Still, he felt like he should do something—his only contributions to the household were collecting eggs and keeping Snape company in the middle of the night, and tonight he was unable to do one of those things.
Snape might not tire and he might not sleep, but it was a rainy night and there was a chill in the air, as autumn seemed to have sunk its teeth into the area, so Harry decided he would make some tea for him.
The fire in the cooker was still smoldering, so Harry opened the heavy, cast iron door and stoked the fire, adding some kindling to bring it back to life, then set the kettle on top to boil.
While he waited, he got the china tea service out, then measured and dumped the loose tea into the teapot, making certain it would be strong, the way Snape liked it. Just as the water began to boil, Harry pulled the kettle off the heat and poured it into the teapot to steep.
He put the teapot and one teacup on a saucer at the end of the table, nearest the door, so Snape would see it when he came in, and because he was going back to bed, Harry chanced a warming charm, so it would be hot and fresh whenever Snape found it.
It wasn't a huge thing, but it was something, anyway.
Harry just made it to the bed; the use of magic had put a weight on his entire being, and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
As he'd been sleeping when he normally would've been awake, Harry awoke earlier than usual. He'd slept hard and didn't feel quite as rested as he had lately, so he lolled in the bed for a while, listening to the pitter-patter of the rainfall.
He was absolutely not avoiding seeing Snape. Absolutely not.
When he finally made his way downstairs, however, he found that just maybe Snape was avoiding him, as the kitchen was once again empty.
The teapot was in a different spot on the table though, and the milk and sugar were sitting next to the empty cup. Harry shrugged, deciding not to read anything at all into it. It was still hot, so Harry poured some for himself, needing the fortification.
After he'd collected and cleaned that day's eggs, Harry finally found Snape in the root cellar, clipboard in hand, standing at the rows of wooden shelves and examining the jars of pickled and preserved produce.
"Good morning, Mr. Potter," he greeted him without looking up.
"Morning. What're you doing? Something I can help with?"
"Inventory," Snape replied curtly. "Checking the stores for winter. If you wish to help, I am verifying the seals haven't been compromised, and putting the older jars in front. I've only just begun the process."
"Okay. I can do that."
Harry moved to the other end of shelving and they worked in silence. Snape seemed to be acting just as he always had, so Harry decided the incredible tension he was feeling was all him. But the earthy smell in the air, likely intensified by the rain, and the repetitive action of checking and aligning the jars had a calming effect on Harry.
He'd only found one jar that had a blanket of green fuzz sitting atop the contents, and he stood from his crouched position, nearly knocking Snape over in the process. He grabbed hold of Snape's arm to steady him with his free hand as Snape did the same.
"Oof. Hi. Sorry. Didn't know you were there." Harry laughed.
Snape smirked. "Clearly."
They stood looking at one another for a moment that seemed suspended in time, Snape's solid arm was hot under Harry's hand, and the tugging in Harry's chest gave way to a weird fluttering. He had to take a step back in order to breathe, and he bit his lower lip, but it was no use, nervous laughter bubbled out of him.
"Master Harry." Kreacher appeared suddenly and saved him from saying something incredibly stupid, which had been a certainty. "Miss Hermione wishes to see you. She says it is urgent."
Harry looked to Snape, who nodded.
"I'll just, er, go. To see Hermione, that is. Because it's urgent." He handed the jar to Snape and backed out of the small space they'd been sharing, racing up the steps, then into the cottage. He leant against the door, head in hands, mocking himself. "Because it's urgent. Gah!" Idiot.
Hermione hurried through the doorway from the living room. "Harry! We've found it!"
She launched herself at him, squeezing him tight.
Beaming, she said, "We have. Eglantine found it in an ancient Healer's text. It's a Healing bond!"
Harry led her to the table and she continued excitedly, "That's why it wasn't in any of the books on traditional bonds. It was only used in the direst circumstances, as a last resort. It hasn't been used for years; it's not even mentioned as a footnote in the modern texts. I'm presuming that advances in Healing over the years made it largely unnecessary."
The good news was welcome but couldn't overcome Harry's new preoccupation. Now that they had details, he had to ask, "Hermione, is there any, er, sexual element to the bond?"
She looked surprised, then knit her eyebrows together. "How do you mean?"
"I… hmm. Would this sort of bond make someone, er, feel something they might not have otherwise?"
"Would the bond compel you to feel something? No, it's not that sort of bond." Her eyes lit up. "Harry, do you have feelings for Severus?"
Harry buried his face in his hands, his glasses digging into his cheeks, which were intensely hot. "Yes, apparently," he mumbled into his hands.
"Well, that's wonderful!"
"What?" Harry looked up, his glasses falling crookedly down his nose. "How can you say that? This is Snape we're talking about, and maybe he doesn't actively hate me anymore, but he's still Snape and I'm still me and it's utterly impossible."
Hermione smiled indulgently and Harry realized he was flailing like a teenaged girl, furthering his embarrassment.
Merlin, he was pathetic.
"Harry," Hermione said kindly, patting his arm. "This is a good thing. And it will certainly make fixing your situation that much easier."
"What d'you mean?"
"Well, the bond is completed with intimacy. It's designed to be used by people who are already bonded in some manner, and that could mean all sorts of things: immediate family or close friends, or any loved ones, really, and it could mean, literally, people who've intentionally bonded in some way. The Life-force Bond forms when the uninjured party wills a part of their own vitality into the injured person, sustaining them until proper medical treatment can be obtained.
"As the injured party heals, the bond is supposed to correct itself naturally, through intimacy—which could be a close friendship, or a maternal relationship, or even a lover—in the existing relationship. In your case, there was no existing intimacy, however tangled up your history with Severus might be. Does that make sense?"
Harry thought about it, remembering that moment with painful clarity. Look… at… me. He remembered thinking how odd it was that Snape should have warm hands. He remembered knowing, without doubt, that he'd been wrong about Snape, even before the memories started pouring out of the man. And he remembered wishing with everything he had that Snape wouldn't die. He'd have given anything so that no one else had to die. Harry brushed impatiently at the wet collecting on his eyelashes, refusing to let it fall. That moment had been intimate…watching the life leave Snape's eyes had been very fucking intimate. But it was a single moment in time.
He swallowed hard. "Yeah, that makes sense."
Hermione squeezed his arm, then took his hand to stop him from picking at the wood on the table with his thumbnail, which he'd been doing unconsciously.
"There's no documentation of a Life-force Bond remaining incomplete, so we're still just speculating here, but you're up against an incredible imbalance. Eglantine and I both agree that because of the lack of intimacy, or even proximity, directly after it formed, the bond continued to draw your vitality, and in an effort to complete the connection, sent you what Severus had in abundance: his magic, creating a sort of false intimacy.
"You feel better when you're near Severus because that physical proximity is a type of intimacy too. But more like a small plaster on a great, gaping wound in this case—I don't think it's strong enough to correct the imbalance naturally, not without considerable time spent in each other's constant presence, or you would've have felt a marked change already."
"So what are you saying, then?"
Now she looked uncomfortable. "We think the quickest way to fix this imbalance would be physical intimacy. So you see, if you're already attracted to him, it should make things so much easier."
His head was still trying to wrap around the fact that he was attracted to any man, let alone Snape, but his body tingled with anticipation, seemingly all for it. Harry sighed and said dryly, "Right. Easy. No problem."
"Are you having trouble with this because he's a man? Because honestly, Harry, it's perfectly natural to be attracted to both. I think most people are to some degree."
"So you fancy girls too?" he asked dryly.
Hermione smiled. "Well, truthfully, it's only ever been Ron for me, as boring as that might sound. But I can say that my head has been turned once or twice by a woman."
How bizarre his life had become. Still, Hermione's confession was comforting and amusing and sort of, well, hot. "Who? Go on, you can tell me."
"That is none of your concern, nosy," she replied with a laugh, tapping the end of his nose with a fingertip. "The point is, you shouldn't let narrow-mindedness get in the way of your health, and possibly your happiness."
It seemed ridiculous to think of Snape and happiness in the same context, but he didn't argue with her. "So, what of the tugging in my chest—was there any of that mentioned?"
"Not specifically, no, but I imagine it was the connection, trying to get the two of you in closer proximity."
"Why would I still feel it now, though, especially when he's in the same room with me?"
She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Does it feel the same as the tugging that brought you here?"
Now that he thought about it, it did feel a bit different, warmer, but when he told her that, she smiled, then laughed softly.
"Cheers, Hermione. Very nice," he said wryly, her laughter getting his back up slightly.
"I'm not laughing at you. Sometimes you're just so sweet and clueless, I can't help it." She squeezed his hand. "It sounds like affection, or caring to me. It's how I feel with Ron. Sometimes, he's just sitting there doing nothing, or worse, sleeping on the sofa with his mouth gaping open, and I just look at him and…" She sighed and pressed a hand to her chest, a gesture now very familiar to Harry.
Harry groaned internally, wondering when exactly he'd lost control of his life, or if he'd ever had control of it to begin with. He was a poof, or something like it, and apparently, he was sweet. Well, he didn't want to be sweet—he wanted to be manly. Hadn't sending Voldemort off to the netherworld given him any credibility at all?
Apparently, even that couldn't overcome being a sweetly clueless, twenty-year-old virgin with an uncertain sexual orientation.
He offered one last argument. "But I cared about Ginny, and it didn't feel like this at all."
"Well, all I can say to that is Severus Snape is not Ginny Weasley."
"Thank Merlin for that," said the man in question. Snape held the door open long enough for Pendragon to slink through, and walked to the sink to wash his hands.
The look on Hermione's face was caught somewhere between amusement and horror at having been overheard. Amusement won out when she giggled into her hand, and Harry snorted, despite himself.
Snape put the kettle on and moved about the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to them.
"I must get back, Harry—when Eglantine and I worked out the details, I just ran for the Atrium." She opened her bag and pulled out a thick parchment scroll, then handed it to Harry. "This is her summary of the research."
He hugged her, and she whispered, "It'll all work out, Harry. You'll see."
Harry wished he shared her confidence. He finally had an answer about what was wrong with him, but it wasn't the moment of victory he'd hoped for. Just like Snape himself, the situation continued to be prickly and difficult.
How was he supposed to approach this? Snape had shown absolutely no interest whatsoever in solving this little mystery of theirs. And even now, when Snape surely must have known why Hermione had come by, he didn't seem to care enough to ask about it. He just prepared lunch as if it were any other day.
"Uhm, Snape? Hermione and her friend have found the information on the bond."
"Is that so?" he asked offhandedly, not pausing in his sandwich-making efforts.
"She brought this for you to read." He held up the parchment scroll.
Snape looked over his shoulder and said, "Just leave it there on the table." He turned back round and said nothing further about it.
Harry was at a loss, but did as directed and left the scroll on the table.
Where it stayed, untouched, for several days.
Harry was about to go spare with the waiting. It came to a head four nights later.
A driving rain battered the cottage, and Harry felt more isolated than ever, staring out at the endless darkness. Snape was brewing something foul-smelling and Harry had to wonder if he'd chosen it on purpose, just to add to the thick atmosphere. Even Pendragon was on edge, jumping and hissing at shadows, or nothing at all.
"Are you ever going to look at this?" Harry poked the scroll and it rolled over once, somewhat apathetically.
Snape gave a barely perceptible shrug, eyes never wavering from the potion ingredients laid before him.
"Why are you being like this? Don't you want to know? The answer is right there. We could've fixed this days ago. We could fix this tonight, but it seems you couldn't be arsed."
Snape turned with his customary flair, and snarled, "I couldn't be arsed, Potter, because I do not intend to fix this, as you say."
Harry spluttered, truly dumfounded. "But… why? Don't you want to sleep? Don't you want your magic back?"
Snape's jaw clenched and unclenched; his nostrils flared. "I was supposed to die. Do you understand? That was to be the price I paid for my poor choices, for my failures over the years. And I was denied that. I landed here, broken, but alive." He spat the word. "My one comfort was the slow leaching of my magic—it was only a token, but it was all I had to give, and I have had to live with that every single day. I will not have it back."
Harry was so angry he was shaking. Before he could rein himself in, one of the oil lamps mounted on the wall exploded, showering glass in a wide arc.
He managed to grit out quietly, "That's fine for you, Snape. But what about me?"
Harry didn't wait for a response; he fled the room, seething.
And, for the first time, he was afraid of all the magic inside of him.
It took him two days to calm down enough to take up his nightly routine again. Snape accepted his presence as if there'd been no interruption, and made no mention of the bond.
Harry was absolutely determined not to give up just yet. Still, it was another week before he got up the nerve to try again.
The scroll had gone the way of the medal and Harry's diary, so he assumed Snape had it, though he'd given Harry no indication that he'd actually read it.
"Snape, you know this bond, it'll right itself eventually, and you'll have your magic back whether you want it or not. What could it hurt to do it sooner, rather than later?"
"Perhaps, I shall die before that happens, then you may have my magic and your energy."
"Won't you even consider it?" Harry was frustrated and not a little bit hurt.
"For the last time, Potter, no," Snape gritted out with painful finality.
After that, Harry's bitter disappointment colored their interactions, few that they were, but the most galling thing, the most pathetic thing, as far as Harry was concerned, was the fact that he still cared about the man despite it.
Their apparently lopsided feelings created a new imbalance in Harry's world, one that was much harder to deal with than the old one.
Clearly, Snape cared very little for him, and that was fine… well, maybe not fine, but certainly not unexpected, Snape had never been anything but excruciatingly honest about his opinion of Harry, and if Harry thought that might've changed in the last few months, that was his own fault. But Snape's refusal to complete the bond, to fix the imbalance, left Harry little more than a prisoner to his condition. He could have a life, but only in Snape's presence.
It was freedom that Snape was denying him: the freedom to come and go as he pleased; the freedom to use magic whenever he wanted, without passing out; the freedom to live a life of his own choosing.
With that in mind, and as much as Harry didn't want to, he decided it would be best to just go home. He understood that the bond could resolve itself naturally just by proximity. But that might take years, as far as they knew, and likely would, given the wall now firmly planted between them. In the meantime, he knew he couldn't be there every single day, living this sort of imitation of life, knowing what he wanted was right there in front of him, yet entirely out of reach.
Languishing on his own sofa seemed the lesser of the two evils to Harry.
He made an appearance in the kitchen that night, something he hadn't done in nearly a week. Snape was baking, and Harry almost lost his resolve when he slid that plate of warm bread in front of him.
"I'm leaving. Going home."
Snape stilled, his back to Harry. "When will you go?"
"Tomorrow—I wanted to give Ron and Hermione some warning."
Harry had to swallow some tea to ease the bread past the knot in his throat. He pushed the plate away and stood.
"Thank you. For letting me stay, and, er, everything."
He headed for the door, ready to flee the room and up the stairs.
Harry turned back, not knowing what to expect.
Snape crossed the room, carrying something in his hand, which he offered to Harry.
"Well done, Mr. Potter," Snape said in a low voice. "Albus was right to place his trust in you: you truly are your mother's son."
Harry stared at the diary in his hands, unable to respond. He nodded his thanks without looking up and fled the room. The tugging in his chest became a painful burn.
Though he was tired to his very core, Harry found it difficult to fall asleep, and spent a very restless night for the first time in ages.
Kreacher came to fetch him early, but Harry couldn't help himself; instead of leaving right then, he had to go downstairs one last time.
Pendragon sat at the bottom of the stairs, but Snape was nowhere in sight. The cat brushed against him, then stretched his front paws up Harry's leg, seeming to entreat Harry to stay, or so he imagined.
In any case, he scratched behind the cat's ears, and said, "I'll miss you too, Pendragon. Take care of him."
Pendragon responded with that fluttery, drawn-out purring noise.
Before Harry lost his resolve, he turned to Kreacher. "Let's go home."
With the squeeze of Apparation, he was deposited in the lounge at Grimmauld Place. Ron and Hermione were there to greet him, Hermione smiling a little sadly.
She hugged him tightly, but something was wrong. He couldn't seem to take a breath, and he pushed away from her, gasping.
The room was going gray and he collapsed on the floor, his chest constricted. He couldn't breathe. He was going to die.
Hermione cried, "Harry!" in distress.
Ron scooped him up, and shouted at Kreacher, "Take us back there!"
Within seconds, they were back at Snape's. Harry took a deep breath and began coughing, feeling as if he'd been underwater too long.
His chest hurt and his throat was raw from coughing, but he was drawing breath again.
Pendragon sat on the sofa next to him, putting a paw on his arm, and it was then that Harry realized Snape and Ron were shouting at one another and Hermione was trying to intervene.
"He almost died!" Ron shouted.
Harry held up a hand and croaked, "Stop. I'm okay."
He coughed once more, for good measure, but breathing had once again become an involuntary reflex.
The implications of what had just happened hit Harry hard. "I can't leave."
"I said you could stay for the duration, Potter. I meant it."
Hermione's theory of established connections and proximity fell on Harry's deaf ears. As long as there was nothing he could do about it, Harry didn't care for an explanation.
He spent the next three days in bed, letting Kreacher dote on him. It was entirely self-indulgent, he knew, but he wallowed anyway. Feeling sorry for himself as never before.
On the fourth day, Snape baked bread.
Or rather, the fourth night.
As he slowly made his way to the kitchen, Harry wondered if he should be ashamed at how easily he could be bought.
He decided it didn't matter when Snape slid the plate of warm bread in front of him.
Snape never mentioned Harry's failed escape, but neither did he mention Harry's subsequent depression, and with Snape's conciliatory gestures and attitude, Harry found it easy—a little too easy, no doubt—to fall back into their late night routine.
It wasn't exactly the same; it was actually better in some ways. Harry no longer felt like an intruder, Snape was more forthcoming, and while Harry wouldn't go all the way to 'happy', he thought Snape was at least comfortable with Harry's presence in his home. And it was during that short time of adjustment to their new/old routine that Harry deliberately began calling Snape 'Severus.'
To his credit, Severus flinched only slightly the first, shocking time the name passed Harry's lips, and Harry hoped it was because he'd understood Harry's need to assert himself there, in order to level their positions. He could be the perfect houseguest, but he couldn't bear the thought of living there forever, submitting to Severus's will and having no say of his own.
It was a small rebellion but helped ease Harry's mind.
He made an effort to be philosophical about the whole thing. On some level, he was still a bit angry with the man for being so stubborn, but mostly, he understood Severus's position, even if he didn't agree with it.
In fact, apart from the circumstance that required Harry to be there in the first place, the only real drawback to the situation was that Harry's feelings for Severus continued to grow, no matter how hard he fought them. Because there were moments, brief wonderful moments, perhaps caught in a smirk, or an unexpected laugh, or even in a moment of companionable silence, when Harry saw… possibilities, moments of hope.
It was one of these moments—in which Severus had offered a backhanded compliment, "It was unexpectedly readable. You might actually have a talent for something other than getting yourself into trouble, Potter."—that led Harry to finally try his hand at writing fiction.
Harry had had stories, ideas anyway, running around in his head for quite some time, and as he had plenty of time on his hands, he figured he might as well fill it with something that he might find satisfying. He could end up being crap at it, but he wouldn't know until he tried, and no one had to read it if it was, in fact, crap. Anyway, he could at least occupy his time and entertain himself.
So Harry got out a fresh book, picked the most insistent idea, and then set about working out an outline. His plan was for something that would appeal to both wizards and Muggles, a wizard detective in the Muggle world, and he couldn't see why that wouldn't work: Muggles seemed to love stories about magic, and if it were presented as a fiction, it wouldn't break any of the secrecy laws.
He was on his fifth cup of tea and in the midst of mapping out the clues for a particularly grisly murder when he heard Pendragon meowing loudly, nearly howling, outside the kitchen door.
Harry waited a moment to be certain Severus wasn't directly behind, then went to the door to let the cat into the house. Only he didn't want to come inside, apparently.
Pendragon meowed loudly again, trotted a few feet away from Harry, and then looked back, meowing again. Harry didn't have Severus's intuition with Pendragon, but he understood easily enough, becoming wary. Something clearly was wrong if the cat was there to fetch him.
The cat trotted ahead of him, stopping every few feet to make sure Harry was still with him.
Harry heard voices coming from the vicinity of the garden and hurried toward them, panic beginning to build in his gut.
"Where is he, Snape? I know you're keeping him here."
The bushes were moving erratically and Harry could smell something burning. There was a bright flash of light as some unknown hex missed its target.
"I can assure you, madam, I am not holding anyone hostage."
Harry thought he might appreciate the irony in that statement later, when he wasn't afraid that Severus was about to be killed.
"I'm to believe the likes of you? You're a Death Eater, and no one has seen Harry Potter in months—I know what you're about!"
As he entered the garden path, he caught a glimpse of Severus, who gestured to Harry's left. Another hex flew from that direction, falling dangerously close to Severus's position. Harry moved towards the source and found Pendragon, who seemed to be gearing up to launch himself at the plump witch.
Harry hissed quietly, trying to get the cat's attention, and Pendragon must have heard him. He turned to look at Harry, as if waiting for orders. Harry made a gesture with his hand, indicating he wanted him to back off, hoping the cat would understand—luckily, Pendragon had.
"I'm sorry, but were you looking for me?" Harry asked as gently as possible, hands raised in front of him.
The witch turned, her wand trained on Harry now.
Her fierce look changed to one of delight. "Harry Potter! I knew you were here—I've come to rescue you."
"I appreciate your efforts, madam, but I'm afraid you've got the wrong end of the stick. I've not been kidnapped, I came here on my own."
The witch's look turned calculating, and Harry was reminded unpleasantly of Umbridge. "Oh goodness, he's Confunded you. This is for your own good, your own protection, dear boy. Incarcerous."
Of course, the witch didn't know it, but Harry hadn't needed a wand in a couple years; he nonverbally cast Protego then Stupefy in quick succession. The ropes sailing toward him fell harmlessly to the ground, as did the witch who'd sent them. Harry watched her fall with satisfaction as he fell to the ground himself, drained from the use of magic.
Harry managed to call out, "Kreacher!" before blacking out completely.
When he came to, he was lying on the sofa. He could hear voices in the kitchen, several voices. He stretched, wondering how long he'd been out, when his arms encountered a warm, furry body. Pendragon greeted him with a fluttery purr and put a paw on Harry's forehead, then jumped down from the arm of the sofa.
A moment later, the room was full of people.
"Harry! Are you all right?" Hermione reached him first and hugged him when he stood.
"I'm fine. A bit tired. I'd like a cuppa, actually."
They moved the party back into the kitchen and Harry sat at the table wearily. Severus silently slid a cup of tea in front of him.
He explained his side of things to Kingsley Shackelbolt—the two Aurors he'd brought with him had already taken the witch away.
"It's good to see you, Harry—it's been too long. I wish I could stay longer to catch up, but they won't be able to charge her until I arrive."
"Good to see you, too, Kingsley." Harry shook his hand in farewell.
"Severus, we'll keep this as quiet as possible for you, but I'm afraid we will have to bring you back from the dead, at least on paper."
"I understand." Severus said, looking resigned as he shook Kingsley's hand as well.
Only Hermione and a willowy blonde woman remained.
"Harry, this is Eglantine," Hermione introduced them, though Harry was happy to finally meet the woman who'd figured it all out for them, he couldn't imagine why she was there.
"I'm very happy to meet you, Harry. I'm afraid it's my fault Serendipity found you."
"The woman in the garden—Serendipity Broomhall," Hermione provided. "She works in Research with Eglantine."
"She read my notes—they're in my own sort of shorthand, but she managed to work out enough to get it all wrong." Eglantine rolled her eyes.
Hermione added, "She's been envious of Eglantine for years, always elbowing in, trying to usurp Eglantine's research."
"Which is why I had my notes encrypted to begin with," Eglantine added.
"This time she was certain Eglantine was looking for you, and decided she would find you first."
"I'm really sorry, Harry. I'd no idea she would do something like this."
Harry must have looked as tired as he felt—Hermione said, "We should go, so you can get some rest."
"Thank you, Eglantine, for all your hard work for us. I really appreciate it," Harry said sincerely.
"It was my pleasure, Harry. I'm just sorry this came of it. For you and for Professor Snape."
They left with a 'pop' of Apparation, and Harry sat at the table with his head in his hands. He finally felt his energy returning somewhat, but it was on the heels of something else—his anger. That tiny seed of anger that he'd buried came to the surface.
Now that they were alone again, Harry didn't think he could contain it another minute. Severus placed yet another cup of tea in front of him, but Harry pushed away from the table and shot to his feet.
The fear he'd felt for Severus in the garden, coupled with his anger, made him shake, but his voice was steady as he shouted, "Why do you have to be so fucking stubborn? Don't you see now why you need to have your magic back? And this isn't about me being a hostage to it—you could've been killed. And for what? Throwing your magic away isn't going to change a fucking thing, Severus."
"A hostage, are you?"
Harry dragged his hands through his hair in frustration—leave it to Severus to pick out that one word and ignore everything else he'd said. "You know what I meant."
Severus sneered in a way that Harry hadn't seen for months. "Yes, of course. Your precious energy."
Harry was overcome by a sense of hopelessness and a feeling of defeat, and suddenly he wished that he'd never found the man, that he hadn't contacted him, and certainly, he wished he'd never lost his heart to him. He said quietly, "You know what, Severus? You do have something of mine I wish I could have back, but I don't give a fuck about my energy."
He turned to leave, feeling the weight of the world pressing on him, but as he pushed past Severus, who looked momentarily stunned, the man grabbed his arm gently. Harry shrugged him off and headed up the stairs. Too tired to even remove his shoes, Harry fell on the bed.
It was midnight or so, by Harry's estimation, when he awoke. After a trip to the toilet, he contemplated going downstairs, a decision that had him torn. On the one hand, he was certain he was right and didn't want to concede or appear to anyway, but on the other hand, he didn't want to live with the tension again, not after they'd been getting on so well.
The decision was taken out of his hands, however, by a knock on his door.
Harry opened it to find Severus standing there, his face absolutely inscrutable. "Severus, I was just about to come down—"
The rest of the sentence evaporated as Severus pulled Harry roughly to him, without saying a word, and kissed Harry soundly on the lips.
Harry wasn't certain, but he might have whimpered, which should have been embarrassing, or would have been, if he hadn't been too busy kissing Severus back and thinking random thoughts, things like: how different it was to kiss a man, how firm and demanding his mouth was, yet still soft; how rough his skin was against Harry's face; how glad he was that they were nearly the same height.
Then he stopped thinking altogether, as Severus maneuvered them towards the bed, pulling on Harry's T-shirt, and breaking the kiss only long enough to pull it off over Harry's head.
Harry tried to concentrate on Severus's shirt buttons, but the erotic slide of Severus's tongue against his, the feel of Severus's hands on his skin was too distracting. He pushed the shirt down Severus's arms, and Severus took care of the last two buttons, tugging the shirt open roughly, causing the buttons to go flying, dropping the offending thing on the floor.
"Ungh," Harry gasped as their chests met, the skin-to-skin contact unlike anything he'd ever felt: delicious and hot and oh so fucking unbelievably amazing.
His heart was pounding in his chest, and his entire body pulsed with that rhythm. Harry thought he would explode as Severus pushed his trousers down his legs. He stepped out of them and kicked them to the side, standing in front of Severus fully nude, exposed but in a way that caused a thrill to charge through him.
Feeling slightly adrift and uncertain, Harry reached forward, letting his hands run over Severus's chest, enjoying the way Severus's stomach muscles reacted when he sucked in a breath at the contact.
Severus let him trace over his chest and ribs, stood still while Harry ran his hands over his shoulders and collarbones, but when Harry bent to taste the hardening nipples, he made a low noise and Harry wasn't certain if it was pain or pleasure.
He didn't get a chance to ask, as Severus took hold of Harry's upper arms and turned him roughly so he was facing the bed, then with a gentle push, let Harry know what he wanted.
Harry complied, climbing up onto the bed, on all fours. "Like this?" he asked hesitantly.
The only answer he received was string of kisses down his spine that added a tingling layer to the throb of arousal. Severus's hands were driving him mad, caressing his back, his legs, his arse and Harry felt compelled to confess quietly, "I've, er, never done this before."
Severus's voice was gruff with arousal. "Never with anyone?"
The hands continued their gentle caressing.
Harry didn't know when Severus had lowered his trousers, but suddenly, Harry's back was covered in heat and Harry felt the unmistakable shape of Severus's arousal pressing along the crevice of his arse, and his voice, god that voice, was directly in his ear, sending a shiver of anticipation down Harry's spine.
"Then I shall make it as pleasurable for you as possible."
He let his head fall forward as Severus kissed his neck, his shoulders and down his back again, ending with a kiss on one of his arse cheeks. Harry looked behind him and saw Severus unstopper a phial he presumed was a lubricant. Severus stroked the back of his legs, then with a pat to his inner thigh, indicated he wanted Harry to spread his legs wider.
The first touch of Severus's slick finger caused Harry to clench reflexively.
The use of his given name made Harry's heart pound against his chest as if it were trying to escape. He took a deep breath, and then another to calm himself enough to do as Severus had said.
Severus stroked Harry's haunches, then tried again, entering Harry more easily this time. It was an odd sensation—that got odder still when Severus continued to add fingers, stroking and stretching—but a good one, and it had him moaning and finally needy.
"Please, Severus." Harry wasn't certain what he was asking for, he just knew he needed more.
Severus rubbed his hand down Harry's hip and removed his busy fingers, and Harry felt them slide out with a bit of regret.
That feeling didn't last long, as Severus pressed into him slowly, and it burned, sending little jolts of pain up his spine.
Severus stilled, his hand on Harry's back again, stroking. "Relax. Breathe through it and bear down against me."
Harry did as he was told and was rewarded when the pain slowly bloomed into pleasure. He pressed back against Severus who took it as a signal to move. Severus pulled back then plunged in again, then found a rhythm that had Harry desperate and greedy, meeting Severus's thrusting hips, all but begging, until he was doing that too.
"Harder, oh god, please. Severus please…"
He was gratified when Severus's arm reached around him and took hold of his aching and neglected cock, stroking only a few times before Harry found his release, clenching around the hard length inside of him.
Severus thrust twice more, then with a low growl, flooded Harry with warmth.
Panting, Harry could no longer hold himself up and he collapsed onto the bed, bringing Severus with him. Severus grunted but didn't complain.
Harry was certain that was the most brilliant thing that had ever and would ever happen to him. He caught Severus's hand in his and raised it to his lips, kissing the palm, and then managed to mumble, "Thank you," before falling into a happy slumber.
When Harry awoke the next morning, he was alone.
He smiled as the memory of last night floated to the surface, reinforced as he stretched and awoke the soreness in odd places. He was certain he'd never slept better in his life. The day might have been perfect if Severus had put off his chores to have a lie-in with him, and though he was disappointed, he carried a hope that they might have another go very soon.
It hit him then, what else they'd done last night.
"Accio wand." His wand stayed put on the chest of drawers where he'd laid it.
Harry tried again, putting much more into the Summons, and finally, the wand flew into his hand. A little thrill went through him—he still felt as rested and refreshed as he had when he'd awoken.
Trying to contain his excitement, Harry did one last test to be certain, and Apparated to the toilet.
He let out a whoop of joy, and celebrated by using magic for everything from cleaning his teeth to freshening his clothes.
Apparating to the kitchen might have been overkill, but he didn't care. Severus wasn't in the kitchen, but the teapot was on the table with one teacup, and Harry could feel a charm had been used to keep it hot.
Severus had his magic back.
Harry collected the eggs, as was his routine—if he cooed a bit at the chooks, they didn't seem to mind his unusual cheer—then thought he might search out Severus. He'd never had the energy before, not that he'd have trailed after the man like a puppy anyway, but he had no idea what Severus did during the day.
His concern grew, as Severus wasn't anywhere to be found, though he'd happened upon Pendragon in the barn loft, happily sleeping in a patch of sunlight, very much alone, which confirmed that Severus wasn't nearby.
The cat followed Harry back to the cottage, and they both sat, waiting for Severus. Harry told himself that Severus had gone to the market, or maybe he'd gone fishing and they'd have sea trout for supper.
As day turned to night, Harry wandered through the cottage like a ghost, his earlier excitement dried up by Severus's apparent abandonment.
On the second day, Pendragon took to sitting in front of the door, waiting expectantly.
Harry bent to scratch behind his ears. "I know just how you feel."
Pendragon made a noise of commiseration, but didn’t look away from the door.
Ron and Hermione were thrilled to see him when he popped in to tell them the good news, at least as far as his improved condition. He didn't stay long, however, just in case Severus returned while he was away.
On the morning of the third day, Harry became philosophical.
Harry couldn't understand why Severus had done a runner, but he was determined to wait him out. Severus loved this place and when he came back, Harry would be there waiting.
He heard Severus before he saw him. Relief charged through Harry, but he forced himself to slow down as he headed for the kitchen.
Because Severus was sitting at the end of the table, Harry could see him from the doorway, unmoving in the dim twilight filtering through the windows. A large bottle of an amber-colored liquid sat on the table in front of him. Harry's guess was Scotch, based on what Severus had said in the past.
His face was hidden from view by his hair, which hung as lank as Harry had ever seen it. Pendragon wove in and out of Severus's legs in a bid for attention, rubbing his head on Severus's shins. Severus reached down, absentmindedly scratching the cat behind the ears, and stared at the bottle on the table as if it held the answers to the universe, unaware of Harry standing there.
To get Severus's attention, Harry recited quietly:
'"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—"'
He felt a tiny triumph at finally managing to sneak up on the man, but it didn't last long. Harry got a good look at Severus, whose head had snapped up in surprise when Harry began reciting the poem; his face was paler than normal, his eyes ringed with dark smudges, giving him a haunted, gaunt appearance.
"I guess you don't want to talk about cabbages and kings. Maybe we should talk about why you look like shit."
"What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you. Where have you been?"
"Estonia? Why did you go to Estonia?"
Severus leant his elbows on the table and rubbed his face tiredly. "Because I could."
"Right." Harry had no idea how to respond to that, so he decided to just ask outright, "Why did you leave like that, without saying a word? D'you even know how much it sucked to wake up alone?"
Severus had the good grace to look away sheepishly. "I wished to avoid a… messy parting."
Harry couldn't decide if he should kiss him or shake him. Instead, he dragged his hands through his own hair in frustration. "Yeah, well, for your information, I hadn't planned on a parting, messy or otherwise."
"That was the point, was it not? You have your energy back and I, my magic. And now you may live your life the way you wish."
"Then I wish to live it here, with you." Uncertain now, he added, "Unless… d'you want me to leave?"
Severus hesitated so long that Harry began to worry. "No. I do not. Though I cannot fathom why you would wish to stay."
Harry moved closer and brushed the lank hair from Severus's eyes, then leant down to whisper, "Because I love you, you maddening, stubborn git."
Severus shot to his feet and grabbed Harry's shirt, pulling him closer. Their eyes locked for a heartbeat, then two. Severus raised his hands to Harry's face, running his thumbs along Harry's cheekbones, then cupped them with his hands, his fingers tangling in Harry's hair, and closed that small distance between them, covering Harry's mouth in a demanding kiss.
Harry moaned both in relief and desire, then suddenly felt the squeezing sensation of Apparation and opened his eyes in the bedroom.
"I see you're getting the hang of it again." Harry smiled. "Hi. You really do look like shit."
"I have not slept."
"In three days?"
"In two years."
Harry chuckled. "Well, we'll just have to do something about that."
He kissed Severus again, working the buttons on his soft plaid shirt, pushing it open and then off completely. Severus had a better idea, banishing their clothes handily, with a relish that activated that tugging in Harry's chest.
The skin-to-skin contact was delicious and Harry sighed, running his fingers through the sparse chest hairs, across strong shoulders, and down Severus's smooth back. He pushed Severus toward the bed, and once he lay flat, Harry straddled Severus's legs and began exploring the skin with his lips, tracing over his collarbones, teasing nipples with tongue and teeth, as Severus had done to him that first time.
Severus made a low noise that went straight to Harry's groin, and he pushed his hips forward, so he could slide along Severus's hard length, causing them both to moan in appreciation.
Harry leant forward and kissed Severus, running his tongue along Severus's bottom lip before sucking it into his mouth, nipping lightly as he released it. Severus ran his hands up Harry's thighs, cupping his arse. Harry felt a tingle just before a slick finger entered him. His breath caught, but he managed to say, "Mmmm. Magic is good."
Severus snorted, adding another finger, and then another, until there were three, stretching and stroking him inside. He pulled out and put his hands under Harry's thighs. Harry cottoned on and rose up onto his knees, while Severus aligned himself, pressing upwards, as Harry lowered himself slowly.
They stayed suspended that way, Severus patiently waiting while Harry adjusted to the intrusion, pain giving way to pleasure. Harry nodded and lowered himself completely, fully seating himself. He felt a little thrill when Severus sucked in a breath, then let it out with a growl.
Harry leant forward and took Severus's mouth in a desperate kiss, needing another connection as he rocked them slowly toward completion. Severus seemed to grow impatient—he growled again, grabbing Harry's hips, and began thrusting upwards.
The new pace drove Harry higher and higher, as Severus repeatedly rubbed against something inside him that sent jolts of electricity charging through his system. He could feel his release building, coiling hot and molten. Severus seemed to sense it and slid a hand into the moist heat between their bellies, and took hold of Harry's throbbing cock, adding the friction Harry needed, sending him pulsing over the edge.
Shattering, he cried out, "Oh, god. Unnnggh. Severus!"
He rode the wave of pleasure they'd created, seeking out Severus's nipples with his tongue and added a gentle squeeze to Severus's frenzied thrusting. And Harry watched his face twist in ecstasy, as he too found release, silent but intense.
Harry recovered at a leisurely pace, coming back to himself in stages. When he could, he moved to the side, so that he wasn't lying atop Severus, but next to him, throwing a leg over the man.
"Mmmm," was all he could say at first.
He felt Severus chuckle. "Indeed."
With a finger, he circled one of Severus's nipples lazily, watching it peak under the attention.
"I'm so glad you're home." He nuzzled Severus's chest. "But please don't ever leave like that again."
He began to worry he'd opened a can of worms when Severus didn't answer, but found that worry baseless.
There was a very good reason Severus hadn't answered: he was sound asleep.
Harry smiled and Summoned the blanket that had been pushed to the foot of the bed, arranging it comfortably around them and settling in for the night.
They could talk about it in the morning.