The dictionary was bound in skin; Harry couldn't bring himself to think of its covers as leather ones because "leather" connoted something that smelled familiar, good, and safe. No, the dried skin of some unknown and possibly extinct magical creature had been used to bind the book he held. In an effort not to dwell on what was dangerous, it had become something of a soothing ritual for Harry to flip through the book's pages until he'd found the right word to distract himself as he drank his morning tea.
Today, he'd selected "reify."
Stretching out on the lumpy sofa in Twelve, Grimmauld Place's drawing room, Harry contemplated the idea of attributing reality to an abstract concept.
How far could you push it? With magic, could you think something into being?
Magic was, as McGonagall had often said, "an act of will," and Harry knew that better than anyone.
Love is real, he thought, as cold beads of sweat welled up from under his fringe, and it can kill.
Wiping away the moisture from his forehead, Harry further wondered if it might be possible to "de-think" something tangible into oblivion, and then he began to tremble.
"Fuck," he muttered, pushing himself up into a sitting position and trying to ignore his rapidly beating heart. "Wrong word." I need to stop.
Reading the dictionary was supposed to be a distraction, not a cause of panic. Disturbed that he'd allowed his mind to wander so closely to the one topic he most wished to avoid, Harry stood and went in search of Grimmauld's resident puzzle.
She was no longer bound to her portrait, which Harry had burned the moment he'd "disensouled" it. The wall behind where the portrait had hung in the entrance hall for so long now was nothing but a patch of faded, peeling paper, but, if Harry called her name, she would materialize: he'd thought it best to keep the witch's malevolent . . . essence bound to the house.
"That's 'Mrs. Black' to you, boy," she snapped, before she'd even completed her incorporation.
"Walburga, what have you been doing?"
"I've been minding my prison, you useless, filthy—"
"Please don't insult me."
Harry's tone was almost pleasantly conversational, but Walburga reacted to his words as the command they were.
She doesn't want to be banished beyond the Veil. She knows who she'd find there, Harry thought, feeling, as usual, slightly surprised that his threat to exorcize Walburga had made the "ghost"—if she was a ghost; Harry still didn't know—so biddable. "Follow me to the drawing room."
Walburga was hovering near the fire when Harry entered the room.
"Where'd this come from?" he asked, gesturing toward the dictionary.
"A book shop."
"You imbecile," Harry mentally added. "No, I mean, what's it made of? What are the covers made of?"
Walburga raised one disdainful eyebrow. "Leather."
"It's not. It's the dried skin of—"
"'Dried skin' is leather."
Harry sighed. "From what animal?"
"Perhaps from a Muggle?" Walburga asked, her eyes shining darkly.
Harry had to look away from them.
Questioning her isn't going to get you an answer, he told himself, clearing his throat. "Walburga, tell me what the covers of that dictionary are made of."
"I wasn't there when it was bound, so I don't know."
"They certainly aren't made of those."
Even without foul language as an aid, Walburga could make anything sound like an insult.
Don't give her the satisfaction of making you angry. "You don't know."
"So I just said. Now if you're quite through, I'd—"
"I'm not. What book shop? Tell me what book shop the dictionary came from, I mean."
"That was Father's dictionary, a present. I don't know where it came from or who gave it to him, either. Why do you want to know?" Walburga demanded, as the candles flared around the room.
Funny how they never cast more light when she does that, Harry thought, his mind turning to the nature of "de-reification" as his desire to be shot of Walburga increased.
He started as the candles hissed, flicked, and spat wax—and the room brightened then as his home's resident whatever left him.
I'm making her appear because I can't imagine this place without her, aren't I? Harry thought, casting a warming charm on his neglected tea cup and sipping from it rather than answering himself.
There were some things that he wasn't certain he wanted to know the truth about—no matter his half-arsed attempts to understand them—and Walburga was only one of them.
Wherever Severus was, it was dark, dark and quiet, and he was grateful.
"No, Hermione!" Ron protested, flushing with concern at the suggestion she'd just made.
Shocked, Harry added, "You don't mean it."
"I do mean it," Hermione replied, pushing Ron's hand off her knee. "It's my leg. If Harry wants to know if he's some sort of . . . 'reifier'—"
"Don't you mean 'necromancer'?" Ron interrupted.
"—then he should test himself."
"But it's your leg!"
"I know that, Ron."
"What if I can't fix it, like before?"
Hermione bit her lower lip. "You replaced my leg once. There is no reason to believe you wouldn't be able to put it back again—and how else are we going to test your theory?"
"I know, let's go out to those book shops Harry was talking about," Ron suggested, in a strangled tone.
"You're almost squeaking," Hermione chided him.
"Well, it's . . . it's my leg, too, isn't it? We're married and everything, so—"
"My 'everything' will still be ours if I'm one-legged."
Harry laughed, stopping abruptly when Ron's face flared so redly that his freckles disappeared. "Sorry," he muttered.
Ron glared at Harry. "You are."
"Go on. Do it," Hermione ordered Harry.
"I'm not. I don't know how I did it the first time, so how—"
"You said you couldn't imagine me without my leg, remember?"
Harry shuddered. He didn't like to remember how Hermione had lost her leg.
"Neither can I."
"Stop it, Ron. You're upsetting Harry."
"He isn't, but you're right about my not wanting you to be one-legged," Harry said, pushing aside the memory of Hermione getting caught in the blast from the destruction of Hufflepuff's cup. "I, uh, I don't think I can imagine you without it now."
"Good," Hermione replied, smiling at Ron.
"'Good'? After all that, all you can say is—"
"Perhaps you might try imagining Mrs. Black gone," Hermione suggested to Harry, as she lifted Ron's hand and placed it on her knee again. "That might help us decide if you're causing her to appear, or if she's a proper ghost. Who knows what the Blacks got up to. One of them could have bound her to her portrait."
"I could accidentally banish her that way, couldn't I?"
"Yeah, couldn't he? How would we be able to tell if Harry'd banished her or 'de-thought'—"
"'Un-thought', I think you mean," Hermione interrupted.
"—her?" Ron concluded.
No, I think it would have to be de-thought, Harry silently corrected Hermione, folding his arms and turning toward the fire without entering the argument because, no matter much reading he'd got done in the past several months, it was nothing to what Hermione had gleaned from her years of study as an Unspeakable. "Your leg isn't—wasn't—an abstract concept," he said, when it was clear that Ron wasn't going to fight for the point, either.
"It was after I was left with nothing but a bloody stump," Hermione retorted. "But perhaps it would be better to work from a new concept. I just don't know which one to test. Any ideas?"
"Yeah," Harry replied. "Let's go look at dictionaries."
He could feel how startled Ron and Hermione were without having to turn around.
Ron's scowling presence kept Harry's worshipers at bay as they browsed through every wizard-owned book shop they knew about.
"I don't see anything remotely like your dictionary," he said, easing his way carefully down the narrow path between two closely situated bookcases toward Harry. "You find anything?"
"No. We should probably ask the owner for help."
"Don't be such a girl."
Harry elbowed Ron in the ribs and smirked. "Don't let Hermione hear you saying things like that."
"Too late," she replied, standing up from behind the bookcase in front of Ron and Harry and tapping Ron smartly with a book.
"I have an idea," Hermione announced, "but it will mean going to Knockturn Alley because I don't want a record of my taking the books out of the department archive."
"No," Ron and Harry both replied, Ron continuing, "You're pregnant. You're not going anywhere near that place."
Hermione was already out the door by the time Ron had completed his protest.
"Right," he said, squeezing backward through the shelves toward the door. "Perhaps you should de-think her leg."
Severus realized that he wasn't actually breathing.
Unacceptable, he thought, trying to find his lungs.
It disturbed him that he even had to try; he wasn't in the habit of misplacing anything.
Harry awoke the next morning to find a grimoire lying open on his chest, its pages reeking of rotten eggs. It took him a moment to remember why it was there.
Hermione, worn down by Ron's protests, had agreed to return home if Ron would help Harry secure texts on necromancy and other cheerful topics—she'd made a list, of course—and Harry had researched by wand-light most of the night upon his return.
Wonder if I ought to send Aunt Petunia news of what her precious royals got up to in the last century? he asked himself, as he shoved the book to the sofa and Accio'd a cup of tea.
He missed Dobby, whose tea had always tasted better than the sort he could conjure for himself.
A bone china cup, covered in a floral pattern, appeared before him then.
"Lovely," Harry muttered, wiping the lipstick on the cup's rim away with his fingers before taking his first guilty sip. At least I'll send it back to whomever it belongs clean.
"If you were a proper wizard, you'd have a wife to manage your house elves, and they'd brew your tea, you thieving—"
"Good morning, Walburga, and be quiet, please," Harry interrupted, feeling awake enough to consider his previous reading. "I don't think it's anything to do with necromancy, what I can do."
Walburga didn't reply.
"Oh, right—what are you thinking?"
"That such a gift would be wasted on you."
"I don't remember any talk of the Blacks raising armies of Inferi in an effort to achieve wizarding domination," Harry quipped, returning to the sofa.
"Of course not. A Black is always discreet. In any case, one needn't strive for that which has been achieved."
"Has its uses—such as pointing out that the Blacks never produced a Minister of Magic, so your family was hardly—"
"Superiority owes nothing to politics, you beastly little brat."
"What's got you in such a good mood?" Harry asked, as the hairs on the backs of his arms stood up. Snape used to call me a brat, the ugly bastard.
Harry pushed all thoughts of Snape aside at once.
"Your taste in literature has improved," Walburga replied, gesturing toward the stack of books by the hearth that Harry had not yet read.
They were not as Harry had left them.
"You read Bledsoe's Treatise on Enslavement Draughts for the Dead?
"Reread it. Father's copy is in tatters."
Sick, sick family. I really ought to banish—"Did any of your relatives ever . . . ?"
"Raise the dead?" Walburga asked, her eyes gleaming. "Only for parties."
"You're not serious."
"I'm told it once was all the rage."
The spent candles burst into flame, and Harry knew it was he who had caused it as he drank the remains of his tea all in one swallow, grateful for the burning sensation in his throat. "Get out."
Walburga obeyed him at once, leaving Harry with the image of Mundungus Fletcher's half-rotted face in his mind. It had been weeks since it had last plagued him, and years since Voldemort had unleashed his deaths of Inferi in wave after wave against Harry and the others who fought him.
Harry shuddered to feel un-pumped blood congealing on his skin; he knew it was only a sense memory, but that didn't help. Nothing ever helped to wash away the sensation, or the guilt he felt at having had to destroy creatures with the faces of people he'd once known—the guilt he felt at having had to kill anyone he'd once known, Inferius or not.
"Snape, Snape, you prick! Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
Severus found that he could move. He knew where his lungs were, as well, which would have made him happier if he could have seen what was producing the stench he'd been breathing in for hours.
"Hours—or days. How the bloody hell should I know?" he asked, before realizing that he'd also found his tongue.
It didn't help matters, being able to breathe and speak, given the stench and the fact that there was no one to talk to.
Irritated, he focused on finding his legs, arms, and other missing bodily bits, and wished for a book.
He was bored—and more than a little confused.
Harry forced himself to bathe and dress in clean clothing before seeing to his breakfast because Ron had said, after Harry had noted that he didn't need a bodyguard to pick up a few books, "Of course you don't—that smell of yours would keep anyone away."
"You don't seem to mind it," Harry had grumbled.
"That's because I'm your best mate. But if you don't start taking better care of yourself, Hermione'll set Mum on you."
That wouldn't do, would it? She'd only make a fuss over me and tell me I needed to get out more—with some "nice daughter of."
A little over two years after the Victory, Harry remained largely a recluse, so much so that no one—except Skeeter—was stalking him anymore. He did get out with Ron and Hermione on the odd occasion, but, on his own, he only went to a Muggle club that was popular with not-so-nice sons of.
"I can't tell Mrs. Weasley that," he muttered, his mouth full, before cursing as his partially chewed bite of toast fell into the sink. "Some catch I am, living like a slob and hiding in books—speaking of which . . . ."
Wiping his mouth and forgetting about the remainder of his breakfast, Harry took himself off to the drawing room.
"'Wife'," he read, as he opened his eyes to see what word his finger had found.
He wasn't pleased. Neither had Ginny been, but Harry, who had already exerted himself beyond his customary depressive threshold the previous few days, had no desire to think about Mrs. Ginevra Zabini.
That said, the idea of sending a death of Inferi after her charismatic second husband did, suddenly, hold a certain charm.
"Don't think about it too hard," Harry cautioned himself, resolutely turning his mind back to the problem of Walburga, who he'd purposefully made his friends' problem, as well.
Can't have them focusing too closely on me, now can I?
The sulphurous smell was still present, but so too were the new scents of dust, leather, and jealousy. Severus wouldn't have credited it as being possible to perceive an emotion so if he hadn't been doing it.
He found it oddly stimulating, now that he had knowledge of all his bits, but, for the most part, he just wanted to find the books he knew must be close by—and also a source of light.
"There are four spells, two potions, and nine rituals for binding the dead, the dying, and the 'spirit elements' in Bledsoe's," Harry informed Hermione the following week, "and they're all disgusting."
"Don't elaborate," Ron ordered. "She gets enough of the weird stuff at Mysteries, and she doesn't need to be absorbing any truly Dark information now."
"You're the most superstitious man I've ever known," Hermione told Ron, before asking Harry, "Why not just hire an exorcist? The subject's obviously upsetting you."
"Because she's my problem. Besides, that would be a lovely headline for Skeeter, wouldn't it?"
"She does seem to follow you about," Ron said. "'Course, she wasn't around last week, and one of us could always hire—"
"She follows you, as well," Harry interrupted. "Only Grimmauld's Unplotting seems to throw her off."
Hermione sighed. "I suppose it's a good thing it does, given where you're wont to go."
"Hermione!" Ron exclaimed.
"It's just not healthy."
Harry couldn't even bring himself to blush as he retorted, "It's just sex."
"You know, if you were dating wizards, you wouldn't have to bother with those condone things."
"Ron!" Harry protested, now actually feeling something akin to mortification.
"Oh, honestly! You mean 'condom things'!"
"Whatever you call them, they sound horrible."
"You get used to them," Harry said. Shit, I didn't just say that.
Ron scowled. "What kind of wizard are you?"
That's what I'm trying to find out, you prat.
"Is it because of Molly?" Hermione asked Harry. "Is that why you won't—"
"Stop it. Please. I don't want to discuss—"
"Molly just wants you to be happy. The only reason she's so angry with Percy is because Scrimgeour's married."
"Well, it's not like the man could leave his wife—he's a politician!"
"That's no excuse, and you know . . . ."
Why are you married? Harry wondered, not for the first time, as he listened to his friends' bickering.
He noticed that, even though they were arguing, they were still touching one another.
They're . . . almost cheerful, he thought, which made his sudden swell of ingratitude for their company difficult to bear.
Ron and Hermione had put up with a lot from him—for him—but sometimes Harry hated them for the easy intimacy they shared, an intimacy that he'd never experienced, himself. Closing his eyes, he Disapparated to his rooms, unable to take one more moment of what passed for Granger-Weasley marital bliss.
He knew that Ron and Hermione would show themselves out. They always did.
Severus, having followed the almost overwhelming scent of self-pity—he'd given up trying to understand how it was possible that his olfactory sense could be led by emotions—opened the door that had appeared before him and stepped into a vaguely familiar room. Candles lit it, despite the fact that there were gas lamps set into the walls, and his nose wrinkled against the scents of stale sweat, old food, and dusty tea.
A quick glance in the direction of the hearth revealed a great many dirty cups, none of the same pattern, all of which had leaves dried to their bottoms. A coverlet folded messily over itself laid near the cups on the floor, empty cartons were strewn about, and books, too, were everywhere—some stacked by the hearth, many shoved into display cases, and others lined up, standing, before the heavy, closed curtains.
There was also a tapestry hanging on one wall, in front of which a library table had been placed. Severus' eyes were drawn to the large book resting on it.
A dictionary, he thought, approaching the stand, and one frequently consulted, judging by the smudges on—
The burns in the tapestry caught Severus' attention and stopped his thoughts. He knew that tapestry. He knew, suddenly, exactly where he was.
"Why am I here?"
"What an excellent question," a menacing, feminine voice asked, from behind him.
It occurred to Severus then that he might have better spent his time in the void searching for his wand.
"What the hell are you doing here? I could have hexed you into oblivion!" Harry remembered shouting at Percy.
He couldn't stop the memories, no matter how many definitions he absorbed, or Dark researches with which he distracted himself; Walburga's company wasn't even enough to keep his mind off what he'd done, or how everything had started.
"I knew you wouldn't," Percy had said, before explaining how he, Scrimgeour, and Snape were all Dumbledore's men.
Only Voldemort, by virtue of Lucius Malfoy's intelligence, had known it, as well.
At first, Harry had refused to believe it, had refused to even consider mounting a rescue mission, but Percy's pointed question about Malfoy's recent "escape" from Harry's custody had stopped his protests.
No one had needed to know that he'd traded Malfoy his life for the bitch's who'd murdered Sirius, and, to Harry's knowledge, no one did know.
Percy was only guessing, playing on the guilt he assumed I'd feel if I had inadvertently caused the betrayal of an Order member, Harry thought, remembering with almost photographic clarity each spell he'd used in his second and final duel with Bellatrix Lestrange.
They hadn't been Dark spells, but they might as well have been because, when he'd finally agreed to go with Percy, he'd been of the mind that killing Snape would help him handle the loss of his godfather.
They'd left too late.
Harry wiped the back of one hand across the unshed tears stinging his eyes and Disapparated to the sub-cellar.
"I've just made everything worse," Harry said, to the unmoving figure lying before him, "haven't I?"
Snape—whatever he was—didn't respond.
"You weren't haunting this place the last time I was here," Severus said to Walburga Black.
"The half-blood usurper 'felt' my soul and freed me," she replied, gliding past him toward the center of the room before stopping and spinning upon him. "Why are you here? Shouldn't you be haunting your corpse, such as it is?"
Severus didn't remember much of what had happened to him after receiving the Dark Lord's summons, but he was certain that he hadn't died at Grimmauld Place.
"I don't understand."
"How odd. You don't appear feeble-minded. Now, the usurper, he is rather more an imbecile than not. I don't believe he understands what he did when he destroyed my portrait."
Severus stared at Mrs. Black, who was clothed in the very garments worn by her image in the portrait that he knew was permanently affixed to the wall of the entrance hall. Without saying anything, he turned to leave the room with the intention of verifying the witch's story—and found himself standing in the hall.
The disorientation passed quickly.
"Fuck, I am dead."
"No," Mrs. Black, who was now standing next to him, replied, "I don't believe you are. The usurper keeps you prisoner here, as well."
Severus felt his blood run cold, which made it run colder still; ghosts weren't supposed to feel anything.
If I'm not dead, then—
"I'll ask you again. Why are you here? Have you been skulking about all this time and spying on me?"
"That's . . . an interesting choice of words," Severus said cautiously, as Lucius Malfoy's enraged visage rose in his mind.
The overwhelming sense of betrayal and alarm he felt then caused him to have to fight to maintain his composure.
"Is it? I thought it was a fairly straightforward question. I've never seen you here, not like this, in months."
"'Not like this'?" Severus asked, Mrs. Black's earlier comment about his "corpse" finally penetrating his confusion and half-remembered fear. "What have you seen? How have you seen me before?"
"My, but you're vulgarly eager. Why should I answer your questions? I take you for the usurper's enemy, but that doesn't make you my friend," Mrs. Black said, fading somewhat.
"Don't leave—please. I am no friend of Potter's, of that, I assure you."
Lucius' expression, rising behind Severus' eyes, turned mocking.
"Bastard," Severus hissed.
Mrs. Black laughed, a mirthless, dry sound. "He might as well have been, given the mud in his veins. Do you know, I believe he murdered the Dark Lord. I can't think how, but those dreadful creatures he has in to visit often speak of it."
Lucius vanished from Severus' mind, and he turned away from Mrs. Black, his shoulders sagging in relief. We won. Some of us survi—
"Oh, you feel that keenly, do you? I didn't realize—you were with the blood traitors before, were you not? So you must forgive me for mistaking you."
"Of . . . of course," Severus murmured, steeling himself to face the spectre behind him. "I was a spy—for the Dark Lord."
"I thought you might have been, so I can't think why the usurper keeps you the way he does. It's unsettling."
"Unsettling," Severus lied, "is . . . discovering that one's service has been—"
"That is only proper. Of course, your body doesn't seem to be suffering from decay. Perhaps you might find your way back to it and do me a service—in memory of your master?"
"You wish me to kill Potter," Severus said flatly, as his mind raced with possibilities that might explain his corpse's lack of decomposition.
At the same time, he tried not to dwell on the idea that he had a corpse.
"I can't very well do it myself, now can I?"
"Mrs. Black, why are you here, and how is it that"—your spirit doesn't reflect your age?—"you've managed to retain your youthful beauty?" Severus asked, deciding that flattering the old hag would be the best way to secure her assistance.
"Having none yourself, it's no surprise to find that you recognize beauty," the witch almost purred.
"I can't tell you how gratifying it is to have someone intelligent with whom to converse," she continued, "so I shan't keep you in suspense."
Severus counted slowly while Mrs. Black did, in fact, pause for the sake of suspense.
"I bound myself to my portrait. The ritual was a simple one, really, and the reason, well, someone had to remain here until Narcissa's boy came to reclaim the Black birthright."
"Well, of course! He'll come. I know he will—he's the last one. Regulus is lost, and my niece enjoys her manor far too much to rout the usurper, but, when Draco comes, I'll have much to teach him."
Even in death, the Black insanity survives, Severus thought, trying to focus. "And, as a . . . youthful guide to Draco, you feel you'll be more effective?"
"Most definitely," Mrs. Black asserted.
Severus was disgusted. Trust Potter to botch a simple exorcism. As soon as I've figured out what the hell is going on, I'm going to banish—"Whatever I can do, madam, trust that I will."
"How gratifying that is to hear. I, myself, have done much to push the usurper into madness. He's easily led—wandering about with his nose in books and looking up words in Father's dictionary—I've been guiding him to whichever ones seem best suited to disturb him further, based on what I've overheard from his friends."
Severus almost laughed. Potter, studying? The Chosen—and Victorious—One, unable to manage a low-level, malevolent haunt? What the hell have you been doing with yourself, you ridiculous brat? What have you done to me?
"You seem almost cheerful, now."
"That's to do with your edifying company, of course." Now take me to my body so that I can fix matters, you old harpy.
He was certain that he wouldn't need his wand to manage something as simple as that, and he wasn't at all surprised to find Potter, as usual, in need of a rescue.
"—too complicated for me. I've tried, but I don't know that I'll be able to save you," Severus heard Potter say, through the door to which Mrs. Black had led him.
"You'll forgive me if I don't go in. A lady shouldn't be subjected to—well, you'll know to what soon enough," she said, dematerializing.
Even though he suspected that he was merely the manifestation of his own consciousness, Severus couldn't stop himself from shaking as he reached for the doorknob. The mind likes that which is familiar, and Severus' wasn't used to doing without the agency of his body to move himself through the world.
Potter was on his knees before a camp bed, his back partially obscuring the torso of the person lying on it. No matter what Mrs. Black had told him, Severus wasn't prepared to believe her words without first verifying them.
The bitch could easily be toying with me for her own amusement, he thought, swallowing hard as he moved to a better vantage point.
Whatever he had been expecting to see, however, was not what he saw; horrified, Severus found himself running through the returned, welcomed darkness of the void to escape it.
"I'm sorry about this," Harry told Snape, as he completed his bathing of the man's body. "It's good you don't know. Good," he repeated, choking back a sob and rising so that he could replace the soiled bed linens.
He never used magic in the course of these particular duties, despite the fact that he knew how humiliated Snape would have been to have found himself, chained and naked, to a camp bed in Grimmauld's sub-cellar being tended to by someone he'd despised. Some days, it was almost too much, caring for Snape's needs, but it was increasingly rare that he'd find what was left of the wizard staring vacantly at nothing, staring at him. Even though it was a soulless one—perhaps, especially, because it was—Harry found Snape's gaze impossible to meet.
"Right. You need your nutritional potion, and then . . . ."
Harry went still. Something was different. The room felt almost charged by a presence, one that was fading.
That's not Walburga.
Afraid, he looked down at Snape, whose eyes were closed. Steeling himself, he knelt over the wizard and gently opened one of his eyes.
"Nothing," he whispered. "Just scaring myself."
Snape drooled as if in response, but Harry couldn't bring himself to wipe the spittle away.
"I should have killed you," he said, as he released Snape's eyelid and recorded what he'd done in the log.
The care entries were almost always the same, but, in his researches, Harry had learned that it was necessary to keep track of everything. In his guilt, he'd taken to using the log as a personal journal, as well, a record of his shame for someone to someday find—because it seemed appropriate to Harry that people should know what kind of coward, what kind of monster, he'd become.
Suddenly, Harry laughed. Alert and restless after the false fright he'd just experienced, he wanted to something more than wallow in self-hatred.
"Sod this—I need a shag."
No matter the mind-body disconnect, Severus felt the muscles clenching in his stomach as he retched, and his sick felt real enough. Confusion, disgust, fear, hatred, humiliation—his emotions were undeniably real, as well.
Potter was going to pay.
"I'll kill . . . him," Severus choked up more than said, between heaves. "I'll . . . rip out . . . his heart . . . for this outrage!"
Severus had always despised Potter.
I never believed him capable of such . . . perversion, he thought, falling back on his arse and hugging his knees to his chest as he remembered what he had seen of himself in Potter's lair.
The more rational part of his consciousness pointed out that surely such a golden boy could have found a shag without resorting to keeping a pet, but Severus wouldn't listen to it.
"Why? Why else would he keep me—like that?"
The less-exercised part of his mind suggested, quietly, that the matter required investigation, that perhaps Walburga Black had done more than she knew.
"No. The old prude wouldn't have driven Potter to . . . keep me," Severus told himself, impatiently wiping away the tears he realized he was crying. "But you're—I'm," he harshly corrected himself—"right. I have to know what Potter's playing at."
"Then perhaps you should have a bracing cup of tea before you rejoin the game."
Severus craned his neck so quickly toward the speaker standing above him that he felt something inside it tear.
The bloke Harry had followed outside the club was tall, unhealthily slender, pale, and dark-haired. His nose was wrong, and he was pissed—Harry generally preferred his partners to be sober—but he wasn't in the mood to be particular.
Ignoring the man's off-putting giggling, Harry pushed him into the wall and slid to his knees, pulling down the zip before him without ceremony.
"Easy!" the bloke protested.
"Belt up," Harry ordered, reaching into the bloke's denims for his prick.
In his hurry, he grabbed a bit of boxer shorts, too, and froze.
"Can't be the first cock you've ever seen."
"I," Harry began, shaking his head to clear it, "I—this is . . . ."
The bloke giggled again and thrust his hands into Harry's hair before pulling him forward. "Don't be such a tease."
Sheep. The arsehole's wearing sheep underpants. Who does that? "Sorry," Harry mumbled, jerking himself out of the other man's grasp. "Changed my mind. It's just . . . all wrong."
He was walking away and wondering what his chances were of finding a proper shag when he felt the sharp pain burst across the back of his head.
Bottle, Harry thought, falling forward.
"There's nothing 'wrong' with my prick!" shouted the now-enraged man, as he began to kick Harry.
Rolling away from his attacker's feet, Harry cast an unspoken weather charm, curling up into a ball as hail began striking him, as well.
Stunned by the unexpected precipitation, the bloke cursed and fled into the club, leaving Harry shaking with humorless laughter as ice pelted his shivering body.
Absurdly, all he could think was, Snape would have conjured a brolly.
Albus wasn't there.
"Wishful thinking," Severus spat, trying to convince himself that he hadn't just ripped a tendon in his neck.
It seemed clear to him that, somehow, his consciousness was whole, and his mind was trying to trick him into thinking he had a body—and a friend.
"My own loneliness is causing this stupid reaction," Severus told himself, standing up. "I suppose it's a consolation of sorts, going mad in this manner—at least my hell will be of my own making." And I don't need Albus for that. I never needed him.
That was a lie, of course, but he didn't care. He was furious, disappointed, and he knew that he wouldn't be in a position to vent his spleen on Potter until he'd regained the use of his body, so he began distracting himself by naming every possible way of removing a soul from its living flesh that he knew.
"If you don't stop doubting me, I can't help you, dear boy," Albus said, again, sometime later.
Severus tore at his hair. "Stop it, man! You know he's not real. You're just ima—"
"If you continue to take on like that, you'll just un-imagine me. Wouldn't you prefer to talk?"
"Why should I talk to you? What help have you ever truly given me?" Severus yelled, in the general direction his mind told him he'd heard Albus speak. "Fuck!" he shouted, when he actually saw the wizard—and what he was wearing.
"Told you so," Albus responded, his eyes twinkling, as he removed his bee-keeper's hood.
Severus didn't know what to think about that, so he didn't think about it at all. Summoning the shreds of his dignity, he said, "If you offer me a sherbert lemon, I'll—"
"I offered you tea. It won't be real, but you'll think it is, so why not have a cup?" Albus asked, as a tea service materialized in between them. "I can promise you honey."
Severus blinked, and, when he opened his eyes, he was standing in Albus' office at Hogwarts.
"Are you doing this, or am I?"
"Perhaps we both are. To be honest, I'm not completely certain how all this works. I only know that I caught the scent of your despair and came to find you."
"You came to find me," Severus said, remembering how he'd willed himself into the entrance hall at Grimmauld. Perhaps I'm not going mad.
"Now then, sit down, drink your tea, and tell me how it is that you're here when you shouldn't be."
"How do you know that I shouldn't be here?"
"You're not . . . ethereal enough—and I gleaned from your earlier display and subsequent self-debate that you can move between this plane and that of the living. If you were dead, I doubt that would be possible."
Severus sat down and scowled at Albus as he took the cup the other wizard had poured for him, ignoring the Albus' gesture toward the honey pot.
"Your precious Potter has me chained to a camp bed."
"Ah, yes. Then what he reported is true."
"Kingsley. He died near the end of it, and was, as you might recall—"
"Percy Weasley's contact in the Order. I remember."
"Kingsley tells me that he witnessed Tom's attempt to turn you into an Inferius, only the curse didn't take. Odd, don't you think?"
Severus dropped his tea cup, memories flooding his mind.
"What is it?"
"The Dark Lord said once that it would be 'interesting' to cast the Inferius Curse upon a living person. He asked me if I thought such an experiment would be feasible."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him that the animative magics of the curse required a corpse to act upon. To my mind, an undead servant should be . . . dead," Severus replied, shuddering.
"You act as if we were merely speaking of the weather."
Albus sighed. "Kingsley also told me that Draco Malfoy attempted to save you by dosing you with the Draught of Living Death."
"What?" Severus asked, stunned. "How would sleep be able—"
"It isn't just sleep that the Draught of Living Death causes."
"No, it preserves—it places the drinker in a magically suspended state."
"But the Inferius Curse, one presumes, would rip the consciousness from the body of a living victim."
Severus stood. "Potter, was he present when—"
"You see? A cup of tea is a steadying thing. You understand now, a little better, what happened."
"He was. Kingsley sent Percy to Harry for help while he gathered the Order, and Harry sent him away. Kingsley then sent Percy back to Harry with a piece of information that he thought might motivate Harry to help rescue you, and he agreed."
"That's not for me to say. You'll have to ask Harry after you've sorted yourself out."
"Your optimism is all well and good, but—"
"Unfortunately, they arrived too late. Tom had cast his curse, Draco had poured his potion—and you'll forgive me, I can't give you an exact sequence of events because Kingsley was dying as he gathered his last information—but I do know that you were thought in need of killing. No one wanted to add to the plague of Inferi, of course."
You never were one to share everything, even when giving information, Severus thought, irritated but relieved to have something to focus on. "Then how did I end up in the sub-cellar?"
"Harry has always taken too much upon himself, Severus. He's like you. He believes everything is his fault."
"How, damn it?"
"He apparently Disapparated with you before returning to rout the Death Eaters remaining at Riddle House."
"Yes, the Dark Lord knew an attack was coming. That's why I thought he'd summoned me. He would have left others behind to give himself time to escape."
"Indeed. Do you remember anything else?"
"Lucius Malfoy. Lucius Malfoy damning me as a traitor. After that, all I remember is darkness."
"Was Draco with you when the summons came?"
"I always kept him with me, or tried to."
"And did you drink anything with him?"
"I . . . hells. Yes, I did. He must have known. Lucius must have told him. I . . . I was concerned that my wits weren't sharp enough to Occlude my thoughts as we went to see the Dark Lord."
"So Draco gave you the potion, and then Tom cursed you. Interesting. Thinking about it now, the Draught of Living Death could offer protection against the Inferius Curse—one can't animate the de-animated, however preserved."
"Albus, if my body weren't chained to a camp bed in a sub-cellar, I might find all this as fascinating as you, but—"
"You'll need a conduit. There is nothing wrong with either your mind or body, and, given time, you most certainly could brew an antidote to the draught, but you'll need a way to re-enter your body. I believe Harry might be able to help you there."
"There is a life debt between you. I should think that's why Harry's been caring for you, my boy. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to be getting back to my bees."
"Wait!" Severus exclaimed, as the office surroundings began melting into a warm summer meadow. Please don't leave me again, he thought, unable to say it. Instead, he asked, "You know, don't you? That we won?"
"I do," Albus said, smiling sadly. "There are many old friends here now." He raised his tea cup in toast, continuing, "I hope I'll see you again, much later," before releasing his grip on the china.
It disappeared with the meadow—and Albus—leaving Severus with a great deal to consider.
Harry had finally accepted that he needed help sorting out more than himself. He wasn't certain, however, as he stood watching Hermione's face change expressions so rapidly that he couldn't catch what she was thinking, that she'd been the right person to ask for it.
"You can't leave him like this," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
Swallowing, Harry protested, "But he's not dead."
"He might as well be."
"Don't say that! Don't, just—look, I'm sorry, Hermione. Please, don't tell—"
"I won't," she interrupted, rounding on Harry and slapping him.
Hermione slapped him again. "Wake up, you imbecile! Can't you see what you're doing to yourself?"
Harry steadied himself and rubbed his cheeks. "You hit pretty hard for a girl."
That's frustration. I know that one. "Look, I shouldn't have told you. Just . . . just forget it—and don't tell Ron."
Eyes widening, Hermione placed her hands on her hips and sucked her lips into her mouth before exhaling. Harry watched, somewhat dazed and with a hammering heart, as she took several deep breaths.
I should probably hide the care log, Harry thought, glancing at it.
"Look at me."
"It's obvious what you're doing, at least to me. You're torturing yourself over things that weren't your fault. What Voldemort did wasn't your fault. What happened to Professor Snape wasn't your fault."
"Isn't your responsibility, either," Hermione continued, glancing at the rocking form of their former Potions master. "Well, that won't do," she said, picking up the nearby flannel and wiping Snape's mouth with it. "Harry?"
"Why is he nude?"
Harry coughed, suddenly and violently, and turned away from Hermione to compose himself. "Easier to, uh, keep him clean that way?"
"I note that the bed linens are reasonably fresh."
"Well, I . . . ." Fuck. "I don't know why," Harry whispered, as the words of a spell echoed on the walls.
When he dared to look, he saw that Hermione had clothed Snape in a simple black nightshirt.
"You can keep that clean as easily as bed linens."
"Yeah, I suppose I can."
"Finish taking care of Professor Snape, and then join me in the drawing room," Hermione instructed. "If you don't, if you Apparate off somewhere, I'll do more than tell Ron about this—understand?"
Harry didn't understand much beyond Hermione's threat, but he nodded, and Severus, who had been shadowing Potter since his return from Albus' tea party, decided that Unspeakable Granger-Weasley was the best of witches.
"I'm sorry, Snape—Severus—"
"I never gave you leave to call me by name, Potter!"
"—Profes—sor Snape," Harry stammered, as he fed the wizard's body its nutritional potion. "I wasn't thinking."
No, you weren't, Severus silently replied, intrigued that the brat seemed to have heard him.
"I suppose I haven't been thinking for a long time."
Have you ever?
Harry shivered. Why does it feel like you're here? he thought, standing and setting aside the empty phial. "I've just been—I just couldn't—they might have killed you."
Severus sighed to see Potter in such a pathetic state. "They" would have killed me—and thrown me into the ground with a medal pinned to my chest.
Harry shivered again. "I'll be back, and don't worry—I'm not going to let her take you away."
"From me," Severus added, as he watched Potter leave.
He had to accept that Potter was attempting to protect him in his own way, but knowing this didn't inspire any feelings of gratitude.
Profound loneliness, as he well knew, often inspired terribly selfish acts.
At least he isn't a pervert, Severus thought, feeling strangely animate as he realized that his body's future was most likely being discussed abovestairs.
Not wanting to miss anything, he willed himself after the wounded brat.
"Drink this," Hermione told Harry, handing him one of Grimmauld's own tea cups.
Looking around the room, Harry said, "You cleaned," as he accepted it and drank.
"Someone had to, and you need to stop stealing your neighbors' china. It's not nice."
Harry almost spat his tea. "I'm keeping a be-spelled and . . . poisoned wizard in my sub-cellar, and that's all you can say?"
"Accio Harry's log book!"
"What are you doing?"
"My homework," Hermione replied, looking expectantly at the door.
Nothing levitated through it.
"Of course not," Hermione muttered, before casting, "Accio Harry's personal journal!"
The book floated obediently into the room just moments later.
"How'd you know?"
She's not an idiot, Potter.
"Am I going to find the sordid details of what passes for your love life in here?" Hermione asked, plucking the journal from the air.
In spite of himself, Severus found Potter's sudden flush of skin appealing.
Calmly, Harry replied, "You will," before draining his tea. Burn, burn, burn.
"Stop that!" Hermione shouted, casting an anti-fire charm at the journal, which had begun to smoulder in her hands. "You're a right mess, aren't you."
"And badly in need of a spanking," Severus said. What the hell?
Harry started. "Did you hear that?"
Severus bit his fist in an attempt not to feel too animate.
"Are you having auditory hallucinations on top of everything else?"
"Should I believe you?"
"Yes, of course you should. It was probably just Walburga."
The ghost materialized, demanding, "What is it, now?"
Severus watched Mrs. Black sniff, contempt plain on her features, as they faded with the rest of her. He was relieved. He hadn't yet encountered her alone since their first meeting, and he didn't want to until he'd worked out how best to use her.
Hermione rose. "I should be going, as well."
"Harry," Hermione said, laying a hand on his shoulder, "I won't tell Ron—but no more clubs, no more allowing strangers to hurt you—understand?"
Potter's eyes welled with tears, and Severus, who knew how to respect a man's privacy, turned away.
Yes, be good enough to allow those of us who know you to do that, he thought, intrigued by how his perceptions of his metaphysical body were beginning to intrude upon his consciousness and determined to explore the matter more fully.
He still despised Potter, but the glimpses he'd had of the brat's well-sculpted backside as Potter had tended him had unexpectedly enlivened certain of his bits.
Pervert, he chastised himself, albeit not too harshly.
His self-hatred, whatever fed it, was no longer much of a burden to him.
Severus stared at himself, which was easily done as Potter kept the sub-cellar lit by sconces set high on the walls.
Where I—it—can't reach them.
By Severus' standards, there were no decent Potions texts in the house beyond what Potter used to brew the nutritional potion, so he had felt, however unwilling he was to be in his disensouled form's presence, that a direct observation of it was in order.
It shambled, rocked, drooled—but evinced no murderous impulse.
It has no master. Of course it doesn't.
It shat regularly, so Severus assumed that Potter had included a fiber component in its feeding solution. Happily, because he had no real desire to smell his own waste, he found that he didn't.
The thing's flesh was, despite the familiar imperfections, un-decayed. Severus took great comfort in that—but he couldn't quite grasp how the interaction of the draught and the curse had worked to evict his incorporeal essence from his body and preserve the shell—while not causing it to sleep—he suspected that sleep might require the presence of a mind to direct, but he needed to do more research on the matter.
I need texts on the metaphysical philosophies, Potions, and—
The drooling made him lose his train of thought. Severus hated the drooling most of all and wanted very much to wipe it away from his chin.
But I don't have my wand, so there's no—idiot! You have your mind. Use it.
Even ghosts could direct enough energy to move things. With this in mind, Severus focused on the flannel on the bedside table and attempted to levitate it toward his body's face.
Severus tried again, repeating his attempt until he couldn't take the failure another moment. "Gah! I can turn a doorknob, but I can't move a sodding flannel?" he asked himself, tearing at his hair.
It hurt. Severus stopped—but then began to pull his hair once more as a thought occurred to him.
It hurts because I know I can do it and what my reaction should be.
Not hesitating, Severus stopped hurting himself, walked forward, picked up the flannel in his projected hand, and efficiently rubbed away the drool from his body's slackened face.
"Ha!" I know I have a hand, so I can use it. Right, then—no more failures of imagination on my part—magic is an act of will, and I've obviously got enough of that.
It occurred to him that he might possess enough will to influence Potter's behavior beyond what he'd already achieved by keeping the brat from calling him by his first name, and he decided it was important to try.
Because that woman has done him enough damage.
The thing that was his empty, fleshy self issued a sound like the deflating of a balloon.
"Not too empty, I note," Severus murmured, hastily leaving before he was treated to another bout of defecation.
Harry stared at the word above his finger. "'Suicide'. That's a cheerful bloody word."
Since Hermione had taken his journal, he'd been recording his daily words on a scrap of fish and chips paper.
Grim, aren't they? he thought, scanning the list:
Harry couldn't remember if his earlier words had all been as unpleasant. A voice in his head, the sound of it familiar and rich—and increasingly insistent—had told him they hadn't been. Being honest with himself, Harry couldn't even remember why he'd initially been drawn to the dictionary, which, he had to admit, had always frightened him a little.
You know what the covers are made of. Walburga told you, didn't she?
He hadn't felt compelled to call for Walburga in days, and wondered if that was why he was suddenly thinking more clearly.
Could be you're thinking more clearly because you haven't called for—
Suddenly, things became yet more clear to Harry, and he balled his hands into fists and tried to hold back the overwhelming feeling of rage his realization made him feel.
Some hero I am, letting a spectre influence me like that. Well, I've had enough. "Walburga!"
"Don't you think I've better things to do than answer your peremptory summonses?" she asked, materializing next to him by the library stand.
On impulse, Harry tore out the page upon which "suicide" was defined in answer.
"How dare you!"
"I'll dare more than that if you don't stop playing with me."
The candles in the room flared so highly that their flames scorched the ceiling, and Walburga drew in a reedy sounding breath before saying, "I . . . I won't allow you to harm this house or anything in it."
Harry smiled, one that felt both ugly and good as it spread across his face. He could hear the change in Walburga's tone, and it pleased him to find her so frightened for a change. He moved to one of the display cases to retrieve Bledsoe's, flipping through its pages until he'd found the ritual that he now knew from his earlier research Walburga had to have used to keep her shade young.
She faded a bit before him and wrung her hands.
"Interesting. You're losing your looks there. Want help making it permanent?"
"Y—you hateful boy."
"Ah, ah, ah," Harry chided. "I told you, no insults. For that, you deserve more than a spanking."
Walburga thrust herself at him, her fingers splayed, but her raking digits passed through Harry's head as nothing but claws of extraordinary coldness, and he laughed.
He also began to chant.
Severus stood just inside the door to the drawing room and watched Potter in amazed horror.
That's a Dark spell.
Mrs. Black, partially dematerialized but held by Potter's power, shrieked and clawed at her face. Severus couldn't see it, but he knew what Potter was doing to it.
He's torturing her—and enjoying it!
It seemed that Walburga Black had driven the brat to what was, for him, a sort of madness, and Severus couldn't allow him to give into it: no wizard of Potter's power could be allowed to indulge in the Dark Arts.
That won't do, he thought, striding forward to tear the grimoire out of Potter's hands; he elbowed him hard in the ribs, as well.
Potter went flying into a display case.
"You bitch! How did you do that?" he shouted, struggling to rise amidst broken glass and cutting himself on the shards in the process. "Walburga, don't you—"
Severus didn't give Potter time to complete his thought; instead, he punched him in the mouth.
It was gratifying.
"Fuck! This is my house now, you bitch! Mine!"
"It shouldn't be," Severus told Potter, putting as much force into his words as he could in hopes of distracting him from doing some other stupid thing.
It didn't work well; Potter was too exercised to "hear" him, so Severus, unwilling to watch his caretaker damage himself further, did the first reasonable thing that sprang to mind: he grabbed the flailing wizard and forced him back to the floor by lying atop him before grinding his hips into Potter's own.
"Get off me, you bitch!"
Idiot, Severus thought, feeling himself harden as he poured himself into Potter's consciousness. "Witches don't have pricks."
Potter stilled as quickly as if he'd been hit by a stunning spell. "S—Snape? Snape, is that—can't be," he said, looking wildly about.
When he began to struggle again, Severus slid himself forward into a kneeling position on Potter's chest, thinking, See me, see me, see me, and grunting in satisfaction when Potter's eyes widened in shock.
"Mad. I'm . . . must be—"
Potter went limp as he lost consciousness, and Severus allowed himself to sag forward in relief.
It was short-lived.
From above and behind him, Mrs. Black said, "If you can do that, then you can kill him."
Harry woke up, sore, confused, and hard. He was in his bed, naked, and someone had cleaned and bandaged him.
It took him a moment to recall how he'd been wounded.
When he did, he rolled over to hang off the side of his bed and became violently ill.
Severus, profoundly disturbed by what his actions had been during his manifestation, had, after dealing with Mrs. Black, fled temporarily into the void in search of Albus.
The bastard wasn't there, Severus thought bitterly, retrieving some of the honeycomb he'd found glowing in the darkness and laying it in a dish. Typical.
He was finding his self-reification, at least, remarkably helpful.
I don't think Potter saw me during the fight. He saw what I projected into his mind and extrapolated from there.
Severus' evidence for this particular theory had come in the form of Unspeakable Granger-Weasley, for whom he'd opened the door the preceding evening. She had walked through him as if he'd been nothing, but he hadn't taken it personally.
The bond Potter and I share is influencing his . . . experience of me.
When his former student had seen the disorder of the drawing room, she'd wrapped her arms around herself and cried, briefly, before quietly laying Potter's journal aside and leaving.
Obviously, it wasn't the first time she'd found the house in such a state, Severus thought, carrying the tray he'd prepared to Potter's room.
He was nervous about waking him, but the brat had to eat. Severus was feeling as tired as a crone's tit; caring for Potter, in addition to his quasi-Inferius self, was taking its toll: he wasn't certain how much longer he could afford the metaphysical expense of his current degree of manifestation, and that terrified him.
Harry woke up to find no trace of vomit on himself or the carpet. He felt embarrassed, more so when he saw the tray by his bedside.
Hermione was here. Please be gone, he begged, rising weakly to go to the toilet.
The chill air that enfolded him caused another wave of mortification to pass through him—but it also set him on an alert edge.
Hermione wouldn't have stripped me off.
With Dobby gone and Ron no longer willing to deal with the aftermath of one of Harry's bouts of self-destructiveness, Harry knew that neither of them had looked after him.
"So who the hell was it?" he asked himself, dressing in the black trousers and shirt that he found folded neatly on the rim of his bathtub.
It was when he looked at himself in his bedroom mirror that he remembered seeing—and feeling—Snape's presence.
"It's happened at last: I've gone completely 'round the twist."
He was, however, too tired and sore to want to dwell on his obvious descent into madness.
"Hungry," he muttered, making a beeline for the tray.
He sat on the edge of his bed and ate in silence, stubbornly refusing to allow himself to think about anything at all.
Severus, who had lost his nerve about confronting Potter, watched the other wizard eat and kept well out of his mind, however irritated he felt.
You might take a moment to remember your "guest" in the sub-cellar, you arse.
"One of the dishes on my tray was empty," Harry said to Hermione, by way of greeting. "It's not like you to forget anything."
Hermione's expression through the fire wasn't particularly clear, but her tone was plain enough.
"What are you on about?" she snapped.
"You did . . . you did bring up a tray for me the other day, didn't you?" Harry asked, not wanting to be more specific in case Ron was there.
"I'm sorry you're lonely, but I don't have time to baby you just now. I'll be in touch when I know something."
With that, Hermione ended the fire-call; Harry felt his eyes burn in response.
I never should have given her my journal. I never should have told her.
He was glad that he'd not said anything about feeling Snape's . . . presence during the altercation with Walburga.
Hermione'd think I was certifiable.
Still, he remained confused about the dish.
"I must have done it all myself."
There's ingratitude for you, Severus thought, when he discovered that his "patient" hadn't touched the honeycomb he'd left for him. He might have at least taken down the tray.
Potter had slept after eating most of the tray's contents, and Severus had left him to it in favor of examining the journal Unspeakable Granger-Weasley had left.
Its contents were difficult to take, given the astonishing, if unsurprising, whinging tone of Potter's entries, but it was clear that the younger wizard had been assiduous in his care of Severus' body.
Until recently, that is. Why is he even doing this at all? He hates me, Severus thought, ignoring the deeper voice inside his mind that told him he could understand Potter's motivations if he tried.
Severus didn't want to try. He wanted to be back in his body, and it galled him to know that he'd have to rely on Potter, at least in part, to achieve his desire. Albus had said as much.
But he'll need to be whole, himself, if he's to help me, Severus decided, picking up the abandoned tray and carrying it to the kitchen, which means that I need a plan.
There was a presence in Grimmauld, and it wasn't Walburga. Harry hadn't dared summon her since the business with the dictionary—although he had burned the damned thing and avoided his books entirely to prevent her from interfering with him again.
He wasn't a complete imbecile.
The presence felt familiar. He would have named it Snape but for his suspicion that living in close quarters with the man's body, touching it, wishing for its eyes to reflect something—anything—other than emptiness had caused him to imagine Snape's presence.
He thought he might have conjured something—provoked by by his wishful thinking—akin to Snape's presence, but he rejected that idea because he'd never fancied the wizard, never thought about what his body might feel like against his own.
"That's a lie, isn't it?" Harry admitted, looking up from his journal and laying aside his quill. You've been having it off with men who look like him.
It had once been redheads Harry had sought, but that had been during the Horcrux hunt when he'd creep away to leave Ron and Hermione to it, jealous of what they—of what she—had.
"Never helped much, did it?" Harry whispered, charming his journal invisible.
Ron would be there soon, and he wasn't about to risk more discovery.
I can't let him know how weak I really am. He'd never forgive me for it.
Auror Weasley—that had come as no surprise—and Potter had gone out. There had been talk between them of "chasing the Snitch around," so Severus knew that it would be some time before the brat returned. He picked up Potter's journal—the charm employed on it didn't seem to affect Severus, a circumstance which he would have found worthy of further study if he hadn't had so many other mysteries to consider—and settled down to read.
These pages, they're like bandages over wounds.
As much of a weakness as Severus found the indulgence in such raw, open writing, he couldn't bring himself to mock Potter for it.
He still thinks he's going mad. That's no surprise.
Having suspected that, Severus had tried not to add to Potter's confusion, electing instead to complete small, useful tasks about the house and otherwise remain out of his way. He wanted Potter to know he was there, but he didn't want to alarm him as he had previously.
He also had no desire to alarm himself; it was difficult to accept the sexual response Potter provoked from him.
"That . . . Harry provokes from me," Severus whispered, trying out the name as he continued his reading.
His moment of self-reflective clarity was short-lived.
"Potter has feelings for Ronald Weasley?" Severus barked, feeling something that was certainly not jealousy twist in his gut.
It shouldn't have been a surprise—there had been talk at Hogwarts—but it was, and Severus hated surprises.
Throwing aside the journal in disgust, he stormed up to the attics.
"Are you here?"
"Where else would I be, Severus?" Walburga groused. "You said this was the only place I'd be safe."
"So it is, but I've come to tell you I'm making progress."
"And it's about time, too. Have you found a way to contact Draco?"
"He's getting out more," Walburga accused.
Disturbed, Severus asked, "And you know that, how?"
"This is my home, and I can always feel the absence of the usurper's unwelcome presence."
Noting the window that faced the street, Severus realized that Walburga had no special power of discernment beyond what her eyes could see. That's a relief, at least. "Just be patient and remain here, or I won't be able to help you."
Walburga glared at him but said nothing, and Severus left her, not entirely certain that the ghost would obey him. He knew that she was desperate to speak to Draco, and something told him it would not be wise for him to permit that to occur.
Sighing, he could only hope that Walburga's fear would keep her in check because he'd made a distressing discovery: he couldn't banish her. He couldn't, he'd found, use magic, even though he thought he should be able to in much the same manner as he directed his will to manifest a body for himself.
It was the honeycomb that had proved telling. Severus had seen it when looking for Albus and had brought it back with him because he'd thought it was real. Potter, however, had not.
It was an act of will. I wanted Albus. I had seen his bee-keeper's helmet and assumed there would be honeycomb because Albus loved it—but how is it that I can manifest my will in a way Potter notices, so long as it's connected with the physical? "Metaphysics is a bitch."
It annoyed Severus that he didn't have a better grasp of the subject because, given the promiscuous brat's feelings for Weasley, he wasn't certain if he'd be able to convince Potter that he was not imagining his presence.
If I can't make him focus on me, I won't be able to secure his assistance.
It was time, Severus decided, to alter his plan.
Harry returned to Grimmauld sweaty, exhausted, and aroused. He wasted no time in stripping off and sinking into a hot bath, luxuriating in the feeling of the water's embrace.
"Ron," he murmured hoarsely, imagining that embrace as a column of long, thick fingers wrapped around his erection.
It had never been a problem, the idea of his best mate stroking him off.
Ron would kill me if he knew I did this, Harry thought, squeezing his fingers so that he could push through his guilt.
He knew how much the rumors had always bothered Ron, but the memory of that arse raised over its broomstick was just too good; Harry needed to wank to it. He was just speeding his strokes when he felt a hand clamp down on the base of his prick.
It wasn't Ron's hand; Harry could tell.
Harry could feel him. He could feel the fingers working him lengthen and become more slender, and he shuddered into the renewed, slower strokes, moaning lustfully at the unexpected alteration of his fantasy.
"C—can't be . . . Snape. Going mad—oh, fuck! Don't care—don't stop!"
Severus laughed into the sucking vise he'd made of his mouth and kept firmly in mind that, because he was no longer bound by flesh, he didn't need to breathe.
Ron strode into the drawing room, struggling out of his jumper and asking, "Heard about Malfoy?"
"Fuck!" Harry exclaimed, allowing his journal to fall forward over his half-exposed groin. "You might've knocked."
As if he hadn't heard, Ron continued, "I can't believe it—two years—you'd think they would've given him more time."
"Yeah," Harry mumbled, hastily fastening his trousers while noting the second jumper Ron was wearing. "Speaking of two . . . ."
"Oh, that—Hermione's nesting."
"Got hit by a freezing hex or three the other day. Sniffles. Woman's off her nut with worry I'll catch a cold," Ron replied, in between taking bites of one of the sandwiches he'd found on a tray by the sofa. "These are good. Made or conjured?"
"You think Dobby's decided not to liaise for the Department of Elvish Welfare anymore and come back?"
"No." Severus made the sandwiches. "I made them—went out for groceries earlier."
"Under glamour," Harry said, reaching for the last sandwich before Ron could. "Had to, what with Skeeter's photographers lurking everywhere."
"Well, however you managed it, eating suits you. You've got some color back in your cheeks."
Harry bit back an embarrassed laugh. "Why're you here?"
"That's a fine way to greet your best mate."
"Who just bursts in on unsuspecting, uh, sandwich-eaters," Harry retorted, his blush deepening.
Ron, who had been leaning against the mantle—a sight Harry would have appreciated more if someone's fingers hadn't been distracting him—rolled his eyes and groaned.
Harry found he appreciated the sound, no matter what the distraction.
"You live like you're still in the dormitory. What would Hermione say?"
"That you should've knocked," Harry retorted, pressing down on the spine of his journal to still the insistent fingers.
"You sure you didn't hear about Malfoy's release and decide to celebrate?"
"No—I mean, yes—wait. What the hell are you on about?" Harry demanded, as the fingers abruptly withdrew.
Throwing himself down in a nearby chair, Ron replied, "You did fancy him."
"I did not."
"You talk in your sleep, Harry."
That revelation was too mortifying to contemplate, so Harry didn't. "What's got you so interested in the prat?"
Ron's face fell. "The Department of Mysteries has offered him a trial position—no doubt to study his Mark—and he'll be reporting to Hermione."
"She must be chuffed about that," Harry said, sarcastically.
Ron's expression darkened. "It was actually her idea—can you believe that?"
"Well, it's not like she'll be inviting him home for a cuppa."
"You've known my wife for how long?"
Harry frowned. That won't do, will it? he thought, wondering how to placate Ron.
He didn't think Hermione needed the stress of an irate husband in her second trimester.
Not after everything I've done to worry her. "Even without the Dementors, Azkaban couldn't have been easy on Malfoy. I'm sure he won't be as horrible as we remember him being."
"That must have been one hell of a wank, what with you talking like a politician."
Harry screwed his eyes shut, and forced himself to ask, "Scrimgeour's involved in this?"
"Yeah. He's got Hermione convinced that the rehabilitation of 'former' Death Eaters will be 'good'—"
"—'for society'," Harry said in time with Ron, as he opened his eyes.
"We're having a baby. How could she have agreed to this?" Ron asked, shoving his fingers into his fringe and smoothing it back—repeatedly.
"The war's over, Ron, and"—I can't believe I'm saying this—"and Malfoy never actually did anything other than get a bullshit tattoo and be bullied by Voldemort into helping the Death Eaters get inside Hogwarts—not that those things were right—but they're in the past. He's not going to hurt—"
"That's not the point! He was a Death Eater! He chose Voldemort! He's partly responsible for Dumbledore's—"
Before Ron could complete his thought, Harry rose and went to him, sitting on the arm of his chair and laying a hand on Ron's shoulder.
"—death," Ron finished, taking a deep breath. "How can people just forget all that? It's madness."
"And I can't believe you're spewing such crap when you never forgot it—you killed Snape, for fuck's sake!"
Oh, bollocks. "I . . . I know that," Harry lied, at a loss to respond any other way.
"It's an insult, the Ministry letting Malfoy go. After everything you did to keep us safe, aren't you insulted?" Ron asked, looking up at Harry with tear-filled eyes.
He's scared. He's scared for his family. "Ron," Harry said, gently, "your son's going to be fine."
"We're not talking about my—"
"And you're going to be a good—no, a great—father. Nothing can keep that from happening."
"Something could," Ron whispered. "One of them, one of those despicable bastards we didn't catch, one of them might."
"He'll be proud of you, too, just like I am," Harry continued, moving in front of the chair and crouching over Ron so that he could place his other hand on Ron's other shoulder. "You'll see."
"It's madness," Ron repeated, leaning forward until his forehead almost touched Harry's, "absolute insanity to show any of them mercy."
Harry didn't realize that he was crying, too, until he felt a large warm hand come to rest in between his shoulder blades. Severus, he thought, I don't know what to say to him.
The hand moved in soothing circles as if in reply.
"Merlin," Ron breathed out more than said, straightening up in his chair. "Sorry 'bout that."
Harry straightened up, as well, saying, "Yeah, it's not like you to be such a girl."
Both wizards looked away from each other as they wiped their eyes.
"You wouldn't think it, but she needs me to be strong, Harry, so—"
"Don't worry. I won't tell Hermione that you'd rather eat dirty socks than Malfo—I mean, than be civil to Malfoy."
"Pervert," Ron retorted, half-grinning. "You'd best be careful."
"Of my wife deciding that her new colleague is a nice son of."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Harry exclaimed, concerned that Ron still looked like he wanted to cry. Oh, what the hell. "I'd never," he continued, prepared to embarrass himself to distract Ron, "let Malfoy close enough to me to tie me down."
"Agh! No. I did not just hear that. You are a perv!"
"And you're going to be a great dad."
"And you a 'funny' uncle," Ron replied, grinning.
Later that night, Harry woke up to find himself bound to the bedposts, a hot tongue lapping at his balls, and an insistent, welcome finger working his arse.
"Oh, yes, yes, Severus—please!"
Whatever you need, Harry. Take whatever you need.
In the following weeks, Harry found himself hard-pressed to find anything lacking in his life: Grimmauld Place was as clean as a laboratory, the meals he never remembered making for himself were delicious—the tea, perfect—he'd kept up his habit of walking out under glamour to pick up the Prophet and groceries each day, and he never missed a bath.
Trading up to Snape from Walburga for company had worked well for him; he enjoyed his new routine, even if maintaining it had meant accommodating Hermione's "request" that he join the Weasleys for a family dinner.
"I'm really proud of you, Harry," she told him, as they sat in Ron's old room at the Burrow. "You've done wonders with yourself."
"You sound like a presenter for one of those make-over programs your mum was talking about," Harry replied.
Ron laughed. "Jane's fascinated by do-it-yourself programs, as well. I expect Dad'll be redoing the shed before long."
"And then the kitchen," Hermione added.
In the ensuing comfortable silence, Harry asked, "So, Ginny couldn't make it?"
Ron and Hermione both looked away.
Shit. Shouldn't've said anything.
Ron frowned. "She and Blaise came this morning, actually. That's why you can barely see the tree for all the damn expensive presents."
"She just wants to—"
"I know what she wants, Hermione. She's trying to bribe her way back into everyone's good graces."
"Ron, I don't think—"
"And she's missing the point entirely! We don't care about the divorce. It's she who can't get past what happened—Harry's family."
Not Blaise's, Harry thought, frowning, himself. "Not anymore."
"Always," Ron insisted, rolling over on his back to stare at the ceiling.
Harry smiled at that. Love you, too. "Well, she'll forgive me eventually—and it's good to see Percy here this year," he continued, over Ron's mutter of "Nothing to forgive."
Hermione patted Ron's leg and said, "I only wish Arthur would say something to him. It's awfully . . . strained downstairs."
Abruptly, Harry laughed. He laughed so hard that he fell over onto Ron and began gasping for breath.
"You're jiggling the bed so hard that I think I need to pee again," Hermione chided. "What's so funny, anyway?"
"So—orry," Harry said, in between gasps of air. "It's just . . . so funny . . . that we . . . we're hiding."
Ron snorted. "We've been through worse—I see your point," he said, before laughing, himself.
Hermione giggled. "Perhaps we are being silly."
"This is nice," Harry replied, composing himself. "I've missed . . . ."
"Me too, mate."
"Enjoy the peace and quiet while you can, boys," Hermione told them, rising and rubbing her belly significantly. "When Cedric arrives . . . ."
"You're naming the baby after Cedric?"
"'Cedric Harry'," Ron affirmed, looking at Harry. "If that's all right with you, of course."
From the door, Hermione said, "Our son's going to be Cedric Harry whether you mind or not, so don't start minding."
"I won't. I'm glad," Harry said, feeling pleased—and a bit flustered by the honor.
When Hermione left them, Ron asked, "How many times you reckon she's been to the loo today?"
I'm really about to be a godfather. Wow. "Uh, you know, I've lost count," Harry answered, wondering how it was all going to work once the baby came.
He was disconcerted. He'd just begun to feel comfortable with people again, but he much preferred spending time with Severus.
And I can't share any of this with him.
Harry seemed well, but Severus hadn't managed to convince him that he wasn't shagging a figment of his imagination.
It's been weeks, and I'm still no closer to finding my way back into my body than I was to begin with—or discovering Walburga's plans for Draco, he thought, deeply frustrated.
He supposed there might be worse fates than indulging in the domestic routine he'd established with Harry.
And when I am back in my body . . . .
Severus couldn't complete the thought; achieving his re-embodiment would mean an end to the most . . . affectionate relationship he'd ever known, and there wouldn't be anything—or anyone—waiting for him beyond Grimmauld's threshold.
Suddenly feeling rather grim, he thought, Perhaps he should have killed me.
"Thanks, Hermione, but I think I've had enough social—I mean—"
"That's all right. I understand."
"I don't," Ron said. "Cleaned up or not, this place is still pretty lonely. It would do you good to get out more."
Harry sighed impatiently. "We'll have a go at practicing those new Quidditch maneuvers you were talking about—next week. You should spend some time alone with your wife, don't you think?"
"Men," Hermione retorted. "Just because I'm married now doesn't mean—"
"You're not Hermione," Ron told her, catching her up into a bear hug and off her feet. "Quality time would suit me very well, wife."
"Ronald! Put me down!"
"Yeah, that's quite enough marital bliss," Harry said, starting as he felt Severus' arms enfold his waist. "Nice," he murmured.
"It is that," Ron agreed, setting Hermione down. "Right, we're off, but you're coming out with me Tuesday next. I'm wrapping up a case then and I'll only have a bit of paperwork to see to in the afternoon."
Hermione kissed Harry on the cheek and said, "You two should really start a Quidditch club."
"Not a bad idea," said Ron. "Need the loo—be right back."
When Ron had left them, Hermione, a worried expression on her face, continued, "Are you certain you're all right? You seem . . . calmer, lately, but—"
"I'm fine, really—quite well, actually."
"I'm sorry I haven't been much help with . . . ."
"No need," Harry answered quickly. "I, uh, I think I'm working out what to do. We can talk about it another time."
Hermione eyed Harry skeptically. "Really."
Harry swallowed. "How's Malfoy working out?"
"He's an arrogant pest," Hermione said, her raised eyebrow indicating to Harry that she didn't believe he'd given the issue of Severus' body much thought at all, "but smart. I think he'll be fine."
"Why'd you want him to—"
"Ready?" Ron interrupted, much to Harry's relief.
He didn't actually give a damn about Malfoy and had no idea what had prompted him to ask about the prat beyond a desire to distract Hermione's suspicions about himself.
"Yes," Hermione replied to Ron, not breaking her gaze with Harry. "Let's meet at the Three Broomsticks for lunch next week—Wednesday—all right?"
"Sure," said Harry, relieved to see his friends leave as he leaned into Severus' chest. "That's not good," he told him. "She's thinking too hard about me—about you. I'm not sure what to tell her."
He forgot about Hermione completely, however, as a clever hand began to massage the placket of his trousers.
"You're right. We've other things to—oh! Good. That's so . . . happy Christmas, Severus."
Harry groaned and shuddered as he came, and Severus caught him before he could fall.
"You're an ungrateful prat, Potter. Spent the entire day amongst friends and it exhausted you," he lectured, as he carried him abovestairs.
"Sorry," Harry murmured, already half-asleep.
Tucking Harry in, Severus inexplicably found himself missing his mam, despite the fact that she had most nights of his childhood sent him to bed on his own. It was something that Severus had once promised himself that he'd never do were he fortunate enough to have a family of his own.
A proper family—two parents and happy children, he thought, staring at Harry, of whom he'd been taking such assiduous care.
That the prat should take him so for granted, that he shouldn't even believe he was real, suddenly made Severus furious, and he grasped Harry's shoulders and shook him.
"Potter! Wake up, you imbecile! Wake up and see me!"
"Wha—at? What is it?" Harry said, waking and looking blindly around.
Severus picked up Harry's glasses, which he'd placed on the side table, and pressed them into his hand. "Put these on and look at me."
Harry put his glasses on and stared right through Severus. "Fuck. Ron's right, isn't he? I'm even starting to fool myself."
"NO!" Severus shouted, pouring himself into Harry's consciousness and willing him to see him. "I won't allow you to think yourself mad another minute, Potter. I. Am. Real."
"Se—everus?" Harry asked uncertainly, as his eyes fixed on Severus' own.
"Yes! I'm real, damn you! I've been sucking you off and tidying your sodding house and sleeping next to you for weeks, you ungrateful sod, and you will acknowledge me!"
"Oh, Oh. My. God. You're not a dream. You're . . . not . . . you're here. Not in my head. Here," Harry babbled, his eyes wide as he looked, really looked, at Severus.
Relief flooding him, Severus moved to embrace Harry—but he was rebuffed.
Pushing Severus away and leaping backward off the bed, Harry demanded, "What the fuck have you been playing at, Snape?"
"What the hell do you mean?" Severus demanded, stung to hear "Snape" roll off Harry's tongue so harshly after everything they'd done together, heretofore "imagined" by the other wizard or not.
"You've been here, all this time? Here while I washed you? Here while I fed you? Here, drooling and shitting all over yourself while I've been begging you to talk to me?" Harry asked, fury sweeping his features as he stood poised to either attack or flee.
"Calm down, you idiot. If I could have communicated with you then, I—"
"Stay away from me, you mocking fuck!" Harry shouted, racing past Severus and into the corridor.
Stunned, Severus listened as the lock was turned in what he assumed was the door to the loo. He's hiding from me? After all—"You're hiding?" he demanded, storming out of the room to the loo and shaking the handle of the door, too surprised and angry and hurt to realize that he could easily enter the room his own way. "How dare you behave this way! Potter! Open this door!"
"Get out, Snape! I don't know why you're here—just get out!"
"If I could get out, I would, you sniveling, faithless—"
The door opened abruptly, and Harry thrust himself at Snape. "'Faithless'? I'm faithless? You've been lying to me! Why would you pretend to—HEY! Let go!"
Severus ignored Harry and tightened his grip around the smaller wizard's wrist, dragging him down the stairs. "I'll show you I'm not pretending anything, you pathetic excuse for a wizard!"
"No! I don't want to go down there!" Harry protested, attempting to jerk his arm out of Severus' grasp.
But Severus wasn't about to give up, no matter how incensed he was, now that Harry could see him.
"You need to see both of us," he told Harry, turning and punching him before throwing the stunned Harry over his shoulder and carrying him the rest of the way. "Look!" he ordered, as he threw Harry down on the camp bed that held his quasi-Inferius self.
"Gah!" Harry exclaimed, recoiling from the filth that covered him.
"Your fault, that," Severus said. "You might've come to check on it."
"You didn't have to throw me in its—your—shit!" Harry answered, pushing himself to the floor and spelling himself clean before looking from Severus' fleshy body to the one he'd willed into being. "Fuck. How are you—where did—what the hell's going on?"
Somewhat calmer, Severus replied, "Something to do with metaphysics, I presume."
"You mean you don't know?"
"Do you think I'd be here standing next to my body if I did?"
Rubbing his head where Severus had struck it, Harry, looking at nothing, whispered, "Just because you know . . . sort of why something's happening . . . it, it doesn't mean you know how to fix it."
"Bravo, Mr. Potter. I think we're beginning to understand one another."
Harry met Severus' gaze. "Bollocks."
"Nice ones, too," Severus replied, staring pointedly at Harry's nude body.
"Don't you dare say things like that to me. You . . . you haven't the right."
"What did you just say to me?"
"You. Haven't. The. Right," Harry repeated, from behind gritted teeth as he stood.
"That's rich coming from you," Severus retorted, casting an angry gaze in the direction of the manacles attached to his body's wrists. "Enjoy yourself with me, did you, before I started enjoying myself with you?"
Harry flushed and turned his back. "It was for its own good."
"Fucking it?" Severus goaded, too furious again to care about his certainty that Harry wasn't a pervert.
"I never touched you! Not like that—I'd never do something like that!" Harry shouted, rounding on Severus. "I've been trying to save you!"
"You've a funny way of going about a rescue."
"And you've a bizarre way of . . . of finding someone to shag," Harry accused, taking a step toward Severus, his hands balling into fists.
"I was taking care of you, you imbecile—just as you've been caring for me," Severus admitted, his face falling and shoulders slumping as he thought, No, not caring. Hiding from the bloody world with some idea of me .
Harry's fists relaxed, and he flexed his hands at Severus' change in demeanor. "I . . . I don't think that I can . . . do this right now," he said, walking slowly out the door and taking each step with deliberate slowness.
"Oh, of course not. You're the wounded hero here. How stupid of me to forget."
"Go to hell, Snape."
His eyes burning, Severus shouted, "I'm already there, Potter!"
Harry had flown so high up into the evening sky that his broom handle was icing and he felt light-headed. The sting of the slick coldness against his hands prompted him to cast a warming charm—and Bubble-Head—before he could freeze to death or fall to it due to lack of oxygen. More comfortable, he allowed the cloudless darkness to enfold him in its soothing emptiness.
When he'd been trapped in the Dursleys' broom cupboard as a child, he'd dreamed of open spaces—vast deserts, the tops of mountain ranges, bodies of water, great meadows.
But I never wished I could fly. I couldn't even conceive of it back then.
Heretofore, to be in the air had always been an exhilarating, freeing experience for Harry.
And now all I'm doing is hiding.
He'd been a fool, cowering from the world in Snape's arms, which he still couldn't believe had been real. Well, some weird sort of reality, anyway.
How could I have let myself . . . do those things with him? How could I have wanted them—with Snape?
The real Snape was bitter and nasty and cruel. He hated Harry. He wanted Harry to fail.
To hurt and fail and . . . and—"Fuck."
However far gone he was, Harry could no longer lie to himself. Snape was a horrible person.
But he's always tried to help me, even if the ways he tried were awful.
It stung worse than the ice to admit that, but denying the truth of things had almost driven him mad. Still, Harry was terribly confused.
Was it all lies? Manipulation on his part to get me to help him? Why would Snape have . . . touched me like that—even to help himself—if he truly hates me?
It was weakness to assume, based on some stupid, half-buried hope of being loved, that Snape actually wanted him.
But it wasn't just the shagging. He did take care of me. "Of course he did—he needs you," Harry told himself harshly. "He needs you, and you need—" I don't know what I need, do I?
Harry only knew what he wanted—to feel needed, loved, and not so pathetically alone.
Ginny needed me, and look how that turned out. I ignored her and made her feel so useless that she ran to Zabini.
Although he hated to admit it, Harry had been—and still was—grateful to Zabini for filling the void left by his emotional abandonment of his wife. Of course, feeling so didn't make him happy about it.
"Potter," Zabini had told him, the night he'd come for Ginny, "Ginevra deserves more than you can give her. I don't wish you ill, but I'm not so enraptured by the myth of the Chosen One that I can stand by and allow you to ruin her life, as well."
"Lovely speech," Harry had replied. "You think that makes up for the fact you've been shagging my wife?"
"I never touched her," Zabini had said coldly, from above Harry.
I can still feel the ache in my jaw, Harry thought, rubbing the phantom pain.
But Zabini had been right. Ginny was made for happiness, and he had only been able to give her cause to worry.
"I just don't understand it."
Everyone had been so ready to be happy after Voldemort was gone that they'd ignored everything ugly that had preceded the Dark Lord's fall—but Harry had only been able to absorb all that darkness. He felt it now, festering inside him like a malignant weight, and knew.
No one can possibly understand what it's been like for me.
The funny thing was that everything he'd been given—praise, acclaim, job offers, offers of sex, Ginny as his bride—these things and Ginny had come so easily to him that he couldn't feel he'd deserved them.
And everyone wanted me to be someone I wasn't when I didn't even know myself.
Harry checked himself.
"That's not quite true, is it?"
He was just a bloke. An orphan. A child of prophecy. A Quidditch player. A decent enough student. A good friend, for the most part. He knew he was these things, even if the knowledge wasn't particularly helpful.
Scared, that's what I am most of all—too scared to be alone enough to figure out who I really am.
Harry rather thought he'd find himself a disappointment and unworthy of being loved—by anyone, and that realization made him wish, almost, that he was back in the broom cupboard under the Dursleys' stairs.
Everything had been so simple then: he'd just been a little boy who'd wanted someone to hold him.
Who grew up to be a "pathetic excuse for a wizard," he thought, remembering Snape's damning words. "He's right," Harry whispered, flying lower so that he could release the bubble over his head, which had fogged up irritatingly. "He's right—but I don't want him to be."
Leaning into his handle, Harry flew quickly toward the ground with no real thought of stopping. He knew how to deal with pathetic wizards. He'd killed more than one.
Why didn't I think of this before?
The last thing his father had said to him had been, "We all make our own hells," and Severus—who would not brood over Potter's abandonment of him—decided that his hell would at least be a clean one.
The problem was that, after he'd made the sub-cellar and its "inhabitant" presentable again, there was precious little else to set to rights.
Damning his own efficiency, Severus began to worry. He's been gone for over a day. Surely even a sot like Potter couldn't still be drinking himself into a stupor.
Severus had known the brat had been fond of at least one pub when he'd found Potter's stash of matchbooks and condoms in a kitchen drawer.
But he's not gone there since Unspeakable Granger-Weasley cautioned him against it.
Of course, given their row, he doubted that Potter would remember that discussion—and he resolutely set aside all thoughts of what else Potter might have been doing since he'd left.
Severus wasn't jealous. What Potter did didn't concern him beyond the fact that it meant he wasn't there to help him.
"He can shag all of Britain so long as he remembers me!" Severus shouted, furious again. How dare he leave me alone like this? What kind of bloody tortured do-gooding hero is he? Severus raged, as he willed himself to the drawing room and began restlessly pulling books from the shelves.
However poor an excuse of a library it was, it deserved to be an orderly one.
I can't believe they left these here, he thought, as Dark title after Dark title passed through his hands. I can't believe his friends left Potter alone with such books for company!
It had been obvious from the first that Potter hadn't adjusted well to the peace.
Someone should have seen to him.
Of course, how did one convince a troubled wizard of Potter's power to do anything?
"If I'd been there at the end, it would have been my first concern—for Albus' sake," Severus muttered, stacking the various texts according to subject matter before rethinking his scheme and taking an abecedarian approach. "This isn't right!"
None of it was right, and what galled Severus the most was that, apparently and as usual, he was the only one who could see it.
You're worried about him, his treacherously rational inner voice told him. "I am not," Severus answered, again shifting the books. By subject. By subject! he ordered himself, trying not to feel anything.
It was no use: he couldn't stop worrying about Potter.
Potter, Severus thought, where are you? I want . . . I want you to come home. "I need you to come home," he whispered, suddenly overcome by an emotion he couldn't name.
He wouldn't name it. He didn't like it because it hurt. He could barely stand to feel it, even though it had been lingering on the edges of his consciousness for days.
No, weeks. Weeks of near-suffocation! he thought, fighting with himself to keep the feeling at bay.
He didn't want to feel it, yet he couldn't stop remembering the . . . horror in Potter's eyes when he'd pushed him away; it made him feel the plaguesome emotion that much more strongly.
He didn't want me. He doesn't love—"NO! I won't. I can't. This isn't love!" Love is for foolish little boys who miss their fathers—not men who know . . . who know . . . better.
No matter his fear, however, Severus couldn't deny it. There weren't enough books in the world to organize away that fact that he was in love . . . with Harry.
"Fuck. Severus, you old fool, he doesn't want you." He just needed you—anyone—someone to help him because no one else would!
It made Severus livid. Hermione should have known better than to leave Harry alone with that thing in the sub-cellar.
Why didn't the officious little bint kill it? Why'd she leave it there to torture him? "It's not right," Severus spat, angry on Harry's behalf and wishing that it was within his power to destroy his body so that he could free Harry.
Because he's got to let it go. He must if he's ever to heal. . . . Harry, please. Harry, come home. I can help you do it. I want to help you. Please. "Harry, come home. I love you, Harry. Come home and we'll make it right," Severus begged hoarsely, made desperate by the force of the emotions surging through him as he contemplated the sacrifice he was prepared to make.
He'd never felt compelled to do anything like it before, and he didn't truly understand why he was so willing to forget his own needs now.
Knowing only that he wanted to save Harry even at the expense of himself, Severus focused all his energy on calling to his missing wounded brat. Harry, I love you. Come home. Come back to me, Harry. Harry, I love you. . . .
The wind was coldly buffeting against his face when the rush of desperate warmth spread through him and Harry just stopped. Frozen, hanging in the air, the most intense embrace he'd ever felt poured itself around his body from inside him and Harry almost suffocated from the sensation.
Love, unadulterated and raw, forced itself inside his mind and body until he was vibrating with it in every cell of his being.
Harry gasped, saw the ground only meters beneath himself, and let all that he'd been feeling go—and then he was falling again.
Severus heard the front door slam open and then slam shut—and then his name being called in an ecstatic cry: "Severus!"
He was in the entrance hall before he'd even had a chance to think about willing himself there, and he saw him, Harry, his face bruised, his clothing torn, his legs unsteady as they carried him forward—and then Severus was holding him.
Harry! he inwardly exclaimed, as Harry babbled a string of words he couldn't hear for holding his brat so tightly. "Harry," Severus said sternly, pushing back, only just, "you will never leave me again."
"No. Never. I heard you, Severus—I felt you, everywhere. You were there, with me, inside me. You were there. I—"
Severus stopped Harry's mouth with a fierce kiss, pressing Harry into the wall behind them with the force of it. He was never letting him go again.
You love me, Severus. You love me, Harry's voice rang, inside of Severus' mind.
Severus wasn't at all certain how that was possible, but he didn't care. He found himself tearing at Harry's clothing, desperate to feel his skin. He knew how it should feel—he'd dreamed of it as he'd pleasured Harry.
But that's all it was—your idea of how it should feel—"Harry, wait," Severus insisted, grabbing Harry's hands to still them. "How? How can we do this when it's not real?"
"I see you," Harry told him, his breath warm against Severus' neck. "And I can feel you," he continued, thrusting his hips forward. "You were everywhere inside me, Severus, and I want to be inside you."
Severus drew in a deep breath as he felt Harry's hands threading into his hair and then pulling his head down until their foreheads were touching.
"I can see you," Harry repeated. "You're real. This—we're—real. Don't be scared."
"Fuck. Harry. Please," Severus said. "I want—"
Crushing their mouths together in a bruising kiss, Harry spilled words inside of Severus' mind: I know what you want. I'm here, Severus, and I'm real, too.
"Hey," Harry said to Severus, as he wrapped his arms around the other wizard.
Severus, who had pulled a chair up to the window, leaned into Harry's embrace but kept staring up at the moon.
"I don't know how to answer that question."
Harry moved to lean against the sill and stared at Severus, frowning to see how pensive he looked. "Having second thoughts?" he asked, purposefully keeping his tone light.
"All I have are thoughts."
"Want to share them?"
Severus sighed. "I'm . . . I've never been one for introspection, Harry."
"Funny word, 'introspection', what with your body being a projection, now."
"That's partially true," Severus said quietly, turning to gaze at Harry. "Everything we've experienced together—physically—hasn't truly been physical at all."
I would have found a better way to put that, Harry thought, worrying. "Everything we've experienced together"—does he regret it? "Severus, I know you want to be back in your own body, but—"
"Before you came home, I was thinking of ways to destroy it."
He said "home"—"Wait, destroy your body? But why?"
"Because this isn't good for you."
"You're good for me," Harry protested, kneeling before Severus and laying his palms on the man's knees. "I love you."
Severus smiled slightly and placed his own palms over Harry's hands. "I know, but—"
"No, don't be like this. I don't regret—"
"Let me speak."
Furrowing his brow, Harry fell silent.
"I don't regret you, either, but I'm no good to you like this, and I'm . . . concerned about your state of mind. What were you doing, before I called to you?"
Harry flushed and looked down.
"Being stupid, but that doesn't matter, now."
"Harry. What were you doing?"
"Letting myself fall, all right?" Harry admitted, pulling himself free of Severus' hands and sinking to the floor.
"You were trying to kill yourself?"
The edge of fear in Severus' voice was oddly soothing to Harry, who could only nod.
"Things are worse than I knew. You've been locked up here with me too long. You haven't even begun to deal with—"
"Is it too much to ask that I just be allowed to be happy, for once?"
"You're not happy. You're desperate."
"Why? Because I love you?"
"I can't deny our . . . connection—"
Harry stood abruptly. "Don't say it like that!"
"Our love, then."
"When you say it like that, I really believe—"
Severus rose and grabbed Harry gently by the shoulders. "I do. I do, Harry, but how we came to feel this way was . . . unusual at best."
"Nothing has ever been normal for me. Why does that matter?"
"Because you can't take me to holiday dinners. You can't take me anywhere."
"We'll find a way, Severus."
"We might. Should we, how will things change? We were never friends. You had cause to hate me. Have you forgotten that?"
Harry slumped his shoulders. "You're scared."
"I can't help being a lot of things, feeling a lot of things. But you didn't answer me."
"Look, you're right. There's a lot I want to know from you. . . . But . . . it's just—I did things I'm not proud of, myself. I think that means I owe it to you to listen to your explanations."
Severus dropped his hands. "Harry, many of those will begin and end with the fact that I was a Death Eater, and, for some time, loyal to the Dark Lord. Whatever we feel for each other, nothing will change that—just as nothing can change the fact that you and I don't know each other. What we . . . what we have is tenuous at best and due to the life debt between us in large part."
"And you think that means we can't be together?"
"I think that means our being together is little more than a metaphysical oddity, spurred on by our loneliness," Severus admitted.
Harry felt the unwelcome burn in his eyes that forecasted tears. "You said you'd never let me go."
"And I meant that—but I'll break my word if it will mean keeping you safe."
"You're not a threat to me!"
"You're not particularly stable, Harry, by your own admission. How is continuing to hide here with a disembodied intellect going to help you?"
Harry folded his arms. "Tell me that you don't regret us."
"Tell me that you love me."
"I love you."
Some of his worry gone, Harry smiled. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"I know. I do. This is weird and seemingly unworkable, but we'll make it work—we'll find a way to make you whole again. I promise."
Foolish brat—making promises he can't hope to keep, Severus thought, opening his arms to Harry and thrilling anew when Harry stepped into them.
He knew how he wanted Harry's body to feel, and it was almost real to him, the sensation of warm skin and hairy chin and another heart pounding against his chest.
What have I got myself in for, now? "I just want this all to be real."
"I know. It is. It . . . it will be—it is, Severus."
The next morning, Severus and Harry were lounging on the sofa, Harry's head in Severus' lap, trying out their newfound silent communication when Ron burst into the drawing room.
The verbal connection between them snapped at once, as if they were both too shy about what they'd been doing to risk its exposure, despite the fact that there was no way anyone could have guessed what they'd been doing.
Severus took one look at Weasley's expression and knew something was badly wrong, but he was surprised to observe that Harry reacted calmly, saying only, "Hullo, Ron."
"Sit up—no, stand," Ron demanded.
"What's got your knickers in a twist?"
"I should beat the shite out of you for making her cry," Ron answered, his hands balling into fists.
"What? Oh! Hermione. I forgot lunch, didn't I?" Harry asked, standing.
"You did more than that," Ron replied. "Accio Harry's broom!"
"What are you—"
Damn, thought Severus. He was seen.
Ron ignored Harry, casting a complicated-sounding charm on the broom as it floated through the door. Bright sparks, which coalesced into quivering letters, flowed out of Ron's wand:
H O g S M e A d E W e D N E s D A y M o R N I N g
"Damn it!" he shouted. "It was you—people saw you, Harry—people saw you drop like a dead-weight from the sky over Hogsmeade this morning! What the hell were you playing at?"
"Nothing. I mean, I was just careless, is all. How'd you know it was me? I mean, why'd you come here?"
"Because you didn't just forget about lunch with Hermione. You forgot our Quidditch session yesterday—and then I received three reports of attempted suicide by broom!"
"You can see I'm fine," Harry retorted, his eyes narrowing in anger.
"I don't see that. I see you in trouble, mate. I thought you were getting better, but Hermione thinks . . . ."
"She thinks you're having . . . delusions about Snape."
Oh, fuck, Severus thought, laying a hand on Harry's shoulder to steady him. "Don't tell him, Harry. He won't understand."
"I have to tell you something, Ron."
Ron's eyes widened. "She's right?"
"No, of course not, but—"
"It'll be okay."
"Are you talking to me?" asked Ron.
"Listen, it might just be better if I showed you, all right? Come with me," Harry said, walking toward the door.
Severus felt a stab of what might have been fear in his gut. "Don't."
"It'll be all right. Promise," Harry said, turning back to look past Ron at Severus and smile.
Severus saw the muscles in Weasley's back tense.
"Like hell it will be," he said, following the other two.
"You're not talking to Walburga, are you?" Ron asked, his voice sounding almost choked.
Severus, stop worrying. I can feel it from here.
This is not wise. He'll think you're certifiable!
"I'm not that fond of basements," Ron said. "What exactly are you—what the hell?"
Harry stepped into the sub-cellar, throwing wide the door, and Severus knew that Weasley had seen him.
"You, you didn't . . . ."
"I didn't kill him, Ron. I couldn't. I've been trying to find a way to bring him back."
"Do you . . . talk to it?"
"Severus isn't an it," Harry retorted. "Well, that—his body—may as well be, but he's—"
"Not in there," Ron interrupted. "Harry, this body's . . . empty."
"I know. Would you just listen?"
"Oh, gods—does Hermione know about this? Is this why she thinks—did you show this to her?" Ron asked, again clenching his hands into fists.
Severus moved to stand between the two younger wizards. He didn't know if he could physically affect Weasley, but it would be worth a try if it came to that.
Please don't come to that, he thought, watching Weasley mouth numbers as if counting to ten to calm himself.
"I can't believe she didn't tell me this. I can't believe—you've gone completely off your nut."
Harry stepped around Severus. "I haven't. Severus is here, Ron."
"He can't see me, Harry."
"No, his empty shell is here! You've—oh, hells! I don't know why, exactly, but you've obviously . . . imagined the rest. Oh. Oh, no. Oh, Harry. What exactly have you been imagining? What have you done?"
Harry looked from Ron to Severus' body and a look of disgust spread over his features. "Ron! Nothing sordid like that."
"Well, what then? What am I supposed to think? How long—have you had—is this what you did instead of killing him? Tell me!"
All right, maybe you were right, Harry thought to Severus, moving toward Ron as if he meant to touch him.
Severus saw how hurt the flinch made Harry and said quickly, "Don't take it personally. You must know how shocking this looks."
Harry swallowed and lowered his hands. "She hasn't known that long," he admitted.
A look of near-hatred crossed Weasley's face, and Severus felt himself tense.
"She's lost two babies. Two, Harry. How dare you involve my wife in this?"
"—sorry," Harry finished, but only Severus remained to hear him. "I thought he'd understand."
"We don't even understand," Severus replied, pulling Harry into a hug and wondering, What now?
A series of loud snappings, as if wooden planks were being ripped apart, filtered down to the sub-cellar, and Harry pushed himself away from Severus, drawing his wand at the same time.
"Someone's destroying the wards!"
"What? How do you know?"
"Can't you hear that?" Harry asked, thinking, Ron, what are you doing? as he made to rush from the room.
"I can't work magic. That must mean that—"
"You can't sense its destruction. I have to go. Stay here."
"No! You stay. Whoever it is won't see me," Severus insisted.
"Ron must be naffed off but good—and you won't be able to calm him down. I should go."
Severus put himself between Harry and the stairs. "I doubt very much that Mr. Weasley would be destroying your wards. He hasn't any reason to do so, and—"
"Fuck me, that's Malfoy," Harry said. "How would he—"
"Potter, I know you're here!"
Harry reached around Severus and pulled the door shut, murmuring an incantation.
"Not bad for an on-the-fly Unplotting spell," Severus noted, "but it will only work for so long if he overheard your friends discussing where my body is."
"I know that, but I need time. Why is he here?"
The sounds of objects being destroyed filtered down to them.
"Was Draco present when you took me from Riddle House? Does he think you—"
"Killed you, yes. He promised to kill me before the Aurors took me into custody. I guess we know now why he was so keen to work with Hermione."
Abruptly, the noises above stopped.
"I think that means Walburga's found him. She's wanted—"
"What?" Harry asked, looking confused. "She's still here?"
"I've no time to explain. You must stay here. Please."
"I can't just—"
"You have to trust me. I can't protect my body, so you must."
"Just do as I say, Harry!" Severus ordered, willing himself abovestairs.
The drawing room was in shambles when Severus appeared in it, but Draco wasn't there. Moving from room to room, he finally found Draco and Walburga standing together in Harry's bedchamber.
"—what he's been doing with it!" she hissed. "You can smell it, can't you? You have to do something, boy—it isn't right!"
Draco was holding his wand so tightly that Severus thought it would snap. "I don't believe you."
"Your own flesh and blood? How dare you insult me like that? You must listen to me. Destroy the usurper and I'll give you what I've been waiting so long to—"
"Shut it, you bloodthirsty crone!" Snape demanded, striking her.
Walburga shrieked. "You must help me, Draco. He's using his magic on me. Make him—grrrngth!"
His hands wrapped around her neck, Severus squeezed until she was powerless to speak. A ghost, she should have known better than to fall for a quasi-physical attack, but Severus had been counting on her strong sense of self—and limited imagination—to work for him.
"If I kill you in this form," he lied to Walburga, "you're as good as banished. You will. Remain. Silent. Better yet—get out!"
"What's happening to you?" Draco asked, lowering his wand in confusion.
Good. He's losing his rage, Severus thought, squeezing still as Walburga had refused to leave.
"What birthright? What the hell are you having fits like that for? Where's Potter?" Draco demanded.
"I'm right here," Harry said.
"Damn it! No, Harry!" Severus shouted, surprised into releasing his grip around Walburga's throat.
In the struggle, her hair had come unbound, and she made a compelling if twisted picture of a damsel in distress.
"You have to kill him, Draco," Walburga pleaded, tears coursing down her cheeks. "Kill him. Do it for your revenge, for your mother's house, for me. Kill him!"
Draco's hand shook. "Don't tell me what to do," he said harshly, his eyes never leaving Harry. "Potter, you bastard. You did kill him—didn't you? She says—"
"Severus is here, Malfoy," Harry answered.
"She says you've been using him," Draco hissed, horror playing across his features.
"No, I haven't—"
"HE HAS!" Walburga shrieked. "My word as a BLACK!"
Severus moved to quiet her, but Walburga side-stepped his lunge and kept screaming.
"He's a foul, miserable, useless pervert! You must kill him—only then can you claim what's yours, what's been waiting for you—what Regulus left for you on the Dark Lord's behalf—kill him and become a god for your master!"
"Wh—what?" Harry and Draco both stammered.
"Are you . . . do you think there's a Horcrux here?" Harry asked.
"A what?" Draco demanded, looking from Walburga to Harry. "What is she talking about? And where is Severus?"
"You don't care where that impure thing is, Draco. You must kill the usurper."
Severus, so relieved by Walburga's "triumph" in telling Draco her secret being an empty victory, felt a relief so great that it reduced him to helpless laughter. It was either that or cry, and he didn't cry—at least, not when he could help it.
"You all right?" Harry asked.
"Why the hell are you asking her?"
"'M not," Harry said, his eyes widening at Severus' apparent display of mirth. "You're scaring me, you know."
"You foolish . . . old . . . bint," Severus gasped more than said, between peals of semi-hysterical laughter. "There are no . . . more Horcru—oh, fuck but that's—stupid . . . bint!"
"How dare you speak to me like that?" Walburga growled, glaring at Severus.
Draco had completely lowered his wand while looking between Walburg and Harry, something that Harry hadn't missed. As soon as Draco's eyes were off him, he took the opportunity to Accio Draco's wand.
"Should've paid more attention," Harry replied, tucking away the wand in his back pocket after casting a spell upon it to keep Draco from retrieving it.
"I don't need my wand to kill you, Potter."
With a worried glance at Severus, Harry retorted, "You kill me, and you'll never find out what's going on."
Draco looked back to Walburga, who'd begun to rage about destiny and impure blood and the usurper once more, all the while tearing at Severus' hair and clothing.
"Who's she attacking?" Draco asked.
"There's . . . there's no one there, Potter."
"It looks that way, doesn't it?" Harry replied, before shouting, "Walburga, stop that or I'll banish your arse!"
"I HATE YOU!" she shrieked in turn, sobbing as she threw herself far from Severus, who was still laughing hysterically.
"Oh for—would you please just do it?" Draco asked Harry. "I get enough of that at home."
In spite of himself, Harry found himself sniggering at that.
"Betrayed, so very betrayed—and by my own flesh and—"
"The spell . . . you want is . . . 'Exorcizarus'," Severus said to Harry. "Fuck. Just please . . . shut the harpy up."
"Give me back my wand, and I'll do it," Draco demanded impatiently, "if you're too squeamish."
Harry pointed his wand at Walburga, who had gone utterly silent. "You meant the locket, right?"
"When he opens it, you'll see. You'll see what true power really is, you—"
"Exorcizarus!" Harry cast, turning to Malfoy. "Satisfied?"
"Are you fucking serious? What the hell's a Horcrux? What do you mean, Severus is here? Tell me what's going on!"
"I didn't kill him, you stupid prat. I brought him here."
"Did it work? Is he alive?" Draco demanded, his expression suddenly brightening with hope.
"Uh," Harry said, suddenly not sure how to explain. "Not exactly."
Harry turned to him, saying, "And you think I'm mentally unbalanced."
"Tell him, Harry. Before he decides to try for his wand. I don't want Draco harmed."
"Potter?" Draco asked, sounding confused. "If you're talking to me, the answer's yes. You're clearly insane."
Harry snorted. "I've been worse things."
Sometime later, after Harry had tried explaining things to Draco as best he could—with Severus' Legilimentical assistance at times—and Draco had run out of questions, the three wizards found themselves sitting together in the kitchen, Harry and Draco drinking a second bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey while Severus looked on.
He knew how difficult Harry was finding it to be calm; he could feel Harry's confusion as if it were his own.
Don't dwell on it, he snapped at himself, experiencing suddenly the warmth of Harry's reassurance that Harry was sending him through their mysterious bond.
Don't. It'll be all right.
Severus wasn't at all certain about that. So much had happened in the past few days that he didn't feel like himself.
No, you feel like two people, don't you? Two people wondering why Draco is here.
Severus understood how Draco had found Grimmauld; he'd apparently overheard the Granger-Weasleys talking about Harry and had followed the careless Auror, but the not so small matter of how Draco had subverted Albus' Fidelius Charm had yet to be explained. Of course, every time he thought to mention this oddity to Harry, Draco said something interesting to which Severus wanted to listen.
It was strange how Harry couldn't glean everything he was feeling or thinking.
But then, I am the more skilled Legilimens, Severus told himself, as he turned his attention back to Draco and Harry's conversation.
"So . . . so you've been holed up here taking care of a glorified corpse for over two years? And . . . and shagging Severus' mind?" Draco asked, looking skeptical but attempting to hide it.
"Pretty much—the uh, the shagging's a recent development."
"But you hate each other."
Draco belched unapologetically, as if to indicate his disbelief. "And I thought what I saw in Mysteries was bizarre. I could make my career writing about—"
Tell him he will not do that, Severus demanded, forgetting his suspicions.
"I doubt he's going to do that," Harry replied.
"You're talking to him, to Severus?"
"Yes," Harry said. But I probably shouldn't be doing it out loud.
In spite of himself, it touched Severus to know how unashamed Harry was to acknowledge him—no matter how it obviously disconcerted Draco, who was looking wildly around.
"I'm sorry. I tried. Father would've known if I'd warned you, and—"
"He's behind me, Draco."
"I'm so sorry, Severus," Draco continued, looking past Harry's shoulder.
"He says you're not to write about him."
"And just what is he going to do to stop me?"
"Tell him I'll find a way to inform Miss Parkinson about his assignation with Alecto Carrow," Severus urged, suddenly feeling the need to speak, despite the fact that, for all he knew, Harry experienced his Legilimentical communications in much the same manner as he "heard" his disembodied speech. "Further, tell him I'll find a way to inform his mother."
Harry grinned and relayed Severus' threats, which Draco blanched to hear.
"Fuck. He is here!" Draco exclaimed, leaping up from the table.
"After everything we've talked about, now you believe me?" Harry asked, incredulous. He's been . . . indulging me, Severus.
"You're only just working that out?" Severus asked.
"I won't. Write about you. Don't tell them, please," Draco begged, before rushing the sink and becoming quite ill.
"Never could hold his liquor," Severus remarked, in what seemed to Harry to be a half-disgusted, half-affectionate tone.
He didn't actually care for the affection he felt Severus hold for Draco. Don't be stupid, he told himself, as he stared at Draco for a moment before conjuring a towel for him. "This is . . . so fucking weird."
Severus grunted. "'Weird' is a poor adjective to describe this situation."
"Yeah well, I burned the thesaurus, too."
"Th—thanks," Draco said to Harry then, looking at him quizzically as he wiped his mouth with the towel before casting a hygiene spell on himself.
Harry frowned. "You came here to kill me."
"You're just figuring that out, are you, Potter? Gods but you're thick."
"So thick that you never thought of the obvious solutions to your myriad problems. You must be traumatized."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"And things were going so well, too," Severus quipped.
"First, you should have banished my 'aunt's' ghost the moment she burst from her 'portrait'. Second, you've got Severus' mind and body here, don't you?"
"So think him back into his body, you idiot. Nothing could be simpler."
"What? I can do that?" Harry asked, looking at Severus in surprise.
"You never even tried, did you?" Draco asked, shaking his head.
"I wished for it all the time!" You know that I did, don't you, Severus?
"Of course I—"
"But that was only wishing, not willing, and did it never occur to you that your bloody 'wishes' called him back—from wherever his mind was? My guess is it—he—went beyond the Veil, but—"
"Would you skip the guessing and get to the point?" Harry demanded.
"Well, now that you know he's real, is his . . . manifested form more real than his drooling mess of a body?"
"Severus," Harry said, "he's just making a point."
"So I am. Answer my question."
"I . . . I don't know, but—hell! Let's find out," Harry said, excitement rising within him as he rushed out of the room.
Severus observed Draco, who had not moved to follow Harry, and his suspicions returned. Draco hadn't, when previously Harry had offered to show him the body, seemed keen to see it.
"I'll just stay here, shall I?" Draco called, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Concerned—but just as excited as Harry at the thought of his impending re-embodiment, Severus willed himself to the sub-cellar.
Some Unspeakable-in-Training he is, Harry thought at Severus, taking the steps two at a time and throwing himself into the room that now held all his hopes—only to find something entirely unexpected.
Severus, his expression completely empty—his mind, as well, for all Harry could tell—was standing by the camp bed, which held nothing but two piles of coiled chain and opened manacles. For a moment, all Harry could do was stare, made mute by the sight and the lack of emotion he was feeling from Severus, and then he closed his mind and began screaming an incantation.
Severus blinked at the loss of contact with Harry, but he was too stunned by Weasley's apparent betrayal to care that Harry's incantation was a Dark one.
Severus had been so preoccupied with his disembodiment and nascent relationship with Harry that it had not occurred to him to ask Harry how he'd achieved the Dark Lord's destruction. Now, however, as Harry's power-raising, sorcerous incantation shook the very foundations of Grimmauld, he suspected that he might have a clue as to how Harry had managed it.
"'The power the Dark Lord knows not'—Harry can access raw magic. Without his wand. He can channel it directly through his body. Sweet Merlin! "Harry, what are you doing?" Severus asked, starting as Harry turned to look at him.
His eyes were wide and the pupils dilated—there were no visible whites—and Severus didn't think Harry was actually seeing him. He had no real desire to know what Harry was seeing.
But I can't allow him to do . . . whatever he's planning to do. If he harms Weasley, he'll never forgive himself—and he might destroy himself in the process of invoking so much magic.
Harry's Latinate incantation twisted into the hiss of Parseltongue then: "[Find him. Find me the body of Severus Tobias Snape. Find him, and return him to me]." Immediately, fell glowing serpents began to writhe up through the floor.
It didn't surprise Severus, given their bond, that he could understand Harry's intonation. At least he's not calling for Weasley's death, he thought, only slightly relieved.
"[Let nothing and no one interfere with you as you undertake your task]," Harry continued.
"Fuck," Draco said, from the threshold of the room. "Severus, are you here? You must be—do something! What if Hermione should try to stop them?" he asked.
It didn't surprise Severus that Draco had so quickly understood the serpents' purpose, either—not that it mattered. "What would you have me do?" he asked, even though he knew Draco couldn't hear him.
As the mystical snakes began to slither up the masonry and melt through it, Draco tensed. He then rushed Harry, only to be thrown back by a shower of blue sparks that erupted from Harry's body for his pains.
"That wouldn't have been my first choice," Severus muttered, focusing his will on Harry. "Stop this! Harry, call them back! Your magic might kill someone."
"[Go]! [Let no one stop you from finding and returning the body of Severus Tobias Snape to me]!" Harry hissed, concluding his incantation and collapsing as the last of the serpents left the sub-basement.
Severus looked from Harry to Draco and back again, wondering, How the hell can I warn them?
It was then that a heavily pregnant Unspeakable Granger-Weasley entered the room at the head of a group of other Unspeakables.
"Get Malfoy out. Place the crystals. Begin your tracking magics. Bind him!" she ordered, pointing at Harry.
His eyes widening, Severus thought, This can't be good, as he stepped well out of the way of the apparent circle of power that the Unspeakables were creating without the benefit of wands. Perhaps they don't use them, either.
Severus, like most wizards, had only a vague knowledge of the purpose and workings of the Department of Mysteries. It wasn't considered polite to speak of the department, which was why those who worked there had come to be known as "Unspeakables." What was clear to him, however, was that the Unspeakables present had obviously practiced raising this particular sort of circle.
Of course they have. She was present, wasn't she, when Harry faced him? She would have seen Harry's power and known to plan for this day.
It was unnerving to know that one of Harry's dearest friends would have thought to plan for a time when he would have to be restrained.
Or worse, Severus thought, remembering quite clearly that Albus had sent him into deep cover for precisely the same reason. "You will help him when the time comes, Severus, help him to focus, or help us all by doing what is necessary."
At the time, the thought of killing Harry had been a welcome one, but now all Severus wanted was to find a way to save him.
"Right. That's done. All of you, out!" Hermione barked, turning her attention to the unconscious Harry, who was now lying bound within an opalescent ward the likes of which Severus had never seen.
The crystals the Unspeakables had used to channel their ward had disintegrated utterly when the circle had charged into existence.
"Again, I tell you that you shouldn't be alone. What if the circle fails?" the only other female Unspeakable asked.
"Yes," a male Unspeakable said. "You shouldn't even be near this sort of elemental energy, given your—"
"Get. Out," Granger-Weasley ordered, from between gritted teeth.
Severus was struck by her tone of command; it was impressive, implacable, and alarming.
"And do check on Smythe's progress in locating my husband. I'm almost positive he'll return here to destroy Snape's body. Be ready to take him into custody before the other Aurors arrive—but don't allow anyone to harm him—wizard-level spells only."
"Wizard-level"—so they are practicing sorcery. That explains their lack of wands, Severus thought, fascinated in spite of himself.
"As you will," the previously protesting Unspeakable replied, his manner now submissive.
Severus couldn't help himself; he grinned. His appreciation of Granger-Weasley's ferocious competence was, however, short-lived as he once again began to worry about what she was planning to do. He was also concerned for her, remembering what Weasley had said about her previous miscarriages.
"Stop it, Cedric! You can't be coming now!" she exclaimed then, rubbing her abdomen and beginning to take deep breaths.
"The baby's coming," Severus said, feeling intensely frustrated by his state of helplessness.
Harry stirred. "What's coming?"
"You mean, besides your Constraining Hearing, you idiot?" Hermione asked, peering into the circle.
"What the hell is—ow!" Harry yelled, as he rolled into the magical barrier. "That hurt. What're you doing to me?"
"Something I hoped I'd never have to."
"Severus . . . I can't sense him!"
"That's because he's not here," Hermione replied.
"He is! Ask Malfoy. Malfoy knows that—"
"Draco knows what I tell him. He came here on my orders."
"After Ron saw me this afternoon, I knew he'd come to see you. I suspected you might tell him about the body. I began arranging for this then."
"You told Malfoy where I was?"
"How could you? How'd he get past the Fidelius Charm?"
Hermione sighed. "Draco found out the same way a lot of people did. Don't you remember Skeeter's photographs of Dumbledore's stolen papers?"
"Damn that bitch!"
"He saw Dumbledore's note to Shacklebolt, the one in which he revealed this location to him. That was good enough to break the Fidelius Charm—and Draco already knew where Grimmauld Place was, so all he had to do was get through the apparent void between the other visible homes on this street."
"Hermione," Harry pleaded, "you have to talk to Malfoy. He knows now. I'm not mad—but I can't feel Severus, so when his body returns to me, I won't be able to—"
"Whatever magic you invoked will be prevented from finding you again because of the elemental ward. Professor Snape's body is safely hidden. Those . . . tracking conjurations of yours will remain with it."
"You can't do this!"
"I already have. For your sake, I hope no one dies. I don't think there'd be anything I could say to the First Sorceress that would prevent her from ordering your Constraint."
Harry's expression twisted into something dangerous. "Your precious little shining wall won't hold me for long, you know."
"If you try to break it, I'll send word to my people to destroy Professor Snape's body."
"I would, so sit down, belt up, and listen to me. There's loads to sort out before my labor incapacitates me, and—"
"Let me out of here!" Harry shouted, again throwing himself against the ward.
"—if your selfish fucking recklessness ends in the death of my son or husband, I'll Constrain you myself."
It seemed to Severus that Granger-Weasley and Draco spent much of their resultant conversation throwing around words that carried inherent capitals, and he hated the fact that he didn't recognize several of the terms. From context, however, he did know the implications of a Constraining.
But I seriously doubt, he thought, with a worried glance at Harry, whose repeated attacks on the elemental ward had caused it to dim significantly, that there are sufficient Unspeakables to achieve that task.
"You're talking nonsense, Draco!" Granger-Weasley shouted.
Draco flushed with anger. "Potter told me things that there is no possible way he could have known!"
"Well, what things? If you don't tell me—"
"They were personal."
"Harry's a Legilimens," Granger-Weasley retorted, "and fairly good at sensing others' feelings to boot. He was manipulating you."
"Famulus Granger-Weasley?" an Unspeakable asked, stepping just inside the kitchen.
"Smythe?" she snapped.
"Your husband has been apprehe—detained. He's outside. The Aurors are demanding to speak with you about the nature of the disturbance."
"They can stuff their questions up their arses. First Sorceress Yaxley arranged their orders personally—they are not to ask anything. Remind them of this and take Auror Granger-Weasley to—"
Smythe was shoved into the room.
Severus saw Ron Weasley stumble in after the Unspeakable, moving with difficulty due to the bright yet disintegrating chains of some form of Incarcerous. He slammed shut the door, which he warded at once.
"Ron! You can't be here."
"My own wife," he spat, brushing off the remains of his chains. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Famulus?" Smythe asked as he steadied himself, looking from the Auror to Draco and then to his superior.
She groaned as if in frustration, but Severus knew better. How far along are you? And what an interesting title you have.
Ignoring Smythe, the Famulus replied, "I'm trying to keep you out of Azkaban and Harry from being sealed in a column of rock or the trunk of some large tree! Why are you being such—do nothing, Smythe—a fool? I told you that I would deal with Harry. It's. My. Job."
The door behind the Auror disappeared.
More wandlessness, Severus thought, watching several Unspeakables swarm into the room.
"Famulus?" one of them asked, as if awaiting orders.
"Not a word, Draco," she replied as Draco opened his mouth, before turning to her husband. "Ron, please. Go with them quietly. I don't have time to deal with—oh, damn it!"
"How long have you been in labor?" Weasley asked, calming somewhat as he went to kneel at his wife's side.
A susurration of surprise rippled around the room before all but the female Unspeakable hastily exited the kitchen, and Hermione—seeing her so obviously distressed and clutching her husband's hand, it was impossible for Severus to think of her by any of her titles—muttered, "Superstitious idiots."
"What can I do?" the remaining Unspeakable asked.
"Get everyone downstairs to mind the ward."
"It's the fear of—"
"I know what it is, Brinks."
"No, you don't!" Draco interjected.
"Don't worry about it," Hermione ordered her subordinate. "I'm not going to explode forth some monstrosity just because . . . just be—fuck."
Brinks nodded and left, Draco glared, and Ron—who also looked too scared and young for Severus to see him as anything other than a worried father-to-be—said, "I don't understand."
"I know you don't, but I don't have time to discuss my job with you now."
"No," Ron said, rubbing the small of Hermione's back, "I don't understand why they're afraid. You're just having a baby."
"I can't. Not before I sort out what's to be done with Harry."
Ron snorted; Severus and Draco snorted with him.
"Cedric's coming now. You need to leave things to me and my team and get to hospital."
"No. Ron, don't you understand? Harry just called forth more raw magic than twenty sorcerers could do working together without significant and prolonged preparation! The First Sorceress sent me here because—"
"She doesn't know what to do about Potter, either," Draco said.
"You need help, Hermione," Ron told her. "I'm not leaving you."
"Severus," Draco said suddenly. "If you're here, prove it. She needs to see—"
Ron snapped his head toward Draco and growled, "Don't you start, Malfoy."
Ignoring both of them, Hermione said, "If those . . . creatures Harry loosed should hurt anyone, his life won't be worth spit—no matter what he's done in the past."
It occurred to Severus that the First Sorceress was no doubt now in possession of his body; it then occurred to him that neither Ron nor Draco would know how to deliver a baby. But there is an enchanted birthing manual in the library, he thought. Perhaps my bringing it would prove—
Before he could complete his thought, he'd willed himself to the drawing room, found the book, and come running back into the kitchen.
"There! You see? That's proof!" Draco exclaimed.
"That's summoning, you prat," Ron declared.
"You're not helping matters, Weasley."
"Granger-Weasley," Ron spat, wincing as Hermione gripped his hand, hard, as another of her contractions began.
"Oh for fuck's sake! Bind me."
"What?" Ron asked.
"Temporarily bind my magic so that you know I'm not summoning books," Draco urged.
"Why?" Hermione demanded.
"Because then you'll know it's Severus who's—"
"You're mad, too!"
"No. Wait. Ron, I—Draco, are you sure? Because if Harry's managed to Confound you into believing his . . . delusion, you know I'll have to report you, which means you'll loose your apprenticeship."
"I'm not making this up!" Draco raged. "Cast the sodding hex!"
Hermione, with only a little difficulty, did what Draco asked. "Now then, Severus, bring me Bledsoe's Treatise on Enslavement Draughts for the Dead."
Ten minutes after Severus had done as Hermione asked, he was once again in the sub-cellar, listening to Draco—who had been escorted downstairs by Brinks—tell Harry that Ron and Hermione no longer thought he was insane.
"But if you don't stop acting like a twat, they won't let you out of there—and you know you need out, so stop it!"
Brinks began quietly explaining matters to the other Unspeakables.
"I don't believe you," Harry said, his voice lower than Severus had ever heard it. "They took him from me!"
"What the hell's gone wrong with your eyes?" Draco asked. "Stupid question. Potter, believe me, they know."
"THEN WHERE ARE THEY?"
"Right," Smythe said. "That's the picture of sanity, that is."
"Would you be quiet, Smythe? No one asked you. Listen to me," Draco continued, stepping, in Severus' opinion, too close to the ward. "Hermione's in labor. Ron's helping her deliver your godson. Do you want to live to see him, or would you rather this lot sealed you up in an oak tree?"
Harry blinked. "What?"
"That is the classical Constraining maneuver—not that I'd expect you to know that."
"Cedric's coming?" Harry asked, blinking more rapidly.
Oh, thank gods, Severus thought, as each blink revealed more of Harry's eye whites.
"They're calling him—I mean, yes. He is. And now. So stop hurting yourself. When it's over, I'm sure Hermione will let you out."
"And then they'll bring him back to me," Harry replied, faintly.
"Yes. Then they will. What are those things, anyway?"
"Shouldn't you know that?"
"What do you think they are?" Draco asked, running a hand through his fringe.
"Fuck if I know."
"What?" Harry and Draco both demanded.
Harry looked at the Unspeakable. "Bollocks. What?"
"He's buried under a ton o' rock somewhere, isn't he?"
"No," Harry replied, shaking his head. "Voldemort's fertilizer now."
"What?" Severus asked, relieved that his question was echoed by several of the others.
"Fertilizer. Dung. Shit. It's what I thought he was—and now he's feeding the roses in my Mum's old garden."
"Godric's Hollow?" asked Smythe.
"Greeley, you're with me," Smythe said, ignoring Harry's question as he left the room.
"Potter, you did bind the plot of earth there, didn't you? To keep people from being able to pick things from that garden—to keep them out of it?"
"Why would I have done that?"
Draco's eyes flew open. "Did you teach him nothing, Severus?"
"Albus refused to allow it," Severus retorted, damning his old friend for having kept Harry in the dark about so many things that might have helped him.
"Would someone tell me what's going on?"
Draco smirked. "Why should people start doing that now? You'd only make bigger messes."
First Sorceress Yerbaya Yaxley was an unusually tall, hollow-eyed, almost skeletally thin woman, and she brought to Harry's mind the idea of a somewhat humanized Dementor.
"You have asked several very good questions, Mr. Potter, but ones I am not inclined yet to answer."
Harry narrowed his eyes. "I've had enough of people not inclining to tell me things."
"I am certain you do feel that way. It does, however, have no bearing on how I will act. Do you know why you are here?"
"I'm not inclined to answer that," Harry replied, feeling foolish and vexed and exhausted.
The First Sorceress smiled, at least, that is what Harry thought she was attempting to do before saying, "You are young. You have a great gift—but no understanding of it. That is part of the reason you are here."
"I thought I was here so you could satisfy yourself that I wasn't mad," Harry said, glaring at the amulet Draco had insisted he wear, which Harry knew functioned just like the circle had.
"When Hermione came to us, it was at my invitation. She, too, is young—too young to have been given the task of monitoring someone of your ability. At the time, however, I felt it important to remember that all of us owed you a great debt, and, as you had not displayed any rash actions, any disturbing tendencies, I felt it right to leave you as much alone as possible with your friend to monitor you."
"Why should you have cared what I did?"
"After what you did today, you ask me that?" the First Sorceress asked, maintaining her eye contact with him.
Harry found that he couldn't look away, even though he very much wanted to. "Severus is . . . I couldn't allow—"
"You were protecting your lover. I understand, but the manner in which you sought to achieve that goal was unacceptable because—as you said yourself, albeit rather more colorfully than I shall put it now—you did not know exactly what you were doing. Is not that correct?"
Harry shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"It is. Now then, tell me: Why do you suppose you were taught to use a wand to focus your magic?"
"I . . . isn't that how it's done?"
"Indeed, that is the modern . . . tradition."
Despite his intense desire to find Severus, Harry couldn't help but be intrigued by the First Sorceress' words. "You mean, wizards didn't always?"
"No, and sorcerers—sorceresses, too—did not always equate the 'Dark Arts' with evil."
"I don't understand."
"A fault of your education," the First Sorceress replied, her lip curling downward as if in disgust. "But I will not give you a history lesson now. What I will say is that the supposed Dark Arts are concerned with the mysteries inherent in natural magic. You can channel and use such magic through your very being. Unfortunately—"
"Why can you use it?"
"I do not like to guess, but to posit a theory, I would say that the sacrifice of your mother, made before you while you were yet so young, caused you to develop a stronger than usual connection to the elemental magic that surrounds us all, something that most practitioners use wands and other foci to control. If true, I am amazed that you lived as long as you did, and I suppose it was for the best that you were raised as a Muggle and trained in wizardry, but I digress. . . . Mr. Potter, you have not received any formal training in using your gift, and it is one that has driven a great many people mad—and, in the process, destroyed property, reputations, and lives."
"I'm not mad. I haven't—"
"Please do listen carefully, Mr. Potter. . . . You are here for three reasons: One, I needed to know your heart. Two, I needed to know if you were a danger, that is, if you were likely to remain one. Three, I wanted to know if you would care to receive the education and training you so badly need."
"Are . . . are you asking me to come work here?"
"Certainly not. You will forgive me, but your life has left you . . . too emotionally scarred to be an Unspeakable. Mysteries has no use for the damaged."
"Hey," Harry protested, feeling insulted.
"You are not without hope, of course. You can heal, yet, but I fear that such healing will not take place without your also receiving the education of which I have spoken, among other things. What I suggest firstly is that you become my pupil—in what you have been taught to regard as the Dark Arts."
"Severus can teach me—"
"Your Mr. Snape was almost my pupil once, himself, and no, he is not a suitable teacher for anyone."
"What? But why? How can you say that?"
"As an adolescent, he had a penchant for wandless magic that alerted the Ministry's watchdogs on more than one occasion, as well as Mysteries."
Harry swallowed. Apprenticing here seems like something Severus would have wanted. "Why didn't he study here, then?"
"His impulse control was decidedly lacking, among other reasons which I am confident that you can glean for yourself if you reflect carefully on the matter. In any case, Mr. Snape is not a good candidate to teach a subject about which he knows much but has no true understanding."
"What makes you think I'd have any better of one?"
"Nothing, as it happens, save for my hope that anyone who can actually control the kind of power you have already invoked without completely ruining himself shows enough promise to be able to learn what, precisely, it is that he can do—and how best to protect himself and others."
Harry thought about how many times he'd believed he was losing his mind. But that wasn't to do with my magic. It was about . . . what I did with it, about what happened to me. "I've never done, I mean, I've only used magic that way three times."
"Yes, and on at least one of those occasions, you left a malevolent essence unbound."
"Because I didn't know to bind it—that's your point?"
"Smythe seemed to think I'd done something like that to Voldemort."
"Ah, so I gathered, but young Brian was not in possession of all the facts. I dealt with Godric's Hollow, myself, not long after Hermione explained all that she had observed you do there."
"That's why you're the First Sorceress now, isn't it?"
"No, not entirely. I have served Mysteries for many decades, but we are not here to discuss my career. What do you think of what we have discussed?"
"It's, uh, a lot to think about, but I need to get home, now. I promise not to—"
"Mr. Potter, while the Department of Mysteries is not precisely under the auspices of the Ministry, we do share the concern that magical practitioners not be allowed to endanger our entire society. Your 'promise', unless in the form of a binding agreement, means nothing to me."
"Are you saying I have to train with you or you'll . . . you'll Constrain me?"
"But I saved you people. I saved everyone!" Harry exclaimed, rising from his chair. "I'm not dangerous."
"That you believe so makes you all the more dangerous. Come, where is the harm in exploring your powers in a controlled manner?"
"I . . . I don't suppose there is any, but Severus—"
"Yes, it is fascinating, your situation, and his."
Harry frowned. "Bet you'd like to study him, too."
"It is you I want to see studying, Mr. Potter, and you should be grateful for it."
"Because if the Ministry were to truly understand what you can do, Constraining would be the least of your problems. Scrimgeour and his ilk are hidebound, superstitious, fearful little fools. They would not suffer you to live."
Harry's mouth went dry; he wanted to say, "They could try to kill me," but he knew that, if they did, he'd most likely do a great deal he'd regret. I don't want to fight anymore, he thought, his mind racing, and I would like to—"Hey!"
"The Ministry suffered Voldemort well enough," Harry said, suddenly wondering how powerful a threat to him the First Sorceress, Mysteries, and the Ministry truly were.
"Ah, yes. What an excellent observation. There is a reason I am First Sorceress well before my one hundredth birthday. Our previous First Sorcerer failed, as did so many others, to see Tom Marvolo Riddle as anything more than a megalomaniacal cultist."
"But couldn't you lot have done something about him?"
"Mysteries is primarily concerned with scholarship, Mr. Potter. True, we train in what are now unconventional ways, but we none of us is as powerful as you—or as was the self-styled 'Lord Voldemort'—and we were prevented, under our late master's guidance, from preparing any form of . . . remedy to Voldemort's acivities."
"But because of Hermione, you've been planning on a 'remedy' for me?" Harry asked, his stomach twisting as he considered—and didn't know how to feel about—what Hermione had done with regard to him.
"Do not think less of your friend for doing what was necessary. Her love for you was primarily responsible for her actions, and you must at least be beginning to understand that practitioners who wield natural magic are prone to . . . instability and outrage."
"Seems like it."
"Do you understand a little better the source of my concern, and why I am encouraging you to study?"
"Yeah, I suppose I do."
"I am pleased to hear it. So, what say you to my offer?"
"Will I be able to . . . restore Severus if I say yes?" Harry asked, still uncertain how he'd respond.
"Of course. I would not seek to prevent the correction of Mr. Snape's unfortunate disembodiment."
"Then I'll agree to make whatever sort of magical agreement you like—in terms of my studying with you—as long as it doesn't mean you'll bind my powers. I want this amulet off."
The First Sorceress' mouth twitched. "I suspected that you would say as much."
For a moment, Harry's courage flagged as he thought he might have said the wrong thing, but he forced himself to betray nothing of his fear as he stared at the woman.
Yaxley's mouth twitched again, into what Harry decided passed for a smile for her, and a scroll appeared on her desk; with a flick of her eyes, she sent the scroll flying toward Harry. "Read and sign that."
Harry unrolled the scroll and read:
"I, Harry James Potter, seal by ink of my blood—"
That's pleasant, but not unexpected, I guess.
"—this agreement to study the history and wielding of natural magic under the aegis of First Sorceress of Mysteries Yerbaya Arva Persephone Williamina Bede Dumbledore—"
"'Dumbledore'?" Harry asked, looking up from the parchment. "You're related to—"
"My lineage is no concern of yours. Continue."
"—Yaxley until such time as she shall deem me a master of same and her appraisal of my mastery be ratified by the Council of Mysteries."
What the hell is the Council of Mysteries? Harry asked himself. Best wait to ask that.
"The form and direction of my course of study shall be dictated by First Sorceress of Mysteries Yerbaya—"
"Yerbaya"—that's not like any name I've ever heard before.
"—Arva Persephone Williamina Bede Dumbledore Yaxley and approved by the Council of Mysteries, and I shall make myself available for instruction as directed until released from my tuition.
"I, Harry James Potter, further agree that, should I fail to uphold this agreement, I will be bound by warded means and compelled to face a Constraining Hearing before the Council of Mysteries."
"I have a few questions," Harry said, as he completed his reading.
"Ask them," the First Sorceress replied, her expression remote and impassive.
"What kind of name is 'Yerbaya'?"
"That isn't an answer."
"It is all the answer you shall receive at this time. I would have thought you would be more interested in the Council."
"I am. I'd also like to know why there's no 'Department' in your title."
"Ah, you have a quick eye. I told you, Mr. Potter, that Mysteries is not exactly part of the Ministry. We have been an institution unto ourselves for . . . some time. You will learn more about us as your course of study progresses. What else?"
"You said before that I hadn't done anything disturbing, but . . . but I killed people, and—"
"You speak of the revenge you took, I believe."
Harry didn't even bother to ask how Yaxley knew about it. If she's any relation to Albus Dumbledore . . . . "Yeah," he replied, too impatient to want to consider the First Sorceress' "lineage."
"It is that precise act of vengeance against Bellatrix Black Lestrange which precludes you from becoming an Unspeakable, but I feel you will not conduct yourself thusly in future. Is not that correct?" she asked, her eyes boring into Harry's.
He swallowed. "Uh, yeah—I mean, yes, it is. I won't."
"You have additional questions."
"I think I'd like," to get the hell away from you, "to, uh, arrange a schedule with you—if that's all right. The 'as directed' business is a bit too vague for my comfort."
"Easily remedied—shall we say that, in forthcoming, alternating months, you will meet with me for five concurrent days out of seven, to begin in March?"
Surprised to find Yaxley so reasonable, Harry readily accepted the arrangement, and the language was added to the agreement. "Um, this Council, they're your superiors?"
"In a matter of speaking. You may think of them as being akin to the Wizengamot."
"All right then. I suppose the only other thing is that the agreement's too open-ended. I don't want to be a student the rest of my life—and . . . and what if something should happen to you? Does that make the contract void?"
The First Sorceress and Harry discussed his concerns, among other topics, and then he used a bloodletting spell to drip his blood into an inkwell he conjured. For good measure, he also conjured his own quill, and, while the First Sorceress seemed amused by his caution, she said nothing as he signed the scroll—which disappeared in a puff of greenish smoke afterward.
"It is now part of Mysteries' archive. You will find a copy of it waiting for you at your home."
"And the amulet?"
"Can you not feel that it is gone?"
Harry looked down. "Damn. That was subtle."
"Subtly is, perhaps, something I might endeavor to teach you as well, Mr. Potter. Now then, please accept this phial in thanks for your . . . cooperation. It is an antidote to the Draught of Living Death."
"Thank you. I didn't even know one existed. I thought I'd have to figure out how to brew it on my own," Harry replied, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck rise as if the room were being charged for a spell.
The First Sorceress suddenly peered sharply over his shoulder and said, "There are benefits to befriending scholars."
Harry turned to see Severus' body resting on a writhing mass of elemental serpents. "[Take Severus Tobias Snape to Twelve, Grimmauld Place and then disperse—harm no one as you do this]," he ordered them, before turning back to Yaxley.
She was no longer sitting at her desk, but Harry heard her apparently disembodied and fading voice say, "Present yourself in the Atrium of the Ministry at dawn on the first day of March. Someone will conduct you to me."
"S—sure, of course," Harry stammered, feeling a bit unnerved. He laughed at himself for it. I could do a good disembodied voice if . . . if I wanted to, he thought, electing to walk out the way he'd been led in rather than Disapparate through strange and possibly damaging wards.
When he opened the door leading out of the room, he found himself in the circular room with the rotating doors that led one to other parts of Mysteries; despite the fact that his door was open, the room was spinning, and its floor appeared to be a vortex of rapidly swirling water.
Fuck. She's testing me, Harry thought, closing the door and then opening it again.
This time, the floor appeared to be calm, still water, and the door directly in front of him was open.
Taking a tentative step into the room, Harry thought, No, she's guiding me.
Harry wasn't sure if there was much of a difference between being tested or guided by Yaxley, and he didn't particularly want to think about it, but, as the circular room remained still, he decided he'd best be going on with the "tour."
So, what is it you want me to see? he asked, walking slowly toward the open door, taking a deep breath, and entering the offered room. Great. Just . . . super. It's the sodding Death Chamber.
The First Sorceress, alarming though she was, hadn't struck Harry as being a cruel woman, so why she wanted him to enter this particular room was a mystery to him.
"A mystery. Ha bloody ha," Harry whispered, suddenly feeling as though he were a balloon out of which all the air was escaping. Exhausted, he sank down to the stone floor and leaned his back against the door, which had shut behind him. "I just don't think I can do this right now," he said, hugging his knees to his chest and resting his chin on top of them. "Severus, I'm so sorry. I need a moment, just one sodding mom—"
Harry dreamed of bees. They were buzzing around his ears, knocking themselves against his glasses, and getting caught in his hair; no matter how many times he swiped at them, they wouldn't leave him alone—but they didn't try to sting him.
It was odd that they didn't, and this oddity caused Harry to awaken.
When he looked sleepily around, however, he only found the one bee, and it was zipping about in circles, each one drawing closer to the stone archway in the center of the pit.
Still being tested, I guess, he thought, stretching, standing, and feeling, he had to admit, much better for his nap. "Fine. You want me down there, I'll go." Even though I don't want to. Even though I think you're a bitch for bringing me here . . . to where Sirius died.
There were voices emanating from beyond the tattered curtain in the archway as he approached it, but, to his relief, Harry didn't recognize any of them. What he could recognize was the sound of bees, loads of them—and the strong scent of honey wafting toward him out of the archway.
"What do you want me to do, conjure toast and tea?"
A hand appeared in the archway; it caught the curtain and pushed it aside. Harry's eyes flew open and he caught his breath.
"Do step back a bit, dear boy. I don't want to walk through you."
Harry's elated exclamation echoed in the chamber for some time as he stared at the unexpected wizard, who smiled and replied, as the lone bee came to rest on his nose, "Oh, it's just Albus now, Harry, for one can't teach much to bees that they desire to know."
"Y—you're here—but how? And are you . . . ."
"Quite dead, but it's not at all unpleasant. I'm pleased to see you looking so well. You've been feeding yourself up. That's good. You always were a tad on the skinny side."
Harry tried to laugh, but it stuck in his throat. "I . . . how?"
"I'm afraid—and I hope you won't be too cross with me—that I cannot explain the hows of this meeting. I only know the why."
"Well, all right. Why? I mean, it's good to see you sir, but—"
"Shall we sit?" Albus asked, moving to the steps.
Harry followed him and sat down. "You must be a ghost, but I can't see through you."
"I must be a ghost, indeed," Albus replied, his eyes twinkling, "and you must be anxious to get back to Severus."
Harry did laugh then. "You always know everything," he said, and then he realized the implications of his words and blushed furiously.
"I wouldn't want to know everything, of course, but I do know you've experienced several great shocks of late. It seemed remiss not to enquire after you before you left here."
Harry supposed, after all, it wasn't such a shock to find that Albus had known he was visiting Mysteries. "So, are you, uh, disappointed in me—for what I did? I've promised not to do it again, and—"
"Young man, I am nothing but proud of you. Rest easy on that score."
Harry felt a rush of happiness to hear these words, but he didn't reply. He couldn't stop staring at Albus, who looked so . . . real.
"I am real, to a degree and by some definition. Alas that not everyone can manage it, or perhaps—well, let us say that everyone, all of us, we are all proud."
Harry sniffed and blinked, fighting tears, as it occurred to him that what Albus was intimating. "They . . . they're all well?"
"And waiting, but do not expect to see your family soon, dear boy. You've a long and happy life ahead of you. That is, I expect, why I'm here. To reassure you of that."
Harry hung his head. "So much has happened. I'm so tired, and I wanted, I mean, I tried—but I didn't—Severus stopped me."
"Yes, I thought he might. I'm glad, Harry. Severus is difficult, but loyal and dedicated to a fault. Your friendship will benefit you both."
"This is surreal—not that I'm complaining, of course. I just can't believe I'm talking to you like this."
"That's easy enough to understand, but I expect that you'll have many more such moments as you undertake your studies. Just see to it that Arva doesn't bully you like she bullies me—she'd be most annoyed if she knew I'd come to visit you."
"Arva—the First Sorceress?"
"Albus, what are you doing?"
Harry turned to find Yaxley glaring down at him—at Albus. "Oops," he said, turning to smile at the wizard. "I suppose that means we need to say goodbye."
"So it does," Albus replied, winking, and then he whispered, "You're calm now, Harry."
Harry blinked. Albus and the bee were gone, and he did feel amazingly calm, much more so than he had upon waking. His sense of peace was further strengthened by the fact that the First Sorceress, when he turned around to look toward her, was gone, as well.
As he climbed the stairs, he heard the buzzing again, and then Albus' voice inside his mind, saying, The trick to the room of twelve doors is to think about what it is you want to see on the other side of any of them. They're all the same, you see, and they each lead anywhere you require to go.
One small act of will later, Harry found himself in the Atrium of the Ministry, observing the well-ordered chaos of people going about their routines, and he smiled.
"I don't know how I'm going to manage it, studying with Yaxley 'five concurrent days out of seven'," he murmured, Disapparating at once to Grimmauld.
He found that he'd actually Apparated down the street from Grimmauld, which was just as well because there were annoyed-looking, unfamiliar Aurors lurking just inside the wards surrounding the house.
Wonder how long they've been here—and what they think they're here for? I feel like I've been gone for a year, and Severus must be thoroughly naffed off about—oh, for fuck's sake!
There was, Harry noticed, a familiar-looking photographer just outside of the wards.
He must've heard the Aurors were sent this way, he thought, taking a moment to hex the bloke's camera—using his wand, of course—before Apparating directly into Grimmauld's kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Severus demanded, glaring at The Magic of Birth's avatar as she settled Hermione into a prone position on the table-cum-bed in the kitchen. "She should be squatting. Do you not read yourself?"
The avatar clucked cheerfully in a supposedly soothing manner at Hermione and ignored Severus.
"I know you can hear me, you dried up bit of ink and parchment," Severus said, despite the fact that he didn't know any such thing. "She doesn't need the additional stress of—Harry."
Hermione grunted through a contraction, held steady by Ron, who had turned with Severus to stare at Harry.
"You're back," Ron said. "And the body?"
"Now, now, husband of pregnant witch, that is no way to pay attention to your beloved. Pay. Attention. My. Dear."
"Idiot avatar! You should tell them to take her away to St. Mungo's—or to call for a competent mediwitch," Severus demanded of Harry, who gave a weary sounding chuckle.
"Are you all right?" Harry asked Hermione.
"Does it . . . look like . . . it?" she demanded, in between taking deep breaths. "No . . . no amulet?"
His eyebrows raising, Ron asked, "The First Bint, she released you?"
"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed, obviously outraged.
Severus smirked. He found himself enjoying the marital dynamic of the Granger-Weasleys. It, along with his irritation at The Magic of Birth's outmoded ideas of birthing, had provided him with ample distraction while he'd been awaiting Harry's return.
Severus, is everything really all right here?
It's not—well, yes it actually is. Everything is under control, Severus bond-sent to Harry, relieved to know that he once again could connect to him in that intimate manner. I want to know everything, but I expect you'll wish to remain for this.
"What the hell happened?" Ron asked then.
"Husband of pregnant witch, do pay attention to your beloved," the avatar urged. "She is crowning."
Severus moved closer to the table, concerned that the avatar might try something drastically old-fashioned like a forceps-spell to speed the birthing process. "You'd best stand near the fearless Auror there, Harry. He's looking a bit green."
"I'm so . . . it's not . . . would you get this out of me?"
"Should I really be here?" Harry asked.
"Settle down, 'pregnant witch'," Ron teased, taking Hermione's hand—and then shouting. "OW! Oi! I was just—I'm sorry!"
"You're lucky she didn't hex your bollocks off, making such a crack at such a time," Severus muttered, feeling Harry's mirth ripple into him. "Well, he is. Why are they married? I can see no plausible reason for the union."
"What's so fucking funny?" shouted Hermione.
"Nothing. You're doing fine, Hermione," Harry said.
Severus heard Harry send to him, I don't think you should say that sort of thing about other people's . . . uh, relationships. We're kind of odd, ourselves, to which he could think of nothing to say. And then he heard the forceps-spell about which he'd been so worried and rushed to the birthing book, snapping it shut.
The avatar disappeared with an annoyed squawk.
"Hey! Why'd you do that? Snape, was that you? Snape, open the book!" Ron shouted.
"H—Harry," Hermione gasped out, "spell yourself sterile . . . and deliver . . . deli—grnt!"
Severus couldn't ever remember seeing Harry move so quickly, and, just as he moved into position, the loud, lusty cries of Cedric Harry Weasley were echoing off the kitchen walls. "Well," he said to Harry, "you're . . . you're good for more than saving the bloody world, it seems."
The way you're acting, anyone'd think Cedric was yours.
"Don't be ridiculous," Severus snapped, suddenly concerned to see the slightly hurt expression on Harry's face.
Before he could say anything, however, Harry had turned back to Ron and Hermione.
Fuck, Severus thought, listening as Harry praised the baby.
"—and he's so big."
"'Course he's big," Ron said proudly, hastily reopening the birthing manual to release the avatar again. "You tell Snape to leave it open. Neither of us knows anything about afterbirth and cord-cutting and—"
"Oh, how beautiful," The Magic of Birth said, taking Cedric and performing the necessary postpartum spells before handing the baby to Ron and tending to Hermione, who asked, "Is . . . is he normal?"
Harry stood in his bedroom, shaking with relief to be able to feel Severus again. In general, nothing but Cedric was normal, but things were quiet.
And now it's just us, he thought, staring at Severus' recumbent body and absent-mindedly sliding the phial Yaxley had given him out of his robes as he took comfort from the feeling of Severus in his mind, and also the knowledge of how protective Severus had seemed of Hermione. The house feels almost as if there's a family in it.
Severus slid his arm around Harry's waist then, asking, "What's that?"
"Hmm? Oh," Harry replied, raising his left hand to look at the dark red bottle he held. "This is an antidote to the Draught of Living Death. The First Sorceress gave it to me."
Waves of nervousness emanated from Severus, and Harry found he also felt unsettled at the thought of what was to come.
"I can't decide if it would be best to dose you first, or re-embody you," he whispered. "What do you think?"
"I have no wish to become an Inferius, no matter how briefly."
Harry coughed. "Severus, I'm not . . . I don't exactly know how to undo this. . . . I'm afraid, to try to restore you, I mean," he continued, turning his face into Severus' shoulder.
Wrapping both arms around Harry, Severus replied, "This First Sorceress, the head of Mysteries, she obviously believes you can do it. So do I."
Harry favored Severus with a half-smile. "I'm glad you do, and I suppose she does . . . but she's not exactly the head of Mysteries. There's apparently something called the Council of Mysteries, but Yaxley wouldn't tell me much more than that."
"What did that woman say?"
"I've taken an oath to become her pupil . . . in the Dark—I mean—in the wielding of natural magic."
"Interesting. Pure of heart, are you?" Severus replied in a bitter tone, but Harry could sense that the bitterness was not directed at him.
"Something like that, and Severus?"
"She wants to meet with you, when you're feeling up to it—after."
"She wouldn't tell me why."
"Of course not," Severus remarked, turning his head in the direction of his body. "Yaxley enjoys being enigmatic."
Harry snorted. "I don't think Yaxley can help it, myself."
"If you're to study under her, it's 'First Sorceress Yaxley'."
"Nice to see you haven't changed—but you know, lack of respect? It's not going to be a problem. She, uh, she unnerved the hell out of me."
"An interesting way to put that," Severus replied, squeezing Harry tightly.
Harry closed his eyes and thought of how touching Severus would change once he'd been re-embodied, wondering if Severus would still want him once he knew . . . about everything. The First Sorceress had already begun his instruction while answering some of his questions, telling him, while they were discussing Severus, that "Lies create chaos in the soul."
Isn't that the truth. "Uh, I know I went a little . . . I'm just sorry—no, actually, I'm not sorry about what I did, but I didn't mean to upset you."
"You want to tell me something more, don't you?" Severus asked, turning to look at Harry.
"Well, there is something I should tell you, something I did tell you once before, but it, uh, it didn't count—you weren't 'haunting' me then."
"What is it?"
The concern in Severus' eyes gave Harry strength, but he still closed his own against it, fearing the worst. I don't want him to leave, not after everything that's—
Opening his eyes and drawing in a deep breath, Harry confessed in a rush of words, "I murdered Bellatrix Lestrange. I traded Lucius Malfoy his life for her location and . . . and somehow Shacklebolt knew and told Percy and that's why I went to Riddle House—I was planning to murder you."
"So that's what Albus was talking about," Severus murmured.
"Albus? You talked to him?" I should ask Severus about Yaxley's connection to him.
"Perhaps I did—before I left . . . as I was becoming aware of myself again. I can't explain it."
Harry thought about everything he'd done that he never wanted to explain and said, "Then you don't have to. Just say you forgive me? If I hadn't . . . delayed, none of this might ever have happened to you."
"I'm not angry with you, and there's nothing to forgive—but Lucius is dead now, isn't he?"
"Yeah. I, uh, I killed him the same day I brought you here, killed him at Godric's Hollow, right before . . . ."
"Good for you."
"'M not actually sure that's true, but it's done, and I don't regret it."
"Do you regret Lestrange?" Severus asked, as he released Harry and considered a confession of his own.
Harry's face hardened. "No."
"I expect you will by the time Yaxley's done with you."
"I notice you don't give her a title."
"I was never her student," Severus replied, frowning, "so there's no reason for me to use it."
"Well, I probably will find studying with the First Sorceress difficult," Harry replied, smiling slightly but looking, Severus thought, rather worried. "You seem . . . like you want to say something to me, as well. What is it? And . . . why don't you want to touch me?"
"You have no idea how much I do want to do that, but . . . but there is something I should tell you, about Draco."
Harry stood a little straighter and bit his lower lip. Severus felt his cock twitch to see it, but his arousal diminished somewhat as he considered what he had done to Draco and how he might never properly taste Harry's lips if he told him about it.
I fucked him, Severus thought, I fucked him to keep him preoccupied and away from that slut, Carrow, and I would have continued to do so had not—"Draco is . . . attached to me," he interrupted himself then, relieved to see how Harry's posture relaxed at his words. There, you see? You cannot tell him. He needs you too much, needs to know that he's your only focus. "I'm afraid I may have inadvertently . . . encouraged this attachment while at Riddle House as a means of—"
"Keeping him near you—keeping him safe?" Harry asked, a hopeful expression lightening his features.
"Yes, and after I'm . . . myself again, I'll need an opportunity to," Obliviate him, "explain matters to him, alone. You understand that, I trust?"
"Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?"
"You are somewhat possessive of me, Harry," Severus replied, smiling slightly.
Harry grinned. "Don't worry. I won't set any snakes on Malfoy," he promised, holding out his free hand.
Severus took it, and raised it to his lips. "I want us to be real," he said softly, before pressing his mouth to it.
He was delighted to see how Harry shivered at the contact, how he reached down to press his cock with the heel of one hand.
"Let me help you with that," Severus said hoarsely, kneeling before Harry and undoing his trousers before chuckling to find him wearing nothing underneath them and taking his prick into his mouth.
"Oh," Harry gasped, grasping Severus' shoulders, "feels so good."
It will feel better when I'm using my real mouth, Severus thought to Harry, using one hand to guide Harry's shaft up and down his flattened tongue, and his other to manipulate Harry's balls. Give me back my body, Harry, so that I can take yours.
Severus felt Harry give himself over to the pleasure he was giving him, felt Harry draw upon his magic, and his lips curled into a smile around Harry's cock. He continued to lave it with his tongue, but craned his neck so that he could watch his body as it was surrounded by an energy wave; sparks snapped around it, in the manner of a curse being broken.
And that's the end of the Inferius Curse, he thought, pressing a finger into Harry's arse.
"Fuck, fuck I need, I want—[I will have you, Severus Tobias Snape]!"
Suddenly, Severus found himself jerked up into a visible blue pulse of magic that burst from Harry's body, and then everything went dark.
The hot sucking stopped abruptly, and Harry staggered toward the bed. He saw that Severus wasn't moving, and realized that he'd forgotten the antidote. Looking frantically around, he saw the shattered remains of the phial lying where he'd just been standing. There was no trace of moisture on the shards.
I must have incorporated it into the energy. "[Did it work]? [Severus, are you there]? [Severus]?"
Severus opened his eyes to the sounds of Harry's frantic questioning. "H—Harry," he said, his voice raspy from under-use. "Worked. Like the . . . the Parseltongue. I want—"
There was no need to explain, Severus realized, as Harry pressed his lips to his own and began running his hands all over his body, and Severus found he'd never felt better—and as odd as it was for him to think that so soon after his re-embodiment, he couldn't bring himself to care as Harry's hand wrapped around his erection. Groaning, Severus sat up, relieved that Harry had exercised his limbs to keep them strong. He pulled Harry to his chest, and rolled him over onto his back to ground his prick into Harry's own.
"I'm going to fuck you now," he growled, casting Lubricus and positioning himself, never taking his eyes off Harry's as Harry blinked back tears and wrapped his legs around Severus' waist.
"Say that again," Severus demanded, thrusting himself into Harry's welcoming body, unbearably aroused by the sound of Parseltongue and the heat—the real heat—of the tightness of Harry's arse. "Say anything."
"[You feel so damned good, Severus. I want . . . I need . . . I can't—going to come]!"
Harry's undulating clenching of his cock was too much for Severus, and he came almost immediately after him, collapsing on Harry's chest and breathing heavily. "So good. . . . So real. . . . So you."
"You," Harry replied, laughing through gasps for air. "Sorry to . . . so soon, I just—"
Repositioning himself, Severus kissed Harry quiet. Love you. Only you. Sleep now.
Hell yes. Sleep, Severus heard Harry think back. "We can . . . talk . . . tomorrow."
We can do everything tomorrow, Severus thought, for once indulging in the sensation of hope that being with Harry inspired in him, the hope that he'd feared might diminish once he'd returned to his flesh. "Everything," he promised, settling himself firmly against Harry and allowing sleep to take him as thoroughly as had his love for Harry.
Harry, curled into Severus' chest and half-asleep, found himself happier than he'd ever been to know that there would be another tomorrow—to spend with the man he loved. And nothing will prevent that, he promised himself. Nothing, and no one. "Not even me."
Chapter 11: Epilogue
"—because I'm a better Legilimens than he gives me credit for being," Severus heard Harry saying, from the other side of the kitchen door the next morning.
"It was a difficult time, Potter, even you must realize that. I'm not—"
"Planning to pursue him. I know. You're marrying Parkinson."
"Stay out of my mind!" Draco protested.
Severus smirked. No need for Obliviation after all, I see. Good, he thought, continuing to eavesdrop.
"As long as we're clear—and it's not Potter to you, not anymore."
"You saved Severus' life, Draco, and I—"
"None of that," Ron said, interrupting Severus' spying. "You're retired now, Snape."
Smoothing down the dressing gown Hermione had conjured for him, Severus turned and attempted to appear as dignified as possible. "How is your son?"
Ron grinned. "Cedric's bloody amazing—he's already smiling."
Severus bit the inside of his cheek to check a reflexive sneer from spreading across his features. "Is he."
"Hermione says it's just gas, but I know better. My boy knows his Da. . . . So, you're back. Everything all right then?"
"More than, save that I have no clothing, but that's easily remedied."
"Bet you're hungry. I was just going to have a bit of a fry up."
"The pantry is fully stocked," Severus replied, endeavoring to be as civil as Ron.
It wasn't as difficult as he remembered it being.
"So, when did Malfoy get here?" Ron asked.
"That's a good question."
The door opened. "If you two are done eavesdropping, the kitchen's free," Harry said, smirking at Severus before drawing his wand and spelling him dressed.
"Neat trick," Ron quipped, before pushing past Harry into the kitchen, saying, "You hungry?" to his friend as he did so.
"I'll, uh, I'll be right there," Harry called, as the door shut. "Good morning. Sorry I wasn't there the third time you woke up," he said, flushing a bit.
"Mmm," Severus replied, kissing Harry on one temple and then the other before whispering against his mouth, "It's good to be re-embodied."
Harry pressed a smile against Severus' lips and then stood back a bit. "I guess you'll want to talk to Draco?"
"It can wait."
"It shouldn't. I'd kind of like him gone."
"You're not jealous, are you?" Severus asked, wrapping his hands around Harry's hips and pulling him against himself.
"Very, but I'll get over it, and . . . and I should probably go talk to Hermione."
"Ah. Of course. Just remember, she was only doing—"
"What she thought was necessary, I know," Harry said, embracing Severus.
You'd know something about that, as well, wouldn't you? Severus heard Harry think to him; it made him sigh. "You do understand, don't you?"
"It's in the past," Harry replied, leaning up to kiss Severus, "and I just want things to be normal, now."
Normality, thought Severus, is not something I believe any of our lot is ever going to achieve, and then he grimaced as he realized he was thinking of Harry, the Granger-Weasleys, Draco, and himself as some form of bizarre, quasi-family group, but, as he watched Harry go to Hermione, he whispered, "I've been part of worst ones."
"For the love of Merlin, you saw more than that yesterday—come back here."
"You sure? Ron might not like it."
"Sit down, Harry. I'm just breast-feeding. You've seen breasts before."
"Er, well—Ron doesn't like that, either, even if I was married to their owner."
"Speaking of Ginny, she wants to come see me. We fire-called everyone this morning. Is that all right?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Well, good," Hermione said, shifting Cedric to her other breast. "Do you know, Draco and Brinks were the only ones who would come back here. I don't understand how my co-workers manage, bogged down by so many silly superstitions."
"So, how many of them were working with you on the 'Harry Project'?"
"Not as many as you'd think," Hermione replied vaguely, looking Harry in the eye. "I'm not sorry, you know. You're terrifying, and you wouldn't get help—and you wouldn't talk to us—and I was so afraid you'd . . . . Well, if you're waiting for an apology—"
"I'm not," Harry interrupted her, "and, as it happens, I have to start seeing a mind-healer."
"You agreed to that?"
"I did. I signed a blood oath, too, to do basically whatever the First Sorceress deems necessary for me to do toward studying natural magic."
Hermione sighed. "I can't help thinking that if I'd been a better friend to you, none of this would ever have—"
"Look, I'm not exactly happy about how things happened, but I know I never let you be the kind of friend to me I needed. Remember I said so, 'cause I'm probably not going to repeat it."
Hermione smiled and teared up, and Harry reached out to wipe them gently away.
"So . . . you're not angry?" she whispered.
"No, I'm really not," Harry told her, smiling. "I'm happy, Hermione. Severus, he's—"
"Waiting for you, I think."
"So it would seem."
"I can tell you like them, Severus," Harry replied, shifting his position on the sofa to lay his head in the other wizard's lap and look up at him.
Harry laughed. "You'll never be able to hide anything from me now."
"We'll see," Severus replied, stroking Harry's fringe with one hand, while holding a book in his other and pretending, badly, to read it.
Even without their bond, Harry could feel his lover's true intention poking the side of his head and swelling with interest.
"Bought some honey in the market this morning," he mentioned, with exaggerated casualness.
Severus' fringe-stroking hand slid down Harry's throat and chest toward his cock. Squeezing it, he asked, "Oh? And what on earth would I want with honey? You know I take lemon in my tea."
Thrusting upward, Harry whispered, "[You could smear it all over my body and lick it off me. You could suck my honey'd cock into your mouth and then suck me clean and dry—again. I don't think we've fucked enough today]."
The book fell out of Severus' hand. "You're going to kill me with such language. You know I'm an old man."
"[Or perhaps it's you who ought to be] '[honeysuckled]'," Harry suggested, rolling over to mouth Severus' erection through his taut trousers. [You I should fuck, slowly].
"You never do anything slowly," Severus growled more than said, as his hips jerked upward.
Harry raised his head. "[I can learn. And we've two more weeks before my other studying will interfere with your lessons]."
"Brat," Severus purred, as his hands unsteadily unbuttoned his trousers. "More. Tell me more."
"[Order you]?" Harry hissed suggestively.
Severus pushed down his trousers and y-fronts roughly to reveal his leaking prick in answer, and Harry forgot all about ordering Severus to do anything, so great was his desire to taste it. Severus had other ideas, however, because he pushed Harry to the floor and fucked him until all Harry could do was gasp out a string of nonsensical Parseltongue.
Love it . . . like this, Harry heard Severus' voice in his mind, and he answered, as he felt Severus shuddering through his orgasm, Love you, love being inside you even when you're inside me, before crying out his own pleasure.
Harry turned to follow Severus' gaze to the hearth. There was a small green snake curled upon it, and it was glowing.
"'Oops', indeed. When do your lessons begin again?"
"Too soon. I don't know how I'll manage being away from you during the days."
Severus sighed. "Well, you won't be far from me, it seems. What was Albus' suggestion for the room of doors again?"
Harry pushed himself up. "You saw her? She gave you a job?"
"Apparently I'm of sufficient skill to be of use as an archivist for Mysteries."
"You're going to be a . . . a librarian?" Harry asked, waving a lazy hand in the snake's direction to banish it.
"More than that. Potion-making is wandless, of course, and the First Sorceress—"
"—feels that there is a great deal of interesting study to be made of it. She wishes me to incorporate the Potions manuals into a sub-section of Mysteries' archive, and also to test some of the recipes."
Harry lay down on top of Severus and smiled against his lips. "I'm so glad," he said, before kissing him. I'm so glad to know we'll be close.
Threading his fingers in Harry's hair, Severus thought, We'll never be far from each other, never again, my Harry. I promised you that.
And good memories are all that I intend to make from now on, he promised himself, because love is magic, too, and it can do anything.