~~ I ~~
"Come on, Harry!"
Harry Potter sighed as he climbed the wooden steps to the shop. It was the last Hogsmeade weekend before the NEWTs, and Neville and Ron had gotten it into their heads to Floo to Diagon Alley so that they could explore Muggle London. Harry and Hermione had been dragged along; while neither of them was terribly interested in the questionable delights of a world they knew all too well, they felt a certain responsibility to the young pureblood wizards. Without them, the boys would have ended up in six kinds of trouble before dinnertime.
Unfortunately, the effort involved in keeping them out of trouble was exhausting, and Hermione had been driven half-mad before she washed her hands of the lot of them and decided to visit the shops on her own. That left Harry alone to watch over Ron and Neville, and after a day filled with near disasters, he was ready to throttle them both.
"Look, just promise me one thing," Harry said.
The two of them turned and looked at him.
"Promise to keep your bloody mouths shut," he hissed.
Neville rolled his eyes. Ron gave him his well-I-like-that frown.
Harry wished he were anywhere but here.
Comic books. Sodding comic books.
"How old are you?" Harry demanded.
"Lighten up, mate," Ron told him. "You've forgotten how to get in touch with your inner child."
I never was a child, thought Harry sullenly, though even as it was formed he realised it wasn't exactly true. He remembered playing with toys, always Dudley's hand-me-downs, of course. The plastic horses were invariably missing an ear or a leg, and the soldiers had most of their paint chipped off before he ever saw them. Still, it was a childhood of sorts. But Harry never spent much time experiencing childhood, only wishing that it would be over so that he could go out in the world and leave the Dursleys behind forever. Being a boy paled before the tantalising prospect of manhood.
And then, when he'd arrived at Hogwarts, he'd fallen into this strange in-between world, where he was treated as both a man and a boy. He could risk his neck on the Quidditch pitch or in fighting Voldemort, and the next day be docked House points for failing to pay attention in Potions class. He was more of an adult than ever, but also had never so completely allowed himself to be a child.
Which made him wonder what he'd been before. Very little of anything, apparently.
He remembered, too, that he was now officially done with childhood. Even though it was only early May, he and his friends had celebrated his "birthday" last week, for by Hermione's careful calculations he'd seen the close of his eighteenth year more than three months early thanks to his Auror training. In order to cram as many lessons as possible into his already busy sixth- and seventh-year schedule, he had used Dumbledore's Time-Turner to extend the duration of his lessons. As a result, Harry had lived an extra day or so every week during the last couple of years, and Hermione had decided that he was entitled to an early birthday for that. So as far as nearly everyone was concerned, Harry was now an adult.
Harry pulled his attention back to the here and now. The shop didn't look much different to those in Diagon Alley. It was piled to the rafters with comic books, mechanical toys, metal figurines, plastic models, and board games of various descriptions. At least here there were no electronic gadgets to tempt the eye and the hand; Harry hadn't brought enough Muggle money with him to pay for any more costly breakages such as resulted from the accident at the computer shop.
Leaving Ron and Neville to their own devices, he decided to have a boo at the merchandise. The figures and models were either designed along historical or fantasy themes. There were row upon row of miniature Roman legions alongside well-endowed superheroes, resplendent in their garish skintight garb. There were board games based on Star Trek and Lord of the Rings – that jammy Tolkien, giving away the secrets of the kingdom – and models of Churchill tanks poised alongside snap-together Batmobiles.
Neville walked up to him with a long, brightly coloured box in one hand. "What's this?"
He peered at it for a moment – damned contacts were drying up again. "Oh. That's a light saber."
"Like a wand?" the other boy whispered.
"No. It can only be used as a weapon. Well, not used exactly, not like this – "
"You mean it needs a spell to activate it?"
"No," Harry said, taking the box from Neville and turning it over, "it needs four 'D' cell batteries to make it bloody light up. It's useless. Only a toy."
Ron crept up behind him and poked him in the ribs, and Harry cursed as the box nearly flew out of his hands. "You're a black cloud today, you know that?"
"If that's true, then I've been a black cloud for months," Harry huffed.
Ron stepped around him and regarded him thoughtfully. "Maybe you have, at that. Wonder why that is?"
Harry handed the light saber back to Neville and walked as casually as possible over to the shelf of comic books.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he said.
"I'm in love with you."
If he lived as long as Nicholas Flamel, Harry would never forget the look which appeared in Snape's eyes then.
Complete, utter, total disgust. Though whether it was with himself or with Harry, he couldn't know for sure.
"You can't be serious."
Harry had to laugh at that one. "I wish I weren't, believe you me." He stared into the fire. "It just – happened."
– Happened over days, months, years – he supposed it started the summer before last, when Dumbledore had deemed it unsafe for Harry to return to the Dursleys. The day he turned sixteen, he'd begun training as an Auror, the youngest in living memory. Working closely with Snape as something approaching an equal, Harry received glimpses into a soul which bore a shocking resemblance to his own. And slowly, against his will, he'd been drawn to a man he never would have thought anyone, least of all Harry himself, could love.
Nevertheless, the feeling had crystallized one moment about three weeks previous to this one. They'd arrived at the scene of another attack – some of the rogue Giants had been in on it, but the unmistakable stench of Lucius Malfoy's sinister brain hung over it as well. The intelligence had been received too late to be of any use, and the house was a smouldering ruin by the time they Apparated in, wands drawn.
Susan Bones, Hufflepuff, home for the Christmas holiday. Her mother, Anne. Her father, Robert. Her sisters, Teresa and Lizzie, first- and fourth-years respectively, both Ravenclaws. All gone, and nothing to do now but hope it had happened quickly, and to all of them at once, so that neither parent nor child had been forced to witness –
It struck Harry that even his hopes had become monstrous.
In what was left of the conservatory, Harry found the charred remains of a china doll, its crinolines and soft blond ringlets singed but mostly intact. Later, when he had forgotten it in the search for evidence, he'd seen Snape huddled by the back shed, one long finger stroking the doll's hair while silent tears cut pure, gaping wounds in his ash-smudged cheeks. His mouth was moving, repeating the same two words over and over.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. –
The man standing at the mantel would be humiliated to know Harry had witnessed his moment of weakness.
He didn't yet know that none of it mattered any longer. NEWTs. House points. Stiff upper lips. Unwritten rules about what one was and was not allowed to have.
"I suggest," Snape intoned, "that you make every effort to expunge this – this ridiculous infatuation – at your earliest convenience."
Harry was young, but he suddenly felt decades older than the man before him. "Have you never been in love, then?"
The thin lips pursed. "The Death Eaters do not believe in love." He paused for a moment, as if fighting a minor battle within himself. "Only fucking."
Harry rose from the chair and walked over to where Snape was standing. With more bravery than he knew he possessed, he reached up with one hand and brushed the raven-black hair back, exposing the line of one high, proud cheekbone. The owner of it flinched, but didn't move away.
"You're not a Death Eater any longer."
Snape snorted. "I will be a Death Eater until the day I die. And probably beyond that, if I am so unfortunate as to be cursed with an afterlife."
Harry's fingers glided over pale skin, surprisingly warm to the touch, although he supposed that could merely be the fire. Snape turned to him slowly, as though he were under Imperius but fighting it, fighting.
Snape was always fighting.
That was one of the reasons Harry loved him.
But paradoxically, it was also one of the reasons Snape would probably never be able to love him in return.
The boy moved closer, his lean, Quidditch-hard body giving off heat to rival the flames flickering in the grate. Snape's eyes became even more impenetrable, though there was a fine tremor in the jaw muscle under Harry's fingers.
Leaning in to brush his lips against Snape's, Harry murmured:
"Then fuck me, if that's all you think you have in you."
There was a brief flicker in Snape's coal-black eyes then, one Harry would hold against his heart in the lonely nights which followed. Before it died, Harry read lust, and shock, and passion, and most surprisingly...hope.
But it was all gone in an instant, and in its place was the old, frosty disdain.
"Ten points from Gryffindor for language, Mister Potter. Now get out of my sight."
Harry drew back from him slowly, allowing himself the childish indulgence of imagining the unforgiving pressure of Snape's mouth on his, instead of the barest whisper of contact which had been the reality.
"I had to try," he said quietly. His mouth curved in spite of the growing hole in his chest cavity. "After all, I was taught to fight by the best."
He left without looking back.
Harry had never been a fan of comic books, but something in the defiant stance of the hero on the front cover called to him. His face was hidden by the typical mask, but Harry fancied he saw something of Snape's sneer in the superhero's haughty mien.
God. Who would have suspected he'd become a romantic in his old age?
He headed to the counter and paid for it, then walked out the door and sat on the steps to read.
"There you are! We hunted all over the shop for you!"
"Hmm?" Harry squinted up into the dying spring sunlight to see Neville and Ron standing over him, their faces cast in shadow.
"Are you on the bollicky planet at all?" Ron demanded.
"Not sure yet," Harry replied. He stood abruptly, then clambered up the steps to re-enter the shop while the two boys stared after him.
Once inside, he made a beeline for the shelves and searched the R's. There were four more issues, including the first ever published. On the cover, Rage howled his pain at the heavens as he cradled a broken young body in his arms.
The man behind the counter was tall and gangly and had a ponytail reaching halfway down his back.
"Have you any more of these?"
Raising an eyebrow, the man inspected Harry's haul. "That's all I've had in so far, but there's a new one coming in a month or so. Get them from across the pond so they take longer."
Harry tried to suppress his disappointment but wasn't entirely successful. "I may not be here in another month," he grumbled.
"Oh. Leaving the country, are you?"
Harry's mouth twitched. "Something like that."
"Well, we've another shop in Somerset if you're down that way." He paused momentarily in the midst of ringing Harry's purchases. "You, ah, like this stuff, do you?"
Hackles he didn't know he possessed rose abruptly. Something of his defensiveness must have translated to his posture or expression, because the man hastily added, "Naw, naw, don't worry, mate, I'm not askin' for a knee trembler back of the shop. I just thought – " He reached under the counter and pulled out a magazine, placing it on the counter. "There's an article in here about the artist and the writer. I don't imagine you'll find a copy – next issue's out tomorrow."
"No charge, mate." He gave Harry a toothy grin. "Monetary or otherwise. We got to stick together, don't we?"
Harry couldn't quite keep the blush from rising to his cheeks as he thanked the man.
Hermione peered at the magazine laying on the table at the Leaky Cauldron. "I didn't know you read The Advocate."
"I don't," Harry said around a mouthful of Irish stew. "And how would you know about it?"
The young woman rolled her eyes. "Heterosexuals have heard of The Advocate."
Harry cast a glance at Ron and Neville, who were thankfully oblivious to the conversation. Since neither alternating nor direct electrical current would operate properly in the magical world, the two were working feverishly to devise ways to make their Light Sabers function without batteries.
Pathetic, really. But then, Harry had just bought twenty quid worth of comic books, so he wasn't in a position to cast stones.
"Well, I hadn't heard of it, and I'm bent as a – "
"Harry!" Hermione lowered her voice to a stage whisper. "For all we know that Rita Skeeter cow's hiding under the table."
"'M not ashamed of it," Harry persisted stubbornly.
"Nor should you be. But the sordid details of Harry Potter's sex life, whatever his preference may be, would be hot copy. Why give them more filth to print?"
"'Sex life'," snorted Harry. "I like that. 'Boy Who Lived Wanks in the Shower''ll make a lively front cover for Witches' Weekly, won't it?"
Hermione's cheeks pinkened slightly, but her inner curiosity burst forth. Leaning across the table, she murmured, "You mean you've never – "
Harry stuck another spoonful of stew in his gob. "Haven't had much time, have I?"
"No, but you certainly would have had the opportunity."
Harry shook his head. "I don't – " want a fuck.
But I did. I would have.
"I understand," Hermione said, laying her small, fine-boned hand over his where it lay on top of the magazine. "You want it to be special."
"I suppose," he conceded. "But it's – well, you know I have a hard time – making connections with people. It's never been easy for me. I can't just pick someone off the street and do...that."
An image of Snape flashed before him, so vivid he fancied the man was sitting at the next table, and had to fight to keep from turning his head to survey the room.
Harry cleared his throat. "When I find someone I care about, it's something I know instinctually, something I feel deep inside – and it's strong, almost frighteningly so. Like with you and Ron. Even if the both of you got tired of me, decided you hated me, never wanted to see me again, I'd stick fast." He shrugged. "Wouldn't be able to help myself."
Hermione's eyes were bright; she squeezed his hand hard. "Don't worry. You're stuck with us, too, you git."
Harry grinned. "You've been spending too much time with Ron."
"I know," she murmured, dashing the moisture from her eyes with the back of her other hand. After a moment, she released Harry's hand and tapped the magazine with one finger. "What's so fascinating, anyway?"
"This? Silly, really," he said, attempting an airy tone. "I picked up a comic book at one of the shops Ron and Neville dragged me to, and it turned out to be about a gay superhero. It was created by a couple of blokes in America."
Hermione cocked her head. "The blonde one's quite the looker. But I suppose I'd be wasting my time."
Harry chuckled. "Afraid so, m'dear. Apparently Rage – that's the hero – is based on a friend of theirs. They all live in Pittsburgh."
"Where's that? I was never much good at American geography."
Harry burst out laughing. "This is an historic occasion! A round of Butterbeers on me!"
"What is it?" Ron asked.
"Hermione finally admitted there's something she doesn't know."
The young woman in question stuck her tongue out at all of them.
That night, Harry lay alone in his room at the Leaky Cauldron and tried not to think.
"Are you sure you don't want to come back tonight?" Hermione had asked him earlier. To her credit, her face had shown only a hint of the concern Harry knew she must have been feeling.
"No, you lot go on back," he'd said. "I just want to spend a bit of time – thinking."
"You can think just as well back at school," Ron had said stubbornly, his arms folded.
God. What had Harry ever done to deserve friends such as these?
"I'll be all right," he'd insisted. "If anything happens, I can Apparate back. I got my license last summer, remember?"
Yet another skill Snape had taught him. He remembered being pressed up against the length of his lean body, the physical contact being necessary to help Harry learn to control his direction and distance. If Snape had only known then how much effort it had taken Harry to focus on the task at hand, he would have perhaps been more forgiving of his frequent errors...
Harry smirked. Who the hell was he kidding?
"Hermione. Go. Back. All of you." Stung, the girl had turned to leave then, but Harry had whirled her back round for a swift, hard kiss on the cheek. Then he'd given one to Ron and Neville for balance. Good lads – they didn't even flinch any longer when he did that.
And then they were gone, and Harry had a whole night to himself in which to consider his future. To ponder whether or not he had one, for starters.
Perhaps this hadn't been such a brilliant idea.
In an effort to distract himself from harsh realities, he immersed himself in the Rage comics, tearing through all five issues, then reading them all again more slowly and thoroughly. The artwork was standard comic fare, but the subject matter was not. Rage, Gay Crusader, with the help of his loyal sidekick Zephyr, protected the citizens of Gayopolis from harm, repelling gay-bashers and other criminals with ease.
Sometimes, it appeared, he also shagged men senseless. With considerable skill, at that.
He turned to the end of the first issue again.
Harry stared at the images of Rage and his young lover, J.T., and wondered if anyone would ever touch him that way.
Oh, sod it, Harry thought, leaping from the bed and stripping off his clothes. He could do with a shower, and his now painfully evident erection could do with a little attention.
He emerged from the shower feeling a great deal cleaner and much more clear-headed. Standing in front of the mirror over the dresser, he finger-combed his damp, unruly hair until it resembled something more appealing than a rag mop.
Flopping back down on the feather bed, he set the comics aside and thumbed through the magazine. There were two articles connected with Rage, the first an interview with artist Justin Taylor and writer Michael Novotny. The second was an in-depth profile of the vibrant Pittsburgh gay community, of which the two were celebrated members, thanks to the international success of the comic. Although Harry knew it was silly, he still felt a bit of a shock at recalling there was a whole other world out there, a world which carried on spinning oblivious to wizards and Death Eater attacks and Voldemort's plots.
Perspective, that's what you need, my lad. Potions Masters aside, it's not inconceivable that there's a man on the planet who'll find you attractive. You don't need to meet the love of your life to get yourself buggered.
And you're not dead yet.
Harry Potter began thinking again.
"What do you mean he didn't come back last night?"
Ron gave Hermione a fish-eyed glare. "Well, you don't bloody see him here, do you?"
Hermione laid her fork on her plate, having suddenly lost all interest in her kippers. "We have to tell the Headmaster. Suppose something happened to him?"
"And suppose he was on a boozeup last night and is sleeping it off at the Leaky Cauldron?" Seamus Finnegan hissed. "Do you want him in even more shite than usual?"
"No, of course not," Hermione hissed back. "But Harry has borne a terrible burden this year, what with trying to carry on as normal while performing Auror duties at the same time. He hasn't been himself lately, not since..."
"Since Susan," Ron finished for her.
"I think that was just the last straw, really," mused Hermione. "Add to that the knowledge he's Voldemort's number one target, and I'm surprised this hasn't happened sooner. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes for all the world."
Ron frowned. "There's something you're not saying. Out with it."
Hermione speared a kipper and pushed it about on her plate. "I don't know for sure. But I have a theory."
"I would be very interested to hear any theories you may have, Miss Granger."
The small knot of seventh-year Gryffindors turned as one to look up into Professor McGonagall's unsmiling countenance.
It was Neville who said what they were all feeling most succinctly.
"Bugger," he muttered.
"Pittsburgh? She thinks he's gone to bollicky Pittsburgh?"
"Have you anything against Pittsburgh, Severus?" Albus Dumbledore enquired calmly, as he stroked
Fawkes' feathers with a gentle hand.
Snape pinched his knife-sharp nose between thumb and forefinger. "Apart from the fact that it's located in America and brimming with Muggles, no, Albus, I'm sure it's rivalled only by Bermuda and Corfu as a prime tourist destination."
Minerva chose that moment to stick in her oar. "Hermione believes he had a motive for going there," she told him in her annoyingly lofty tones.
Snape crossed his arms. "And what, pray tell, might that be?"
McGonagall treated him to her frostiest stare. "She thinks he may be looking to lose his virginity."
Snape hadn't been entirely sure he still possessed a heart, but if he had it stopped beating in that moment.
"Well," amended McGonagall, "she didn't put it in exactly those terms, but they had been discussing the topic during their outing to London."
Snape kept his expression as calm as possible. London had been enough of a risk; now he was thousands of miles away, in an unfamiliar city?
And Snape knew exactly where to assign the blame for this one.
Stupid, stupid, stupid...
Albus set Fawkes back on his perch and regarded Snape levelly. "We know this much: Harry paid a visit to Gringott's yesterday and withdrew five hundred Galleons, which he then converted to a mixture of pounds sterling and US dollars. Since he would have paid in cash, we have no record of any purchases he may have made. And as for tracing him – "
Snape sighed. "Quite impossible, I know. Location charms bounce off the blasted boy."
"You assured that yourself by administering that potion to him in Fifth year. It wouldn't have done for him to be whisked away by Voldemort so easily."
No, thought Snape angrily, by all means let's make it more difficult, so that Potter has a bit longer to wait before the damned axe falls on his pretty neck.
McGonagall thinned her already thin lips. "Normally, I'd say wait for the boy to slip up and use a spot of magic; the Ministry would have him pinpointed in two seconds flat. But he could be casting spells as we speak and we'd never know it."
Snape rounded on her, the fury bubbling unexpectedly to the surface. "It was ridiculous to continue treating him as a child when he was acting as a fully fledged Auror. Would you have had him defenceless last summer when he took part on the raid against Crabbe?"
Minerva narrowed her eyes. "No, of course not," she bristled. "I'm merely – "
" – stating the obvious?"
"Well, it would seem we will have to resort to more mundane means to retrieve our Harry," Dumbledore said brightly. "But retrieve him we shall. Or rather," he added, turning to Snape, "you shall, Severus."
Perhaps if he pinched hard enough his nose might fall off altogether. He'd never been particularly fond of it. "Surely you jest."
"I'm afraid not. You and Minerva alone among the staff are best suited to perform this task, as young Harry feels a special – connection – to you both."
Oh, Albus, thought Snape. If you only knew, you'd have my guts for garters.
"But as I was an absolute peril in Transfiguration class back in my day, I'm afraid it will have to be Severus. My skill in Potions does not rival yours, of course, but I believe we can manage until your return."
"Albus," Snape began, wincing slightly at the pleading undertone which crept into his voice, "if I understand you correctly, you're charging me, on the questionable hunch of a student, to go to America, find a boy who in all likelihood does not wish to be found, and drag him, kicking and screaming, back to dear old Hogwarts."
Dumbledore assumed a pleased expression, as though Snape were a snot-nosed first year who had just performed his first successful spell. "That's essentially correct."
"Oh, well, that's all right then," Snape spat, turning to go.
Snape stopped, but did not turn back.
"I would ask one thing."
There was a brief silence. Finally, Snape muttered, "You may ask."
He could hear the smile in the old man's voice. "Thank you. I would ask that you be – kind – to the boy." He paused. "And to yourself."
Snape stiffened. "That's two things."
"They are not mutually exclusive," Dumbledore countered quietly.
Snape's reply was to exit the room as swiftly as possible.
~~ II ~~
"Excuse me. May I try these on?"
The tall, sandy-haired man turned to Harry and smiled. "Let's see what you've got, sweetie." He made grasping motions with his hands, prompting Harry to pass them across the counter.
Odd. Perhaps in America, the staff was required to inspect your potential purchases first.
"Where are you going with these?" the man asked. There was a disdainful sniff in his tone.
Harry opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally, he said, "I – thought I'd visit some of the clubs tonight."
"My God," the other man gasped. "I hope you've got a damned good fake ID."
The clerk nodded sagely. "Stating you're twenty-one." He gave Harry the once-over. "You don't look a day over sixteen."
Harry shifted defensively. It wasn't his fault those blasted Dursleys had stunted his growth. "I'm eighteen," he muttered. And I've been risking my life in the fight against evil for nearly seven bloody years, he amended silently.
"Don't get your shorts in a knot, darling," the older man cooed, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture. "Back in the dark ages, I enjoyed a little underage mayhem myself. But there's no way I'm letting you leave here with these clothes."
Harry frowned. "I have the money – "
"No, no, no," the man soothed, "it's not the money. It's the clothes. They're not you. Or I should say, they're too you. If you're going clubbing, we'll need to age you up a little." Stepping around the counter, the man laid a familiar arm around Harry's shoulders and led him toward a rack of dark shirts and tight-fitting trousers. "No jeans. No t-shirts. Let Emmett Hunnicutt be your style guru."
Harry couldn't suppress a grin at the other man's infectious enthusiasm. "And you would be – Emmett Hunnicutt?"
Emmett grinned back. "In the flesh, doll. In the flesh."
After the fifth head swivelled appreciatively in his direction as he walked down Liberty Avenue, Harry knew that Emmett was indeed a style guru of the first order. Once he'd finished with Harry, Emmett had pressed a card bearing the name and address of a nearby hairdresser, and told him to ask for Lars. Lars, as it turned out, was not a tall, well-muscled Swede, but a tall, extraordinarily skinny African-American man who added another couple of years to Harry's apparent age beyond those already conferred by the trendy clothes.
Oddly enough, seeing himself in the mirror brought a huge thrill, but also a pang of regret. For the first thought which popped into his head was, I wish Snape could see me like this.
He wondered if Hermione and Ron had had any luck covering up his disappearance. It was unlikely at best, which meant Harry probably had no more than a couple of days of freedom before someone came to take him back to Hogwarts. He wasn't quite sure what he planned to do at that point; he tried not to dwell on the inevitable 'we're so disappointed in you' lectures and loss of House points. Not that the damned Cup meant anything to him any longer, but he hated the thought of letting his fellow Gryffindors down. They deserved their enjoyment of childish things, for as long as they could. Some of his happiest memories were of Quidditch matches or foolish games in the Common Room. Simple things.
Harry stopped dead as shop sign across the street caught his eye.
Bloody hell. It was Michael Novotny's comic store. He'd read about it in the Advocate article.
Racing across the street, he tried to assume an air of practiced nonchalance before entering the shop. He remembered the day in Flourish and Blott's with Gilderoy Lockhart, when the man had dragged Harry into the spotlight without so much as a by-your-leave. The feeling of embarrassment and discomfort then, as at any time he was reminded of his unwanted celebrity, was intense.
But no-one knew him here. The man standing behind the counter was the celebrity in this world.
And he deserved the respect Harry would have liked to have been shown.
The man looked up. He was about Harry's height, with a kind face and a youthful appearance. "Yes?"
"I – my name is Harry Potter, sir," Harry said, extending a hand which Novotny took without hesitation. "I just wanted to let you know I've read your work and I've enjoyed it immensely."
Novotny's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Don't tell me you came all the way from England to tell me that, because I won't believe you," he said jovially.
"Well, no, not exactly, though one might say you and Rage had a hand in my choosing Pittsburgh as a destination."
Novotny's eyes widened. "God, what a terrific sentence. You should be reading Homer, not queer comic books."
Harry laughed. "Well, I am familiar with quite a bit of Latin and other – obscure languages," he said. "But your work was a revelation in a different way. Suffice it to say it was what I needed right at this moment in time."
"Well," Novotny said thoughtfully. "That's got to be one of the nicest compliments I've ever had. Thank you."
"Have you any copies of the sixth issue?" Harry asked.
"I'm officially sold out," Novotny said, leaning forward a little and lowering his voice, "until the next printing. But I always keep a couple stashed away." He retrieved one from under the counter and slid it across to Harry. "Don't tell anybody."
"Thanks," Harry said, grinning. "You don't have to worry about me. I'm damned good at keeping secrets."
"The special today is the Jolly Roger. That's three jumbo fish sticks with a side salad and fries."
Snape looked up at the waitress standing over him and was unpleasantly reminded of Molly Weasley.
"Does this establishment have a teapot?" Snape asked coolly. He'd spent the entire day roaming about Pittsburgh's gay village sustained by nothing but his typical paltry breakfast. A couple of hours ago, he'd made the mistake of wandering into an infernal place known as "Starbucks" and been served the most ghastly excuse for tea he'd ever encountered. A paper bag immersed in a cup of tepid water was not tea, but one could hardly expect Americans to know the difference.
The woman's mouth quirked. Retrieving a pencil which was lodged behind her ear, she said, "I think we might be able to dust one off, Jeeves. Is that all you want?"
Snape treated her to one of his medium-strength sneers. "I would prefer if it were filled with tea leaves and boiling water when it arrives," he drawled.
"Well, you're gonna get a coupla Lipton bags, but I can manage the boiling water. I'll even throw in the cup for free." She paused. Snape noted idly that her violent pink t-shirt read I love fags. "You sure you don't want anything to eat? You look like you haven't had a decent meal since the '80s."
Snape bit back the urge to voice his doubts that this restaurant could in any way be connected with the provision of 'decent meals', but at the last moment he remembered his purpose for being there. "No, thank you," he said, in as polite a tone as he could manage. "But I would like to ask you a question, if I may."
The woman jutted one hip to the side, indicating she was willing to park herself for a few moments. "Ask anything you want, honey. I might even answer you."
Snape reached into his jacket pocket. The Granger girl had provided him with a recent snapshot of Potter, and he'd charmed it to remain motionless. Unfortunately, he couldn't charm away the blasted smile which defied the power of a mere photograph to contain it. Snape resisted the desire to run the pad of his thumb over the surface as he passed it to the waitress. "Have you seen this boy?"
She studied it for a moment. "Cute. He yours?"
Snape's throat closed over. "Pardon me?" he croaked.
"Oh. No." As though he needed a further reminder of his advanced age. "I'm his – professor." He had figured on sticking as close to the truth as possible. "He's a student at a rather exclusive boarding school in Scotland. We believe he – became separated from his friends, and is now somewhere in Pittsburgh."
"Ran away from school, huh?"
Snape pursed his lips, then nodded curtly. "In a manner of speaking."
"Well, I haven't seen him, but there's somebody who might've – hey, Sunshine!"
Her loud call pierced Snape's left temple and exited through his right. A handsome young man rose from a booth near the back of the restaurant and approached, then gave her a generous kiss on the cheek. "Hey, Deb. How're they hangin'?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing," the woman – Deborah, he assumed – said, her eyebrows wagging suggestively.
Good Lord. Not quite Molly Weasley after all.
"You seen this kid?" Deborah asked, handing over the photograph.
"Mmm," the blond man said appreciatively. "I'd certainly remember if I had."
Snape stopped his hand from yanking the snapshot out of the whelp's grasp.
The young man's gaze flickered from the waitress to Snape. "Who wants to know?"
Oh, bollocks. This was more conversation than he wanted to have with Muggles. Sliding from the booth and drawing himself up to his not-inconsiderable height, he extended a hand to each of them in turn. "Severus Snape."
"He's the boy's teacher," Deborah explained.
The man arched one blond eyebrow. "Oh yeah? And how do we know you're not a pimp out trolling for his runaway property?"
Bloody hell, Snape thought, and looked to Deborah for assistance. To his horror, the woman was also patiently waiting for an answer, her pudgy arms folded over her ample bosom.
"I have credentials," Snape said weakly, fumbling in the back pocket of his trousers for the wallet he'd created for himself. A drivers' license, birth certificate, letters of introduction, credit cards – all false, of course, but completely verifiable in the Muggle world. The wizarding community was not without its computer hackers.
"Okay, honey, okay," the woman soothed, patting Snape's arm. "Look, have you talked to the cops yet? The police?" she added, at Snape's blank expression. "I know somebody on the force – "
"No," Snape interrupted. "We – that is, the school doesn't want the police involved. This is a very – delicate – matter. It would be – imprudent to alert too many people to the fact he has – run away." No lies, but a messy web of half-truths. So be it.
"Oh yeah?" Deborah said, scowling. "And what does the boy's family have to say about it?"
"He has no family," Snape snarled, momentarily forgetting himself. "We are the closest thing to family he's ever known."
"Then why did he run?" Deborah persisted.
Because he doesn't want to die just yet, Snape thought.
Because instead of behaving as an adult, I turned him out on his ear.
Because when he finally decided to fall in love, he made the worst possible choice.
"It's complicated," Snape said aloud. "He's a very – gifted student, and he's taken on increased responsibilities in the past year and a half. This has put a great deal of strain on the boy. He faces many challenges in the near future, and we believe he just – "
"Decided to go get fucked," the young man supplied.
Snape tried not to display his shock, but he was certain it bled around the edges of his stoicism.
"I know how he feels," the other man said. "I've been there."
"I doubt it," Snape drawled, unable to help himself.
The lad's eyes actually danced with merriment. "God, you have to meet Brian. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to know what he's going to look like in another ten years." Shaking his head, he said, "All right. I'll keep an eye out for him. If I see him, I'll tell him you're here, and that you're looking for him. You have a hotel?"
"Yes," Snape said, handing over one of the Sheraton cards he'd brought along. "The room number is written on the back." The young man took the card and handed back the photo.
"Okay. But if he doesn't want to go with you, you're not going to see me trying to persuade him."
"Please," Snape said, hating that he had to beg. "You said that you understood his – motives. Do you have any idea where he might go?"
"One word," the young man told him. "Babylon." And with a wink, he left the diner.
Deborah studied him, a revolting sympathy in her eyes. "I'll get you that tea. And the special. You're gonna need it."
Justin looked up at Brian, then followed the line of his gaze down the street.
"That pose look familiar to you?"
The dark-haired youth leaning casually against the lamppost was dressed to kill, his dark hair and clothing accentuating his otherworldly green eyes. He appeared to be about Justin's own age, maybe a little older. Must be new in town, because he sure as hell would have remembered him –
"Oh, shit," Justin breathed. "That's the kid."
Brian raised an eyebrow. "What kid?"
"There was a guy in the diner this afternoon showing his picture around. He claimed he was the kid's professor, and that he'd run away from some British prep school."
"You don't sound convinced."
Justin shrugged. "There was something weird about his whole story. For instance, the kid's supposed to be eighteen, but he sure as hell doesn't look eighteen to me."
"There's only one way to find out." Striding forward, Brian approached the young man like a panther on the prowl. Justin watched the kid's eyes get bigger for an instant before the mask fell back into place.
Definitely hiding something, he thought. But what?
"Hey, kid," Brian said, one big hand landing on the lamppost right over the youth's head, "how old are you?"
The young man lifted his chin. "How old do I have to be?" he countered smoothly.
Brian's mouth curved in an appreciative smile. "Come here, Justin," he said. "We have ourselves a live one."
The boy's head turned in Justin's direction, and Justin was startled to see the look of recognition on the handsome face. "Justin Taylor?"
"Yeah," Justin answered warily.
The boy broke into a guileless grin which restored his youth. Holding out a hand, he said, "Harry Potter. I hoped I'd have a chance to meet you and compliment you on Rage."
Justin shook his hand warmly, then nodded toward Brian. "In that case, say 'hi' to Rage." He felt the heat of Brian's displeasure sear the top of his head. "Or rather his alter ego, Brian Kinney."
The kid – Harry – skewered Brian with his bottle-green gaze. "Merl – heavens. There is a resemblance, isn't there? Oh, I'm sorry. Pleased to meet you," he said, extending a hand.
Brian frowned at Harry's hand, but didn't take it. "Who the hell are you, Little Lord Fauntleroy?"
"No," the youth replied, "merely well-mannered."
"Two snaps," a voice behind them purred. Justin bit back a laugh.
"Emmett! Hello!" Harry exclaimed.
"Oh, you look edible. Spin for me," Emmett ordered. Harry spun obediently, the lamplight bringing out the chestnut highlights in his hair. "Very nice, very nice. Did I tell you Lars was a genius?"
Brian rolled his eyes as Michael approached with Ben in tow. "Jesus Christ, does everyone know this fucking twink?"
Justin watched Harry's face fall at Brian's words.
"Leave him alone," Justin said, giving Brian a slap on the arm. "You like twinks, remember?"
"Only certain ones," Brian returned, his gaze feral.
"You're the only people who know me here," Harry said, his voice so low Justin had to strain to hear it.
"Not the only one," Justin corrected. "There's somebody looking for you. Somebody from your school."
Harry closed his eyes briefly, and for an instant Justin thought the young man appeared to be older than all of them put together.
"Bollocks," the kid breathed. "I was hoping for a day or two, at least."
Justin dug in his pocket and fished out the hotel card, then handed it to Harry. "I met him today at the diner. He seemed pretty eager to get you back home."
"He?" Harry asked. Then he turned the card over, and his breath caught. "My God. This is Snape's writing. Snape is – here?" Those piercing green eyes lifted to Justin, searching for something. Justin had seen that look before.
In the mirror.
Hopeful. Desperate. Madly in love.
Shit. The guy had to be at least forty.
Not that he was one to talk.
"Yeah," Justin said, nodding. "That was his name. He really your professor?"
Harry's lips curved enigmatically. "Among other things."
Justin tried not to think about the implications of that statement. "Listen, I told him I'd just pass on the message to you, not that I'd help him drag you back to England. I did tell him he might find you at Babylon, though, so you might want to steer clear of it."
"But I heard it was the best place to go," the kid said, unable to hide his disappointment.
"It is," Brian confirmed. Justin was tempted to hit him again.
"Where are you all going?" Harry asked. Nobody answered. "Oh. Well, then – "
"Come with us," Justin blurted.
"What?" Brian spat.
"If he's there, we'll – help you." Justin searched the faces around him for allies. "Right, guys?"
"And how the hell are we supposed to do that?" Brian demanded. "I came out tonight for a little fun, not to cause an international fucking incident."
"There won't be an incident," Justin persisted. "Snape said he doesn't want the police involved."
"Great," Brian said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "That makes me feel so much better. And don't tell me – " he turned to Harry " – your professor just happens to be six-four, weighs in at two-eighty and is a professional wrestler during the summer holidays."
"He's pretty tall," Justin admitted, "but he's pale and skinny, about fortyish. Looks like he's been living in a dungeon his whole life." He laid a hand on Brian's arm. "I bet you could take him easy."
"Blow me," Brian snapped, though there was a definite sparkle in his eye.
"Maybe later," Justin whispered.
"Oh, dear," Harry was saying, his expression serious. "I hadn't thought of that." Justin raised questioning eyebrows at him. "Well, it's only that – he's tougher than he looks. I wouldn't want any of you to get hurt."
"Why?" Emmett asked. "He know kung fu?"
Harry's eyes took on a faraway cast. "Worse. Much worse."
"What the fuck is worse than kung fu?" Michael demanded. "What is he, some kind of superhero?"
Harry barked a laugh. "I suppose you could say that, yes. But then, I'm not without my – powers – either."
"Well, we don't have to worry about him, then," Justin said, hooking his left arm around Harry's waist and the right around Brian's, then steering them both toward the entrance to Babylon. "After all, what hope does one lousy Snape have against Rage, Zephyr, J.T. and Harry Potter?"
"So," Justin said conversationally, "how long have you been fucking Snape?"
The mouthful of beer Harry was swallowing went down the wrong way, and he began coughing uncontrollably. Justin helpfully whacked him on the back.
"You haven't, have you?"
Harry struggled to regain his voice. "I'm sorry, but I don't see how that's any of your business."
The blond man leaned back against the bar. "Then why did you make it sound like you two were lovers?"
Harry frowned. "I didn't – "
"'He's my teacher, among other things'?"
"Oh. Well." He'd honestly been referring to their work against Voldemort, but he couldn't exactly tell this man that. "I didn't mean it quite that way."
"Let me guess. You've got a crush on him, and he doesn't know you're alive."
"Oh, he knows I'm alive," Harry said, chuckling at Justin's choice of words. "He just doesn't want to shag me."
"I know it's none of my business, but I've been there." He nodded down the bar, where Brian and Michael were engaged in conversation.
"You got it. He fucked me when I was seventeen and told me I'd never forget him."
"And you haven't," Harry ventured.
"Nope," Justin said brightly. "It's a blessing and a curse, believe me. We're together, we're apart – " he grinned " – sometimes we're apart when we're together and together when we're apart. It's not healthy – fuck, he's not healthy. Men like Brian Kinney should come with a Surgeon General's warning."
"But you love him."
"Yeah. I even believe he loves me, though I might be deluding myself."
Harry took another sip of his beer. "If you could go back, would you do anything differently?"
"You mean, about Brian being my first?" Justin gazed into the crowd of writhing bodies on the dance floor while the music pounded around them. "No. Every time I try to imagine my life without him – Christ." The blond shook his head. "I can't. It's like asking me what I'd be without my art." He grinned evilly. "Or my cock."
He leaned in closer to Harry. "You probably don't want my advice, but I'll give it to you anyway. Don't go after this Snape, at least not until you've had a few experiences. Grope a few guys your own age. Get fucked. Have fun. Then, if you ever do get what you want, you won't be tied to him for the rest of your life."
Harry managed a thin smile. "You've obviously never heard of practicing what you preach."
"It's too late for me," Justin sighed, watching as Brian approached them. "I'm hooked." He didn't sound entirely unhappy about it, but Harry refrained from pointing this out.
Nor did Harry bother to mention that 'the rest of his life' might end up being considerably shorter than Justin might predict. That said, it followed logically that the fun and groping and fucking had best begin as soon as possible.
"Come on, Harry," Justin called, as Brian tugged him toward the dance floor. "Time to get your ass in gear."
Draining the last of his beer, Harry set the bottle down on the bar and moved to follow them.
He managed two steps before an iron vise gripped his arm and hauled him backwards. Stumbling, he collided with a hard, solid body. A body he'd memorized during hour upon endless hour of Apparition practice.
"Not so fast, Mister Potter," Snape growled in his ear. "What is the correct American expression? 'Your ass is mine,' I believe?"
~~ III ~~
Shit, shit, shit!
"Brian, wait. Harry's in trouble."
"That's his problem," Brian grumbled, still holding fast to Justin's arm.
Justin dug in his heels and pulled back, breaking Brian's grip. "I promised him I'd look out for him. You go ahead if you want."
Brian muttered an oath. Then he muttered a few more.
And then he followed.
When the time came, Harry thought he'd crumble like a stale biscuit under the force of Snape's personality.
He surprised two people when he heard himself retort, "I offered you my ass four months ago, and you didn't want it. Now, as the Americans say, 'it's up for grabs'."
Snape's hold on him tightened convulsively. "Idiot boy. What are you hoping to accomplish here in this Muggle backwater?"
"I thought that was patently obvious," Harry bit out. "There's a back room in this place that makes the late-night sessions in the Astronomy Tower look like a kindergarten class."
Without breaking contact, Snape whirled him around so that they were face to face. "If it's a casual buggering you're looking for, there are doubtless several dozen Hogwarts students who would be all too willing to perform the noble service for the Boy Who Lived. Choose one of them and get to it."
"That's the last thing I want: 'I Deflowered Harry Potter' on the cover of the Prophet. At least no one knows me here."
Snape sneered. "Yes, I'm sure the near-certainty of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease is a fair price to pay for anonymity."
Harry leaned in close, close enough to detect Snape's spicy scent. "I've got a pocketful of condoms. Don't worry about me." He chuckled at the expression of discomfort on his professor's face. "Besides, what the bloody hell does it matter? I could be dead by the summer. What's a dose of the clap or even AIDS on top of that?"
"Don't say that," Snape snapped. Harry frowned, startled by the heat in his tone. But when Snape spoke again, his voice had returned to his typical derisive lilt.
"Is that what this is all about, Potter? A childish display of self-pity?" Harry's jaw tightened, and Snape smirked. "The weight of responsibility pressing too heavily on those thin shoulders?" He jerked Harry closer and laid his mouth against the boy's ear.
"I knew you didn't have it in you," he crooned.
To Harry's horror, he felt his eyes filling with moisture. After all he'd done, for Snape to say that, even as a tactic, was unexpectedly painful. "You bastard," he hissed.
"Agreed," Snape said coolly.
"Leave him alone."
Harry twisted round in Snape's grasp, surprised to see both Brian and Justin standing directly behind him.
Snape straightened. "I suggest you refrain from interfering in matters of which you know nothing," he warned.
Brian stared at Snape for a split second, then burst out laughing. "It's like I've fallen between the pages of a fucking Dickens novel." His gaze swivelled to Harry. "You want to go with this guy?"
Fear of the sort of spells Snape might cast on his newfound friends rose up in him. "Brian, it's all – "
"I'm only going to ask one more time," Brian interrupted. "Do. You. Want. To. Go. With. This. Guy."
Harry took a deep breath. "Not particularly, no."
Brian cocked his head at Snape. "Then I suggest you tell him to take his hands off you before he regrets it."
"Mister Potter," Snape said smoothly, ignoring Brian, "I am sure you do not wish to be the cause of an – unpleasant incident."
"Merlin's balls," Harry swore under his breath. Yanking himself out of Snape's clutches, he hissed, "Let's not get into a pissing contest. You know as well as I that any obvious – activity – could bring about some unwanted attention from the wrong people."
Snape scowled, but finally inclined his head in acknowledgment.
"I'm only asking for a couple of bloody days. A week, at the most. Just a week to forget what's ahead and to forget who I am. Then I promise I'll come back, quiet as you please, and do whatever needs to be done." He glared at Snape pointedly. "As I've done since you've known me."
Snape pursed his lips. His coal-black eyes bored into Harry, then flickered over the two men standing behind him. "And you expect me to leave you in their tender care?"
Harry felt like wrapping his hands around the man's neck. Did he ever listen at all? "I can take care of myself. If you haven't figured that much out by now, I suppose you don't really know anything about me."
Snape's scowl did not abate, but finally he said, "Bear in mind that I detest ultimata nearly as much as I detest Americans, and you are forcing me to suffer both." He huffed out a breath. "Where are you staying?"
"I – haven't found a hotel yet," Harry stammered, completely stunned by Snape's apparent retreat.
"He'll be staying with me," Justin piped up. "You got something to write down the address?"
"No need," Snape said frostily. "I shall remember it."
Too surprised to comment, Harry's gaze bounced back and forth between the two men while Justin gave Snape the information.
Turning to Harry, Snape growled, "This discussion is not finished. I'll be waiting for you at the Liberty Diner. Tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp. Don't be late."
Harry frowned. "But – I thought you said – "
"If you insist on this course of action, I have no choice but to stay in this blasted city as well. Because whether or not either of us believes in your ability to 'take care of yourself', I have been appointed your nursemaid. And a good nursemaid cannot leave without her charge."
Turning on his heel, Snape swept out of the club. How he was able to accomplish such a grand gesture in Muggle clothing, Harry didn't know for sure.
After he was gone, Harry smiled at Justin and Brian. "Thank you. You really are superheroes, aren't you?"
Brian rolled his eyes, but Harry could tell he was pleased. To Justin, Harry said, "And I truly appreciate the offer, but I'm certain I can find a hotel."
Justin shook his blond head. "Nah. Save your money; you're going to need it to party."
"Honestly, I don't want to be any trouble to you."
"It's no trouble," Justin insisted, smiling suggestively at Brian. "I don't spend a lot of time at my place anyway. You'll like it – it's close to Liberty Avenue, and right around the corner from the diner, so you can sleep in." His smile grew wider. "Besides, I think I made your professor jealous."
"You're too generous," Harry murmured, blushing slightly in spite of himself. "Thank you."
Justin waved a hand and laughed. "Forget it. If you want to thank us, get out on the dance floor and show us what you've got."
Harry laughed. "I believe I can manage that."
Snape watched Harry from the catwalk high above the dance floor until the damned Muggle boots caused him to lose all feeling in his right foot.
The squirming mass of mostly-male flesh did nothing to excite his long-dormant sexual impulses. Despite the uptempo music and bright, flashing lights, there was a taint of desperation about the proceedings which reminded Snape unpleasantly of earlier times. Certainly, there were those who were simply out to enjoy and be enjoyed, but woven amongst them were the predators and the prey, constantly measuring themselves against invisible yardsticks and readjusting their status accordingly, almost moment by moment. It was the hideous uncertainty of it all which kept one constantly on edge, looking over one's shoulder.
He shivered involuntarily. Once, he had competed for Voldemort's affections in exactly that way.
He'd sensed that same uncertainty in the older of the two Americans – Brian, Harry had called him. Obviously, he and the young blond whom Snape had met at the diner were an item of sorts, though they both were equipped with a roving eye, so it was by no means an exclusive arrangement. This Brian was clearly a cock-of-the-walk, used to command and control; Snape could spot his kind in a heartbeat. But oddly enough, he and Harry traded off power easily, seemingly without even being aware of it. Despite their annoying interference, Snape had to admire the way the two men worked in concert to protect Harry from a perceived threat.
Snape was still not entirely convinced they had Harry's best interests at heart, but at least their questionable guardianship was an improvement over nothing at all. As much as Snape wanted to clandestinely watch over him every moment, he knew that any monitoring spell he might cast would be worse than painting a target on the infernal boy. This loose arrangement would have to do.
But while he danced, Snape would watch.
He had never spent any amount of time observing the gangly, pimple-faced dunderheads who dragged their partners around the Great Hall at the various Balls. No matter what might be whispered behind his back, he was no pedophile to hide behind a potted plant and toss off to visions of adolescent mating rituals. Besides, the pathetic excuse for dancing most of them practiced upon one another was about as graceful- -and as sexy – as a herd of elephants stampeding through the undergrowth.
The arse-pounding rhythm of the music in this fleshpot was not conducive to displays of grace, either, but after a few minutes Snape was unpleasantly aware that he was no longer observing his charge with complete disinterest. Whether Snape cared to admit it or not, Harry had matured since his sixteenth birthday, when the pace of the war had accelerated and he'd started down an even more difficult path than the one carved out for him as an infant. Discarding his place on the Quidditch team for intensive Defense Against the Dark Arts training, Harry had nevertheless maintained the muscle memory and flexibility of a Seeker; Snape had noted it on random occasions as the boy spun and dived, easily navigating the maelstrom of spells the older wizard would launch at him.
And if Snape had thought about that almost achingly beautiful fluidity, he'd thought of it only in terms of increasing Potter's chances of survival. At least that's what he told himself on the cold nights he wandered out to the Quidditch pitch to watch Potter pierce the sky with his body and his Firebolt, watch the boy with the burdens of a man loose his bonds for a brief span of time and remember what it was to soar.
But now, as he saw the boy utilise that liquid musculature to entice his fellow dancers, Snape could not help but be aware that Harry Potter was looking to get fucked.
It was maddening that the sodding Boy Who Lived – much as Snape reviled that term, he had to admit it had been well earned since the brat's birth – would choose to lavish that fine, supple body on an unworthy recipient. It was bad enough he had fixated on Snape as a perverse sort of love object; now he was seemingly determined to shag the first creature who showed him any interest. For a brief moment, Snape pictured the probable outcome in his head, in full colour and stereo sound.
Merlin. It was too hideous to even contemplate.
But if Potter wished to give himself to some vapid Muggle body-builder with a thin brain and a thick cock, who was Snape to tell him no? After all, in the wizarding world, as in the wider one, such matters were the sole concern of the participants once said participants reached the age of sixteen. And furthermore, as much as Snape wanted to deny Harry's despairing comment earlier, he knew it was all too likely that there would be a final reckoning with Voldemort soon. Whether or not Harry survived, did he not deserve this chance to escape responsibility, to experience pleasure and a simple connection with another human being for a short while?
And don't you? some long-dormant voice in his head asked him.
No. I don't.
"Hey. You're new around here."
With the manic beat sending fresh, new pulses sliding against his skin, making it jump and creep over his bones, Snape at first did not realize the man was speaking to him. It was only when he was nudged none-too-gently with a finger and the man smiled up at his scowling face that he clued in to the first chat-up line he'd received in over a decade.
Too bad it was such a poor excuse for one.
"Bugger off," Snape growled.
"Ooh, you're English," purred the man who, undaunted, moved closer. Snape gave him his iciest stare, but the idiot grin splitting the other's bland features widened even further at this.
One square hand reached up and trailed a finger down the lapel of Snape's black jacket. At this distance, Snape could smell the alcohol on his breath. Lovely.
"You, ah, want to run your Union Jack up my flagpole?"
Hecate's handmaidens. "I. Am. Not. Interested," Snape enunciated, pulling himself up to his full height and trying to appear as forbidding as possible.
"Your voice says no, but your obsidian eyes say yes," cooed the man.
That's not for you, you Muggle dimwit.
Abruptly, Snape spun back around.
Harry was gone.
"Shit!" Snape began to plow through the layers of gyrating men, but was stopped by a hand on his arm.
"Hold on, lover. We were just getting – "
The hand on Snape's arm became a claw. He picked the creature off his sleeve and carried it to the bar, where he dropped it surreptitiously in a bowl of pretzels.
"You'll be back searching for fresh prey in a few minutes. In the meantime," Snape said, a cruel twist of his lips mimicking a smile, "have a snack."
The crab snapped a pretzel in half, scattering salty shards in all directions.
"The kitchen isn't much, but it's got everything you might need. Instant coffee's up here, with the mugs. Utensils are in this drawer. Anything you don't find, just go ahead and hunt for it."
Harry stood quietly at the entrance to the galley kitchen. "Thanks." He paused. "Well, I know you want to be getting back to Brian, so..."
The blond man shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Does him good to wait now and then."
Harry looked away. "I, ah, I wish I could adequately thank you for – "
"Hey," Justin murmured, laying a hand on Harry's shoulder, "don't start with that again." He searched Harry's face. "Listen, you're not mad at me, are you?"
Harry kept his gaze averted. "Why would I be mad?"
Justin rolled his eyes. "God, you remind me of me. Come here and sit down." Tugging on Harry's sleeve, he directed him toward the couch.
As they sat, the blond turned sympathetic eyes on Harry. "We could've stayed there all night, but you weren't going to go for any of those guys. I could tell."
"I hadn't seen anyone attractive enough yet."
Justin chuckled. "Your definitions of 'attractive' must be a hell of a lot different than mine, then, because you had about six offers – "
" – seven – "
" – seven, and not one of them was anything less than a stud."
Harry opened his mouth, then closed it.
"So the obvious conclusion was, no matter what you might say, you are not looking for a simple fuck."
Harry sighed and tipped his head back against the cushions. "I wish I could be. But you're right. I'm not – built that way."
"And you're already committed."
Harry barked a laugh. "Purely one-sided, but right again, I'm afraid."
"I don't know if it's completely one-sided." Harry frowned and turned to look at Justin. "He didn't leave the club, you know. He was watching you from the catwalk."
Harry eyes widened in shock. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't want you getting your hopes up. It might not mean anything."
Harry's face fell. "Probably not. Dumble – the Headmaster tasked him with being my 'nursemaid', and whatever else Snape may be, he is an honourable man."
Justin studied him. "This guy is more than your teacher, isn't he?"
Harry's stomach lurched. Had he inadvertently given anything away? "How do you come to that conclusion?"
The blond shrugged. "I don't know. The way the two of you interacted. It wasn't the way I usually talked to my teachers – " Justin's lips thinned grimly " – but then most of my teachers were homophobic assholes."
"That's not Snape's problem."
"No. But it's more than that. You told him you could take care of yourself, and on some level he accepted that. There was a...history between you that led him to believe you."
Damn his sensitivity. Striving for a casual tone, Harry said, "He's been my teacher since I was eleven. That's the only history between us."
"Since you were eleven?" Justin stuck out his tongue. "No wonder he doesn't want to fuck you. That's – eww."
Harry punched him on the arm.
"I've been thinking," Justin said, leaning closer. "Isn't there someone at your school you might want to date? One of the other students? If a relationship is what you're looking for – "
Harry shook his head. "It's – complicated." He debated with himself for a split second, then plunged ahead. "Where I come from, I'm somewhat – famous. Not for anything I did, but for – other reasons. And so my personal life, what I feel, what I think, what I do, has always been open to scrutiny."
Justin's brows lowered. "So you're afraid of people finding out that you're gay?"
"No. But it's not easy to separate those who want me for me from those who only want me because they can boast about having – had me."
"Oh. Yeah. I can imagine that would be a problem."
"So you can see why I want to get it over with. Only it's not as simple as I had hoped it would be."
Justin patted Harry's shoulder reassuringly. "It shouldn't be like that anyway. It should be special – I don't care what some people say." He took a deep breath, let it out. "That's what I was looking for that first night with Brian – to get it over with. I'd heard about Liberty Avenue, and I wasn't sure if I was ready for what I'd find there, but I knew I couldn't live this half-life anymore, sitting in the fucking wings waiting for something to happen. But the first time I saw him, I knew. Don't ask me how. I knew it wasn't going to be meaningless. Because it isn't; it shouldn't be."
Harry sighed. "I know. I know that. But I don't have the luxury of time."
Justin cocked his head. "Why not?" When Harry didn't answer right away, he gasped. "My God, you're not – sick?"
Oh, bollocks. Well, he'd done it now; there was no way out of this one. "Not exactly. Although you might say I have a – life-threatening condition. It's possible I could die, but then again, I may make a full recovery. I can't say any more than that."
"Jesus, Harry," Justin murmured. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't be. I'm not the only person who's in danger."
Harry nodded. "He's one of the people at greatest risk." He gave Justin a wan smile. "But we're not beaten yet. Not by a longshot."
Suddenly, he felt exhausted. He yawned expansively, barely remembering to cover it with the back of his hand. "Sorry."
"'S'okay. I should get going anyway." Justin's hand rose to stroke Harry's hair gently. "You going to be alright for tonight?"
"I think so."
The blond man nodded, and made to stand, but Harry stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Justin?"
"I know you're tired of hearing it, but thank you. For everything."
Justin beamed. "You're welcome," he murmured, leaning in to kiss Harry lightly on the mouth.
When he drew back, Harry stared at him for a moment.
Then he laced his arms around Justin's neck and kissed him back.
~~ IV ~~
"You insensitive prick! Quit laughing!"
Brian sagged back on the bed and wiped at his eyes. "I'm not laughing at the kid. I'm laughing at you."
"I don't see how any of it was very damned funny," Justin snapped.
"Ironic, then. Pardon me if I find it a little bit satisfying that you ended up on the receiving end for a change."
Brian rolled on top of Justin, pinning his arms at his sides before he could mount a counter- attack. "Of adolescent hormones." He bit Justin's shoulder. "Of an annoying teenage crush."
"He's known me six hours. I don't think that's enough time to develop a crush."
"It was enough for you."
"Only because you fucked me."
Brian raised his eyebrows. "Are you telling me you didn't fuck him?"
"Of course not!" Justin tried to dislodge Brian from his position, but only succeeded in grinding their bodies together. "Christ, would you let me breathe?"
"Why didn't you?"
"Because he was feeling lonely, and vulnerable, and – "
"And so you rejected him and left him alone."
"Yes! No! Look, it wouldn't have been right to take advantage of him. We had a long talk, and he understood that, too."
Brian stared down at Justin until he felt he might disintegrate under the weight of it. "I beg to differ. I think it would have been the kindest thing you could've done for him."
Justin frowned. "What do you mean?"
Growling, Brian pushed himself up and off Justin's body. "I shouldn't have to explain it to you."
Justin sat up. "Well, let's pretend you do," he retorted.
Brian rose to his feet and padded to the kitchen. Pulling open the fridge, he grabbed a bottle of water and began to drink it, watching Justin all the while.
Finally, Justin's patience frayed beyond repair. "Dammit, Brian – "
"You want to know why?" Brian exploded. "Because if it isn't you, it'll be that son of a bitch we met tonight. And getting tangled up with him is the worst thing that could happen. At least with you, he'll know he's important."
Justin gaped. "Brian, that guy is you in ten years."
Brian took another swig of water. "Exactly," he said, his voice dangerously calm.
The blond closed his eyes briefly, then patted the mattress. "Come back to bed," he murmured.
Brian huffed out a breath, but he complied. And later, when his cock was buried deep in Justin's body, Justin pulled him close and whispered:
"You always made me feel important, when we were like this. Always."
And Brian clenched his jaw and ground his teeth but still couldn't hold back the anguished groan as he came, hard and fast and surprising as hell.
"You look like twenty pounds of shit in a ten-pound bag."
Snape opened one eye and felt the sunlight enter his pupil and pierce his brain. "What a charming colloquialism. More coffee."
The red-headed waitress smirked unpleasantly. "What? You don't want your teapot?"
Snape glared. Even that hurt.
Her expression turned serious as she poured. "Didn't find him, huh?"
"On the contrary. He will be meeting me here this morning." Or I will tear this bloody city apart brick by wretched brick until I find him. Then I will cast Imperius and drag his round little arse home. Azkaban will be heaven after Pittsburgh.
"Then how come you look like you were up all night?"
"Because I was!" Snape spat. "I lost track of him and ended up searching every bathroom, bar and back alley trying to locate the brat again."
"Why didn't you stop by Justin's? I went there directly I left Babylon."
Snape attempted to turn his head quickly, but soon realised this was an excruciatingly painful mistake. Suppressing an undignified whine, he gestured at the opposite bench. "Sit, Potter."
Over his head, he heard the waitress and Potter introducing themselves. Debbie. He should have remembered, but the steel spike currently driving through his corpus callosum must have affected his memory centre.
"You look like – "
"Spare me," Snape bit out. "I've already been most aptly described by better poets than you." He raised an eyebrow, which protested the harsh treatment. "Well?"
"Well what?" Harry said calmly.
"You know perfectly well what 'well' means."
Harry took a sip of his coffee. "You are tired. That sentence is beneath you."
Snape tried to keep his breathing even. "If you must know, I have a monstrous headache."
"Would you like me to fetch you some paracetamol? They always work for me."
Snape snorted. "The day I ingest a Muggle remedy is the day I accept a position as Lucius Malfoy's House Elf."
Harry regarded him over the rim of his coffee cup. "Did you bring anything with you?"
Snape shifted in his seat. "I didn't think I would be here more than a few hours. Had I known you planned to spend the week shagging every willing man in Pittsburgh, I would have brought along a cauldron and a representative sampling from my Potions cupboard."
One corner of Harry's mouth lifted. "I'm sure the Sheraton staff are grateful you will not be brewing a Draught of Living Death in one of their suites."
"Potter – "
"I didn't, you know." He studied the tabletop. "Shag. Get shagged. Whatever."
Snape struggled to keep his mask from slipping. "And what, exactly, led you to believe that I care?"
Harry's head snapped up. "Isn't that what this is all about?" he demanded. "Will you not insist that I meet you every morning and give you a – how shall I put it – a 'blow by blow' account of myself?"
"Don't be vulgar."
"Why did you watch me last night?"
Snape's brain screamed in its efforts to follow the changes in subject. "Because that is my bloody job."
Harry leaned in. "Did you like what you saw?"
Oh, blast and damnation.
"I don't know what you mean," Snape ground out.
"Did you like watching me dance? Did you enjoy it?"
Snape settled back against the vinyl bench. "Those questions do not even merit a response."
Harry smirked. "Silly of me to expect you to admit it, wasn't it?" He regarded Snape steadily. "Last night I lay awake concocting dozens of romantic scenarios for us – here, on the street, in your hotel room, even back at Hogwarts – but they're not going to come true. They never will. And I don't want to spend what may be my last few moments on Earth mired in fantasies. I want to experience something real."
"A noble goal, on the surface. But dig deeper and your noble pursuit of reality is revealed as simple, sordid lust, and not worth pursuing considering the risk involved."
"What do you suggest I do, then?" Harry said quietly.
"Return to reality, as you suggest: the only reality that matters. Ours."
Harry set his jaw stubbornly. "I want my week, and I'm going to have it. If I'm going to die – "
"You're not going to die, boy," Snape hissed, his brain pounding with every beat of his heart. "I trained you too well."
The dark slashes of Harry's eyebrows quirked. "I was too good a student, you mean."
Snape pursed his lips.
Harry sighed. "But you and I both know that for all our ability and training – as formidable as they might be – it's possible they won't be enough." He cocked his head. "Don't you have any desires, Snape? Any experiences you wanted to have, but didn't? I mean, if you should – " Harry trailed off, gesturing with a hand.
Snape sneered. "Die?"
The boy's expression grew stricken, as though, for an instant, he had seen Snape lying broken at his feet. Snape hid his surprise with effort. "Yes. If you believed you were going to die, and you could have anything, do anything, what would you wish for?"
Harry frowned. "Is there truly nothing you want? Or is it that you don't wish to tell me?"
"There is nothing I want, because wanting is an exercise in futility. To wish for something one can never reasonably expect to have is nothing more than mental masturbation."
Harry shook his head. "I don't agree. Wanting that which seems unattainable is human. It's also sometimes futile, but without dreams, we may as well be dead already."
"What a lovely sentiment," Snape drawled. "Did you find that on a Muggle greeting card?"
Harry watched him until Snape was fighting the urge to squirm. "What keeps you alive, then?" he asked finally.
Snape blinked, unable to hide his astonishment this time. "Pardon me?"
Harry set down his cup. "Why are you still breathing, and brewing Potions, and scaring the shite out of first years, and fighting Voldemort?"
Snape's pulse sped up. "That's none of your – "
"Is it a form of penance?" the brat persisted. "Training me, passing on what you know, saving as many lives as you can – is it a way of atoning for the sins of the past? Of buying your ticket into Heaven?"
Snape schooled his voice to silken calm. It wasn't easy. "That ticket, had it ever existed, was burned to cinders before you were born."
He leaned in even closer. "Then what motivates you? What keeps your heart beating in your chest, Professor Snape?"
Snape narrowed his eyes. "Force of habit," he muttered.
Harry shook his head. "I don't believe that's all there is to you."
"Believe what you will," Snape said. "But don't impose your romantic notions of life's purpose on me. Some of us navigate through this world without ideals, or principles, or grand notions of true love, and are none the poorer for it."
"And you're one of them."
"That is correct."
Harry leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Then why aren't you still a Death Eater?"
Snape opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. Just as well, probably, for Harry didn't seem to be awaiting an answer. He rose from the table, and looked down at Snape.
"Same time tomorrow, then?"
"Where do you think you're going?"
Harry smiled. "Don't worry. I'll not be trolling the alleys – today. I was going to visit the Gay and Lesbian Centre, then do a bit more shopping. I'd also planned to cook dinner for Justin to thank him for putting me up in his flat."
"And tonight?" Snape asked, hating the slight waver in his tone.
Harry shrugged. "Woody's, or Babylon, I suppose. I don't know. Or maybe an early night. I've a lot of thinking to do."
"Hey, sweetie, you're not staying for breakfast?" The blasted waitress chose that moment to reappear with a pad and feather-topped pencil.
"No thank you, Debbie; I've already eaten." Fishing in his pocket, Harry dug out a few dollars and pressed them into her hand. "I believe this will cover the coffee."
Debbie stared at the notes. "It'll buy you ten coffees. Let me get your change."
"No, that's all right. Only – do you have any headache remedies?"
"We've got some travel size Tylenol behind the counter."
"Wonderful. If you would apply some of the remainder toward a package for Professor Snape, I'd be grateful." Turning back to Snape, he said sweetly, "I don't want to cause him any pain – if I can help it."
Snape would have growled if he could have been sure his skull wouldn't explode as a result.
"You're a wizard!"
Harry snapped his head round so fast it nearly toppled off his neck. "Wh-what?"
Justin set down his portfolio case and gestured at the tiny table that served as his dining suite. Thanks to Harry, it was laden with aromatic dishes of rice, curried vegetables and bread, and topped off by a pair of elegant candles. "How did you make such an amazing dinner in my shitty little kitchen?"
"Oh," Harry breathed, trying to keep from sagging with relief. "I've done a lot of cooking in my day. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, who treated me rather as their charwoman."
Justin stared at him. "You're kidding me."
Harry shrugged. "At least I gained some useful skills. I can make sheek kebab better than anyone I know."
"God," Justin sighed, leaning over one of the steaming bowls and inhaling, "are you sure you wouldn't like to stick around longer than a week?"
Harry smiled. "Not a chance. I'd never be sure if you wanted me for my body or for my culinary expertise."
Justin looked up, and his face fell. "Harry, I, ah – oh, hell."
"What is it?"
The blond man straightened and approached him. "I wanted to – apologize for last night."
Harry shook his head vehemently. "There's no need."
"No, I was wrong. I shouldn't have walked out on you like that."
Harry gripped Justin by the shoulders and resisted the urge to shake him. "Listen to me. I was being foolish, and I know it. I wasn't hurt by anything you did, honestly." Releasing him, Harry smiled. "Besides, you made me realise something."
"Well, let's put it this way. I don't want you."
Justin barked a laugh. "Gee, thanks a fucking lot."
"I'm not finished!" Harry exclaimed, grinning. "I did want you last night – that was pretty bloody obvious, I believe. You're sweet, and kind, and damned gorgeous; why would I not? But after we talked, I knew it would have been a mistake, and I'm grateful to you for stopping things before they went too far." Harry sighed as he took the kebabs out of the oven and arranged them on plates. "Because the awful truth is, no matter what you might advise, no matter how much I want it to be different, I don't want anyone but him. It's unbelievably aggravating, but there's nothing I can do about it."
"Yeah, that's what I was planning to tell you. But I'm not surprised you figured it out. You know a lot more about yourself than I did at your age." Justin smiled ruefully as he walked to the fridge for a couple of beers. "So, what are we going to do about getting you what you want?"
Harry stared at him. "You mean – you want to help me with Snape?"
Justin took one of the plates from Harry and handed him a bottle. "Sure. I'm Pittsburgh's leading expert in winning the hearts and pricks of older men who think they want to be left alone."
Harry sat and began spooning rice onto his plate. "I don't know. Snape isn't exactly Brian."
"They're more alike than you think. Let's face it, when you get them naked, all men are the same. Same needs, same desires."
"Snape told me he doesn't have any desires," scoffed Harry.
"Then Snape is full of shit." Justin speared a piece of curried cauliflower and gestured at Harry with it. "The only problem will be getting him to admit to them."
Harry couldn't help but grin at Justin's enthusiasm. "And how do you hope to accomplish that?"
"I'm glad you asked. Picture if you will – a war waged on two fronts."
Harry lifted an eyebrow. "Psychological warfare?"
The blond man's smile turned evil. "Psychological – and biological."
Harry took a long sip of his beer. "Good. For this campaign, we'll need all of the weapons we can get."
Woody's was marginally less objectionable than Babylon had been, but it was still one of the last places Snape would have chosen to spend his evening. At least the atmosphere here was more relaxed, the arrangement similar to that of an English pub. A good percentage of the floor space was taken up by pool tables, one of which was currently being used by Harry and a gaggle of his newfound friends.
As for Snape, he maintained a discreet distance, sitting primly at the bar nursing a single malt. At least the publican had assured him it was single malt, but Snape was fairly convinced it had been cut with some of that disgusting American bourbon. Only the Yanks would think to name an alcoholic beverage "Wild Turkey." Pathetic.
He and Harry had acknowledged each other with nods when Snape first came in, but no words had been exchanged then, or since. Snape noticed the boy had discarded his stylish garb of last night in favour of a more casual ensemble – coal-black jeans and a white sleeveless t-shirt. Idly, Snape wondered if his penchant for form-fitting attire was a reaction to being forced to wear his cousin's outsized hand-me-downs all those years. If so, it was a reaction of Thermidorean proportions, for the shirt – what little there was of it – was stretched alarmingly tight, outlining every dip and curve of muscle and bone, and the dark denim covering his legs, buttocks and groin left no room for questions. Or modesty.
Lifting his gaze abruptly, it occurred to Snape that Harry's bared arms were quite a bit more developed than they'd been last summer, when Snape had seen them last. Of course, it wasn't surprising, considering the punishing regimen of physical training Sirius Black had instituted for all Aurors. Snape himself had added just under a stone of muscle mass in the past year, no mean feat for a man of forty-one.
Not that he was boasting.
The boy's skin, he noted, was still milk-pale, testament to a long Scottish winter. However, there was a slight flush riding the tops of his shoulders, the ridge of his collarbone and the back of his neck, as though he'd spent the day soaking up the spring sunshine, without heed to the dangers of ultraviolet rays. Snape wondered if the skin would freckle with prolonged exposure, or if it would acquire an even, golden tan –
"Buy you another, sailor?"
Oh, Lord. Not again. Snape turned slowly toward the sound of the voice, intending to let fly with a low- level, briefly crippling hex. He took in the shoulder-length wig, the sequined dress, and the heavy makeup –
– Bloody hell.
"It's Marilyn now, but you're right as always." The man pulled Snape into a bear hug. "Severus darling, it's been a dog's age."
"More like two or three," Snape replied, flabbergasted. "I haven't seen you since Oxford."
"You still look the same. Dungeon living agrees with you. Preserves that perfect complexion."
Snape frowned and inclined his head at the publican, who was standing no more than a couple of feet away. Ian – Marilyn – waved a heavily beringed hand.
"Don't worry about it. They never believe anything I say. So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?"
"I'm babysitting," he drawled.
"Ah, yes, the illustrious Harry Potter." Marilyn fluttered his fake eyelashes in the direction of the men gathered round the pool table. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, Snape watched Harry bend over the table, cue held easily between his fingers like an oversized wand, jeans pulled tight across his –
"Who knew he'd grow up to be such a dreamboat?" Marilyn observed.
"Don't be revolting," Snape said. "He's hardly grown up."
Marilyn lifted a plucked eyebrow at him. "I'd say anyone who's faced You-Know-Who as many times as he has is entitled to be considered an adult."
Snape downed the last of his scotch. "What in the name of the nine hells are you doing in Pittsburgh, Ian?"
Marilyn called the bartender over and ordered another round for them both, then turned back to Snape. "I'm living, Severus. 'Mysterious Marilyn' knows all, sees all, tells all. Ten bucks gets you a peek into your future. Twenty? A kick-ass tarot reading. Fifty and your dead grandmother will return from the grave and forgive you for being a faggot."
Snape tried to keep the distaste from his expression, but obviously wasn't entirely successful, because Marilyn shrugged his footballer's shoulders.
"Fuck it. It's a job. On the side, I do some work for the CWA – the Central Wizarding Agency – over here. Strictly hush-hush, of course."
Snape snorted. "Does the American version house as impressive a collection of arseholes as the Ministry?"
"Pretty much. Government – it's the same everywhere." The publican delivered their drinks, and Marilyn took a delicate sip of his daiquiri. "I could've gone further with my degree, I know."
Snape studied his scotch. "You were the best Divination student Oxford had seen in a generation."
Marilyn chuckled. "Thanks. But the sad fact is, whether in our world or theirs, there isn't a whole hell of a lot of opportunity for a drag queen, magna cum laude or not." He raised his glass in mock-salute. "So a no-talent cunt like Sybil Trelawney gets a plum position at Hogwarts, and I read palms out of a fifth- floor walkup."
Snape pursed his lips. "At least you've avoided the worst of the war."
Marilyn regarded him sadly. "That might not be for much longer."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, he may not be satisfied with England. Or Europe."
Snape's jaw clenched. "We're going to stop him. We have to."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"All right," Snape growled. "Out with it. Now."
Marilyn nodded toward Harry. "You won't defeat Voldemort without him."
Snape wasn't sure how long he sat there, listening to the blood roar through him faster than the Hogwarts Express. Finally, he managed to croak, "How?"
Marilyn frowned. "It's too big and too close. By the time I knew Harry was on his way here, it was too late for me to see the event accurately."
Snape concentrated on drawing one breath after another. "But he's in danger."
"Yes," said Marilyn, laying a comforting hand on his arm. "But it's not decided yet, Severus. There may still be time."
"Time for what, dammit? You don't know what's going to happen!" He made a move to stand. "I have to get him home. Now."
Marilyn's grip tightened, holding Snape in place. "That's not the answer."
"Then what?" Snape bit out.
"All I saw," Marilyn said quietly, "was that he was barefoot, and in tears. And he was running away."
"No, darling boy," Marilyn murmured. "From you."
Snape closed his eyes. "Fuck."
Marilyn patted his arm before releasing him. "I suspect that might have something to do with it, yes."
~~ V ~~
Harry twirled the pool cue between his fingers, wishing he hadn't left his wand back at Justin's. He wanted the calming energy of it to centre him, to reassure him.
Fuck it. He wanted it so that he could hex Snape into next week.
"He's not paying me any mind at all," he murmured as Justin walked by, looking for a better angle for his shot.
Justin chuckled. "You're blind. He's very aware of you, even if he's not always looking at you. I can tell."
Brian approached them from behind. "I thought you two were up to something. What the fuck is going on?"
"Don't worry your pretty head about it," said Justin, grinning. When he bent over to take the shot, Brian pinched him viciously on the arse.
Brian leaned over Justin and rasped in his ear. "Don't tell me what to worry about. Are you encouraging this little twink?"
"He's entitled to go after any old bastard he wants," the blond said, undaunted. "After all, I did."
"And now you're lending your vast experience to the challenge. Wonderful."
Emmett regarded Brian with raised brows. "May I remind you you're not exactly in a position to judge?" Brian glared at him, but said nothing.
"It doesn't bloody matter anyway," said Harry morosely. "I could strip naked and grease myself down with Glamour Potion and he'd never notice."
"What's that?" Emmett enquired. "Some kind of new cosmetic?"
Shit. He had to stop thinking with his dick before he gave away the whole show. Hastily, he answered, "Yeah – it's, ah, glittery stuff. Makes you look irresistible."
"Sold American," Emmett crowed, laughing.
"Well," Justin said, sinking the eight ball with ease and setting his cue in the rack, "there's one other surefire way to get him going. And we're in the wrong place for it." Taking Harry's hand, he led him toward the door.
Harry did not look back to see if Snape was following.
Snape was in Hell, and its name was Babylon.
It was difficult to scan the crowd for danger and keep one eye on Harry at the same time, but he managed it. Of course, his previous vantage point on the catwalk was too distant for his purpose. Whatever happened now, there was no doubt in his mind that Harry's safety rested on Snape's ability to stay close to him.
Now, if only he could convince himself to follow through on it. He had a half-formed plan in his mind, but even to his unscrupulous mind, it was undeniably distasteful. Moreover, when he played out the scenario to each of its many possible conclusions, there was always a bad ending to it – at least as far as Snape was concerned. He saw himself in Azkaban. Or he saw himself slain by Voldemort whilst trying to save Harry from Marilyn's prediction. And in the ultimate ironic twist, he saw himself a spreading stain on the front steps of Hogwarts after Dumbledore found out what his Potions Master had gotten up to in the Colonies.
But no matter which ending he predicted for himself, Harry survived. And ultimately, his well-being was all that mattered.
And his happiness?
Well, thought Snape. He was bound to find out that was all bollocks sooner or later. At least this way, he gets a few days. And after that, he'll be safe at home.
Of course, this all presupposes I know how to make anyone happy.
Snape decided that a perch halfway up the stairs would be ideal, allowing him to remain near the boy, yet stay off the dance floor. The dynamic duo of Brian and Justin had retreated to the catwalk, but a couple of the other men from Woody's were dancing in a loose circle with Harry and some younger, well-muscled specimens Snape didn't recognize. As he watched, two of the unfamiliar ones broke out of the pattern and began dancing closer and closer to Harry, as though he were a star possessed of a particularly dense gravity.
If only they knew, Snape mused. But perhaps in some ways they did; it wasn't the first time Snape had observed the phenomenon of Muggles being irresistibly drawn to a witch or wizard in their midst. In fact, he'd even been the wizard in question on a couple of occasions. Muggles were in general a dull, lifeless lot, but they did exhibit an unconscious awareness of magical phenomena on occasion. And with someone of Potter's raw strength, it was surprising half the men in the bloody club weren't plastered up against him just as those two were.
Snape peered through the haze. Yes. Plastered was definitely the correct term.
Also humping. And grinding.
And unless Snape's eyes were failing him in his old age, Harry was doing some humping and grinding of his own.
Snape's feet moved of their own volition, carrying him down the stairs and into the thick of the gyrating crowd. As he drew nearer to the threesome, he could see that Harry's shirt had disappeared, revealing a smooth, hard chest with dark nipples. His skin was covered in a fine sheen of sweat; Snape wondered if all of it belonged to him and decided he didn't want to know. Strands of his unruly hair clung to his forehead and temples, giving him the appearance of a wild woodland faun. Snape half expected to see a pair of short horns protruding from his skull.
He didn't belong here, among these mundane creatures. He streaked like a comet across their vast, black cosmos, illuminating everything in his wake. That kind of beauty should only be seen by deserving eyes, and despite the boy's romantic notions of him, Snape was no fool. He knew that he had no more right to bask in Potter's light than the denizens of this underworld.
But the inescapable fact remained that Harry had chosen him. And were it in his power to fight it, Snape would not allow that comet's path to be intercepted, for that light to be snuffed from the heavens as easily as a candle.
He stopped approximately ten feet away from the dancers and waited as Harry's eyes opened and his head turned in Snape's direction. When those jade-green orbs were brought to bear on Snape, he knew he was lost. Lost as surely as he had been the day he took the Dark Mark.
But now, as then, he knew it was his choice to become so.
Snape's mouth was forming words, and although Harry could not tell what the words were, he most certainly knew their purpose.
He knew because the air around him became charged with magic – on a low enough level that it would escape notice, but still powerful. The two men rubbing intimately against his back and chest respectively were slowly peeled away from him, as surely as one pried the covering from an orange. He felt the chill against his sweat-soaked skin as they moved further and further from him, their expressions registering the horrified knowledge that their bodies were no longer obeying them.
Luckily, they were the only ones among the crowd who noticed the strange phenomenon. The only ones save Harry, who was watching Snape like a hawk as Snape approached him. At the last moment, Harry turned away and swivelled his hips in such a fashion that his arse brushed feather-light against Snape's groin. The magical energy crackled between them, then dissipated swiftly as Snape murmured a Finite Incantatem.
"Mister Potter," he rasped in Harry's ear, "I have matters to discuss with you."
Harry tilted his head back until it rested against Snape's shoulder. "What kind of matters?" he asked, his body undulating in time with the music. Slowly, his arms reached up and around Snape's neck. He could feel the other wizard's hot breath against the side of his face, sending delicious shivers over his skin.
Snape's nose touched Harry's cheek. "This position is not conducive to conversation."
Sighing, Harry released Snape and turned to face him. "Then dance with me."
Snape's lip curled. "To this noise? I think not."
"Too fast for you?" teased Harry.
Daring greatly, Harry placed his hands on Snape's narrow hips and dug in with his fingers. "Then show me what you've got."
Suddenly, Harry's head was being held between two exquisite, long-fingered hands, while a cruel, harsh mouth hovered scant millimetres from Harry's own.
"If I should choose tonight to 'show you what I've got', Mister Potter," Snape purred, "you may rest assured that it will be in a much more...private...place." Harry's eyes lost their focus as Snape's thumbs ghosted over Harry's lips in a rhythmic motion perfectly timed to the thump of the music and the beating of Harry's heart.
"Please – " he heard himself beg. God. He promised himself he wouldn't.
"Please what?" Snape drawled, smiling evilly.
Harry took a deep breath and summoned all of his fraying will power.
Then he turned his head slightly and sucked Snape's right thumb into his mouth.
He couldn't hear the gasp over the sound of the music, but he could see Snape's lips part slightly in startlement.
Harry opened his mouth wide enough for Snape to see what he was doing; then he darted out his pink tongue and twirled it around the tip. Once. Twice. Again.
Snape closed his eyes. His hands dropped bonelessly to his sides.
Harry's fingers tightened on Snape's torso as he pulled himself closer.
"Then let's find a bloody private place," Harry breathed in his ear. "And quickly."
Snape should have been prepared, all things considered.
But he was nevertheless caught off guard when, the moment the two of them had Apparated to Snape's hotel suite, Harry Potter wound his arms around Snape's neck and stuck his tongue down his throat.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of his memory, Snape recalled having been that randy in his teenage years. Of course, it would have been prior to the taking of the Dark Mark, because in the aftermath of that ritual, every ounce of energy his young body possessed was placed in the service of Voldemort. But before the death of his innocence, Snape could remember sitting in one class or another and wanting to shag every remotely eligible being in sight.
That had to be the explanation for Harry as well, he reasoned, trying to maintain a clinical detachment as the boy proved himself to be a very talented kisser indeed. He wasn't the least bit sloppy, merely rough and enthusiastic and terribly, achingly sweet, in a way Snape believed he had never experienced –
Harry pulled back slightly, giving Snape a chance to catch his breath, but as he tried to take back control, the brat nipped his lower lip, then soothed it by sucking it into his mouth. Before the exquisite sensation could wrest a moan from Snape's throat, Harry drew away to trail kisses over his chin, jaw and neck. Snape was annoyed when his own head tilted to one side, as if to invite unrestricted access.
God. He was baring his throat like a virgin sacrifice to a vampire, all for the amorous ministrations of an eighteen-year-old. What the hell –
"Potter." His hands scrabbled for purchase on the boy's shoulders. "Potter."
Green eyes set in a flushed face focused on him. Then the boy smiled, calling attention to his kiss-swollen lips. "Feel free to call me Harry," he said. The sandpaper rasp of his voice went straight to Snape's groin.
"Very well," Snape said, willing to concede that much, aware he was walking a very thin and dangerous line. "Harry." Still holding the boy's shoulders, he stepped back slightly, out of the immediate range of temptation. "We have to – discuss – this."
Harry regarded him steadily for a few seconds, during which Snape attempted to maintain his best neutral expression.
He must have been at least moderately successful, for eventually Harry sighed and walked over to the small sitting area, where he flopped onto the couch with a resigned air. "Should've known it wouldn't be as easy as all that," he said with a hollow chuckle.
Snape hesitated for a moment, then moved to join him, taking care to avoid touching him. "You must understand this is not a simple situation."
Harry threw his arm over the back rest, but made no move to touch Snape either. "No, you're right. It's about as bloody complicated as it gets, on the surface. But doesn't our 'situation' – the war, Voldemort, the threat of imminent death – doesn't that tend to simplify things as well?"
Snape pursed his lips. "I suppose you would argue that the normal conventions which hold society together need no longer apply in these desperate times?"
Harry actually laughed. "Well, don't hold back, Snape. Tell me how you really feel."
Snape sprang to his feet and stalked over to the windows. This was impossible. Prophecy or no, the boy's consent or no, he couldn't bring himself to do this. It was beyond reprehensible.
He pushed aside the heavy curtains and peered into the blackness. Rain was beginning to fall on the city, scouring the grime and pollution from the air, cleaning the dirt and garbage and blood off the sidewalks and streets –
"This isn't about social conventions, though, is it?"
Snape jerked at the sound of Harry's voice right behind him. How long had he been standing there?
A tentative, soothing touch on his upper arm, and he jerked again. Merlin.
"Well, not completely, at least," Harry was saying. "I know you have some ethical concerns because I'm a student. But I've also been working alongside you for over a year now, and I know you respect me as an Auror, even though you enjoy telling me how much I still have to learn." The hand on Snape's arm began stroking slowly. "But I don't believe this is about our relationship, or how you see me. It's about how you see yourself."
Snape continued to stare out the window. In the office building across the street, he could see a Muggle in dark overalls wiping down a desk with a large white cloth. No, it wasn't white, but an ugly shade of grey, stained from use after use after –
"I wish I could convince you you're worthy of being loved," Harry whispered.
The quiet words were like a knife, slicing through layers of flesh and bone to release something long trapped at the centre of him. For a brief instant, a feeling he'd forgotten flared white-hot, then died, leaving ashes in its wake. Twisting round to face the boy, he hissed, "Stop spouting this romantic nonsense immediately."
It occurred to Snape belatedly that instead of countering Marilyn's prophecy, he seemed to be actively working to fulfil it. But Harry stood his ground. "It's not romantic nonsense. It's the truth, and you know it."
"You have no idea what I did, boy. What I was, what I in many ways still am. For all you know, I could have been responsible for the deaths of your parents."
"You weren't," Harry said with conviction.
"I am guilty of crimes as heinous."
"I know," Harry said, still with that maddeningly calm voice. "I've seen first-hand what Death Eaters do."
"Then how can you claim to love me?" Snape choked.
"Because love isn't rational. You'd know that if you'd ever felt it. Love is more frightening than Dementors, or torture, or death, because it finds its way inside you, winds itself around your heart and your veins and your nerves, more completely than any spell or potion. And once it's there, you can't reason it away, or try to control it."
He smiled. "It would be a hell of a lot simpler for both of us if I'd fallen for a pimply-faced Seventh Year. But I didn't. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was glad I didn't. There are a hundred good reasons for me to love you, and another hundred reasons to run as fast as I can in the other direction – "
Snape squeezed his eyes shut against the image.
" – but this isn't a problem in Arithmancy class, where one number cancels the other."
"Harry," Snape rasped. He opened his eyes and saw the young man standing before him, blocking out the view through the window.
Snape shook his head slowly. Perhaps if he was kind, as Albus had advised, he could avoid the consequences, and Harry would be still be safe from the prediction. "If you do – love me," he murmured, stumbling over the words, "please don't ask this of me. I can't give you what you need. I don't know how. I don't believe I ever did."
Harry reached up and brushed back Snape's hair with a tenderness that nearly broke him.
"You don't have to give me what I need," he told Snape.
Harry drew back, and his eyes seemed to bore right through him, searching for the secrets of his soul. Unfortunately, Snape was no longer sure he had one.
He watched Harry's expression change, as though he'd found his answer. Snape fought to keep from trembling.
"But I have to give you what you need," Harry whispered. Then he raised himself on his toes, and touched his mouth to Snape's, and all of Snape's good intentions were washed away as surely as a speck of dust in the rain.
~~ VI ~~
Once, when Harry had been about, oh, eight or nine, Dudley had caught a vole in the back yard. Uncle Vernon had wanted it killed immediately; small creatures always offended Uncle Vernon, perhaps because he was so very large. But Dudley had whined and cried until Aunt Petunia insisted they go out straightaway and buy a cage so that Dudley could keep it as a pet.
Of course, his cousin's motive was not to preserve the life of the poor animal, but to prolong its misery as long as possible. After a week in Dudley's tender care, it was obvious the vole would not survive much longer; it was terrified out of its wits, and Dudley often forgot to feed it, having become bored with it after a day or two.
So one afternoon, when the Dursleys were out at the shops, Harry released the vole into the back yard. As the creature scampered away, he sent out a fervent prayer that it find a new home, far from 4 Privet Drive. And in that instant, Harry would have given anything to be going with it.
When he met Snape's gaze after leading him to the bed and unbuttoning his shirt, he recognized that look.
It was the look the vole had given Dudley whenever his fat face had loomed before the bars of its cage.
Harry's eyes slammed shut against the sight, and he wrapped his arms around himself to control the shuddering.
God. What had he become? Snape had obviously been reluctant from the first, but something – Harry couldn't begin to guess what – was impelling him to accede to Harry's wishes, against his better judgment. Was Harry so starved for love that he would take it even when it was not willingly given?
He opened his eyes, because there was nothing else to do. "I, um, I'm a little nervous, I suppose," he lied. "Do you think that tonight, we could just – that you could – hold me?" Surely that wouldn't be too much of a violation. And if he couldn't have at least that much, he was certain he'd fly apart into a million pieces.
Snape's entire body seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Yes, of course. Anything you wish."
"All right, then," Harry murmured. After a brief, awkward pause, he scrambled off the bed and divested himself of his own shirt, jeans and socks, then lifted the covers and slid beneath them. He lay on his side and tried to slow his breathing while he watched Snape move about the room, dousing the lights. Snape's chest and back were exactly as Harry had imagined them; smooth and pale, with an underlayer of long, lean muscle. It would be sweet torture to spend the night so close to him, but for some unfathomable reason Snape had placed himself in Harry's hands, and Harry would sooner die than abuse that privilege.
If he was to have any hope with Snape at all, it would have to be on Snape's terms.
Now, all he had to do was to discover what those terms were.
Harry felt the mattress dip, and cool air kissed his bare torso as Snape settled beneath the covers. The dim light sneaking in around the lavatory door was the only illumination in the room; luckily it was low enough to hide Snape's expression, and those troubled eyes.
Sitting up, Harry touched Snape's chest gently. Stiff as a mannequin, one of Snape's arms came up and around Harry's upper back. Harry's eyes brimmed with tears, not for himself, but for the man beneath him. Slowly, in deference to Snape, he settled his head against Snape's breast. Listened for a few minutes to the strong, steady beat of his heart, whilst he felt Snape's muscles relax one by one. His skin carried traces of rosemary and jasmine, an odd combination of scents.
"Thank you," Harry murmured after a time.
"For this. For you."
Snape snorted. "I'm no gift, P-Harry."
Harry couldn't help but smile. Turning his head, he planted a soft kiss to Snape's sternum. "I beg to differ. I know this – " isn't where you want to be. But then why the hell are you here, with me? Tell me, or I'll –
Oh, all right; he was allowed to act like an adolescent in the privacy of his own bloody head, wasn't he?
"I mean," Harry said aloud, clearing his throat, "I'm grateful for – this. That's all I'm trying to say." He reached out and stroked Snape's shoulder tentatively. "You see, I've never been very good at – close relationships. The Dursleys – the people who raised me – they weren't – affectionate, to say the least. The first person I can ever remember hugging me was Hagrid, when I was eleven." He chuckled. "I suppose you could say I'm a bit developmentally delayed in that area."
Snape's fingers brushed over Harry's temple. "And now you're determined to make up for missed time, I take it?"
Harry nodded. "Most days I feel like I'm bursting – there's no other word for it. I annoy the hell out of Ron and Neville, because I'm always arsing around with them. Hermione doesn't mind so much, but – " He trailed off, searching for words. "It's as if – I need to touch them to reassure myself they're still here. To convince myself that I'm still here. Since Susan – " Harry felt Snape tense under him " – and her family, it's gotten worse. I'm not sure why; it's not like it's the first time I've seen – that."
"You were close to her." It wasn't quite a question, or quite a statement.
"No. I mean, I knew her, but...I don't know. I have a theory, though. It's as if I had this number locked in my head; in Muggle action movies, they call it a 'body count'. Susan was the eighty-third, and maybe that was my 'body count'; that was all I could stand. But there will be more; I don't have the luxury of calling halt to the game, do I?"
"The eighty-third – " Snape cut himself off with a sharply indrawn breath. "Gods, boy. Do you mean you – "
"I write them all down," Harry told him. "What happened, as much as I can find out about them. I started with Cedric." He paused. "I'm on my third book."
Snape's voice was jagged. "Stop it."
Harry frowned. "Stop talking?"
"Stop counting. Stop writing. Forget their names, their faces. For Christ's sake, you'll go mad."
"I need to remember them. It's the only thing that keeps me sane," Harry whispered. "That, and knowing you're fighting beside me."
"I can't accept that responsibility," Snape said brokenly. "I won't. What if I should – "
Harry's fingers flew to Snape's lips. "Shhh. It's all right. I won't hold you to it." He replaced his fingers with his mouth in the softest of kisses. Snape didn't respond, and Harry closed his eyes. "Listen. D'you think we could – "
"What?" Snape prompted, not unkindly, when Harry didn't continue.
Harry took a deep breath, then barrelled on, full speed ahead. "Could we, well, spend the rest of the week here? Together? Just the two of us, without thinking about who we are and what we have to do when we get back? I mean, if something serious comes up, I'm sure they'll get word to us. But if we could take a few days to forget – "
"You don't want to forget," Snape pointed out. "You said so yourself."
"No, you're right. A rest, then. We're so far from the war, from Britain, from all of it. Soldiers rate a spot of leave now and then. Don't they?"
"I – "
"At least think about it. Please? You can tell me in the morning." Whether you want to admit it or not, thought Harry, you deserve a holiday as well. I'd like nothing better than for you to spend it with me.
With a final, brief caress to Snape's stern jaw, he laid his head back on Snape's chest, and drifted off to sleep within minutes. His last conscious memory was of long fingers curling over the back of his skull and holding him as though he were the most precious thing in the world.
Considering that Snape was quite unused to sharing a bed, he adapted to the change with surprising ease.
He awoke with the full awareness of where he was and who was lying beside him. But perhaps 'beside' was not the best choice of term, considering his legs and Harry's were entwined more thoroughly than the limbs of a bramble, and Snape's right arm was flung casually over the boy's midsection. With each soft inhalation, his fingers brushed the impossibly smooth skin of Harry's stomach. Obviously the brat wasn't particularly ticklish, or the contact would have sent him into fits by now.
Boy. Brat. Child. The use of these terms to define Potter no longer seemed appropriate after last night. First of all, Snape was not wrapped around the body of a child. Merely the thought of all that warm, hard flesh in contact with his own was enough to start reactions in Snape which had never before been caused by a student. The reality of it was extremely...disturbing.
Even more disturbing were the b – Harry's matter-of-fact revelations of the night before. Snape knew the basic facts of Potter's upbringing, but his brief description of the Muggles with whom Albus had left him seemed to conceal a wealth of hidden pain and neglect. Snape had long since revised his initial opinion of Harry as a spoiled, conceited brat, but now he began to wonder how Harry had survived his formative years without becoming some sort of emotional cripple.
But then, hadn't he admitted he was scarred by his experiences, in much the same way Snape had been? The difference, of course, was that Snape had chosen many of those experiences of his own free will, but for now that was neither here nor there. The fact remained that Snape understood what it was to feel detached from others, to feel as though the gap between himself and another human being was unbridgeable.
Hmm. Where's that gap now, eh, Severus?
Wonderful. Of course his long-dormant conscience would sound like Dumbledore.
With infinite care, Snape began the task of separating himself from Harry, beginning with his arm. The boy twitched at the loss of the weight; his legs shifted, and his backside thrust out –
– bringing it into full contact with Snape's groin.
Bloody, steaming hell.
Despite being in the best physical condition of his adult life, Snape still would never have guessed he could become erect so quickly. He suppressed a groan as Potter ground against him guilelessly and huffed out a long, sleepy sigh.
Snape closed his eyes and thought of McGonagall and Sprout, naked, jiggling ferociously, and going at it hammer and tongs. It didn't help.
Summoning all of his self-control, he gave Potter an ungentle shove, while at the same time disentangling himself as best he could. "Potter. Harry. Wake up."
"Mmm." Harry rolled onto his back and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Time z'it?" he slurred.
"Nearly seven," Snape answered.
Harry let out a moan which Snape tried not to find arousing. "God. Donchu wanna sleep in?"
"You awaken every morning at dawn for DADA practice," Snape said irritably.
"Yeah. But'm on holiday." Heavy-lidded green eyes fixed on Snape. "Whudabout you?"
"Whud – what about me?"
"You on holiday, too?" Harry asked. His tone carried a hint of eager vulnerability which stirred the empty space inside Snape where his heart had once resided.
He stared at the person who, against common sense and the laws of Nature, believed himself to be madly in love. With Snape, of all undeserving creatures. He tried to weigh the consequences of each response, but the balances he'd brought with him no longer operated properly, affected as they were by Harry's powerful gravity.
Look at it this way, Snape thought, as he allowed himself to be drawn deep into those impossibly green eyes. You can't possibly be damned more thoroughly than you are already.
"Yes," Snape said, earning a blinding smile from the youth lying beside him, "I believe I am."
"He said yes! He said yes!"
Justin burst out laughing as Harry Potter executed a joyous pirouette in front of their booth at the Liberty Diner. "It's good to see you haven't lost your head," he said, grinning.
"Let me be," Harry admonished, wagging a playful finger. "I haven't been frivolous in – oh, God – it feels like forever. But I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts, and hang the consequences." He slid onto the bench beside Brian and gave the man a dazzling smile.
Brian rolled his eyes; Justin kicked him under the table.
"Watch it," he growled. "Those are new Italian loafers."
"Oh!" exclaimed Justin. "I brought your bag." He lifted Harry's small black knapsack and handed it to him.
"Lord, I almost forgot about it," Harry breathed. Justin noted absently that Harry unzipped the bag a couple of inches and peered inside, then seemed to relax visibly.
"I didn't peek," said Justin.
"Oh, I'm sorry, of course you didn't," Harry said hastily. "It's just – I left something very important in it, something I should really never be without. But – there wasn't room for it in – what I was wearing last night."
"Tube of K-Y?" Brian enquired sweetly, around a mouthful of eggs.
"No," said Harry, blushing. "Something I use at school."
"Brian," Justin warned.
Harry couldn't suppress a giggle at the absurdity of it all. "I wish. Though you have the shape right."
Brian raised an eyebrow. "Now I'm intrigued." He threw an arm over the back of the bench and shifted toward Harry. "So..." he purred. "Was your professor able to get it up last night?"
Harry gave an enigmatic smile. "He was – wonderful."
Brian snorted. "Took Viagra, did he?"
The smile widened. "Trust me. Snape wouldn't be caught dead taking Viagra."
"Where is he, anyway?" Justin asked.
"Running an errand. He ran into an old mate of his here, and I suppose he's at his flat calling my headmaster."
Justin cocked his head. "Why didn't he just use the phone at the hotel?"
"Oh, ah," stammered Harry, "that's not the only reason he went to see him. Her."
"Trannie or drag queen?" The three men looked up to see Debbie standing beside the booth, a wide grin on her face.
Harry shrugged. "Um, not sure actually; I didn't ask. He goes by the name of Marilyn?"
"Not Mysterious Marilyn?" Brian said, chortling. "Jesus. She and Snape are buddies? That explains a lot."
Justin watched as Harry bristled visibly. "They attended Oxford together. He's – she's – a very accomplished Seer."
"Oh, do you believe in supernatural phenomena?" Debbie asked, intrigued.
"Implicitly," Harry replied.
Brian chuckled. "Twilight Zone, next stop. This is where I get off. Shove over, kid."
Harry shot Brian a look, but obligingly slid out of the booth so that Brian could get out. "I take it you're not convinced there are forces beyond your comprehension, Mister Kinney?"
"Oh, I'm sure there's a shitload of stuff in this world I don't comprehend," Brian replied. "But crystal balls and fairy dust – pardon the expressions – aren't worth my time." He turned to Justin. "I'm going to work. You want me to pick up anything on the way home?"
"Yeah. A pint of ice cream, a couple of salmon steaks – " he rose to his feet and twined his arms around Brian's neck " – and the crushed petals of several hundred roses which you will strew around our bed to show me how much you love me."
Debbie giggled on her way to the next table.
"You want anything else? The moon, maybe, hung just outside the window?" Brian nipped at Justin's ear. "A troupe of blindfolded Russian balalaika players playing sad gypsy songs in the can?"
Justin kissed him soundly, cutting him off. "You can't blame me for trying."
"And you can't blame me for laughing. Later." With a final hard kiss, he released Justin and was out the door.
Justin sat back down with a sigh. He looked across the table to see Harry regarding him steadily.
"Go ahead, say it," Justin said wryly.
"I was going to say that I think he loves you very much," Harry said quietly.
Debbie stopped beside their table again and placed an affectionate hand on Harry's shoulder. "Jesus, we got us another hopeless romantic here."
Harry smiled up at her. "It comes with the territory."
The red-haired woman snorted. "You don't know Brian. Romance isn't in his vocabulary."
Harry shook his head. "I'm familiar with the grand gesture, believe me. Self-sacrifice, love beyond death, the slaying of dragons." His lip curled slightly. "But I've come to realize the little things can be almost as important. The touch of a friend's hand when you feel most alone. Another hand-knitted jumper for Christmas." His gaze locked with Justin's. "The way he looks at you when he thinks no one else can see – "
Justin sucked in a breath.
" – offering to buy you ice cream on his way home from work." Harry took a sip of his coffee and smiled self-consciously. "You have no idea what I'd give for small things like that."
Debbie ruffled Harry's already tousled hair. "You sure you're only eighteen?"
"No," said Harry sadly, "I'm not at all sure."
"Here you are, fellas. The Phipps Conservatory. Jesus, don't know the last time I drove somebody here."
Harry dug into his pocket for the money to pay the cab driver, then passed him the money through the window. "Thank you. Keep the change." As the vehicle pulled away from the kerb, Harry straightened to look at Snape, who seemed a little whiter than normal.
"Been a while since you've driven in a Muggle car?" he asked, not unsympathetically.
Snape pursed his lips. "The last time was about twenty years ago." Black eyes regarded Harry levelly. "Before you were born."
"Thanks, I can manage the arithmetic," Harry said cheerfully. His gaze swept over the taller man with frank approval, noting the way Snape shifted self-consciously at his perusal. The earlier trip to Emmett's shop had been as successful the second time round. At the moment, Snape was dressed in a charcoal silk buttoned shirt and black slacks that showed off his long, slim legs to perfection. The rest of the wardrobe was equally flattering. Where Emmett had dressed Harry formally, he had chosen clothes for Snape that screamed casual elegance.
Well, thought Harry, perhaps the clothes screamed casual and Snape screamed elegance. The fact was, you could probably dress the man in a frilly pink pinafore and he'd maintain his unflappable dignity.
An image of the Boggart from third year came to Harry suddenly, and he had to suppress a chuckle. As it was, his mouth curved, earning a raised eyebrow from Snape.
"Something amusing, Mister Potter?"
"Just imagining you in drag," Harry told him sweetly.
Snape's expression didn't change, but somehow he managed to send approximately a tonne of icy disdain in Harry's direction. "I assure you I have no desire to fill Marilyn's platform shoes," he sneered.
The comment was so unexpected that the laughter burst out of Harry before he could stop it. "I'm glad," he said quietly, leaning in so that only Snape could hear. "Because you look bloody beautiful enough in what you're wearing right now."
Snape snorted, but Harry could tell he wasn't entirely put off by the compliment. "Ridiculous," he huffed.
Harry only laughed harder. Tugging on Snape's arm, he pulled him toward the ornate glass and brick building.
"What is this place?" Snape asked.
"The brochure at the hotel said it's the loveliest botanical garden in the state. There are thirteen rooms in the conservatory and several outdoor gardens, including an extensive collection of medicinal plants."
"I had no idea you had such an interest in Herbology," Snape said.
"I don't, really. I much prefer 'foolish wand-waving,' as you well know. But you always loved it, didn't you?" At Snape's blank stare, he added, "I mean, it was your favourite subject when you were a student at Hogwarts, wasn't it?"
Snape stopped dead in his tracks and regarded Harry with a shocked expression. "How did you – "
"Had a peek at the old school records," Harry said, grinning. "You were tops in the class. The yearbook said you were planning to use your expertise to go into mediwizardry. Why didn't you?"
Snape's expression hardened. "Facility in Herbology is also useful for Potions work. And Voldemort had little use for the healing arts."
"Oh. Right," Harry murmured. Idiot, idiot –
Green eyes locked with ebony ones. Snape took a deep breath. "It isn't your fault I made the choices I did. I'm sorry. This is – " his hand swept over the greenhouses " – very thoughtful of you."
Harry shook his head. "I didn't mean to remind you – "
" – of my youth?" Snape's mouth twitched. "I would rather think that a very effective strategy in your case. If I ever manage to forget what an ancient bastard I am, there exists a glimmer of hope."
Now it was Harry's turn to stare.
Snape made a graceful 'after-you' gesture, and once he recalled what his feet were for, Harry led the way up the steps.
Impossible, sweet, foolish boy.
How he could have had his parents ripped from him, his childhood crushed by cruel relatives, his youth sapped by skirmish after skirmish with the Dark Lord and his minions, and still maintained his innocence, Snape would never know. But it persisted, intact, as though staying pure and untrammelled by life was as simple as standing in the middle of a field and shouting, no, I will not to the heavens at large.
It had never occurred to Snape it might be that simple. If it had, he would be looking back on a very different life.
Dumbledore...now, there was a man who projected innocence without possessing one iota of the substance. Snape had been half-hoping that Albus would order him to drag Harry home by the hair, but the old fart had merely smiled and nodded at Snape's report, then said mildly – he was nothing if not mild – "I trust your judgment implicitly in this matter, Severus."
Snape almost returned, So if I judge it necessary to fuck the little sod bowlegged, I take it I'll have your blessing as well? But at the last moment he restrained the impulse, and soon afterward their conversation ended and Dumbledore's smiling head disappeared from Marilyn's Floo.
"Well," Marilyn had said primly, pouring Snape a cup of tea, "I notice you left out a few details."
"He knows," Snape had replied heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose until it went numb. "He always knows."
Harry's excited exclamation brought Snape back to the present. He looked down to see Harry crouching beside the garden path, between the digitalis and the bloodwort.
"What is it?" Snape asked, bending at the waist to get a better view.
Harry's head swiveled back and forth, surveying the area around them. Apparently satisfied, he favoured Snape with a brief smile before turning back to the plants.
Then he began to hiss.
Snape jerked at the sound of Parseltongue coming from that innocent mouth. He'd been shocked when he first heard Potter speak it in his second year, and he was still startled every time the lad displayed his gift. The only other Parselmouth Snape knew was Voldemort, but the Dark Lord used the language as he used any weapon – with direct, ugly force. Harry's raw silk whisper transformed it into poetry.
Harry reached down, and from between two foxglove plants, a tiny emerald-green garden snake left its hiding place to slither trustingly into the hand of the Boy Who Lived.
"Gorgeous, isn't it? And the proper colour for Slytherin," Harry said. He straightened, taking the small creature with him; Snape watched as it began to curl around his wrist, a piece of living jewelry.
"Perhaps you should have allowed the Hat to sort you there," Snape said.
Harry smiled. "No thanks. Loving a Slytherin is complicated enough."
Snape ignored the fluttering in his gut. "Moral qualms, Potter?"
Harry's fingers stroked the snake's head in the gentlest of caresses, reminding Snape of the events of last night. "Not about that," he said enigmatically.
Harry leveled his gaze at Snape. "I have to remember that contrary to popular belief, I'm not the centre of the universe. I have to keep in mind that no matter how desperately I may wish for it, my happiness can't be gotten at the expense of another." He took a deep breath, let it out. "I want us to be happy for these few days. But if my definition of happiness and yours differ, I want you to feel you can tell me."
Snape frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Harry said, his voice even, "that I'd spend the entire week in this garden with you, and be glad of it, rather than force you to do anything you don't wish to do." He took a step closer, and his emerald green eyes bored into Snape. "Do you understand me now?"
Snape's pulse pounded in his ears while he stared down at the young man before him with an expression which no doubt resembled that of a large flounder.
"Ewww! A snake!"
Snape spun round at the outraged squeak. The little girl was no more than eight or nine, with blond pigtails and the face of an angel.
He wanted to hex her clear across the garden.
But Harry smiled genuinely at the urchin. "Snakes aren't such bad creatures, once you get to know them," he told her solemnly, aiming a mischievous wink at Snape. Snape glared, but said nothing.
"Really?" the girl asked, clearly as mesmerized by the young wizard as –
– Merlin, as mesmerized as Snape.
His head swam with the implications of Harry's quiet declaration. Somehow, he knew – not all of it, of course, but at least the fact of Snape's reluctance. Which meant that Harry had taken pity on him last night, like the earnest but gentlemanly bridegroom faced with his new wife's horror of the contents of his trousers. By all rights, Snape should have been livid, incensed at the brat's presumption, but the only emotion he could manage to summon was...
Well, he didn't quite know. It was similar to what he imagined drowning in treacle would feel like.
He blinked. The young girl was reaching out a tentative finger toward the snake coiled round Harry's arm.
"Gently, now. There, see? He's not the least bit slimy, is he?"
A high-pitched giggle announced Harry Potter had made yet another conquest.
Snape's insides churned as he contemplated whether he too had just joined the ranks of the fallen.
The first thing that assaulted Brian's senses when he came home that night was the overpowering smell of roses.
The second thing was the solid weight of Justin Taylor slamming into him and nearly knocking him backwards into the elevator.
"You wonderful son of a bitch!" Justin cried, kissing him soundly. "I knew I'd wear you down one of these days."
"What – " But Justin was already tugging him forward, through the door and into the loft –
– the entire floor of which had been covered in a carpet of blood red rose petals.
"Here, I'll take those," Justin purred, tugging his briefcase and the plastic grocery bag from his unresisting fingers. "When did you find the time to do this?"
"I – "
"No, don't tell me," Justin interrupted, "I don't need to know. You waved your magic wand, and it happened." Brian sucked in a breath as Justin treated him to a smile he hadn't seen since –
– oh God, since –
"Brian, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. But I didn't – "
"You know," Justin said, unpacking the groceries and putting them in the fridge, "I've been looking forward to this all day. Not the roses, but coming home to you, eating a meal together, just the two of us. I know you'll say it's boring as hell, but I love nights like this, and sometimes I think you do too.
"And then it hit me: for you, sitting down and eating a salmon steak with another person is as monumental an event as thousands of rose petals. It's huge. It's more intimate for you than fucking, and I'm the only one you share it with." Coming closer, he placed his hands on Brian's chest and leaned in for a soft kiss. "And I'm glad to be the one. I am."
"Justin." Brian took a deep breath. There was no sense in continuing this. "I – "
"But I'm also glad you did this, because – " Justin bracketed Brian's face with his palms and smiled gently. "Brian Kinney," he murmured, "you are ridiculously romantic."
Brian stared at him.
Then he stared some more.
Justin's eyes began to fill with tears. "I, ah, I remembered. The prom. The dance. The kiss. Everything."
Brian inhaled a startled breath. There were still times when he woke up in a sweat after replaying that night in his dreams. He couldn't forget the moment soon after their fateful dance when that bastard Hobbes had slammed the wooden bat into Justin's skull, stealing his innocence, and very nearly his life. But it had taken a great deal of painful effort to even partially restore Justin's own memory of the event.
"I thought you – only managed to remember – afterward," rasped Brian. "The garage. The – " his throat closed over – "the attack."
"Yeah, I know. I did, until I came home and saw – this." He swept an arm in a circle. "Gus's toy bat made me remember the attack, and this made me remember – the good stuff." His fingers caressed Brian's face. "God, I love you."
"Justin – "
"It's okay," Justin whispered. "You don't have to say anything." Without another word, he led Brian over to the living room, where an open space had been cleared. Justin pressed the controls on the stereo, and soft music filled the air around them, weaving in and around the scent of the roses.
Justin held out his hand palm up in mute invitation.
And surrendering to forces beyond his comprehension, Brian Kinney took the hand of his lover and pulled him close.
~~ VII ~~
"Admit it," Harry said, a huge grin on his face. "You loved it."
"I most certainly did not," Snape returned. Taking out the infernal plastic card, he swept it through the contraption stuck to the hotel room door. The Muggle world was rife with plastic. Awful stuff.
"Then why were you smiling at the end?" Harry's fingers brushed over his as the both of them reached for the handle at once.
Snape jerked his hand away. "I was relieved it was over," he said primly. Harry pushed the door open, and Snape swept past him into the suite.
"God," Harry breathed, kicking off his shoes and flopping onto the sofa, "it's far worse than I thought."
Snape frowned. "What is?"
Harry darted a mischievous glance at him from beneath lowered brows. "I love you even when you're being a prat."
Snape ignored the sudden attack of light-headedness. "Perhaps you should brew yourself a cure."
Harry's mouth twitched. "Or play Stormy Weather on the bongos."
Snape closed his eyes in pain. He'd forgotten that bit. "Is that truly what Muggles think of us? That we live wild, bohemian lives in seedy night clubs, barefoot, with parrots as familiars? What a ridiculous pile of tripe."
"Oh, for Heaven's sake," Harry said heavily, turning toward Snape when he too settled on the sofa, "it's not meant to be a serious study of witchcraft." He sighed. "Look, I apologise. I thought you'd find it funny. I figured you'd not seen many Muggle films, and when I saw the repertory theatre was playing Bell, Book and Candle, it seemed perfect."
Snape felt a little chagrined. He did not say that he found very little funny these...decades.
As if reading his thoughts, Harry demanded, "What does it take to make you laugh?"
"An act of God," Snape drawled.
"No, I'm serious this time. I just realized I've never seen you laugh. I imagine I'd remember it if I had." Piercing green eyes lanced through him. "Do you remember the last time you laughed?"
Snape regarded the draperies. "It's – been a while," he admitted finally.
"I'll bet you have a marvellous laugh," Harry said quietly. "Rich and deep, like your voice."
The air in the room grew thin. Snape fought to keep his breathing even.
Harry's face took on a wistful expression. "When I first understood that my feelings for you had changed, I used to listen to you in Potions."
Snape snorted. "You are confessing what I have always suspected: that you spent most of your school career in a permanent state of inattention."
"Shut up," said Harry amiably. "You know what I'm talking about."
Snape pursed his lips, but didn't answer.
"When things were at their worst, I'd listen to you, in class, at Auror briefings, during training, and I'd let that voice envelop me like a warm blanket. You have no idea how much it helped me." His mouth curved. "And at night I'd imagine you reading me poetry."
"Some sort of romantic nonsense by Shakespeare or Keats, I imagine," Snape murmured.
"Not hardly," countered Harry. "Whitman, perhaps, or ee cummings. Maya Angelou, now and then. I rather like her anger."
Snape stared at him, intrigued in spite of himself. "I'm impressed. You are capable of reading outside the prescribed curriculum."
Harry chuckled. "You know me – when have I ever stuck to the beaten track?" He leaned against the back of the sofa, still watching Snape closely. "But we're wandering off-topic. I wanted to know what makes you laugh."
Snape took a deep breath, let it out. Where was the harm? "When I was a lad, I had a terrific weakness for Monty Python."
Harry's jaw dropped. "Bloody hell! You must be joking. How did you get to watch the telly?"
"I used to sneak over to a mate's house."
"He was a Muggle?"
"No. But, like Miss Granger's, his parents were. They possessed all the comforts of a normal Muggle home, including a television."
Harry grinned. "Did you get to see their films?"
Snape shook his head. "My parents' tolerance did not extend to excursions of that kind."
"Too bad. My favourite's Life of Brian. I'll have to drag you to a showing, perhaps after school's done."
"I'd – " Snape cut himself off when he realized what he'd been about to say.
I'd like that. And Merlin help him, it was the truth.
"Thank you for your offer," he managed politely.
"It's not altruism," said Harry softly. "I'll be expecting some laughter in return."
Snape's gaze met Harry's and locked with a loud thud, like a Gringott's bank vault door.
"Harry, I – "
"Well," the young man interrupted, springing to his feet, "I suppose I'd best be off to bed. Justin asked me to go to Babylon with him tomorrow night, so I'll need my rest." Snape watched as Harry reached for his shoes and began putting them on again.
"What are you doing?"
"Heading back to Justin's."
Snape straightened. "It's rather late to be wandering the streets."
Harry smiled. "It's only eleven-thirty. But don't worry, I'll take a cab." He got to his feet, and Snape found himself looking up the length of his body.
"Well – "
Harry looked down at him. "Why not?" he demanded.
Snape opened his mouth, closed it again.
Then Harry's expression softened, as though he'd decided to take pity on Snape. "Look, I know you want to keep me close to you for some reason, and I'm not flattering myself that it's because you suddenly fancy yourself in love with me. But it's – um," he faltered, his gaze shifting to Snape's shoulder, "it's – difficult to be here with you and not – "
"I can sleep on the couch," Snape offered hastily, trying to forestall any further explanations.
Harry snorted. "It's no more than four foot long. You'd be a pretzel by morning."
Snape rose to stand before him. "The floor, then. Anything."
"Why do you want me to stay?" Harry asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Is there some danger you haven't told me about?"
The brat was too intelligent by half. "It's – complicated," Snape hedged. "More of a – vague threat. Nothing with which you need concern yourself."
"Christ! I thought that was it!" Harry exploded. He whirled away from Snape, then rounded on him, face flushed. "Haven't I done enough to earn your trust, if not your respect? Haven't I earned the right yet for you to treat me as an adult? If there's a threat, vague or otherwise, I believe I'm entitled to know about it."
"You believe you are entitled to a great deal, don't you, Mister Potter?" Snape drawled. His voice, which had plummeted to its most low and dangerous, belied his state of inner turmoil. "You believe you are entitled to risk your life in the pursuit of mindless pleasure. You believe you are entitled to a meaningless fuck, or perhaps several, in a filthy back alley." He moved closer until they were only a hairsbreadth apart. "You believe you are entitled to go to extraordinary lengths to resuscitate the corpse once known as Severus Snape – "
"That's not – "
" – so that he will awaken from his enchanted slumber and fall madly in love with you. But miracles do not happen merely because you bid them happen, boy."
"I know," Harry said stubbornly, his jaw set, his gaze challenging. "Can you imagine how many times I lay in that damned closet and begged for my parents to return, to rescue me? I know bloody well that miracles don't happen."
Snape felt gut-punched. He tried to think of something to say, but Harry was ahead of him.
"I also know that nothing good happens in this life unless you do something to bring it about. I know that you can't live in the past, forever wishing things had been different. You have to make the most of now, and be grateful for whatever happiness comes your way."
He reached up a hand and laid it on Snape's arm. "I'm sorry if I dredged up pieces of yourself you want to keep buried. I was only trying to make our time here as pleasant as possible for you, truly. But if you'd rather, I can go back to my pursuit of mindless pleasure, and you can go back to hovering at a discreet distance. I can stop pretending that I've any kind of chance – " He faltered and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Bugger. I swore I wouldn't do this – "
Snape was horrified to feel a lump rise in his throat. "I only want you to stop – " He ground to a skidding halt.
"Stop what?" Harry whispered.
"Stop making me – feel," Snape answered brokenly.
Harry's face crumpled. "I can't help it," he murmured. "I can't – "
The rest of his sentence was crushed under the pressure of Snape's mouth.
It took Harry at least a second and a half to realize Snape had kissed him.
Was kissing him, at this moment. Thoroughly, to be precise. With abandon, one might say.
As soon as he snapped to, Harry moaned into Snape's mouth and wrapped his arms around the taller man's shoulders, pulling him forward until their bodies were pressed full-length against one another. In response, Snape too moved to embrace him; one powerful arm locked round Harry's waist, whilst the other rose to cradle the back of his head. Allowing Snape the lead, Harry nearly screamed in frustration as Snape's tongue darted over his lips in maddening feints and circles before finally plunging into the depths of Harry's mouth. A soft, almost inaudible groan from Snape shot fire through every one of Harry's overloaded nerve endings, burning him to ash.
When they broke apart at last, Harry was panting from a combination of raw desire and insufficient oxygen. Snape's eyes were so black as to be bottomless, and his expression was unreadable. When he stepped back, Harry suppressed a whimper. It was all he could do to keep from latching on to the man and hanging on for dear life.
Snape was still watching him, and Harry strove to meet his gaze, aware of how desperate and disheveled he must appear. To Harry's credit, Snape looked slightly messy himself.
He concentrated on taking deep, steady breaths as he waited for Snape to tell him this had been a mistake.
It was a full two seconds before he realized Snape was holding out a hand to him.
"You – " Harry began, then stopped. Words would only ruin this; he had to believe that Snape knew his own mind.
"Yes," Snape breathed; Harry noticed his hand shook slightly. "Come."
Placing his hand in Snape's, Harry allowed himself to be led to the bedroom. Climbing up onto the mattress with as much dignity as he could muster, he rose to his knees, then gently drew Snape into his arms again.
Their kiss this time was slow and unhurried, and Harry took the opportunity to imprint every detail of Snape's mouth on his memory. He found that his tongue could detect the small scar nestled under Snape's lower lip, and that his eye tooth was as sharp as he'd imagined.
Small things, he'd told Justin. He was going to accumulate as many small things as he could in the coming days, the way an old woman acquired curios, crested china from the holiday in Blackpool or Torquay.
After a time, Harry's hands moved of their own accord to Snape's shirtfront, working the buttons through their holes one by one. Thank Heaven for Muggle clothing; Snape's robes normally had at least twice the fastenings. When his fingers slid to Snape's waistband, however, they were swiftly stilled by strong hands.
"No," Snape murmured against Harry's mouth.
"But – "
Snape pulled back and rested his forehead against Harry's. "Please," he said fervently. "I can give you what you need. But don't ask for that."
I need you inside me, Harry thought, but he closed his eyes tight and nodded. "All right. I'm sorry." Snape released his hands, and he moved them to the open edges of Snape's shirt. "Can I – ?" he asked.
"Yes," whispered Snape, and Harry slowly divested him of the silken garment. His fingers returned to ghost over the hard, smooth chest, tracing the lines of muscle and bone hidden under the pale skin. Snape hissed, whether in agony or ecstasy Harry wasn't sure. Deciding not to press his luck, he yanked his own t-shirt up over his head and tossed it aside, then lay down on the bed.
After a moment which stretched to an eternity, Snape moved to join him. Harry watched as Snape propped himself on one elbow and looked down at Harry, his onyx gaze flickering over the body displayed beneath him. Harry felt sure his erection had to be evident even through the thick layer of denim. As if at the thought, Snape's hand reached out and hovered – Oh, Merlin – then settled, feather-light, on the warm skin of Harry's belly.
Harry gritted his teeth, determined not to spook Snape with a wild reaction, but the long-awaited touch was like a brand, marking him, searing his flesh. He couldn't hold back a gasp as the hand travelled northward, exploring his chest, teasing over a nipple. In due time, the fingers grew bolder, pressing into the hollows between his ribs, tickling the inside of his elbow, delving into his navel.
When the hand suddenly pushed against his cloth-covered erection, Harry cried out and arched into the touch.
Snape immediately removed his hand.
"God!" Harry wondered if he could die of frustration. He gazed up, hollow-eyed, at Snape –
– who was looking at him as though he wanted to crawl inside him and never come out.
Snape leaned in close and brushed his lips against Harry's. "You're holding back, aren't you?"
Harry tried to focus on some portion of Snape's face, but failed. "Yes."
Snape's breath puffed hotly against his cheek.
"Don't," he whispered harshly.
God, he could feel Snape's hand loosening the button on his jeans. In the silence of the room, he could hear every tooth of the zip as it descended.
Snape's mouth captured Harry's in a long, deep kiss, then moved over his jaw, his neck, his earlobe, until Harry groaned, low in his throat.
"I want to hear you."
His head descended, and Harry jerked as Snape bit down on a nipple, then soothed it with his tongue.
"I want to feel you."
His nose burrowed into Harry's neck and he inhaled against his hairline.
"I want to smell you."
His hands coaxed Harry's hips up off the mattress so that he could remove jeans and underwear in one deft movement. Then, slowly, his lips and tongue traced a path down the centre of his body, until his face was hovering over Harry's engorged length.
"I want to taste you," Snape growled, right before he swirled his tongue around the head of Harry's cock.
"Oh, God," moaned Harry, his fingers scrabbling at the comforter beneath him, trying to find some anchor which would keep him from flying away. He couldn't bear to look down and see what Snape was doing to him, knew if he did it would all be over before it had even begun. He stared wild-eyed at the ceiling instead, his mouth open and gasping for air.
Not that he was likely to last long at this rate, for Snape had now switched from gentle caresses and licks to rhythmic, powerful suction. Harry could hear his own voice crying out incoherencies as though from a great distance, could feel his groin tightening for the final climb to ecstasy –
Then, suddenly, Snape's mouth was gone, and Harry whimpered in desperation. He looked down to see Snape moving to straddle Harry's legs, holding them down ruthlessly. Then, he wrapped long fingers around Harry's slickened length and began a slow, firm stroking obviously designed to destroy what few brain cells remained alive in Harry's skull.
The interruption had the effect of temporarily cooling the fever of Harry's arousal, and for the moment he found he could form complete thoughts. Reaching up and tugging on Snape's free arm, he said, "Please."
Well, perhaps not complete, then.
"Please what?" Snape asked, his voice hoarse and jagged.
"Could you – kiss me?" Harry breathed, arching as Snape's grip tightened.
A flurry of emotions crossed Snape's features, and Harry held his breath. Slowly, as though fighting some unseen force, Snape leaned forward until his mouth tentatively aligned with Harry's. Of their own volition, Harry's hands moved to Snape's hips, pulling him down, and Snape gasped as the backs of his fingers made contact with his own groin. His eyes flew open, and he regarded Harry with a mixture of shock and horror.
"No!" Harry exclaimed, when Snape attempted to lever himself up. He flung one arm round Snape's neck, holding him fast, and whispered in his ear, "It's all right, it's all right to want this, want me, just let it happen – "
Snape groaned as though he'd been hexed with Cruciatus and pressed his hips into Harry's erection. He turned his head and captured Harry's mouth again, and this time Harry could taste salt, though whether it was sweat or tears or his own essence or all three, he'd never know for certain –
Snape removed his hand, and then there was nothing between them but the thin cloth of Snape's trousers. One of Harry's hands gripped Snape's arse as the man's hips began a sinuous grinding motion, while the other caressed his face as they kissed. The combination of carnality and tenderness mingled inside of him, lifting him higher and higher, until he sobbed Snape's name and came in a rush of sound and sensation. A sharply indrawn breath and a final, hard push against Harry's hipbones, and he knew Snape had achieved completion as well.
When Snape would have lifted himself up and away, Harry's arms round his shoulders held him in place.
"Harry," Snape protested weakly, "I must be crushing you."
"Don't care," Harry said stubbornly, against Snape's hair. "If I let go, you'll run."
"I'm not going anywhere, you foolish – " Snape sighed into Harry's neck, then shifted so that they were entangled side by side. "Come here and be quiet for once."
"Thought you wanted to hear me," Harry murmured, smiling.
Snape tensed in his arms, then reached over Harry and retrieved his wand where it lay on the bedside table. A few words and Harry immediately felt cleaner and drier; a few more, and they were suddenly under the covers instead of sprawled on top of them.
Boneless and sated, Harry settled against Snape's warmth with a contented groan. "I love you," he whispered.
Snape's answer was a soft kiss planted on his forehead. Harry considered that to be evidence of progress.
Snape stood under the pounding stream of water and wished he could remember what it felt like to be clean.
The night had been restless for him, if not for Harry. The young scamp had slept like the dead, but then a roaring orgasm should do that for any man. The fact that it no longer did that for Snape was proof of his own loss of innocence.
Which led him, inevitably, to the sticky question of whether or not he had stolen the boy's innocence last night. Certainly, he had behaved in a manner that Severus Snape, Potions Master would deem reprehensible; his conduct constituted a breach of the trust bestowed on any teacher. Furthermore, his actions were repugnant to Severus Snape, the former Death Eater and now questionably recycled Doer of Good Deeds.
As for Severus Snape, the man...well, his opinion no longer mattered one whit.
That fact, however, did not prevent the man from reliving odd moments from the previous night with crystal clarity and an astonishing lack of remorse. The exquisite softness of Harry's skin, the breathy quality of his sighs and moans, the sweet taste of his virgin cock...Merlin help him. If he had believed that one night would cure him of this inappropriate affliction, he was sorely mistaken. The encounter had only left him starving for more.
Snape pushed his hair back from his forehead and leaned into the spray, allowing the water to batter his face and upper chest, trickle down over his torso and legs, disappear down the drain. The progress of the water reminded him of this – relationship – with Harry: it was inevitable, unstoppable, and eventually futile. For in a couple of days, he would be right back where he started.
Alone, weary, and dirty.
A crisp knock sounded on the door, and Snape jumped at the sound.
"What is it?" he demanded, poking his drenched head out from behind the shower curtain..
The door opened a fraction, and Harry stuck his head round the edge. "There are a couple of – gentlemen – here to see you. Us." His expression was covered by a carefully constructed mask. "They say they're from the Central Wizarding Agency."
"You let them in?"
Harry stepped the rest of the way into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. "I didn't have much bloody choice. They Apparated in while I was getting dressed. But at least they had the courtesy to stay in the outer room until I was done."
Snape scowled. "That's impossible. I warded this entire suite when I arrived."
"Yes, they complimented you on your job. Said it took them over a day to get through."
Well, that was a blessing, at least. The image of a pack of CWA bottom-feeders standing politely outside the bedroom door while he and Harry –
"I'll be out in a moment. Would you bring me – "
" – your clothes?" Harry pulled out his wand and waved it at the door. A crisp blue shirt and dark pants appeared on the hook.
"Thank you," Snape said; Harry nodded and turned to go. "Harry – "
Harry turned back, a wary sort of hope in his eyes.
"I – after those men are gone – we should discuss – "
The hope swiftly vanished. "So you can tell me it was a mistake? No."
Snape drew a deep breath. He hadn't truly expected anything different. "I was going to say that we should discuss our itinerary for today."
Harry studied him for a long moment, and Snape resisted the urge to squirm. "I'd like that," Harry murmured finally, stepping forward to bestow an impossibly gentle kiss.
Snape was shocked to catch himself returning it.
~~ VIII ~~
Harry had determined the CWA agents were arseholes the minute he saw the sunglasses.
One of the things he'd always loved about the wizarding world – although he didn't articulate it to himself until some years later – was that it was so very different from the world he had known. Certainly, some things were universal, but there was an energy and whimsy and timelessness about it which attracted him, brought him a stability and comfort he had never found in the Muggle world. It was curiously refreshing to find a whole group of people who couldn't care less about Top of the Pops or the latest Nintendo game, who operated with a set of priorities completely divorced from the ones he grew up with. There was no interest in aping the larger society to 'fit in'; assimilation was the last thing on their minds. In fact, some wizards had raised eccentricity and flamboyance to an art form.
The men currently perched on the chesterfield, however, dressed and behaved as conservatively as Uncle Vernon on Sunday morning. With the exception of the hideous plastic sunglasses, which Harry imagined were copied from some equally hideous Muggle movie with far too many special effects. And it soon became clear that making waves of any sort was high on their list of suspicious activities.
"So you're only going to be in Pittsburgh for a week?" Agent Number One asked.
"Yes," Harry ground out. Between Snape and himself, they'd answered the question no less than four times now. "I don't have the exact date and time of our departure, but we can let you know as soon as we leave."
"That would be very much appreciated," Agent Number Two purred. "You see, it's not that we're discouraging visitors from the United Kingdom – "
" – but there's no denying the fact that you're very high-profile visitors," One supplied.
"And seeing as how the CWA is doing whatever it can to maintain a neutral status in this conflict – "
" – we can't be seen to be favoring one side over another."
"You know," Harry said, wagging a finger at Two, "that's a rather clever trick. I didn't even see your lips move once while he was speaking."
"Mister Potter," warned Snape.
"D'you suppose you could manage it while drinking a glass of water?"
"All right," Snape growled. All three men in the room immediately snapped to positions of attention. "Gentlemen, you have my every assurance that we are not in this country to foment revolt, raise Galleons for the cause, or distribute t-shirts with 'I Hate Voldemort' printed across the chest. Is this sufficient, or do you require someone with greater authority to vouch for our conduct?"
"Believe me, Mister Snape," Two said smoothly, "neither of us would presume to make any assumptions regarding your...conduct." He arched an eyebrow at Harry, whose fists clenched at his sides.
"Exactly what are you trying to imply?" Harry demanded.
"Potter, you've said quite enough, I believe," said Snape in his best Professor Tone. Unfortunately – and this was something Harry imagined Snape bloody well knew – the Professor Tone had lost some of its bite in the last twelve hours or so.
"No, I don't believe I have," he countered, bounding to his feet. "You see, Professor Snape and I, along with thousands of others, have been doing all we can these past three years to defeat the greatest evil the wizarding world has ever seen. I'm not sure what you blokes have been spending your time doing, but I wouldn't be greatly surprised if it involved the abuse of live rodents."
Number Two sprang from the sofa like an electrocuted jack-in-the-box. "Now wait a minute – "
"Spare me," Harry spat. "I checked into the international rules and regulations before I left England, and there's nothing prohibiting British wizards from vacationing in the US. I imagine you've seen a few Death Eaters visiting your shores, but I don't guess you made quite as much fuss over them. In fact, we've arrested a couple of Americans on recent raids, which might indicate they're actively recruiting here. Your neutrality, gentlemen, is at the moment the biggest laugh in Britain."
Two stiffened. "We haven't heard of any detentions of US citizens."
Harry leaned in close. "Well, they're in Azkaban," he growled. "Come and get them, if you've the stones."
Snape was pinching the bridge of his nose rather viciously. "Do you suppose we could try to avoid the creation of an international incident?" he muttered.
Agent One stepped in at this point and laid a hand on his colleague's arm. "I think we've made our point clear. We have Professor Snape's assurance that this visit is purely for – " he cleared his throat " – pleasure, and he understands that we will not tolerate any questionable activity." He reached in his suit coat pocket for a card, which he handed to Snape. "Please contact us if you need to. We have phone, fax and e-mail capability."
"Sure you're real wizards, are you?" said Harry sweetly.
"We'll be watching you," Two sneered at Harry.
"Fine," he retorted. "We'll be sure to make it as entertaining as possible for you." The final zinger was rendered somewhat less effective for being delivered to thin air, as the two agents had Disapparated before Harry was finished.
Snape got slowly to his feet. "Pleased with yourself, are you?" he demanded in a tone that could freeze the sun.
"Not particularly," Harry admitted. "But it was fun while it lasted."
"Did it occur to you that the information about the US involvement may have been classified?"
Harry set his jaw. "Oh, bollocks. The European and American recruits – on both sides – are common knowledge by now. Sirius had three Ghanaian witches show up at his door last week, for Heaven's sake. The fact Tweedledum and Tweedledee didn't know about those arrests proves nothing."
"Nor does the fact you appear to be completely ignorant of wizarding politics. Aren't you aware of the isolationist movement afoot here? The American wizards have all but closed their borders to international travel. Voldemort is the least of their worries after the recent terrorist attacks."
"Which were carried out by Muggles."
"Which could as easily be blamed on us if the situation deteriorates!" Snape exploded. "The history of magic is the history of persecution, boy. If we drop our guard for one instant – "
"Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, I know," sighed Harry. "I did manage to stay awake for a few of Binns' classes. But I didn't think the price of vigilance would be persecution from our own people."
"How charmingly naïve of you," Snape drawled.
"I prefer to think of it as foolishly optimistic," Harry shot back. "But give me a few years, and I'm certain I'll be as pragmatic and cynical as the rest."
Snape closed his eyes briefly, as though conceding the point. "You do realize that they'll be monitoring our every move now?"
"Mmm," Harry agreed. "But they were going to do that anyway. How d'you suppose they even found out we were in the country?"
Snape pursed his lips. Harry's gaze darkened.
"What are you not telling me?"
"No," Snape said shortly. "Not this time." He held up a hand to forestall Harry's protest. "I will not have you running at my heels and stirring up more shite."
"Oh, come on," Harry wheedled, moving closer and placing his hands on Snape's chest. "I can be good." Snape's eyes widened in shock as Harry leaned in to nuzzle the underside of his jaw. "I can be very good, if only you'll let me."
"Potter," Snape warned. His tone of voice wasn't entirely convincing.
"They're gone," Harry whispered. His lips trailed across Snape's left cheek. "You can go back to calling me Harry."
"Harry," said Snape firmly. "I have – "
Harry chose that moment to cover Snape's mouth with his own. After a split-second of rigid tension, Snape relaxed into the kiss and returned it with abandon. Strong arms circled Harry's chest and nearly drove the breath from his lungs.
As quickly as he had begun it, however, Snape ended the kiss, tearing his mouth from Harry's and stepping back. "Bollocks," he breathed. "You're not – "
" – half bad?"
"Making this easy," Snape huffed.
Harry's green eyes twinkled. "That's almost as nice a compliment. Because I don't want to make it easy. I want to make it hard. Very...hard."
At Snape's horrified expression, he burst out laughing. "Don't worry," Harry wheezed, "I'm not that pathetically adolescent."
"Thank Merlin," Snape drawled. "I'll meet you at the diner – " he checked his Muggle wristwatch " – about one?"
"We're not going to breakfast together?" Harry murmured.
"When have you ever known me to eat breakfast?" Snape returned.
"That's true. Well, how about I eat breakfast and you look at me with romantic longing?"
"Potter – "
"All right, all right. I know when to retire from the field of battle." He delivered a final, swift kiss to Snape's mouth, then picked up his knapsack. "I'll help you reset the wards later. Be harder for them to crack it if we work the spells together."
Harry fancied Snape continued to watch him as he walked out the door.
"You will encounter a handsome stranger who will fuck you senseless."
An unknown voice emerged from behind the purple velvet curtain. "But that happens to me pretty much every night."
"Ah, yes, but this one will enjoy the experience. I'd hang on to him if I were you, honey."
The curtain billowed outwards and a young man of dubious parentage stalked out. He cast a speculative glance at Snape before continuing on his way.
"Severus. Fancy meeting you here." Marilyn was in full Gypsy regalia today, complete with bangles which clinked softly whenever she moved.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you know I was coming?" he drawled.
Marilyn pursed her lips. "I've been preoccupied. This morning has been especially – " she trailed off as she took in the empty waiting room " – busy."
Snape feigned surprise. "Yes, I wondered at that. Suddenly they all seemed to remember pressing appointments elsewhere."
Marilyn sighed and waved Snape to a chair. "All right. Any particular reason you want to hex away my bread and butter?"
Snape settled in an overstuffed armchair. "Potter and I had a visit from two CWA agents earlier."
"Oh? What did they want?"
"They seemed to be under the impression we were here recruiting for the cause."
"That's ridiculous." Marilyn frowned. "But it sounds like them. How would they have even known you were in the country?"
Snape leveled a speculative look at her.
"Oh, no," Marilyn protested, holding up a daintily painted hand. "I haven't spoken to them for weeks." Shock registered on her features. "Do you suppose – they have me bugged?" She began patting down various parts of her anatomy. "I wouldn't put anything past those bastards – "
"Ian." The use of her original name brought Marilyn's head up sharply. "I've always considered you a friend."
"And I you, Severus," Marilyn told him seriously.
"Good. Because if I find out someone is threatening Harry – "
"Oh, so it's 'Harry', now, is it?" Marilyn enquired archly.
Snape scowled. Marilyn leaned forward eagerly.
"I knew it!" she crowed after a moment. "It was so deliciously obvious."
"Don't tell me you had a vision," Snape choked. A vivid memory hit him full in the face: Harry,
writhing beneath him as Snape ground against his body like a senseless, rutting animal –
"No," Marilyn replied. "I caught you checking out his ass in Woody's."
"Bloody hell," Snape growled, shooting to his feet. "I refuse to discuss this with you."
Marilyn rose to face him; in the heels, she topped Snape by about a half inch. "Well, it's no skin off my nose if you don't, Severus darling, but you should discuss it with someone. The pain it's causing you is radiating off you in waves." She reached out to pat Snape's left arm reassuringly.
The moment she made contact, Snape felt as though a dagger had been plunged into the heart of the Dark Mark. It was only with the greatest effort that he kept from crying out.
"What's wrong?" Marilyn asked, her voice laced with concern.
Snape lowered his head and took a second to even out his breathing before he spoke. A flash of green caught his eye, and he struggled to focus on one of Marilyn's Gypsy bangles. Different from its brightly coloured companions, its heavy, dull pewter was molded in the shape of a snake. The creature's eyes were tiny, beadlike garnets, reflecting the sunlight pouring in through Marilyn's windows.
Snape cleared his throat. "Nothing. I felt a bit light-headed – stood up too quickly, I suppose. But then, I missed breakfast."
"Oh, you poor thing," Marilyn cooed. "I have some Mueslix – "
"No, I'll be all right." He looked his old school chum in the eye. "I imagine I'll see you again before we leave."
"Oh, I'm sure you will," Marilyn assured him.
"Hey, honey! How are you doing?"
Harry discontinued his contemplation of the dozen or so packets of artificial sugar, which he had arranged in several neat rows across the breadth of the tabletop, and looked up. "Oh, hullo, Emmett. I'm fine, thank you."
The tall man sidled into the booth opposite Harry and regarded him with an assessing gaze. "You're not, though, are you? Tell me everything."
"Oh, it's just – Snape's late."
"When were you going to meet him?"
Emmett glanced at his watch. "It's six minutes past."
"You don't understand. Snape's never late for anything. I'm starting to worry."
"All right," Emmett ventured. "What do you suggest we do about it?"
Well, first I'd take out my wand and try a Location Charm, but that would probably scare the living piss out of you. "I don't know. I suppose I'll check the hotel first."
"Well, give him a few more minutes. I'm sure he'll be here."
Harry lifted an eyebrow. "Are you psychic as well, then?"
Emmett laughed. "Oh, how I wish I were. I could've changed about a thousand really bad decisions."
Harry shook his head sadly. "You couldn't, though. That's just it. There's a certain order to things, and you can't change them."
Emmett frowned. "So you're saying we're all fucked, basically? That everything is laid out for us before we're born?"
Harry smiled thinly. "Or shortly thereafter."
"Well, there's only one problem with your little theory, darling," Emmett said slowly. "It's full of shit."
Harry stared at him. "What?"
"You heard me," Emmett said calmly. "You're way too young to be thinking your whole life is predetermined. If I'd thought that way, I'd be back in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, married to a woman with two first names and livin' in a trailer."
Emmett waved a hand. "It's a Southern thing. The point is, I decided to live my life on my terms, and once I did, nothing could stop me. But if I'd listened to the people who told me I was wrong or sick or going to Hell – " he trailed off. "Well. There's no point in dwelling on the past. Or the future, for that matter." He chuckled. "The future will take care of itself, believe me. The only thing you own is now. Grab onto it with both hands."
"But – " Harry sucked in a breath.
"But what, honey?" Emmett asked soothingly.
"Is this conversation confidential?"
Emmett crossed his heart. "I will carry your secrets to my grave."
Harry pushed a couple of sugar packets out of alignment. "I – I can't do anything that might hurt someone else."
"Of course you can't," Emmett agreed, a puzzled furrow appearing between his eyebrows. "But you don't seem like the kind of person who would hurt anyone."
"You should have seen me last night," Harry said morosely.
Emmett chewed on this for a moment. "Your teacher?" he said finally. "Tall, dark and darker?"
Mutely, Harry nodded.
"You're in love with him, and he's not in love with you."
Harry's head snapped up. "Did Justin – "
"No. But we've all been there; I recognize the symptoms. So you told him how you felt, and he rejected you?"
"Not exactly," Harry admitted. Emmett's eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "I can't say any more; please understand. The point is, Snape – well, I know he wants me. That's not the problem. The problem is, he believes he doesn't deserve to be happy."
"That it's not in his destiny, hmm? Why?"
"Because – because he can't get free of his past. He can't forget what – he was."
Emmett gave a little laugh. "You're making him sound like a reformed criminal."
Harry sipped his coffee.
"Jesus Christ, Harry," Emmett breathed. "Do you know what you're getting into?"
"Yes, I do," said Harry fiercely. "He's a good man. I can't tell you how I know, but I do. He's redeemed himself a hundred times over, but he doesn't think any of that makes up for his past. And I don't know how to begin convincing him otherwise. It's so damned frustrating. Like – knocking my head against a brick wall.
"I wouldn't mind the frustration, though, if I could be sure it would all end happily. But I'm not at all sure any longer. I have this terrible feeling that if I ever do succeed in getting past his barriers, he'll simply spill his contents all over the floor, just disintegrate before my eyes. And so it's not right that I keep on."
"Oh, honey," Emmett said kindly, taking Harry's hands in his and looking him in the eyes, "you may think you can see the future, but you can't. Nobody can." He sighed. "If you're sure you love this man – "
"I do. God, I do."
"Then don't hold back. Show him how you feel. Then if he can't accept your gift for what it is, at least you'll know you gave it your best shot."
Harry closed his eyes, remembering Snape's harshly spoken command to him last night.
You're holding back, aren't you?
Perhaps Emmett was right. Perhaps somewhere, deep inside Snape, there was a man locked away, waiting for someone to arrive with the key. Or at least someone who would rattle the bars on the door until they came loose.
He had to keep believing that man was still alive, and that it was in Harry's power to summon him forth.
"Yes," Harry said finally. "Yes, I believe you're right. I mustn't give up."
"An inspiring sentiment, Mister Potter."
The low, silken voice delivered five thousands volts of electricity to every one of Harry's nerve endings. He craned his neck round and saw –
– a thoroughly displeased-looking Severus Snape towering over his head.
~~ IX ~~
It was somehow both satisfying and upsetting to Snape that he could still produce that look of apprehension on Harry's face.
"How long have you been standing there?"
Ah, now that was a familiar question, one he'd heard countless times in the classroom. And as in the classroom, he didn't answer. Merely stood there, letting the silence enhance the effect.
Harry's expression darkened, and Snape's memories of last night returned with a force which nearly poleaxed him.
You no longer have a right to treat him as a child. Dumbledore again. Annoying git.
"Why don't you join us?" For the first time, Snape paid attention to the man sitting across the table from Harry. One of the crowd from Babylon and Woody's, the tall one.
"We can't stay," Snape said, casting a meaningful glower in Harry's direction.
"I'll just order something to go, then," Harry said. "Anything for you?"
Snape shook his head, once; Harry slid out of the booth and headed for the counter. Snape made to follow him, but was stopped by the voice of the other man.
"Take a load off, Professor," he said. Or perhaps ordered would be a better word. Snape turned to face the man and was met by a surprisingly intense gaze which brooked no argument.
Sighing, Snape complied. He was not in the mood for this.
The man nodded in the direction of the lunch counter, where Harry was speaking with the redheaded waitress. "He's an interesting kid. Well, not a kid, I should say. Not anymore."
Snape frowned. "Why do you say that?"
The man laid his elbows on the table and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Well," he said sweetly, "you fucked him last night, didn't you?"
Snape's jaw dropped, for an instant too stunned to keep his own counsel. "Did he tell you that?"
The other man treated him to a silence of his own.
"I – " Snape clamped his mouth shut. What did it matter what this Muggle thought of him? His opinion was worth even less than Snape's own.
The other man waved a hand. "Never mind. I don't need the details." He snorted. "Definitely not your typical eighteen-year-old, though. He actually sets another person's happiness before his own."
Snape resisted the urge to cast Petrificus on the whole bloody restaurant.
The other man continued. "He deserves somebody who can love him like that in return. If you're not that guy, you'd better tell him before you break him."
"I don't see how it's any of your business," Snape growled.
"It is, and it's not," the man admitted. "You see – and I don't know if you've noticed this – but there's something about Harry that makes you want to look out for him."
I've noticed, thought Snape. I've noticed since he was a snot-nosed brat of eleven.
"It's corny, because, hell, we don't always know how to take care of ourselves. But for all his toughness – and he is tough – there's an openness there, a refusal to hide. And since we're so used to hiding, I guess we can't help but root for him to hang onto that, for as long as he can." He chuckled. "Me, I had a chip on my shoulder bigger 'n Mount Washington when I was his age. Took me a while to realize that wasn't any way to live." He speared Snape with a meaningful stare.
"I hope you're not waiting for any reciprocal confessions," grated Snape.
The other man merely laughed. "Well, I'm sure I don't know what he sees in you. You probably don't, either."
Snape's jaw clenched.
"But the fact is," the other man persisted, "that Harry sees it. If he were most teenagers in love, that wouldn't count for shit. With him – well." A small smile. "Who knows?"
Snape sucked in a breath.
"Okay," Harry said brightly, a paper bag clenched tightly in his fist. "I'm ready to go."
Snape practically bounded out of the seat. He turned away as Harry and the other man exchanged good-byes, and left the restaurant without another word.
The short chat he had with Debbie at the counter helped him to regain some much-needed equilibrium. He knew that Snape would be livid if Harry ever discussed their relationship with anyone, and he supposed he couldn't blame him. If word ever got out about what they had done last night, and what Harry still hoped to do, the consequences for Snape could be grave. Despite Harry's arguments about extenuating circumstances, he hadn't yet lost all touch with reality.
But on the other hand, Justin and Emmett were hardly going to go haring off to Dumbledore with the particulars. And it felt surprisingly good to talk with another person about his feelings. He'd spent large portions of his life suppressing them, or denying they even existed, in order to retain his sanity. The freedom he was experiencing with these people, so different to him and yet so alike in many ways, was a heady thing.
"Hey, honey," Debbie grinned when he approached the counter. "How come you didn't sit in my section today?"
Her smile was infectious. "I thought you'd be sick to death of me by now," he answered playfully.
"Not a chance." She wagged a finger at him. "You're gonna be here for the rally Saturday, right? Noon, starting at City Hall. Did Justin tell you about it?"
Harry shook his head.
"That kid," Debbie sighed, exasperated. "It's gonna be huge. It's a nationwide protest for human rights we've been organizing for months. Not just the gay and lesbian community, but immigrant groups, unions, civil libertarians, homeless advocates – hell, everybody who's fed up with the way things have been going lately. Those assholes in the local and state and federal governments have been gettin' away with murder, and this is our chance to be heard in an important election year, to do something that will affect the future of this country. And afterwards, we're blocking off Liberty Avenue and throwing a big ol' street party." She rolled her eyes. "The only way you can get some gay men to be political is to promise them a chance to shake their booty."
"Sounds wonderful," said Harry. "I'll try to attend."
Debbie fixed him with a look of motherly concern when he ordered a couple of lemon bars to go. "You sure that's all you want, sweetie?"
Harry smiled warmly. "You think I require fattening up, don't you?"
Debbie's mouth quirked at her own transparency. "All you boys are too fuckin' skinny, far as I'm concerned," she mock-grumbled. Then her expression grew serious. "You gonna be okay?"
Harry cast a brief glance back at the booth, where Snape was engaged in a conversation with Emmett. Or, more accurately, where Emmett was engaged in a one-sided conversation with Snape. "I believe so," he replied, hoping he sounded convincing. Truth be told, he wasn't at all sure that Snape wasn't going to have his guts for garters the minute they left the restaurant.
"Well, you need anything, you know where you can find me," Debbie said, as she handed him the small paper bag.
"Thank you," Harry told her, leaning across the counter to give her a brief peck on the cheek. "I'm grateful to have you in my corner."
When he drew back, Debbie's gaze was as fierce as any centaur's. "Count on it," she told him.
Harry blinked once or twice before returning to the table.
"Okay. I'm ready to go."
He couldn't recall ever having seen Snape move so quickly. And when his coal-black eyes met Harry's, there was a flicker of...something that Harry couldn't identify. Perhaps – guilt? But that was ridiculous, wasn't it?
"Will I see you again, Harry?" Emmett asked, his gaze flickering over the both of them.
Harry couldn't look at Snape. "I certainly hope so."
"Well," Emmett said, moving to stand and holding out his arms, "give us a hug, then, laddie."
Harry heard Snape heave an aggrieved sigh as Harry stepped into Emmett's powerful embrace. When they released one another, they exchanged knowing smiles.
"All right," Harry said, once he and Snape were a safe distance from the restaurant, "what's going on?"
Snape did not look at him. "We must return to Hogwarts immediately."
"What?!" exclaimed Harry. "But why?"
"Because," Snape ground out, his stride unbroken, "if Voldemort is not here already, he will be soon."
Harry shook his head. "He's not anywhere near here. I would have felt his presence in my scar. But how do you know he's coming?"
"I shall provide you with the full details once we are safely in Scotland. For now, we must return to the hotel and Apparate from there – "
"Dammit!" Harry exploded, coming to an abrupt halt in the middle of the sidewalk. "Stop treating me like a child. We can take two minutes for you to fill me in now. Starting with how you know Voldemort's on his way."
Snape rounded on him, and for a split second Harry was back in that first class, watching the man swoop down on him like a great, predatory hawk. Well, he'd stood up to him then, and he'd do the same now. He planted his feet firmly and returned Snape's scowl measure for measure.
Snape loomed for another moment or two, then clenched his jaw until Harry felt sure his teeth would crack. Without another word, he led Harry toward a deserted alley, then turned to face him.
"I mentioned my old schoolmate, Ian."
"Marilyn, yes," Harry acknowledged.
"This morning, after you left, I went to see him, believing he may have had something to do with the earlier visit from our American friends." Harry opened his mouth, but Snape held up a hand to silence him. "The reasons were sufficient. He assured me, of course, that he had nothing to do with it. When I was leaving, I noticed that he was wearing a bracelet which I have since identified as part of the Malfoy family's jewelry collection."
Harry nodded. The Malfoys had several artifacts of Voldemort's, including the Riddle diary which had wrought so much havoc in Harry's second year. "But how did you identify it?"
"I returned to London this morning and searched the records at the British Museum."
Harry snorted. "That's a good one. You went all the way back to – "
Snape pinned him with a stony glare.
"Oh," Harry said weakly. "So that's why you were a little late, then."
"Indeed," drawled Snape. "And once I had confirmed it, I knew that it was imperative we leave here immediately."
"But I don't understand. It's not certain Marilyn has any sinister intent, is it? I mean, she could've bought the bracelet, or – "
"It doesn't matter what her intent may be!" roared Snape, his patience apparently deserting him. "Whether or not she is being controlled by the bracelet against her will is immaterial. The fact remains that there is a sinister intent at work."
"But how do you know?" Harry persisted.
With sharp, jerky movements, Snape unbuttoned the cuff of his left sleeve and yanked the material up his forearm.
The Dark Mark on Snape's arm appeared as freshly branded as it must have on the night it was bestowed.
"Oh, Merlin," breathed Harry. Of its own volition, his hand reached toward the angry red flesh. "You – it must hurt terribly."
Snape's face registered a mix of emotions before the mask fell back into place. "It is – unpleasant," he admitted. "If I had access to some of my potions ingredients – but I didn't have time – "
"Listen," said Harry quietly. "After the last battle, my scar looked something like this, and the pain wasn't diminishing. I, ah, found an obscure spell in one of the Restricted Section books, and I tried it on myself. It helped, a bit. Shall I – ?" He cast a glance over his shoulder, and finding them to be alone, partially withdrew his wand from his knapsack.
Snape met Harry's questioning gaze. In those black orbs, Harry caught a glimpse of something he would never have expected.
But he was not afraid that Harry would hurt him.
Snape was afraid to accept his help. To need or to want something, anything that another human being might have to offer.
To admit that Harry might have something worth taking, no matter how insignificant.
Please, Harry pleaded silently. Let me in.
After an eternity, Snape said, "Yes. All right," and Harry released his indrawn breath.
Taking out his wand, Harry positioned it over Snape's outstretched arm. An immense wave of tenderness washed over him as he regarded the exposed skin of Snape's pale wrist, contrasting sharply with the hideous scarlet Mark.
Closing his eyes, he began the incantation, moving the wand at right angles to Snape's forearm. As he spoke the final words, he traced the lines of the Mark as gently as he could with the tip of his wand. Snape's fist clenched, but that was his only reaction.
Harry lifted his wand and made a graceful arc over the affected area. "Initium Salubris," he intoned, and Snape's arm was suddenly encased in a golden glow.
Snape's eyes widened, and he exhaled on a sigh.
"Better?" Harry enquired tentatively as the glow faded.
Snape's arm dropped loosely to his side. "Yes," he murmured, flexing his fingers experimentally. "Yes, much better."
Harry realized that he'd moved closer to Snape as he was performing the spell; he could feel Snape's breath on his face. Slowly, allowing Snape the chance to stop him, Harry reached up and laid his hand on Snape's cheek. His thumb brushed across the sharp, haughty jut of Snape's cheekbone, then glided lower to sweep over his chin. Harry's heart kick-started as Snape's lips parted slightly and his gaze lowered to Harry's mouth.
Harry was about to close the remaining distance between them when Snape spoke again.
"We should go."
It took Harry a moment to switch gears. He drew his hand away with great reluctance. "Back to the hotel?"
"And thence to Hogwarts."
Harry frowned. "But – we're just going to leave your friend behind? What if she is being controlled by the bracelet? Shouldn't we try to help her?"
"I will inform the CWA agents of the situation once we are home again."
"I don't trust those two," said Harry stubbornly. "What if they're in on the whole thing?"
"Harry – "
"And what about my friends? If Voldemort has something planned for Pittsburgh, they could be in danger."
"There have been very few incidents to date involving Muggles."
"There have been deaths."
"Six," Snape growled. "As opposed to hundreds of witches and wizards."
"Does that make those lives any less valuable?" Harry countered. "Attacks against Muggles have been on the rise. He's getting bolder every time."
"I'm aware of that," Snape snapped. "But the Americans can take care of their own affairs. There's no evidence Voldemort has anything planned over here for the near future."
The near future. The words echoed in Harry's head. The future.
– to do something that will affect the future of this country –
"Bloody hell," he whispered.
Snape stared at him. "What is it?"
"Remember what you said about the American wizards being worried we'd be blamed for terrorist activity?" Snape nodded impatiently. "Well, what if Voldemort was planning a little terrorism of his own?" Swiftly, he filled Snape in on the details of the rally Debbie had told him about.
Snape frowned. "But what would he hope to gain?"
"You said that Marilyn is in some way affiliated with the CWA?"
"She does some odd jobs for them, yes."
Harry thought. "Well, what if, in cities where they're going to be holding these marches, there are one, perhaps two witches or wizards under his control? As an added bonus, they work for the CWA in one capacity or another. In the midst of a peaceful rally, they spread panic and probably worse; you know how much damage a wizard can do with one good cast, especially if they don't have qualms about using the Unforgivables.
"The incidents lead to a complete purge of the CWA, and maybe even persecution of American wizards. Meanwhile, those who remain loyal to Voldemort lay low until there's a chance to fill the power vacuum."
A muscle in Snape's jaw leapt. "It seems rather farfetched. But – " He trailed off.
"But?" prompted Harry.
"It is a possibility," conceded Snape.
"So how do we begin? Perhaps the Headmaster knows someone in the CWA we can trust – "
Snape shook his head violently. "Listen to me. If you are correct, the danger is far more grave than I thought. If Voldemort finds a way to have us implicated in this mess, the international repercussions could cripple our efforts in Great Britain and Europe. We can't be involved. We must return home immediately."
Harry met Snape's intense gaze and felt a pang of regret. He knew Snape cared for him, that he wanted to protect him. Whether or not that caring tended in the direction Harry wished for it to go was irrelevant; the fact remained that Snape sincerely desired for Harry to be safe.
Which made it all the more difficult for Harry to disappoint him.
"I'm sorry," Harry said firmly. "I can't abandon these people to some unknown fate. You'll likely say it's too bloody Gryffindor of me, but I can't help that. I have to do whatever I can."
Snape made a noise somewhere between a snort and a grunt. "I see. With less than forty-eight hours remaining, unable to trust a soul on the entire continent, you will singlehandedly save American wizardry from a plot which has been months, perhaps years, in the making. I am aware that it's considered bad form for teachers to discourage the ambitions of their students, but I nevertheless feel compelled to suggest you have gone completely round the twist."
Harry scowled at him. "I'll think of something. Just give me some time – "
"There is no more time," Snape informed him calmly. "We need to leave now."
"You can leave if you wish," murmured Harry, stung at Snape's curt tone. It had been too much to hope, he supposed, that Snape would join the fray with him. However, he had rather hoped Snape might at least understand his position. "But I'm staying."
"That is your final decision?"
"Very well," Snape told him, turning his back abruptly.
Harry's heart plummeted. Was that all? Was this how the vacation ended, not even with a goodbye, with any acknowledgment –
Then Snape spun back round, and Harry's spirit soared.
He did not see the wand in Snape's hand until it was too late.
"Immobilus," Snape murmured, the word as softly voiced as an endearment.
~~ X ~~
When Snape released him at the edge of the Hogwarts grounds, Harry's legs were so cramped that Snape had to hold him to keep him from pitching forward onto the grass.
Just one more thing I'll be paying for, he thought grimly.
"Give it a minute," Snape hissed into Harry's ear as Harry began to struggle in his grasp. "Your muscles will relax shortly."
Harry shook his head, and Snape heard his neck crack unpleasantly. "Let. Me. Go," he gritted.
"I don't care," Harry growled.
"Harry," Snape heard himself pleading. "Let me help you."
"You've done enough for one day," Harry spat, jerking away roughly. He took a couple of stumbling steps in the darkness, then regained his footing a split-second before he toppled.
And Snape stood, frozen, watching Harry walk away from him.
"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Ron demanded, his deep voice laced with concern.
Harry forced his limbs to obey him as he hobbled up the stone steps. Perfect. Thanks to the time difference, he had the good fortune to enter the castle just as the students were leaving the Great Hall after supper.
He felt the warmth of bodies and heard the buzzing, murmuring noise of conversation, but tried his best to ignore them. Then a hand touched his arm.
Hermione. God love her. "I have to get to Dumbledore," he told them, eyes still focused on his feet, as though his concentrated gaze would help them move.
"You look worn out," Hermione said quietly. "Let's get you up to Gryffindor Tower for a bit of a rest – "
"No!" shouted Harry. The buzzing in his immediate vicinity fell silent, and he continued in a softer voice. "There's no time, I tell you. I have to see him now."
"That won't be necessary, Mister Potter."
Harry's eyes rose to meet the stern stare of Professor McGonagall. The other students, with the exception of Ron and Hermione, had parted before her like the Red Sea before Moses.
"Your first priority is to eat, then to get a good night's rest. The House Elves will deliver a supper to your room."
"But – "
"No 'buts', Potter," she informed him sternly. "Headmaster Dumbledore is aware of the situation, and he is taking action. He will meet with you in the morning. Seven a.m. sharp." And with a swish of her robes, she stalked off, forestalling any further debate on the matter.
Harry took a deep breath, then let it out, resisting the urge to scream at the top of his lungs. Even after all this time, all these years of true friendship from the two people flanking him, after nearly two years of working in concert with other wizards to fight Voldemort, he was still loath to trust in anyone but himself. And just when he had begun to trust –
– No. He wouldn't think of that now, with a hundred pairs of eyes trained on him.
"Come on, then," Ron said, one hand resting comfortingly on Harry's shoulder.
Silently, Harry nodded, and allowed himself to be led.
"Ah, Harry. Come in, my boy, come in. Sit down."
Harry walked as proudly as possible into Dumbledore's office, his stride purposeful, his back straight despite his fatigue. He had stayed up half the night tossing and turning, his mind replaying the events of the past few days over and over again. Then he had spent the rest of it silently rehearsing the arguments he planned to use at this meeting.
He managed to reach the ring of huge wing chairs around Dumbledore's desk without making a complete arse of himself, but then he hadn't opened his mouth as yet. He kept his gaze steady as he met McGonagall's penetrating glare, then caught a slight movement of black at his extreme left and took in Snape, returned to the formality of his teaching robes. Was it Harry's imagination, or did he seem rather drawn and pale – paler than usual, at any rate? Probably just the effect of the familiar clothing, he decided, trying not to recall how handsome Snape had looked in the Muggle togs Emmett had selected for him.
He inclined his head gravely, and Snape returned the gesture in kind. Something small and cold grasped Harry's heart in a tight grip, then released it before it could stop beating altogether.
"We're wanting our two guests, I'm afraid – ah, here they are." As though Dumbledore's words had the power to conjure – and of course, they did, thought Harry foolishly – the Floo promptly flashed and disgorged two figures, both of them tall and slender. Harry watched as the smoke cleared, and every ounce of his carefully rehearsed maturity disappeared as he recognized –
"Harry, m'lad. Come give your godfather a bloody great hug." The command was a kindness, because it excused a shameless display of affection which the teenager would have bestowed anyway. Harry stepped round the chairs and enfolded Sirius in a powerful embrace, squeezing for all he was worth.
"Merlin! You're stronger than I remember!" The Chief Auror and Minister of Special Services laughed, returning the hug.
"My bastard of a boss has me on a punishing exercise regimen," Harry said, giving him a final pat before releasing him.
"Ungrateful whelp. Those biceps are probably leaving the girls in a – "
McGonagall cleared her throat loudly, and Sirius stepped back and gave a tiny cough.
"Albus, you're looking well."
"As are you, Minister."
Sirius stuck out his tongue. "Please. I hate that bollicky title."
"Perhaps you would prefer 'Spot'?"
All heads turned toward Snape, who was still leaning against the wall.
"I missed you, too, Severus," Sirius said drily. Moving aside, he added, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I'd like to introduce you to my colleague. Harry, Severus, Minerva, this is Frankie Hyde. Of course, you already know one another, Albus."
The woman who had emerged from the Floo with Sirius stepped forward and smiled at the others. Though perhaps stepped was inappropriate, for it would be more accurate to say she glided. Her robes were a rich forest green and similar to Snape's dueling robes, form-fitting on top and full below, though hers were cut low, to a point just above the swell of her breasts. Harry guessed her age to be about thirty. Her auburn hair was cut boyishly short, her long face well-formed and equipped with a strong jaw, and her largish hands were tapered and graceful
"Pleased to meet you all," she said, in a mellow, pleasing voice. Her vowels were not jarringly American; rather, she possessed one of those polished Eastern Seaboard accents Harry had heard in old Muggle films. She swept a hand over the chairs. "Shall we get to it, then?"
"Still eager as always, eh, Francine?" Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Albus, I only have to remind you my people invented the 'New York Minute,'" she said, grinning toothily. One by one, the six of them sat. Harry kept his focus on the right, toward Frankie and Sirius and away from Snape.
"First, a little about myself for those of you who don't know who the hell I am. I'm with a secret branch of the CWA – " Harry stiffened a little at this but made no comment " – dedicated to the maintenance of American wizarding security. We've been convinced for some time now that Voldemort poses a great threat to the US, and have been on the alert for any signs of activity."
"The views of your department are not shared by the rest of your government," Harry said stonily. He felt Snape's glare boring into the back of his head.
Hyde merely blew out a breath. "You're right about that. We're a little – ah, unorthodox in our views."
The upward movement of Dumbledore's eyebrow was very nearly audible. "All right," the woman conceded, "a lot unorthodox."
"I believe my other contact in the CWA dubbed you 'a pack of war-mongers'," the Headmaster said mildly.
To Harry's surprise, the American threw back her head and laughed. "That's not the first time I've heard it, and it's not the worst I've heard. But they're not down with the field informants like we are. Things have been happening for a while. We just didn't know when, or where, he was going to risk trying something big."
"So you believe me?" Harry said, forgetting his determination to stay cool. "You're going to do something about it?"
"Let the woman speak, Mister Potter," McGonagall said wearily.
"No, it's all right," said Frankie. "Cut to the chase, then. Yes, we're going to do something. We already have. When Albus called me last night, we started checking up on our field personnel – not the agents, because they're screened regularly for any kinds of hexes, potions or other coercive magic, but people who work for us now and then like your buddy Marilyn – and it turned out we had a lot who hadn't reported in at all the week of January 4-10 of this year. It was too weird, too regular. Even if you leave aside the ones who had way too good a time at the New Year's Eve party, that still leaves at least a couple in about forty cities."
"Forty!" breathed Harry. "Bloody bollocks."
"Exactly," agreed Hyde. "We think that's when your boy and his little friends moved on them. They kept it as quiet as possible, but it sure as hell looks like a coordinated effort." She reached into her robe pocket and extracted a long, white cigarette holder. "Anybody mind if I smoke? I'll set up an Air Purifying charm."
No-one answered, and Dumbledore waved a hand. "Thanks," she said, lighting the end of the cigarette with a brief flick of her wand, then reclining back in the chair. The smoke emerged from the tip, then disappeared before it could reach anyone else. Harry imagined the same thing would happen with the ash. "I think better with one of these," Hyde said on a long exhale.
She turned to Harry. "We're grateful to you for picking up on this, and mightily pissed off that we overlooked it. Your hunch may still turn out to be nothing, but we can't afford to take that chance. The problem is, I don't have enough agents I can trust for an operation of this size. Luckily, Sirius has offered to lend us a few of his Aurors, and if we can slip them into the country quietly, we can put them to good use in some of the major centers."
"Would Pittsburgh be one of the major centres?" Harry asked warily.
Hyde blew smoke. "We're more concerned with New York, Washington, Seattle, LA and San Francisco. Those are the places where the demonstrations will probably be the biggest."
"How many agents do you have detailed to Pittsburgh?"
Hyde flicked a glance at Sirius. "We should be able to spare one of ours," he told her.
"Only one?" protested Harry, then calmed himself before someone could reprimand him. "Well, that should be enough. Will you be arresting the suspects today?"
"Arresting?" Hyde said incredulously. "Did Britain turn into a police state when I wasn't looking?"
Dumbledore smiled enigmatically. "It would certainly expedite some of our current problems. But no."
"Well, back in the U S of A, we still have this pesky thing called the Constitution, and it's not just for the Muggles. We don't have any hard evidence linking Voldemort to the agents we've identified, and we can't move without it."
"Then how do you intend to stop them?" Harry demanded.
"My people and Sirius' will attend the demonstrations and keep tabs on the suspects," Hyde answered calmly.
Harry stared at her. "You must be joking. You're going to wait until they act, and then do something?"
"Harry." Dumbledore this time.
"What's the bloody use of being a bloody secret organization if you can't bend the bloody rules to protect people?" Harry blustered. Deep down, he realized he sounded foolish, but he couldn't seem to care.
Frankie Hyde seemed to take it in stride, however. Rising from her chair, she moved to Dumbledore's desk, then leaned on the edge directly in front of Harry. Another swish of her wand, and the cigarette disappeared. "You have a personal interest in Pittsburgh."
Harry set his jaw firmly. "I do," he admitted. "There are people there I've come to care about. They'll be at the demonstration tomorrow." He took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "And I owe it to them to be there."
"Harry, it's too dangerous for you to go back to America," Sirius said immediately. "If Voldemort is planning what you believe – "
"You've sent me on dangerous operations before," Harry argued.
"But this more than a raid. And if we're discovered, we could be arrested and detained by the American wizarding authorities." Sirius shook his head firmly. "There are just too many complications."
"Dammit," Harry gritted, attempting to keep his voice steady, "I thought of all people that you would understand. These people deserve my protection."
Sirius' startled gaze flew to his face, then looked away, and too late Harry realized the full import of what he had said. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, unwilling to continue the discussion in front of everyone.
Hyde crossed her arms and regarded him coolly. "Sirius tells me you've been an Auror for a while. You've had the full training. You accept the responsibility."
"Yes," agreed Harry, wondering where this was going.
Her words were soft and deliberate, her gray gaze level and inescapable. "Then I want you to think as an Auror. Can you protect these people effectively? All of them, not just your friends?"
Harry hesitated. It was, he knew, a fair question, and deserved some deliberation. Finally, he said, "Yes. I can."
"Be sure. Because their lives will be in your hands."
Harry nodded. "I understand."
Hyde pushed off the desk and glided over to the Floo. "Add him to the list," she said to Sirius.
Sirius' head snapped up, as though he'd been lost in his own thoughts. "There are others – "
"You know we don't have enough as it is. And you're giving me all you can spare." She paused. "I'm sorry. But can he do the job?"
Sirius glared at her for a moment, then closed his eyes briefly. "Yes."
"If you are accepting volunteers, you can add my name to your charming list as well."
Harry's hands convulsed on the arms of the chair.
"Severus," Dumbledore said quietly. "You made three transatlantic Apparition crossings yesterday. Poppy is ready to tie you to a bed."
Oh, bollocks. That hadn't even occurred to Harry. Slowly, he turned to face Snape, and for the first time since he'd come in, allowed himself the chance to study the man. The lines of exhaustion were now clearly apparent, and Harry felt a small pang of regret. Of course Snape was drained; Apparition was strenuous enough over short distances, but Snape had journeyed thousands of miles in a few short hours, the last stretch with Harry as deadweight.
Although that last wasn't exactly my fault, he thought stubbornly.
Snape faced down the Headmaster as easily as he might have a quivering First Year. "You charged me with a task, and I intend to see it through to completion."
Harry's face burned. So that was it; he was a bloody task, like mixing a fresh batch of Pepper-Up potion for the Infirmary stores. He wanted to leap up and shout that he didn't need protection, but that would only have succeeded in making him look far more childish than Snape was managing to do. All Aurors worked in teams, and from the way Hyde had spoken, she hadn't even been intending to send an agent to Pittsburgh. Moreover, she was right: he couldn't afford to allow his personal feelings to interfere with this operation.
Dumbledore nodded. "Very well, Severus. But you will both need to get some rest." He turned to Frankie. "What time is the briefing?"
"Five p.m. tonight, New York time."
"Fine. That gives you a chance to catch up on your rest, at least. I'll have Poppy bring you both some Dreamless Sleep." Snape opened his mouth. "No arguments," said the Headmaster sternly, and Snape closed it again.
"How will S- Professor Snape return to America?" Harry heard himself asking. All eyes swiveled toward him, and Harry felt himself blushing once more. "I mean, as you said, Headmaster, he's pretty worn out. Will eight hours be enough?"
"I am not an invalid," growled Snape.
Nor am I, though you saw fit to treat me as one, Harry thought, biting his lip to keep from saying it aloud. "I'm merely – concerned."
Dumbledore smiled benignly. "Of course, Harry. Our Aurors must look out for one anothers' well-being. But Professor Snape will not be Apparating to America, nor will any of you." He arched an eyebrow at Hyde.
"We'll head to London, then cross to Washington via Floo," she informed them blandly.
Harry gaped. "I'm sorry – did you say London to Washington? On the Floo Network?"
Frankie grinned. "It's a secure line, not available to the public. We have all the fun toys, fellas."
"Oh, goody," drawled Snape. "Just like Christmas."