Most of the world changed. It moved and evolved. Hogwarts, Harry was coming to find, didn't. The dungeons still smelled of damp mold and the torches still barely illuminated the corridors. Sounds were muted, as though the entire space were packed with cotton. In his school days it had seemed unnatural how the vaulted stone hallways killed the echoes of footfalls rather than amplifying them. Today he took comfort in the peculiar acoustics. They reminded him of his childhood and the aberrant normalcy that had characterized it.
A dozen more steps and he was at the Potions classroom. Harry paused, crossed his arms over his chest, and took a moment to admire Snape's new signage, posted to both sides of his door. The first, hanging to the left and done up in elegant calligraphy, read:
To the right, hung a brass shingle engraved with three words.
Harry ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek. Some things had changed after all.
He knocked, keeping to courtesy, but turned the knob and slipped in without waiting for a verbal invitation. He knew one was unlikely to be issued. Across the long room, Snape sat hunched over his desk, spreading red ink over a stack of parchments. As Harry closed the door, Snape spoke without looking up. "Office hours are clearly marked outside. If you can't read, then I assure you, you and I have nothing to discuss."
Harry blinked. He turned, walked back out into the hall, and took another look at the signs. Covering all his bases, he cast Lumos and squinted at the wall. The verse was the sole decoration to the left. On the right, the shiny brass "Master at Work" twinkled in the wand light. "Hmmm," Harry said.
The second time he entered, he didn't bother knocking. He took his time meandering up the aisles, pausing here and there to let the memories wash over him – few good, most not – and by the time he reached the raised dais at the front of the room, Snape had ceased his violent attack on the essays and was watching him with hooded eyes. Harry stopped in front of his desk and nodded. "Professor."
"Potter," Snape replied.
"How are you?"
Snape's eyes narrowed into slits. He threw down his quill and leaned back in his chair. "So it's to be you, then."
Harry adopted a puzzled look. "Beg your pardon?"
Snape gave a disgusted snort. "I suspected Minerva would try to net an ex-student if she could. Appeal to the reputation of the school and all that rubbish. How she roped you, I've no idea."
"She simply asked."
"You don't come cheap."
Harry resisted – barely – from crossing his arms in front of him. "No respectable Mind Healer does." At a loss with what to do with his hands, now that they itched to spell out his defensiveness in such a blatant nonverbal way, Harry thrust them deep into the pockets of his trousers. He felt no need to let Snape know how colorless and methodical his life had become, regardless of the financial rewards. "She asked for my help. She told me why. Of course I came."
"I'm flattered." Snape retrieved his quill and stabbed it into the red ink.
Harry gave a soft laugh and rocked back on his heels. "I figured you might be."
Snape snarled something under his breath and resumed his grading. Harry waited, adept by now at coping with Snape's puerile behavior. He'd been schooled for years in the art of patience. It was, in fact, a cornerstone of his profession, though he hadn't mastered it at Hogwarts. Delayed gratification wasn't standard curriculum here. At least it hadn't been for him.
He knew he wouldn't be invited to sit – just as he hadn't been invited to enter the room in the first place. But out of his own juvenile need to prove something, he remained standing. He let his eyes rove over Snape's desk and was startled to find, among the jars of newt's eyes and bicorn parts, a Muggle picture of a beautiful lake. The rolling mountains and quaint villages that dotted the shoreline drew his eyes again and again, if for no other reason than the picture's presence on the work surface was incongruent with the man sitting behind it.
Several minutes passed as Snape stabbed and struck at the essays. Red ink splattered over the parchment, the desk, even the front of his pristine robes. One drop, thick enough to run, began a slow trickle down his sleeve. Although red on the parchment, the ink turned maroon on the black wool.
The allusion stripped Harry of some of his patience.
With deliberate nonchalance, he settled himself in a comfortable seat by the front of the room and propped his chin on the palm of his hand. "Is this a bad time?"
"I'm not crazy, Potter."
Harry straightened his glasses. "I don't think you're crazy."
"Well, not yet."
Snape gave up on his grading. This time, he set his quill on the desk with precise care. "I resent these accusations." He pinned Harry with a dark look. "I resent that after nearly twenty-five years, my teaching methods are being questioned."
Harry used his most soothing voice. The same one he'd used three nights ago to placate the witch who'd wanted to fly off Tower Bridge without her broom. "That's not what's happening here, I assure you."
"Isn't it?" Snape leaned forward across the desk.
Harry sighed. "Professor, the way I understand it, your new methods are not methods at all. In fact, there seems to be no method to your…er…madness."
"Is that Mind Healer humor?"
Harry chuckled. "No. Forgive me." He folded his hands in his lap. In plain sight, of course. Some lessons had never left him. "But I am here to talk about recent events. No sense beating about the bush."
"The children are learning." Snape tilted his head to the side. "Is that not my function here? To teach?"
Harry nodded. "To teach Potions."
Snape arched an eyebrow. "So you see, nothing has changed. I am employed to impart knowledge. I am…imparting."
Harry took a deep breath. It wouldn't do to alienate his patient so early on; the damage could be irreversible. On the other hand, this was Snape. How much more alienated from each other could they get? Harry decided to drive straight to the point. "You're being nice, Professor. Agreeable. Helpful. Funny." He winced. "The students like you." He paused again, remembering the signs outside the door. "Most of the time, anyway. Regardless, your behavior has become a bit unpredictable."
Snape gave a grave nod. "I dress to impress. Though, not everyone shares my taste in fine linen."
Harry's structured speech went to hell. "I…what did you say?"
Without warning, Snape's face crumpled. The abrupt change threw Harry even more off guard. "Professor?" He rose half out of his seat.
Snape lowered his head into trembling hands. "I'm tired, Potter. May we continue this another time?"
Harry made an abortive move forward before he remembered who sat across the desk. "Of course," he answered.
Snape nodded and swept away, disappearing through the rear door of the lab.
Harry waited four days before he came around again, timing his visit to coincide with the end of Snape's last class.
"I do hope they're not paying you by the hour," Snape said when Harry arrived.
"I wouldn't worry about that." Harry stepped to the side as students began filing out. "May I have a word?"
"You might as well," Snape said, turning away.
Harry sidestepped Snape's robes as they snapped behind him. "Thank you."
To his surprise, the front-most seats were still filled with students. Chattering. Lingering. Harry stroked his chin. Yet another mystery. No one ever willingly sat near the front of the room in Potions, or dallied after class. Not even Slytherins. Unless, of course, they fancied the professor. Or had come to terms with their own mortality. Harry, being the lucky bastard that he was, had managed both in his lifetime.
The respect for his mortality (or lack thereof, depending on who you talked to) had resolved after Voldemort's defeat. Harry was a cautions soul these days. The infatuation had ended too, and with much less fanfare. Realism followed caution. At sixteen, Harry had known that Snape would never want him.
Harry gave the remaining students another curious glance before following Snape through the rear door and into the lab.
When they were seated, one on either side of Snape's desk, Harry gestured to the door, where the hum of voices was still audible. "This relates, I think, to why I'm here."
Snape's brows furrowed and Harry continued. "Professor, the students are enjoying your classes."
"A vague, nonsensical opening."
Harry refused to rise to the bait. "And I can't say for sure if the agent for that enjoyment is appropriate." He cleared his throat. "It's been brought to my attention that you brewed Ageing Potion two days ago in your sixth-year Gryffindor/Slytherin class."
Snape shrugged. "It's a sixth-year potion."
"Yes. But you had the students ingest the potion before they attempted to brew it."
Snape's lip quirked. "Are you coming around to an actual point?"
"Yes, actually." Harry folded his fingers together. "Twenty-seven students – children – were aged to the age of eighty. Over half became senile."
Snape held up a finger. "I made sure those who suffered from age-onset dementia were paired with more cognizant individuals."
Harry refused to be deterred. "Then you transfigured their chairs into walkers and held…races."
"The Slytherins won, of course."
Harry spoke without thinking. "They cheated, I'm sure."
"I resent that."
"You encourage that."
Snape gave a bored sigh. "They had fun, Potter. The Ageing Potion is elementary, at best, and takes less than thirty minutes to brew. How better to fill the time?"
"Take notes?" Harry felt a twang of jealousy, and just a tiny flash of resentment. His class had always been made to take notes.
Snape rolled his eyes. "How dull." He stood and began to unfasten his teaching robes. Harry, faced with the sudden manifestation of his teenage fantasies (for how often had he imagined this exact scenario), promptly lost his train of thought.
Harry started, recovering as best he could. "You can't sit there and tell me that was normal behavior for you."
Harry shook his head. "You can't."
Snape curled his lip as he shed his robe. As he threw it over the back of his chair, Harry's next statement, balanced on the tip of his tongue, dried up. He had to lick his lips twice before he could speak. "You're wearing…red." He blinked at the scarlet button-down tucked into the trademark black trousers. "Red," he said again to himself.
Snape made a show of rolling up his sleeves and brushing his hands down the front of the crisp cotton. He leered at Harry. "It matches my favorite ink." Then, he winked.
Harry jerked to his feet, clutching the chair for balance as the world tilted even further askew. "I've taken enough of your time," he blurted.
Snape was slower to rise. Harry froze in place, unable to rip his eyes from the red shirt. In it, Snape jumped into sharp relief against the pallet of browns and grays that filled the room. He popped, and it made Harry's stomach flip.
It brought to mind another recollection. In the midst of the war, Harry had learned a terrible, dark spell. When cast, it produced horrifying illusions. The very laws of geometry and physics were rewritten. The sky became the earth and time ran backward. The incongruity of what people saw as opposed to what they knew incapacitated them. Some went mad on the spot. Harry had thought it brilliant magic. He had never found the courage to use it.
Now, with a scrap of cotton and a few drops of dye, Snape had managed to replicate the effects of that spell without lifting a finger – except perhaps to fit it through a sleeve.
"What's wrong with you, Potter? Have you sat in your stuffy office for so long that you've forgotten how to have fun?"
The shirt became easier to look at with each passing minute. Sensing the danger was past, or at least passing, Harry sank back into his chair. He kept a wary eye on Snape. "Fun?" he croaked.
"Yes, Potter. My, you are dull." Snape sat as well. "When was the last time you did something for fun?" He twirled his quill between his fingers. Red ink splattered from the still-damp tip and landed on Harry's robe.
He ignored the ink, but the statement was a different matter. Such nonchalance from one who should know better made him bristle. "Oh, I don't know. The last time I did something for fun? Maybe around the age of one or so." Bitter memories surfaced, but he swallowed them along with the obligatory resentment.
Obviously, he hadn't acted fast enough. Snape rolled his eyes. "Poor Potter. Let's call Dobby and order up some pity tea." He snapped his fingers, barking out his order when the timid house-elf appeared.
Harry's chest loosened in a perverse sense of relief. This was the Snape he knew. When Dobby reappeared a moment later with the tea, Harry accepted it. "You don't believe you're acting odd?" he pressed.
"Of course I'm acting odd. It's what I do." Snape brushed a piece of lint from his shirt.
Harry shook his head back and forth as he blew across the tea. "Noooo," he said. "What you do is act bad-tempered, mean, and unfriendly."
Snape stopped fussing with his shirt, for which Harry was glad. Being constantly reminded of its presence was distracting. Snape met Harry's eyes across the desk. "That is how you remember me."
It wasn't a question, but Harry nodded anyway. At last, Snape was opening up. Harry thought it productive to encourage him. "Is that not how you remember it?"
A sly smile spread over Snape's face, and Harry knew he'd been caught. He sighed into his tea and wondered, not for the first time, if he was the most qualified Mind Healer to treat the maybe-crazy, maybe-not, ex-Death Eater.
"Do you like music?" Snape asked out of the blue.
Harry sipped his tea and dissected all four words, looking for the trap. "Some."
"Some," Harry answered. "Chocolate," he added unnecessarily.
Snape nodded. "I prefer chocolate myself." That said, he melted back into his seat. One leg lifted over the other to cross at the knee as his fingers settled into worn grooves on the chair arms. Harry had never seen him look more relaxed. Another anomaly of behavior. Yet it suited him, although why Harry would think so was a mystery. The red shirt's influence most likely.
He cast about for how to proceed. "Um."
"The one thing I've always loved about you, Potter, is your eloquence."
Harry blushed. "I—"
"What about sex?" Snape asked, cutting him off.
Harry licked his lips and tried not to act as though he were sixteen again. His mind, of course, refused to cooperate. His eyes saw Snape, and his ears heard "sex". Predictably, his body wanted in on the action. He cleared this throat and crossed his own legs. It bought time; he could care less what kind of signal it sent. "What about it?"
Snape cocked his head to the side. His leg dropped to the floor with a thump and he leaned forward. "Do. You. Like. It?"
I honestly can't remember, Harry thought. Out loud he said, "That's a ridiculous question."
"What about flying?"
Harry caught his breath. "I don't fly anymore."
Snape slapped his knee and sat back. Harry jumped. "You see?" Snape said. "That's what I'm talking about." He pointed one long finger to emphasize his point. "That is exactly what I'm talking about."
Professional courtesy went only so far. Snape was stripping away his objectivity with incredible speed, and Harry felt he owed it to Minerva to be upfront about his evaluation to date.
"There's very little I can tell you," he admitted. "Except that you need an impartial third party. I don't think I should be here."
"Oh, do give it some more time, Potter," Minerva begged him. "You've made so much progress."
"I've made no progress."
Minerva pursed her lips. "Well, it seemed like the thing to say."
The invitation was delivered by owl two nights later – by Hedwig to be precise. Harry turned it over and over in his hands as he reminisced. In his school days, a note from Snape had meant a twelve-inch assignment on some obscure potion ingredient – the inevitable punishment for turning in substandard work, of which Harry had been a particular offender (according to Snape).
Later, during the war, the tight scrawl would manifest on whatever spare scrap of parchment had been available and always brought news of death or misery in some capacity. Snape never wrote to say hello or comment on the weather.
But tonight, Snape had sent Harry the equivalent of a red shirt.
A written invitation. For cake.
"It better be chocolate," Harry mumbled to Hedwig.
He tickled the pear at exactly midnight, as instructed. And although he had expected house-elves, he got Snape instead – bent at the waist, trim apron tied up in a knot, removing a large chocolate cake from the oven.
The cake tottered when Snape spun around. "What are you doing here?" he growled.
Harry blinked. "You invited me."
"I would rather live in the Owlery." Snape turned away.
Harry's lips formed an answer, but he bit it back. While in school, he had often fantasized about living in the Owlery. It sure as hell had been more appealing than the Tower on many occasions. Though, he doubted now was the time to bring that up. Instead, he remained silent and considered his options.
By now Snape's turn of mood was familiar, if not unpredictable. Harry fingered the note in his pocket – proof that Snape had invited him – and considered the timing of a confrontation, should he decide to pursue one. Midnight in the kitchen was hardly the venue for exorcising deep-seated emotional issues, but…the opportunity was there. Snape allowed him so few of those.
On the other hand, if he made an issue of the invitation now, he may not get any cake. He cleared his throat. "That smells delicious. Are you going to share?"
Snape shook a finger at him, but as the finger was attached to his hand, which was still encased in an oven mitt, all Harry got was a peculiar looking wave. "What do you think you're doing, Potter?"
Excellent question. Despite whatever else might be going on in his brain, Snape was still capable of thinking on his feet. "Just fetching a midnight snack."
"And trying to prove I'm crazy."
"Innocent until proven guilty, Professor."
Snape sniffed and turned back to the cake. "That has not been my experience."
Nor mine, Harry thought with a frown, but he buried the pessimism and forged ahead. "Listen, what harm can it do to chat? I'm not your enemy."
Snape slammed the pan onto the counter. "Very well," he said as he executed a Cooling Charm over the cake, "but I insist that the conversation be just that – a conversation. Not, as I'm sure you would enjoy, a one-sided regurgitation of my thoughts and feelings."
Negotiation had never been Harry's strong suit. "Fine."
Snape frosted the cake before levitating it to the table. Harry grinned when it landed, and Snape rolled his eyes. "What does it say about you, Potter, when a mass of flour and sugar can make you so happy?" He cut the cake and passed Harry a plate.
Harry shrugged. "I just…really like it. And I don't have it very often anymore. Too decadent." He frowned as the confessions flew forth and, with conscious effort, shut his mouth.
"Fool," Snape muttered. He slid his fork through his cake, making sure to capture as much frosting as possible, before guiding it to his mouth. In between bites of his own dessert, Harry watched Snape eat. Each morsel was worshipped – texture, aroma and taste. Sensual was the only word in Harry's extensive repertoire of psychobabble that fit the scene.
"Another piece?" he asked when Snape had cleaned his plate.
Snape arched an eyebrow. "Coming down with something, Potter? You sound awfully hoarse."
Harry cleared his throat and redirected. "Why were you here, at midnight, baking a cake, Professor?"
Snape cut himself a second slice. It fell sideways onto the plate with a soft splat, chocolate frosting oozing over the rim. "I thought you liked chocolate, Potter."
"Severus," Harry said, pleased when Snape threw him a sharp glance. It was time to up the stakes, he had decided. Snape liked straightforward. Harry was capable of straightforward, despite how he earned his living. "You sent me a note tonight, inviting me here for cake. Now you claim you did no such thing. You and I both know this isn't the first time something like this has happened in recent weeks. I'm not expecting you to confess to a psychological problem, but I would appreciate some cooperation. I'd like the chance to talk with you."
Snape licked his fork. "I don't have a psychological problem."
Harry prayed for patience. "I just said—"
"It's a spychological problem."
Harry's mouth snapped shut, and he fought the urge to smile. He fiddled with his cake, drawing random designs in the dark frosting until Snape spoke again.
"You think I'm unaware."
"Unaware?" Harry asked.
"Of what's happening to me. I'm not."
Harry set his fork down. "All right."
"I can control it."
"Is that so?" Harry slid his plate to the side.
Snape raised his eyes, but he didn't look at Harry. Instead, he focused on some object over his shoulder. "However," he said, "I'm not sure I have any desire to."
Harry leaned forward. Finally, the root of the problem. "Why?"
"Because…I like chocolate."
Harry brought the leftover cake to his meeting with Minerva. In a perfect world, she would have recognized the gesture as unusual – perhaps even inquired after its origin. Since nothing in Harry's life was perfect, all she did was cut a generous piece for herself and a smaller piece for Harry while he related the conversation from the night before.
Minerva paused, fork in midair. "You're saying he's aware?"
"He says he's aware."
"Of what?" The cake disappeared into her mouth.
Harry sighed. "I suppose of how he's been behaving."
"Extraordinary," Minerva said. "Do you think the children are in any danger?"
"The children?" Harry shook his head. "No, and that's not my primary concern."
Minerva snorted before shoveling more cake into her mouth. "But it is mine."
Snape avoided him for the next two days, and Harry let him. It was true that caution led to realism, but too much realism was downright depressing.
On the afternoon of the second day, he escaped the castle and headed for the lake. Following the twisting, rocky border had always calmed him. Only certain areas of the shoreline were visible from the castle, and by following a circuitous path, one he had perfected over time, he could enjoy some much needed solitude. He reached his favorite copse of trees and sank onto a large, flat rock.
It seemed years of schooling, followed by even longer years of professional experience, were worth very little while within the mighty walls of Hogwarts. Between Minerva's nagging and Snape's evading, Harry felt like a jejune schoolboy. Petulant, he plucked at the thick moss. Though it was useful in some circumstances, he had come to hate the inflexibility of his professional persona. It left him very little with which to defend himself. As a perfect example, Minerva had hired him wanting a blathering sycophant and thought him thick for not recognizing her agenda – which of course, he had, though he couldn't admit to it.
Snape just considered him young, naïve and ignorant, and although his "patient" didn't hold the power over him that Minerva did, it was Snape's opinion that upset Harry the most. Probably because it was only a matter of time before Snape discovered that Harry fancied him – again. It hadn't taken long, he thought with a cringe, for his old feelings to return, spurred to life by current events. Snape was as astute as they came (crazy or not). He had discovered Harry's infatuation all those years ago, and with Harry's abysmal luck, he'd figure it out again.
Though, he had to admit, even when slapped in the face with Harry's adolescent desires, which he had gleaned through one sad, lonely moment of weakness, Snape had never used the information to embarrass or taunt him. As relieved as Harry had been at the time, he had still thought it out of character.
"I need a life," Harry whispered.
"I couldn't agree more," a voice replied.
"And some privacy." Harry gave a resigned glance over his shoulder. "Professor."
"Hello, Harry." Snape folded himself onto the small space left on Harry's rock. "Enjoying the warm weather?"
Harry ignored the use of his first name and the pleasant greeting. The way Snape had molded himself to his side was more difficult to overlook. "I suppose," he muttered, edging away.
"It's beautiful here."
"Out of all the places in the world, save one, this exact spot is where I am most at peace," Snape said.
Harry kicked his brain into therapist mode. "Why here?"
He expected silence, and so, of course, Snape answered at once. "It reminds me of another place. One from my childhood. An untainted place."
"Untainted? By man?"
"By man, yes. But not in the way I suspect you mean." Snape shifted into a more comfortable position, legs stretched out in front of him, and Harry squelched a brief urge to crawl into his lap. "I associate it with purity. It is where I was before the evil took over."
Harry tried to think if he had any such place. "The evil?"
"Is your answer to everything a question?"
"Does that surprise you?" Harry slid his eyes sideways, resisting the offsetting urges to both move closer and shy away.
Snape continued, ignoring their last exchange. "Before the evil. Before I was two people – the one whom I knew and the one whom everyone else knew."
Harry's voice slipped an octave. "When you spied for Dumbledore?"
"Before that." Snape put a finger to his temple and rubbed it in slow circles. "Before Hogwarts."
Harry took a deep breath. Was there no end to the damage that could be wrought to a child? "Would you like to talk about it?"
This time, Snape chose silence. Harry supposed he should be happy with what had been offered. More and more, he sensed that Snape's past had come back to haunt him in a most nefarious way – by stealing his sanity when he should have finally found a measure of peace.
"Is there anywhere you've been truly happy, Harry?" Snape asked.
Harry pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. "Not like your place." He shrugged. "Here, I suppose, if I had to choose somewhere. Hogwarts."
"Hogwarts?" Snape spat. "The place where you nearly lost your life countless times? Where you were betrayed by friends? Manipulated like a puppet and thrown into danger repeatedly by those who should have cared for you?"
"Careful," Harry growled.
Snape sniffed and turned his attention back to the lake. "No one offered you comfort."
"You did. Once." As soon as the words left his mouth, Harry regretted them.
"Not the kind you would have preferred," Snape said. There was no mistaking the hint of humor in his tone.
"But only once," Harry whispered, almost to himself. The memory of how Snape had held him while he cried – mourning life and death all at once – then turned him away when Harry had begged for more, still stung.
"You were just a boy," Snape said.
"In the way it counted, you were."
Harry sighed. "Dumbledore believed in me."
"And he should have done better by you." Snape pulled his cloak around him. "Far better," he muttered.
Harry shook his head. "You have no idea what you're talking about. It isn't right for you to judge."
Snape gave a slow nod. "And now you understand."
Harry sagged. Bested again.
Cool fingers swept over his cheek. A whisper of contact, an apology offered, then accepted when Harry turned into the touch. Snape didn't speak, just cupped Harry's face in his palm and ran his thumb over his lips. The moment was so brief that Harry hadn't even identified the twist in his stomach before Snape stood, brushed the loose moss from his robe, and swept up the trail. Harry watched him until he was no longer visible. He closed his eyes and recalled how Snape's fingers had felt on his face, only to experience the same sharp twinge, low and deep. With a sigh, he began preparing his speech to Minerva.
"Remaining here violates my code of ethics. I'm no longer impartial." Harry dropped into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't understand how you think I could remain so."
"So, what are you saying, Potter? You're going to abandon him to some overpriced quack that has no idea of who he is, what he's been through?" Minerva pretended to wipe a tear from her eye.
Harry groaned. "Would you stop that? Yes, that's what I'm going to do. That's what he needs. Someone neutral. Uninvolved. Someone who…"
"I was going to say, doesn't share a history with him."
Minerva waved him off. "Can we please focus on what's relevant? The Ministry is breathing down my neck, Potter! They want to know what I'm doing about this situation."
"That's easy. You're doing nothing." Harry flashed a bitter smile.
Minerva slid her glasses down her nose and gazed at him. "Really, Potter. Severus needs help. I need help. Can you not put your schoolboy grudges behind you for just a few more days?"
"What?" Harry drew himself up. "I'm a professional, Minerva. I don't let schoolboy grudges interfere with how I do my job."
Minerva gave a triumphant smile. "Then I would expect the same holds for your schoolboy infatuation as well." Ignoring his indignant sputtering, she changed into a cat and padded out of the room.
"Duplicitous witch," Harry said.
The pounding on his door set his wards to shrieking. Harry shot up in bed, bleary-eyed, and his book, which had been lying on his chest, fell to the floor. It landed cover up, and Harry could just see the title, Perils to Avoid in Modern Mind Healing – Fourth Edition, in the low light. He stumbled out of bed and dismantled the wards, all the while frowning at the book. "Useless preachy rubbish," he muttered as he pulled his jeans over his hips.
He jerked the door open, his frown deepening when he took in the empty hall.
"Down here, Harry," a squeaky voice said.
Harry dropped his eyes. "Filius," he rasped. "What the hell…"
Flitwick shrugged. "Minerva said to get you to handle it. I suspect she believes it falls under your job description." He cackled before he turned and ambled away. "He's on the Pitch. Making quite a racket, too. It could be worse, if you ask me. At least it's past curfew."
Harry held his temper until Flitwick had turned the corner. Then he slammed the door and went in search of his jumper and trainers. As he yanked his shoes on over sockless feet, he vowed to double his fees for future consultations – that is, if he made it through this job with his reputation and sanity intact.
The walk might have been pleasant, the weather was mild enough, even at midnight, but the occasional glimpse of a lone figure, diving and swooping over the Pitch, had him seething before he had even reached the broom sheds.
He stalked to the center of the grassy field, placed his hands on his hips, and waited until Snape spotted him. Several fly-bys later, one of which knocked Harry to the ground, Snape stopped long enough for Harry to get a full sentence out. "WHAT are you doing?"
Snape swooped by again, bringing a chill breeze than made Harry shiver. "What's the matter, Potter? Lost your touch? Afraid you can't catch me?" He flew down and hovered over Harry's head. "I'm a bit bigger than a Snitch, you know. You might actually have a chance."
"Do you know what time it is? Come down!"
Snape dropped the last ten feet to the ground. "Why?"
"You're acting crazy." Harry gestured to the broom, in case Snape didn't make the connection himself.
Snape squared his shoulders. "I disagree." He kicked off again and hovered a few feet away. Harry made a swipe for his robe, but Snape evaded him easily, then returned to float just out of reach.
The last of Harry's patience ebbed away. "You know what they say about crazy people, don't you?" he snapped.
Snape cocked his head to the side. For a split second, he reminded Harry of a barn owl. A large, black, ornery one. "Is it the same thing they say about people with big feet?" Snape purred.
Harry's rational mind fought it tooth and nail, but in the end, suggestion won. His eyes darted to the shadowed area between Snape's legs, where they straddled the broom. He jerked them away a moment later. "I hate you," he said, sullen and red-faced.
Snape laughed. The sound filled the night around them, and despite himself, Harry smiled. Laughter was contagious, especially when infused with such delight and freedom. And especially when it rang with honesty. "Come on, Potter," Snape called. "Come fly with me. I promise nothing bad will happen."
"I don't have a broom," Harry replied.
Snape didn't refute the obvious. He drifted lower and held out his hand.
Reckless, reckless, reckless, Harry's mind yelled. But his heart was slower to agree. It had been far too long since he'd been flying. Too long since he'd flown high on any emotion whatsoever.
"Take my hand, Harry," Snape said.
"Crazy people don't think they're crazy," Harry said back. Snape's eyes danced. His broom dipped and he drifted closer, until the tips of his fingers brushed Harry's hair.
Harry took his hand.
Snape scooped him up and settled him on the broom between his legs. No words were exchanged for many minutes as Snape made a slow circuit of the Pitch, then another. "Ready for something a bit more daring, Potter?" he asked.
"I've been on a broom before, Professor. Don't keep it tame for my sake."
A satisfied grumble in his ear was Harry's only warning. The broom dipped, then climbed, spun and twisted. Snape headed away from the Pitch at high speed, making for the castle. They raced in and out of courtyards and between turrets, chased roosting birds from their nests, then flew down the long cliff to the lake beyond. Snape guided the broom to glide a few feet above the dark water. "Like it?" he asked in Harry's ear.
Lying was out of the question. Here, with their bodies pressed together, every spike in his heartbeat, every gasp of pleasure, even his broad grin, which should've been hidden in the dark, was obvious. "You know I do," he breathed.
"Why don't you fly anymore, Harry?"
Harry swallowed. "It's not who I am these days."
"It was never who you were. It was only something you did."
The lump in Harry's throat grew. Truth and more truth. "I've missed it."
Snape's arm tightened around him. "I know." He rested his cheek against Harry's. "I've missed it too."
Snape's breath floated over his skin, warmer than the night air. It stirred him, in ways and in places it shouldn't – because this man was his patient. His responsibility. Harry shifted on the broom, but the pressure, the fullness, in his groin grew. Snape's low hum in his ear brought a soft, involuntary moan to the surface.
Unexpectedly, the broom angled up, away from the water. As they climbed, gravity forced Harry back, closing the few inches between them, and Snape's cock, huge and ready, pressed into his back. "Bloody hell," Harry moaned.
Snape clenched Harry's legs with his own. "I know they haven't taken it all from you, Harry. Your spark. Your will. Even your anger. It's all still here." He pressed a hand to Harry's chest.
Harry let another moan escape. He rolled his head back and rested it on Snape's shoulder. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I want to live. And I've decided…I want you to as well." Snape's hand slid down his chest, over his quivering thigh, then up under his robe to cup his erection. He sighed in Harry's ear. "Decency be damned."
Harry's ethical arguments faded, carried away by the wind and the caress. His eyes drifted shut. "So good," he whispered.
Snape squeezed and pulled, squeezed and pulled, as he arched and pushed, arched and pushed against Harry's back. The broom slowed and began to falter. Harry didn't care. He could only whimper like a child as the many fantasies from his youth were fulfilled.
The wind picked up as they reached the top of the cliff. Snape leveled the broom and raced over the rock-strewn ground toward the Pitch, his hold on Harry never wavering.
The scent of dew-damp grass assaulted Harry just before his legs hit the ground. Snape's hand never faltered as he rolled Harry off the broom and onto the thick carpet of grass. Shameless, Harry didn't fight, just bent his back and thrust into the touch that was so arousing, so maddening, and not enough. Not fucking enough.
Snape landed on top of him, forcing the air from his lungs. He didn't apologize, and it didn't matter. Words were unimportant and wasteful when all Harry wanted was the touch, the rhythm and the release. He jerked Snape's robe open, spilling broken clasps into the grass, and gave a satisfied grunt – one layer gone. Snape shrugged off the torn garment before pushing Harry's glasses over his forehead and tangling the wire frames in his hair. It hurt, but his gasp of pain was stolen when Snape's mouth crashed onto his.
And this – this is what had been missing. As aroused as Snape's hands alone made him, Harry still ached. He had known for what, but to step that far out of line, without permission, without an invitation, was out of the question. Now, the issue of his begging was moot.
They squirmed on the wet grass, battling, even though their goal was the same. Harry finally relented and allowed Snape to pull his jumper off and tug his jeans open. But after that, he rolled Snape under him and returned the favor. The buttons on Snape's trousers suffered as the robe clasps did, victims of Harry's impatient fingers. With no hesitation, he reached inside, stroked over Snape's damp pants, and clutched at his hard prick.
Snape's hand shot out and clamped down on his wrist. Harry whimpered. "Don't you dare stop me," he said. "Not now."
"I won't." Snape's bruising grip eased. "I can't," he admitted.
Harry dropped his head to Snape's chest and resumed his frantic, clumsy stroking, gasping when Snape's hand returned to his own cock to rub and tease. His breath exploded from his chest in a mixed jumble of moans and words as the pace increased, and Snape answered in his own wanton language.
As their tension reached the breaking point, Snape's chest heaved, reminding Harry of what lay so close. He shifted and turned just enough to cover one of Snape's dark nipples with his mouth. Forgoing more gentle foreplay, he bit down on the nub before sucking it between his teeth.
Snape roared and Harry's world tilted. It was several moments later before he realized he was spread flat on his back on the grass, Snape on top of him, and still they didn't stop moving, stroking, rutting.
"Severus," he panted, doing his best to warn that the tingling in his extremities had begun the slow creep inward toward his balls.
"Harry," came the answer, strangled and needy.
By mutual agreement, their lips connected again, thought it wasn't a kiss so much as the give and take of precious air. When Snape's tongue darted into his mouth and brushed against his own, Harry let go, coming in quick, powerful spasms, an appropriate juxtaposition to their lovemaking. Above him, Snape stilled, breathing in Harry's soft cries. Tremors racked his body as he fought to hold back his own release.
"Severus," Harry whispered again, and his voice, soft and sated, was the final straw. Snape gave one final thrust forward and joined Harry in his ecstasy. Harry clutched at his back as he jerked and shuddered, but when Snape rolled away, he let him go.
Awareness trickled back. Rational thought followed. The grass was damp and the air cold, but before Harry could complain that he was chilled, Severus threw the ripped cloak over the two of them and pulled him close. Severus' skin, still hot, warmed Harry enough that most of his guilt was held at bay. Most of it. "Sorry," he said. It was the best he could manage.
"So am I," Severus answered.
Harry sniffed. "You don't—"
"I do," Severus interrupted. "I do." He ran his fingers up Harry's back and into his hair. "I didn't expect this."
Harry sighed. "Expect what?" The conversation was doing its job, eating away at the strange intimacy. He thought to pull away, until Severus leaned close, buried his nose in Harry's neck, and breathed him in – skin and hair and sweat – only to tremble when Harry gasped.
Instead of letting go, Harry tightened his grip on Severus' hip. "More?" he asked. His cheeks were red with shame, but he didn't care. The dark would hide it, he was sure. To his disappointment, though, his whispered plea seemed to defile the moment.
Severus stilled his tender, idle touches. "I…" His next words stuck in this throat and under the cloak, he shifted away.
Harry stiffened. Suddenly the urge to put distance between them overpowered everything else. He fumbled for his glasses, cursing when they got even more tangled in his hair. He ripped them loose at the same moment that Severus released him. Speechless with embarrassment, Harry stood and jerked his jeans up. He abandoned his jumper to the grass. In the distance, the lights of Hogwarts twinkled and Harry set off toward them, gait unsteady, equilibrium beyond repair.
"Harry," Severus called. "Do you remember how it used to be?"
Harry jerked to a stop. He wrapped his arms around himself, but couldn't ward off the chill. Goosebumps rose over his arms and back. "This was a terrible mistake," he said without turning around. "I can't…I owe you—"
"I remember your fire. But now…. You breathe. You exist. But you're not alive." Severus rose and straightened his own clothing. He followed Harry up the hill. "I don't recognize this person you've become."
"I can assure you," Harry replied, "it's me." He added a bitter bark of laughter. "I think."
"It's not who you are."
Harry snapped his eyes shut against the frustration. "What do you mean?"
"It's a disguise." Severus reached out and trailed a finger over Harry's bare skin, between his shoulder blades, then over the ridges of his spine, before settling on the small of his back. "I understand why you use it. But … are you happy?" Severus' palm flattened against his hip. "You're safe. But are you happy?"
Harry broke away from the touch. "Is that so important?"
"I'm finding that it is."
Harry shivered. "There's no disguise." He started back up the hill.
Severus ignored the denial. "You don't need it," he said as Harry strode away. "You never did."
Harry fixed his eyes on the castle lights and walked.
Minerva firecalled him several times the next day, but Harry ignored her. He suspected his luck had run out when, at three o'clock, someone knocked on his door. Gathering his courage, he opened it, surprised when his visitor was not the Headmistress, but a small group of Slytherin students.
"Yes?" he asked. When the first swallowed nervously, dread began the slow creep from his toes to his heart.
"Mr. Potter, Professor Snape never came to class. We, uh…we eventually found him…in the library. But he's not…he doesn't…" She shifted her feet and the others mimicked her nervous gesture. Not one would meet his eyes. "He doesn't know us," she finally confessed.
"Show me," Harry said.
Traversing the rear area of the library could very well have been likened to running the gauntlet. At every turn, pale-faced students waited, unmoving. Like a terrified honor guard, they marked a trail through the tangle of tables and chairs, around the rear stacks and into the back corridor. Here, tall windows allowed diffused light to filter across a row of tables that lined the stone wall.
It was a place one chose for solitary study. For that reason, the area had been little used during Harry's time at school, and he could see the same could be said now. A thick layer of dust lay over most of the tables. All but one.
Severus sat with his face bent over a book. Harry watched his lips move as he recited the text to himself. He looked even more disheveled than usual, and his posture was…off. Harry couldn't put his finger on it.
He turned to the few brave souls who had followed him. "I want the library cleared, please. Can I trust you to handle that quietly?"
The leader of the group, a seventh-year Slytherin nodded. He turned and ushered the other students back. Soon, the library fell silent.
Harry approached his patient with caution. "Severus?"
Severus tensed. "I am bothering no one," he said.
Harry dared to put a hand on his shoulder. "I didn't say you were."
At the touch, Severus darted a glance at Harry. His tension eased. "Oh, it's you." He shifted, covering the text he had been reading. "I didn't realize you had a free period now."
"I…do." Harry lowered himself into a nearby chair. "What are you doing?"
"It's nothing." Severus closed the book and shoved it into his lap. He kept his face bowed over the table.
Harry studied him. Gone was the self-assured attitude Harry had always associated with the man. This Severus reminded him more of a boy, one yet to capture the confidence that went hand in hand with adulthood. "Severus? What's wrong?"
"You wouldn't understand." He rubbed at his left forearm.
Harry closed his eyes and struggled against the inappropriate, non-objective feelings that reared up at the simple gesture. "Try me," he said, opening them and refocusing on Severus. "Is it the Mark? It's bothering you?"
Severus jerked. Deliberately, he removed his hand from his forearm and lifted his head enough to see Harry through his curtain of unkempt hair. "You too?" he whispered.
Harry swallowed against the lump in his throat, but nodded.
Some of Severus' tension melted away. He slumped over the table and was silent for many minutes before he spoke. "I have to know this potion," he whispered. "For the meeting tonight."
Harry slid his hand into Severus' lap and retrieved the book. "Which one?" He laid the book on the table.
Severus stared at it before opening it to the proper page. He pointed. "That one."
Harry bit his lip. He knew the potion well. As did Severus. "Aren't you already familiar with this particular potion?"
"Familiar is not enough!" Severus jerked the book back. "You should know that. I have to…" he reached up and gripped handfuls of his hair. "I need to breathe it. Live it. Understand everything about it. I can't risk a mistake." He glanced at Harry again. "You know."
Harry reached up and untangled Severus' hands from his hair. He didn't complain when they curled around his fingers like talons. He laid their joined hands in his lap. "It'll be fine. You know how to do this. I know you do. In fact, I'll prove it to you. We'll study together, yeah?" He waited until Severus gave a jerky nod. "Is he…is he expecting you to brew it tonight?"
Severus' voice was tortured. "I don't know."
Harry squeezed his hands before disentangling one and reaching for the book. "Never mind that now." He turned the text so that it was facing them both. "Where should we start?"
Severus spun the book back around. "Why are you doing this?"
"I want to help." It wasn't a lie.
"Why?" Severus looked at Harry. "You should be using my weakness to your advantage. Garnering your own favor with him." Suspicion crept over his face.
Harry gave a weak smile. "I didn't realize. I'm kind of new at this." He cleared his throat. "This meeting will actually be my first. Could you tell me…what to expect?"
Severus went still as a statue. Harry held his breath and ran his thumb in small circles over the back of their joined hands.
"It is…a dance. Of the most intricate nature," Severus began. "The steps are subtle, difficult to master."
Harry closed his eyes again, blocking out the splotchy sunlight, the hanging dust particles, the thousands of books, the safety of the castle. His mind filled with ghostly images. He imagined a round clearing in the forest where wisps of ground fog circled the air like writhing snakes. A group of people in matching robes and masks moved about, their steps a complex choreographed, musicless dance.
Severus continued. "It appears effortless, but…"
"But?" Harry prompted.
"It is not," Severus choked out. "One misstep finishes you. Your defense, your anonymity is ripped away. Unmasked, there is no quarter." He took a huge gasping breath and folded in on himself.
Harry fought the sting of tears. "That won't happen. I promise." He placed an arm around Severus' shoulders.
They sat there, unspeaking, one hurting and the other comforting, until Severus jerked away. "Do not make promises you have no hope of keeping." He straightened in his chair and pulled the book from Harry's grasp.
Reluctantly, Harry let it go. "Would you like me to stay?"
Severus darted a glance to the side. "No."
Harry wished he hadn't asked. Severus' mask was back, his shoulders taut with tension. The thought of leaving him now, in this state, wasn't appealing. "I'll just…be over there," Harry said, waving at a table a few feet away. "If you need anything."
Severus didn't answer, though his grip on the text eased. Feeling helpless and inept, Harry retreated. He watched and waited silently until Severus straightened in his seat, closed the book, and left the library without a single word. Harry remained behind, thankful for the silence. An hour later, his legs were numb and his eyes were blurry, but he was no closer to puzzling out how to tell the Headmistress that her beloved Potions Master was no longer fit to teach.
Minerva had never taken Albus' office at the top of the revolving staircase. Instead, she had opted to keep her familiar roost at the base of Gryffindor Tower. But at certain times, she told him, she would convene meetings in Albus' old office, specifically when certain members of the Ministry needed to be reminded of Hogwarts' position and influence. Harry was sure that Albus' portrait, staring down with a firm look at whoever entered, played some part in her game.
"Hello, Harry!" the portrait greeted him.
"Hello, sir," Harry replied. "How are things?"
"Fine, fine. Although I'm glad you're here. Minerva has been most uncooperative in this regard. What I need you to do is look in the middle drawer of that cabinet there – no, the other one – and fetch me a sherbet lemon."
Harry paused, hand half in the drawer, and shot a glance over his shoulder. "Why, sir? You won't be able to eat it."
"I know, I know, my boy. I just want to look at it. Put it on that shelf there, right below the portrait. Yes! Thank you."
Harry placed the small sweet, sticky and discolored with age, on the shelf. "You do realize that obsessing about something you can never have isn't healthy, don't you?"
"When did you become so stodgy, Harry?"
Minerva's entrance saved him from answering. "Oh, you're here," she said. "Good. They'll be arriving in a moment." She pursed her lips at the layer of dust everywhere, and made quick work of clearing it away with her wand.
"Minerva!" Albus yelled. "Harry's turned stodgy!"
"I know, Albus."
Harry's mouth dropped open as Minerva settled herself into the grand chair behind the desk. "You think so?" he asked.
Minerva rolled her eyes. "Do sit down, Potter. We do and say what we must to placate him. I daresay he would be unbearable otherwise." She straightened her hat. "Thank you for sticking with this– situation. I have not been blind to your difficulties."
"However, having your name at the top of Severus' discharge document will make it easier on everyone."
Harry took his seat. He glanced at Albus, who winked at him. "And why is that?"
Minerva blinked. "Why, the contract, of course."
Harry nodded. "The contract." He gave Minerva a tight smile. "What contract?"
"Harry doesn't know about the contract," Albus said.
"Thank you for clearing that up, Albus." Minerva folded her hands on the desk and peered at Harry. "The contract that Professor Snape signed twenty-five years ago. In it, Severus agreed to teach at the school, without compensation, for an agreed upon period."
Harry's smile grew puzzled. "Why would he do that?"
"To stay out of Azkaban," Albus answered. "It was the Ministry's stipulation, even though I vouched for his innocence and change of heart."
Harry ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek. "So," he drawled, "putting himself in mortal danger on a regular basis, knowing he would never be acknowledged for doing so – this, in itself, wasn't enough of a sacrifice?"
"It's water under the bridge," Minerva assured him. "It has taken him some time, but Severus has warmed to his post. He's made it quite clear to me on many occasions in the past several years that he is happy with his position. That, I'm afraid, is what makes this so hard."
Harry bit his lip against a vicious bark of laughter. "Warmed to his post?"
"Do you answer everything with a question, Potter?" Minerva huffed and sat back in her seat. "Yes, he has become quite fond of teaching."
"Have you been into your catnip again, Headmistress?"
"Take care, Potter," Minerva snapped. "You may be a man grown, but I am still your elder. And, in this case, your employer. Now, you have become quite respected—"
"And stodgy!" Albus called.
Minerva sighed. "—quite respected in your field. If you insist that Professor Snape is not fit to teach, he will be released from his contract. No questions asked."
Harry didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "And what would happen if, say, Severus decided he'd had enough of teaching – and refused to do it anymore?"
Minerva looked scandalized. "Well, Azkaban, of course, for the remainder of the contract."
"And how long would that be?" Harry willed his heart to slow its mad pace.
"Fifty years," Albus supplied helpfully. Harry looked at the portrait and received another wink for his trouble. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Still, no words emerged. "I see," he choked out after a long minute.
"Yes, I should say you do," Albus said.
Harry ignored the newest sign. This one, posted on the door of the Potions room itself, read:
Severus gave Harry a cursory glance when he slammed the door behind him, but resumed his grading without comment.
Harry schooled his features before he walked across the room and perched on the edge of Severus' desk. The quick glance in his direction as he settled onto a stack of papers didn't escape his notice.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "How long?"
Severus' eyes slid to Harry again. Still, he didn't speak.
Harry gave the inside of his cheek a vicious bite, pleased when it deflected his pain. The ache in his chest abated. "How long," he asked again, "have you been planning this? Because Minerva said you'd 'warmed' to your post years ago. How long, you bastard?"
Severus turned back to his grading. "I didn't know that it would be you. I told you that."
At Harry's bitter laugh, Severus' fingers tightened on the quill. "But how convenient for you that it was," Harry said. Flashes of rich chocolate and the smooth wood of a broom beneath his hands had him biting his cheek again. The taste of blood filled his mouth, an appropriate counterpoint to the tang of betrayal. "It was a ruse all along."
Severus didn't reply.
Abruptly, Harry stood. He hissed in annoyance and jerked away when Severus made a grab for the sleeve of his robe. "It should please you to know your talent for subterfuge hasn't fallen by the wayside," Harry said. He retreated to the first row of desks. "My congratulations."
Severus rose from his seat. "I never lied to you, Harry. You, I never lied to. Everything I told you – I showed you – was true."
"What am I supposed to do with that?"
"Take it for what it's worth."
"Is it worth anything?"
Severus hesitated. He lowered himself back into his chair. "Perhaps not," he admitted. "Though, I had hoped…" his voice trailed off.
Harry spun and stalked away, ignoring the rolling in his gut. Severus didn't call him back. When he reached the door, he paused, letting a weighty silence descend between them. He found himself thinking of his childhood, when the man behind him had been fodder for his nightmares – a terrifying reminder of his immaturity and weakness.
Some things did change. But most, he now realized, did not.
"Harry?" Severus called in a soft voice.
Harry closed his eyes. "I signed it," he said. He left without another word.
Two weeks passed. It felt like two hundred. Harry returned home and resumed his life. He saw the same patients, ate at the same pubs, and talked to the same friends about the same subjects. When the urge to change something in his life rose up, he ignored it, pursuing his routines even more rigorously than before.
On the fifteenth day, a mottled, long-eared owl delivered a picture wrapped in a blank piece of parchment. Harry recognized the serene vista. The complimentary blues of the sky and the lake were the same as in the picture he had seen in Severus' office. The photograph, taken from within an arched portico, was one of peaceful beauty. A gentle breeze rustled climbing ivy that tangled about two stone pillars and great puffs of white clouds drifted overhead. At the very bottom of the picture were two black boots, crossed at the ankle, as though the person taking the picture were reclined in a chaise. Every once in a while, the boots moved, alternately crossing over the left ankle, then the right.
Harry stared at it for hours, then threw it away. "Traitor," he accused when Hedwig hooted at the bin.
A week later, a long, thin parcel arrived while he was finishing his breakfast. To open the package then would have meant arriving to work later than he normally did, so he set it aside and left his flat at precisely eight forty-five, determined to keep to his routine.
But he was back less than an hour later, ripping into the sturdy, brown paper.
It was a broom – the latest model of Firebolt. As with the picture, he spent most of the day staring at it, occasionally reaching out to run his fingers over the contours of the handle. That night, he placed it in a neglected corner of his kitchen.
A week later, after it had collected a thin layer of dust, he took it flying. He refused, at first, to let himself remember his most recent ride. But as the night rushed by, along with the landscape, he began to replay it over and over in his head.
Eventually, the thick feeling in his chest loosened. Hurtful words and the events that inspired them lost their sting. Time, distance, and Severus' subtle cues helped Harry see what he had been missing all along. He flew for hours, abandoning the lingering ache of betrayal to the wind, and returned home just before dawn.
Two weeks after that, Snape's owl brought another parchment-wrapped picture, and Harry's eager fingers made quick work of the wax seal. The angle was different, although the setting was the same shaded portico. In it, Harry could make out a small village across the expanse of rippling water. The feet, crossed at the ankle, were now bare.
Harry let his eyes and fingers play over the image for over an hour, a small smile on his face. When his stomach demanded dinner, he propped it against a lamp, flew to The Three Broomsticks on his new Firebolt, and ordered two pieces of chocolate cake.
The next day, he sent Hedwig back with a message of his own.
The sign read:
Harry gave a soft laugh and trailed his fingers over the letters. He let his eyes drift closed as he did, absorbing the sound, feel, and taste of crisp air and fragrant blooms. The house was impressive. Perched on a cliff overlooking the lake, its fluted columns and arches reminded him of a temple, which he supposed, in a way, it was. Built with blood, sweat and tears. Designed for worship – even should it be the pagan kind.
Small, postage-stamp gardens littered the maze of courtyards he had traversed to reach the door. He suspected more lay over the threshold. The door was a statement of entry, nothing else. Framed on either side with low stone walls barely two feet tall, it said welcome. Enter. No one would be kept out. And no one would be held against his will.
Harry knocked, even though he suspected an invitation to enter wasn't likely to be offered. Here, one wasn't needed.
The door drifted open under his knuckles. With another soft chuckle, Harry stepped through.
The inner gardens were designed for harvesting. Potions ingredients, some quite rare, dotted the small squares in an apparent hodge-podge pattern he was certain was anything but random. The same sweet breeze blew here, and looking around, Harry could see the hillside landscape through the windows of the courtyard. He followed a winding path through one garden, then another. The third outdoor room he entered contained a fountain, and its sheer beauty gave him pause. Here, aesthetics had been given free reign over utility. Plants known for their beauty filled the space.
Harry smiled. Lush flowering foliage spilled over the many pots and planters. Bees and other insects hovered over the blooms, dancing to the music made by the trickling water.
Every single flower was red.
Harry felt the tension from his long journey ease, and he welcomed its retreat. As if by magic, although no such spell had been cast, the last of his doubt faded. The decision to come had been impulsive, but he was beginning to realize that being impulsive wasn't the evil he remembered. "Welcome home, Harry," he said to himself.
"For as long as you desire it," came the answer.
Harry took his time turning toward the voice. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting," he said as he came about to face Severus.
"I'm a patient man."
"Truer words were never spoken."
Severus watched Harry for a moment before he started across the courtyard. Harry let him come, drinking him in. His hair was tied back, in deference to the midday heat, Harry imagined. The style exposed his face, and although it had only been a short month since he had left the dungeons of Hogwarts, healthy spots of color suffused his cheeks.
He stopped several paces away, and Harry made a sound of protest. Severus held up a hand and cleared his throat, but Harry ignored the signal as well as the impending speech. He closed the distance between them in three long strides and wrapped his arms around Severus' neck. And suddenly, it didn't matter that they were standing in their own private utopia. It could just as easily have been midnight by the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Or even a dank, cold classroom deep in the dungeons.
Severus returned the fierce embrace. "I knew you'd find your way," he whispered in Harry's ear.
Harry nodded and squirmed closer. They held each other for several minutes before Harry's hands began to wander. Severus caught them before they traveled far. "Wait."
Harry's mouth set in a firm line. "I've waited long enough. And we've already talked about this." He traced Severus' jaw with his finger. "Though I didn't realize it at the time."
"There is still much to discuss."
Harry shrugged. "Later, then." His hands returned to their task, fitting buttons through holes and peeling back material. Severus grabbed at Harry's hips to steady himself as his body reacted to gentle, purposeful ministrations.
As the last button on Severus' shirt was freed, Harry paused. "You weren't in the middle of a complicated, time-sensitive potion or something, were you?"
Severus guided Harry's hands to the clasp on his trousers. "I don't brew anything like that anymore. I find the constraints of such a project…constraining."
Harry tipped his head back and laughed. "Interfere with your midday kip on the terrace, do they?"
A smile crept over Severus' face. "Among other things."
Harry set to work on Severus' trousers. They stared at each other, relying on touch to guide their movements. Even so, Harry fumbled more than once, mesmerized by the intense desire in Severus' eyes. Every hitch in breathing, each swallowed moan edged his need higher. He ignored his normal inclination to tease and immediately reached down the front of Severus' pants for his prize. "God," he gasped when Severus bucked into his hand. God. Fuck. He was going to lose it and he'd yet to be touched himself.
He started to shake, fighting the need to come. Severus sensed his dilemma and yanked Harry's hand from his pants. "Not yet," he said. "I have a perfectly good bedroom, you impatient whelp."
"I should hope so. This place is huge. It's not far, is it?"
Severus smirked at the whiny tone. "Not far. The worst of your journey is over."
"Excellent. I believe I've had enough excitement in my life." Harry let Severus take his hand and lead him through another archway and into the house proper. He paid no attention to twists and turns, lefts and rights, knowing he'd learn them soon enough.
Severus pulled him under his arm as he dragged him along. "No. You've had enough danger in your life. You have plenty of excitement yet to come."
The trip through the house took only a minute. As they passed into the bedroom, Harry's hands returned to Severus' clothing. "Don't say a word," he said when Severus resisted.
"We have all the time in the world, Harry."
"Exactly. Plenty of time later to go slow." He pushed the lightweight trousers over Severus' hips and reached for his own. "But not now. Not now."
When Harry leaned close and teased his tongue over Severus' parted lips, Severus took control. He locked Harry's hands behind his back, pushed him against the wall, and attacked his mouth. He managed to divest them both of their remaining clothing, with the exception of one stubborn sock, and all without releasing Harry's hands. Then, he stopped.
"What?" Harry asked when Severus abandoned his lips. "What?" He strained forward, but Severus leaned away.
"Have you let go of the lies?" Severus asked. He jerked Harry against him, stressing his words. "Tell me."
Confusion ruled for all of five seconds before Harry caught on. "I have," he said with a nervous swallow. "Although, it's been a long time since I've been the person you remember."
Severus touched their foreheads together and eased his grip on Harry's hands. "No matter. So long as you're Harry again."
Harry nodded. He worked his hands loose and cupped Severus' face in his palms. "And you? What of your disguise?"
"The moment I crossed the castle wards, I shed it." He turned his head to nuzzle one of Harry's hands. "No more masks, Harry."
For all his unspent desire, the shared confessions cooled Harry's ardor. He pressed close, soaking up the affection that underlay the passion, and Severus held him, feeding his need, until Harry led him to the bed.
At first, the view from the chaise was a bit disconcerting. Although it was dark, still predawn, it was so like the pictures that Severus had sent that Harry was struck breathless. He curled into the chair, bunching the bedclothes around him. How he had found his way out here, through the maze of rooms and gardens was difficult to say. It felt predestined, though. This was Severus' place – the untainted place. How it had remained so all these long years was yet another mystery. The morning was full of them, it seemed.
"Tired of me, already?"
Harry swiveled to look at Severus. His lips quirked at his lover's state of undress. "Aren't you cold?"
"As a matter of fact, I am. Some brat stole my duvet."
Harry flashed an innocent smile. He scooted over and made room on the chaise, and Severus wasted no time in rewrapping them in the sturdy cotton. Reclined now against Severus, instead of the chair's smooth canvas, Harry gave the lake a lazy wave. "It's beautiful."
Severus didn't answer, but Harry knew he was appreciating the rising sun as much as he was. They watched it ascend together, until it was high in the sky beyond the far hills. It was much later when Severus spoke again. "You left everything behind?"
Harry tipped his head back and squinted into Severus' face. "I did," he said. "Everything false." At Severus' nod, Harry settled back against him. "You?" he asked, as though in afterthought.
"I brought only what I needed to survive," Severus replied. Absently, he ran his hand through Harry's mop of hair. "And now that the last piece is in place, and I can be myself again, I am content."
Harry nodded and drank in the touch as well as the sentiment. "Myself again," he said with a sigh. "Yes. Myself again."
"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning."
- J.B. Priestly
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